Step Forward, Fall Back

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The Bad Solution)

In the last chapter of Covalent our characters faced a powerful and immediate threat. A massive creature was intent upon killing each and every one of them, and it was well equipped to do exactly that! First it knocked out Rolar, then it had Aylme pinned down, and soon it would turn its attention to Cace.

At this point Cace knew that he needed to remove this threat, whatever it took. And thankfully he found a way to do exactly that. He discovered that all the flora and fauna around them were parts of an otherworldly machine, and that he could train that machine’s furnace to consume the monster and its young.

He did this, and the immediate threat was resolved!

But even as the children enjoyed their moment of reprieve, greater dangers were now lurking. For Cace also witnessed what role that monstrous creature served for the machine. It was a guardian, tasked with identifying threats to the system and rooting them out. That was the very function it was executing when it targeted the children. Now, though, that guardian has been destroyed, and so there is no line of defense for the deeper and darker enemies out there, ones that the children have not yet even conceived of.

Cace may have saved the day, but he seriously jeopardized tomorrow to do so!

An Opening and a Blocking)

A similar conundrum befalls Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Throughout her story she is constantly pressed by two great needs: to win the love of her life, Ashley Wilkes, and to restore her her family home after the Civil War leaves them destitute.

The only problem is that these two core desires are often at odds to one another. For example she ends up marrying other men for their money, thus securing the finances to keep her home, but which obviously poses an obstacle to being with the man that she loves.

Indeed the only way for her to get away with Ashley would be to run off with him, making herself a disgrace and abandoning the home she has fought so hard for. She cannot have both, and she must choose.

Or so it would seem, right up to the moment that her current husband, Rhett, offers her a divorce and Ashley’s own wife dies from complications in childbirth. Here at last is the opportunity to be with the man that she loves, stay in her family home, and retain at least an outward face of honor.

But for all these sudden opportunities, Scarlett’s heart has betrayed her. For now she comes to realize that she truly loves her current husband, Rhett, but he’s become wise to the games she’s playing and no longer wants anything to do with her. Thus as one door opens a window closes, and Scarlett is right back to her impossible juggling act!

Tactical Retreat)

The same shuffle back-and-forth happens all the time in the Mission: Impossible films, too. Ethan Hunt is a secret agent, tasked with preventing end-of-the-world catastrophes, and each movie sees him being thrown into the deep end, rubbing shoulders with weapons’ dealers, elite assassins, and criminal masterminds. Ethan must make deals with the big fish in order to catch the biggest!

And this tends to see Ethan jeopardizing today in an effort to save tomorrow. Many times he has to make a trade, and the only thing he has to offer is the very thing he isn’t supposed to give up.

Take, for example, his situation in the middle of Ghost Protocol. In this film, Ethan finds a way to intercept the launch codes that the main baddie, Kurt Hendricks, wants to use to start a nuclear war between the United States and Russia. The rest of the team congratulate him on a job well done. Hendricks can’t obtain the launch codes now, so he can’t fire a missile, so he can’t start the war that he wants.

But Ethan disagrees. They might stop Hendricks here, but the man will not be deterred. He will find another way, and that time Ethan and his team might not be there to stop him. Ethan knows that more important than holding onto the codes is using them as bait to lure the recluse out of hiding.

And so the team sets up a handoff, giving the codes to Hendricks’ courier and then following him back to his base. Or at least that’s the plan. Unfortunately, they lose track of the courier, and thus their foe moves one step closer to his homicidal plan. They will just have to cut him off at the next pass.

Back and Back Again)

This is also the pattern in the second part of the Back to the Future series. This film begins with a simple premise: Marty McFly must travel to the future with Doc Brown in order to prevent his future family from making some life-shattering mistakes. It’s a fairly simple task, and they quickly get everything sorted out.

Except for not. Because their presence inadvertently tips off an old enemy of the family, Biff Tannen, to the existence of the time machine. Biff uses the machine to go back in time and pull a few strings of his own, and when Marty and Doc go back to that timeline, they discover it has become a total nightmare!

So now they must go on another time-hopping trip to find out what Biff did to mess everything up and undo those changes. It’s a long-fought process, but at last they succeed…just in time for the time machine to get struck by lightning and transported 80 years in the past, stranding Doc and Marty in the wrong timelines once more!

In Back to the Future, every step forward seems to cause more problems than it solves!

That’s Drama!)

And that’s how you fill out two hours of film, or a season of television, or a hundred-thousand words of a novel! Every story requires an objective and constant opposition to it. Each story is extended out whenever the protagonist has to make compromises, has to surrender the upper hand, has to concede the battle to win the war. We are tantalized by seeing how close they come to their objective, devastated by how far they fall from it, and engrossed by how hard they fight to get back to it again.

