Depart to Return Again

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A Gap Between)

There is an unspoken rule in storytelling that if two characters meet together for a scene and depart at the end, then the next scene won’t begin with them meeting once more. Two scenes later they might, but it is always preferred to have that space of at least one scene between every coming together.

The reason for this is purely aesthetic. Because while we understand that any period of time might transpire between two scenes, they remain a sequential experience to the audience. It just feels wrong to read of two people walking apart and then immediately read of the same two people walking back together. Where one scene concludes by asking a question we do not expect to already have the answer at the opening of the next.

To be clear, two characters can meet in one scene and then progress together into the next, but they cannot move apart and then return together immediately. In a story we measure the passage of time by changes. We need to feel the separation and the return, the change of clothes and sets, the gaps which create that artificial sense of minutes and hours spinning by.

Let’s look at a specific example of what I’m talking about.

Investigating Structure)

The film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon is a hardboiled detective noir. Like many of that genre it features a core set of characters that interact with one another many times over. Promises are broken, bribes are offered, and threats are extended at reckless abandon, requiring the same characters to depart and return again many times over.

And yet, the film firmly follows this rule of letting characters stay apart for a scene before reuniting them. Here are how the opening scenes play out.

Scene 1: Sam Spade and Miles Archer are partner detectives. Their secretary Effie Perine introduces a new client to them, Ruth Wonderly.

Scene 2: Miles Archer goes from the first scene to meet with an unknown murderer who guns him down.

Scene 3: Sam Spade receives a call in his apartment that Miles Archer has been killed. He calls Effie and asks her to break the news to Archer’s wife.

Scene 4: Sam Spade arrives at the scene of the murder and discusses the matter with the police there.

Scene 5: Sam goes to his apartment and is grilled by Polhaus and Dundy, two police detectives.

Scene 6: Sam is back in the office with secretary Effie Perine. Archer’s widow comes to meet with Sam.

At this point notice how Sam Spade and his secretary Effie Perine are the two characters that have shared the most scenes together: 3 out of 6. But each of these scenes together are separated from the others by at least one intermediary scene.

Scene 7: Spade goes to the new client Ruth Wonderly’s apartment. She admits to having lied earlier.

Scene 8: Spade returns to his office with Effie Perine (once again notice that they were kept apart by Scene 7 before reuniting), and meets another new client named Joel Cairo.

Scene 9: Spade is being tailed by an unknown man on the streets. He arrives back at Ruth Wonderly’s apartment and calls her out on more lies.

Scene 10: Spade and Wonderly go back to his office together and tell Joel Cairo to meet them there. In the middle of their argument detectives Polhaus and Dundy come to grill Spade further.

Scenes 7, 8, 9, and 10 therefore involved Spade and Wonderly, Spade and Cairo, Spade and Wonderly again, and Spade and Wonderly and Cairo. This limited cast of characters is interacting with each another rapid fire, but they still get spaced out with a scene between them, or else move together to the next scene without parting in between.

The arrival of Joel Cairo greatly helps to maintain this hopscotch pattern, as it provides a second thread for Spade to pull on in addition to the one with Wonderly. He is able to bounce between progressing each of these lines and the interactions never feels awkward as a result.

Here the film comes to a tricky juncture, though. In the last scene pretty much every known character came together. So how to progress forward? Well, Scene 11 opens with Sam confronting the man who had been tailing him earlier. Yet another thread to pull on while letting the others gestate.

Scene 11 does also provide the first and only exception in the entire film to the rule of giving characters a scene apart, though. For after conversing with the new man, Wilmer, Spade bumps into Joel Cairo once more. And while these two men are technically revisiting each other two scenes in a row, the brief conversation with Wilmer in between helps to offset the awkwardness of that.

Deliberate Pacing)

Even stories that spend a long time in a single setting will deliberately pace themselves in this way. You can find an excellent example of this in another Humphrey Bogart classic: Casablanca. Watch the scene near the start where we first come to Rick’s Café Americain. It is an extended sequence of nearly a half hour, with many of the same characters repeated. But we hop from one conversation to another and back again. One thread is established about some stolen visas, another about an upcoming arrest, another about a mysterious revolutionary arriving, and then back to the first. Everything flows seamlessly and is aesthetically pleasing because just enough space is given around each character and thread before we return to them.

And to be clear, a story does not naturally divide itself into staggered pacing like this. It comes about by a very intentional weaving. In writing my own stories it is often necessary for me to refactor my structure when I realized I wasn’t giving each moment enough space to breathe.

I have been careful to manage this very thing in my latest piece: The Punctured Football. This is a short story with a limited set of characters, but look at the scenes and you will see that I change which character is interacting with the protagonist each time. The same individuals never meet back-to-back. And I’ll be keeping that rule as I conclude the story on Thursday. Come back then and make note of how I drive the whole thing forward while hopping between its multiple different threads.

Update on My Novel: Month 10

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FEBRUARY STATS

Days Writing: 0
New Words: 0
New Chapters: 0

Total Word-count: 33,297
Total Chapters: 9

I mentioned last month that my family would be starting February with the birth of our second child, and that I wasn’t sure how much time I would have for writing my story. All of this month I have been on paternity leave, which is a great blessing that I am most grateful for, but having that dramatic shift to my surroundings meant that all consistency went out the window. I find it very demotivating to do projects unless I am able to fit them into a regular schedule, and so I decided to wait until March to get back to my novel. There were odd moments here and there where I could have written, but it would have only depressed me to tease at the story, never being sure when the next writing session could happen.

Anyway, things went perfectly well with the birth, mother and baby are doing wonderfully, and I really enjoyed the extra time with my family. I think it was very good for all of us. But here we are now in March, and tomorrow is my first day back to work and normalcy. I will start back up my goal of at least 30 minutes writing every weekday, for a total of 22 days.

I have missed this writing quite a lot. I did manage to maintain my blogs during February, due to their being more bite-sized, but it just isn’t the same as working through a big, meaty novel. It’s honestly been very encouraging to see that I miss With the Beast so much, rather than feel relieved to have had a break for it. Hopefully I’ll be able to go at it with that much more vigor then! I guess we’ll see when I give my next report on April 1st.

Rebirth

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It’s always interesting to meet an old friend after years apart. Sometimes the person has changed entirely, and it feels like you’re new acquaintances all over again, meeting for the very first time. You’re trying to figure out who this person has transformed into, and perhaps a bit sad that the old friend is gone forever. One of the most common fears we have is the fear of change after all.

But at the same time, the worst fate I could think of is to have a life of never changing or evolving. I wouldn’t want a friend, someone that I care about, to be trapped in some sort of Peter Pan situation of never progressing. I would rather want for each of us to be moving forward to bigger and better things, improving ourselves  and making accomplishments that we can be proud of. It’s been said that the day you stop learning is the day you start dying after all.

I remember the first time my family moved. I was about fifteen and I felt deeply divided between excitement for the new possibilities, and sorrow at the loss of all I had known. Having conflicting feelings for the same situation is inherently interesting, and naturally invites creative exploration. No wonder then that the idea of “change” has always been so central to literature.

Stories have long dedicated themselves to examining the phenomenon of change from every possible angle. There are stories where the change is quiet and subtle. Consider the novel Mrs. Dalloway, where Richard decides that he wants to tell his wife that he loves her, though it has been years since he has done so. And then, of course, there are times when the change is quite sudden and dramatic, such as from the very same novel when Septimus decides he will die rather than surrender his private soul.

Most stories are a combination of both subtle and dramatic changes, but obviously the latter grab our attention more. Dramatic changes can be recognized as the momentous occasions which serve as inflection points to the entire narrative, the bends in the river that shape the way it flows.

But we can limit our scope even further. There is a subcategory of changes in literature where one character ceases to be the person that they were, and thus becomes someone else. This sort of total transformation can be found in even the most ancient of fairy tales and religious texts, across all different cultures, and in a great number of stories of today.

It is interesting to note that these sorts of rebirths are very often composed with the exact same symbols and forms as one another. It seems that deep in our psyche we all believe that transformations such as these tend to come with specific trappings. There are four of them in all: an element of a loss, a calling, a mask, and a return.

 

The Loss)

Loss is inherent in transformation. Subtle changes might allow for a character to remain essentially the same, but transformation demands that something is let go. For every butterfly that emerges from a chrysalis there must come first the loss of a caterpillar. The loss is always something very significant too, something that is often taken against the main character’s wishes

Think of Luke Skywalker, Simba, and Bruce Wayne. Each lose their parent figures at the beginning of their tales. Edmond Dantes loses his freedom after being wrongfully accused. Paul, the Apostle, loses his sight on the road to Damascus.