And that is exactly why I had Cace solve the more immediate problem of the creature’s attack by opening the door for even greater challenges down the road. Doing so meant that the story doesn’t end prematurely, it will be extended out long enough to become what I need it to be.

Force My Hand

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No More Hesitations)

Last week I considered the resistance that a main character must press through to achieve their greater story. Most protagonists are written so that they dearly want to follow that epic path, but they usually refuse to take the journey until they have no other choice.

Think of Luke Skywalker who dreams of leaving his farm to fly across the galaxy. He begs his Uncle Owen to let him follow that calling, but Uncle Owen just keeps telling him “next year.” Interestingly, when Obi-Wan Kenobi urges Luke to do the very things he has been yearning for, Luke draws back, repeating the same arguments that Uncle Owen has used to keep Luke grounded. Luke isn’t able to break free until the Empire kills his aunt and uncle and leaves his home a waste. Every other path in Luke’s life has been literally burned to the ground, so at last he moves forward with his greater story.

And this is true of many epics. The hero wants to step into their proper role, but for some reason holds back until their hand is forced.

Does a story have to be this way? No. There are plenty where it isn’t the case at all. Consider Forrest Gump, who blithely charges ahead with whatever occurs to him that he wants to do. Think of Pollyanna, who is never deterred by any problem, and always encourages those around her to just see the good in the world. There is also Ulysses, who though he is waylaid at every league of his journey never falters from start to finish in his quest to get back home.

But today I want to take a closer look at the archetype of the reluctant hero, and why it is such a widely use form.

My Own Delay)

Why do stories frequently make use of a reluctant hero? Because that’s exactly what most of us are in our own lives. We all have dreams of the greater story we’d like to live, but very few of us are actually chasing it. We watch it longingly from a distance, but feel too weighed down by work and duty to really get our hands into it.

That was certainly the case with me. I longed to be a writer for a long while, but it remained a wistful daydream for years,. I just couldn’t see any way to fit it into my busy schedule. Though let’s be honest, the excuse that we just don’t have enough time is usually a cover-up for something deeper. And in my case that was also true. I had been rejected in my creative endeavors before, I had been told that my work wasn’t very good or wasn’t very important. I didn’t like feeling that, so I made myself too busy to have time for writing anymore. The desire was still there, but I wasn’t able to break out of my reluctance by myself. In fact it took a literal act of God to finally get me back into my writing!

I previously mentioned the example of Luke Skywalker being reluctant to leave the farm with Obi-Wan Kenobi. And honestly, he isn’t given a very good reason for why he’s being so hesitant. In fact there are many stories which tack a reluctance onto their hero without any good explanation. Stories like this feel like me saying “oh, I don’t have time,” and I just don’t buy it. If an author decides to write a reluctant hero, they ought to give a clear reason for why that hero is being so hesitant.

A Reason to Not)

A better example is that of Peter Parker. In the original Spider-man comic strip, Peter is a bright and intelligent High Schooler, whose aunt and uncle and teachers dote on him. But he is scrawny, nerdy, and unpopular with all of his peers. He is the subject of bullying and mockery, which disillusions his view of the world.

When Peter Parker finds himself imbued with heroic powers he immediately thinks of how he can use them for profit. He enters into the ring and fights a mountain of a man, easily coming off the victor. This lands him a TV deal, and at long last it seems like his life is falling into place.

One day a thief is at the television studio and he makes off with some loot, running right past Peter Parker in his costume. An officer that is giving chase calls for Peter Parker to intervene, but Peter staunchly refuses. As he says “I’m thru being pushed around–by anyone! From now on I just look out for number one–that means–me!”

In other words, the bullies got to Peter. He hates the world and he doesn’t care about the people in it. The optimistic world view of his loving aunt and uncle has been overridden by cynicism and callousness. And now that he doesn’t need other people he’s perfectly content to watch out for himself and that’s it. He might be dressed up like a hero, but he has a solid reason in his heart to not actually play the role.

This is a much stronger depiction of the reluctant hero. It is relatable, it is believable, and it is tragic. At this point I am just as convinced as Peter Parker that he is never going to enter a more heroic story…unless fate intervenes.

Which, of course, it does. That same petty thief later corners Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben and guns him down. Because Peter had chosen not to be the hero, the man he loved and admired most was killed. Peter’s very good reasons for not sticking his neck out for anyone come crashing down, and in an instant and starts to care about what goes on in this crazy world around him. He steps into his role in the greater story.

Cace’s Hesitance)

In my own story I gave Cace a very simple reason for not continuing into the Ether: it seems like it is going to kill him! He is afraid for his life, and so the only thing that could possibly convince him to go back would be if his life was forfeit anyway. And as you will see on Wednesday, that’s exactly where the story is going. Cace is going to have to choose between death by the Ether or death by a monster. And given that, he will finally be motivated to dive back into the Ether, as it is the death-option that still has even a ray of hope. It also just so happens to be the one that his greater story lays within!

Breaking Through to Story

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Discouraged Efforts)

Last week I talked about “inciting moments,” where the protagonist commits to some cause, even though there is strong opposition to it. I mentioned that in my own story Cace was initially discouraged from exploring the Ether, but then felt he had to because of his promise to help save Rolar and Aylme.

And so, in the very next chapter, I began with Cace determinedly making his way back towards the Ether. This time he was testing his ability to call himself back after entering the trance and things did not go well. Tearing himself from that alternate reality did him serious, physical damage, enough that it could threaten his life if he continued forward. Thus Cace will be freshly discouraged from seeking out the Ether in the next chapter…at least until he gets pushed back into it again!

More Than Human)

There is a similar back-and-forth for the character of Clark Kent in the 2013 film Man of Steel. Clark is a native of Krypton, sent by parents he will never know to Earth. His father, Jor-El, knows that he will be a being of immense power, and hopes that his son will choose to lead the people of Earth into the light.

But when Clark arrives, he falls under the care of a farmer, Jonathan Kent, who is a far more reserved father, fearful of what the world will do to his son if they discover his powers. So Jonathan urges Clark to keep his supernatural abilities hidden, though on occasion Clark defies those instructions, always feeling compelled to intervene when others are in trouble.

Then Clark gets an even more powerful deterrent when Jonathan finds his own life endangered. Clark wants to save him, but they are in a public place and Jonathan commands his son to not intervene, giving up his life rather than his son’s secret. Though Jonathan is gone, Clark is weighed by the magnitude of the man’s sacrifice. He becomes an aimless drifter, occasionally using his powers for good, but always anonymously, disappearing from each place as soon as he shows a glimmer of what he can really do.

Then, fate intervenes. An alien menace threatens mankind if Clark Kent doesn’t turn himself in. There is no way to quietly and peacefully keep his existence a secret anymore. Either he abandons humanity to their destruction, or he steps out in front for all to see. Clark wrestles with the decision, but ultimately chooses the latter, becoming the hero Superman.

The entire first half of the film is taken up with Clark’s struggle. He has powerful reasons to assume his heroic identity and he has powerful reasons not to. Of course he was always going to choose to fully unfurl his powers at some point or another, though, for that is where the story is. If Jonathan Kent had had his way, the story that needed to be told would never be.

Hakuna Matata)

Something similar happens in Disney’s the Lion King after Simba runs away from his home and is taken under the wing of laid-back duo Timon and Pumbaa. Simba is heir to a throne, born to be a powerful king, but right now he is weighed down by shame and absent a father to protect him. To his fears and insecurities comes the soothing philosophy of his new friends: “hakuna matata” which means to just not worry about things anymore.

Timon and Pumbaa teach Simba how to live the carefree life, giving up his duties and identity for indolence. Years pass and Simba believes that his past is gone forever, but there are hints that his heart is discontent with this. He is avoiding his greater story and he knows it. When his childhood friend Nala finds him and tries to stir him back to action he resists, repeating the carefree philosophy he has come to live by. But then he receives a message from his dead father, calling him out for having given up his true identity, and this finally convinces him to act.

Timon and Pumbaa may have meant well, but just like Jonathan Kent they were blocking Simba from his true story. What is the same in both Clark Kent and Simba is that each of them is discontent with their lesser life, but they are also unwilling to stir themselves from it by themselves. Each of them has to be disrupted in some way and have those story-blocking walls broken for them. For Clark this is by the alien invasion and for Simba it is by the appearance of his father’s ghost.

Get the Message Through)

In the story Les Miserables, the main character Jean Valjean must have his wall broken by several incidents in succession. For after 19 years of hard labor he has been firmly converted to the image of himself as a convict, and it is not an easy thing for him to accept a role in any larger story.

First a kindly priest looks beyond the titles of “convict” and shares food and lodging with the man. Valjean is touched, but not yet fully disrupted. He wakes up, steals the silver, and knocks the priest on the head when discovered!

The next day he is found with the stolen goods, arrested, and brought back to the priest. Instead of condemning him, the priest orders him to be set free and gives him even more silver. He stresses to Jean that he is a new man now, purchased, reclaimed, and set upon a new story.