Growth through pain seems to be one of the universal truths of our world, so it makes sense that it would accompany the transformations we write into our stories. For a character to have space for their new identity, then something about their current identity has to be taken out first. Now there is a hole inside of them, and what follows depends on how that hole is handled.

If the hole remains vacant then the character becomes a hollow shell of who they once were, an old husk that never recovers from their wounds. If it is filled with bitterness then they become a villain, broken and shaped by a cruel world. If it is filled with something noble, then they become the hero. It will only be filled with something noble, though, if that something noble calls out to them.

 

The Calling)

It is always right when our character hits bottom that something comes along to call them to something higher. This is one of the few times in a story where perfect timing will not be accused of being a coincidence. This isn’t dumb luck, you see, this is fate. The loss only happened because the calling was coming, or else the calling only came because the loss summoned it. Either way readers naturally accept that there is a cause-and-effect relationship here, and so they do not question the convenience of it.

And so Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke to learn the ways of the Force, the ghost of Simba’s Father reminds him of who he once was, Bruce Wayne commits himself to fighting injustice, Edmond is given both an education and a secret by Faria, and Paul hears the voice of the Lord.

The presence of callings in our lives means that our loss is not merely suffering for suffering’s sake. It suggests that our pain might be happening for a reason, that there is a purpose to it all. It takes the pessimism out of the pain and gives us hope for a healing.

As I mentioned above, the character that does not find their calling grows cold and cynical, they come to see the world as a place of random chance and inherent injustice. However there is also the possibility that the calling did come, but it was ignored. The calling will never be to do something easy, it has to require an entirely new way of life after all.

To the character willing to answer the call things will never be the same again. The calling shrouds that sufferer in some new, and now the transformation truly begins.

 

The Mask)

In real life it is commonly observed that after one has gone through an experience of personal transformation they somehow now “look different.” Exactly what has changed might be hard to pin down: a light in the eyes perhaps, a glow in the face, a subtle altering of the complexion. Some sort of ethereal mask seems to have lowered over their face, a change that is sensed more than seen.

In stories these changes are usually made far more explicit. Luke dons the robes and weapon of a Jedi Knight, Simba grows into an adult with a full mane, Bruce Wayne crafts a cape and cowl, Edmond assumes the title of a Count, and Saul begins to call himself Paul. They all now have a new identity, an image, or a name. It is something that makes their change tangible and quantifiable. Other characters and the audience can see the difference in them and know they are dealing with someone new.

We humans are remarkably capable of perceiving things that are invisible, imaginary, and internal. Even so, we usually seek for ways to bring physical representation to them all. We have our crucifixes, our sobriety chips, our gold medals, our college diplomas, and our wedding rings. None of these add directly to our faith, our strength, our intelligence, or our commitment, but they can be useful as reminders of them. Sometimes people fail to use their greater strength simply because they forget that they even have it. Similarly a hero in story often uses their mask to remind themselves of their new identity, and to steel their fortitude whenever the validity of their calling is challenged.

 

The Return)

Finally, the full effect of a transformation can only be fully appreciated after the character is compared to what they were before. This might be as simple as having them come home to their humble beginnings for all their old friends to gape in awe at them, or else it might be to revisit an old temptation that they previously succumbed to. Either way the change is made evident in how the familiar situation now has an unfamiliar outcome.

Luke saves the friends that initially thought so little of him, Simba goes home to face the uncle that drove him away, Bruce brings justice to the man who unjustly killed his parents, Edmond exacts both revenge and mercy upon those who misused him, Paul joins the disciples and suffers the same way he once made them suffer.

It is the return that proves to us that the change is real. Until we are put back into the same scenario we might believe that it is only our surroundings which have been altered, and not our core natures. Returning to the same state, then, is the control which proves the transformation has been internal and not external. We truly are something new.

 

Thus far in Power Suit Racing I have incorporated the first phases of transformation in Taki’s tale. It began with him losing the love of his life, and with it his entire sense of purpose and identity. He wandered with a hole, unsure of his identity when he heard a voice calling out with an invitation. That invitation was to pursue a new venture, one that non-coincidentally involved donning a suit which altered his appearance.

But as we’ll see in my next post, sometimes when one puts on the garb of the future they find it doesn’t quite fit yet. Thursday’s entry will show the process by which he is able to fill the measure of this new person that he is becoming. And then, a week later, we will see the return where he will be compared to the person he used to be. I’ll see you then.