Jean Valean is deeply moved this time, and in most film and theatrical adaptations finally accepts a reformed life. In the original novel, though, there is one more incident where he starts to go back to his thieving ways, before recoiling in horror and fully committing to his higher calling. In any case, he does finally break his old walls and enters his greater story.

Cace’s Change)

In my story I had Aylme discourage Cace from visiting the Ether, but then when he saw Rolar in danger he recommitted himself to it. Now with my last chapter I have given him a stronger discouragement when he encountered real, physical danger in the Ether. This, of course, means that there must now be an even stronger push to go back. This next push will be the one that gets him through permanently, fully entered into his larger story. Come back on Wednesday to see how I deliver it.

Revising The Storm- Week 4

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Here we go, continuing with the edit of my short story The Storm. So far I have made it through the introduction, and now will work on Oscar’s journey to find the missing seaman Harry. This is an important segment, where Oscar extends himself further and further into waters that he is uncomfortable with, alone and wondering why he’s putting his neck out for a man he hates.

The Start of the Journey)

Oscar sighed, then slowly began to turn the wheel. There was that brief moment of delay between cause and effect, then the boat responded to his steering. Now his entire world shifted. The happy view of pier, berth, and road up to Lenny’s Tavern slid away to the left, giving way to the long, low coast, the rising point of the cape, and finally the bleak, open sea yawning wide.

Oscar spun the wheel back, steadying himself towards the storm. Where before he had only given the mounting clouds a cursory glance, he now held them in serious scrutiny. The muddled gray had grown darker since just a few moments ago, making it truly impossible to discern sky from sea, save for when a spike of lightning split the void. Oscar became aware now of the wind whistling around the wheelhouse, a constant, low, forbidding moan. And now that he was moving against the tide it rolled under his feet at doubled strength, raising and lowering him in a constant rhythm. All these particulars had had no weight on him when he was headed back to berth, but now that he intended towards them they were daggers of dread in his mind.

It was nearly enough to turn him back landward right then and there! But he gave himself a little shake and occupied himself with his work so that he didn’t have time to think about it.

“Back a little north,” he said to himself, “keep a steady and brisk pace for the cape.” So saying he turned the wheel until the cape came back to the forefront. Of course this made the oncoming waves buffet more strongly against the starboard side of his trawler, trying to push him homeward, but Oscar stubborned his hands against them. Never mind the discomfort, the fastest course was the best. These waves weren’t yet tall enough to roll him.

And so Oscar quickly advanced on the cape. The Broken Horn it was called, and it rose quickly from the otherwise flat coastline. Too quickly, in fact, for the grass and trees to keep up, thus its promontory point was naught but black, jagged rock, broken in a thousand places by the brunt of the sea. An ominous sigil to be sure.

From time-to-time he worked the radio, trying to raise Harry, but all to no avail. The man must still be around the rock, and something must have gone wrong with his journey.

Of course, it wasn’t the first time things had gone wrong in a storm for Harry.

Oscar had nearly made it to the cape and he quickly spun the wheel to the right. He didn’t dare draw any nearer to the Broken Horn, for there were treacherous shoals at its feet, and if one snagged their boat on those they would be quickly overrun by the endless flow of water. Or if not swamped, the constant surf would push the vessel past the shoals, then pound it into the jagged edges of the cliff beyond, tearing it to shreds in a single instant! If Harry had run into trouble anywhere else Oscar might have left him to run aground and wait out the storm on a rain-soaked beach, but here there was no “aground” to run into.

So Oscar pointed his vessel due east, letting the cape slip by him on the left. Of course due east also meant that the he was pointed back at the face of the storm, and here the water ran much deeper than before.

When I revised the very beginning of the story I cut the number of words by a very great deal. Here I am actually adding more in. This segment of Oscar turning from the docks, making for the cape, and turning deeper into the storm was originally 507 words, now it is 591. I do like the change these extra words bring. One of the things I knew I wanted to change was to make this journey to feel much more epic and exhausting.

You can view the original version of this piece here if you want, but my main changes were to stress the transition from cozy pier to stark sea, and to paint the way that Oscar’s mind is flooded with all the details that previously had had no bearing on him. I also added the detail of the waves buffeting the side of his ship and him having to hold the wheel steady, to communicate the constant physical exertion that will only increase as the story rolls along.

One thing I dialed back on, though, was the intensity of the storm at this point. I removed references to the cape looking like ink and shrouded in fog and the clouds being whipped by the air. I want to set this up as the beginning of a marathon, and I want the audience to be able to feel the escalation of the storm late on, so better to not have it be at a fever pitch just yet.

The first of those escalations will occur now as Oscar turns himself back into the face of the storm, but there will be many more to follow. Come back in a week as we continue that journey.