Every great trick begins with a promise. Even before the magician takes the stage, there is an implied understanding that the audience is going to be shown something that is fascinating, but that they cannot explain. If both criteria are not met, however, the spell is literally broken.
Suppose the magician produced an elephant on stage, but it was obvious how it came to be there. It might be interesting to see, but it is hardly astounding. Or on the other hand, consider those terrible magic shows where the magician spends far too long repeating the same interlinking rings trick over and over and over. Even if you don’t know how such a trick is pulled off, it is impossible to be amazed by something so repetitive and mundane.
Indeed, a magician either makes or breaks their entire trick just in the presentation of it, and the best magicians know that they must therefore walk the fine line of foreshadowing the unforeseeable. Yes, that is a paradox, and the more paradoxical the magician can make it the better! In short, they want to make the audience slap their forehead with “but of course!” while simultaneously scratch their heads with “but how?”
This, of course, is also a trick utilized by the best mystery writers. At the end of every whodunit, the hope is that the audience will be left feeling that the solution is the only one that makes sense, but also wondering how they failed to see it then.
So how does a story pull this off? Well, the exact same way that the magician does. It distracts you along the way.
Sleight of Hand)
Magicians famously fool their audiences by showing them something in one hand, while the other stuffs a rabbit into the hat. Mysteries, of course, also utilize red herrings so that the reader is too busy drawing the wrong conclusions to notice the setup for the correct one.
But here’s the thing, the correct conclusion does need to be setup for. When a story unveils a grand conclusion that has not been previously alluded to, it is like a magician who puts his hat on the table, rolls up his sleeves, and then walks offstage to retrieve a white rabbit. We aren’t impressed in sleight of hand that takes place off-stage.
And yet that is exactly what far too many stories do, producing solutions that were never setup for. In fact it is so common a sin that this sort of off-stage gymnastics has been given a name: deus ex machina. Oh whoops, did I forget to tell you that the Detective happens to have a best-friend-elephant-tamer on speed dial?
But things can be taken too far the other way as well. If the conclusion is obvious, then there is nothing satisfying in its reveal. Magicians lull us into a false sense of security by presenting a world that works exactly the way that we expect it to. A card is just a card, a box is just a box, and everything behaves exactly as normal…until suddenly the world changes and the laws of nature are broken.
Good mysteries also present us with a world that makes perfect sense, and then suddenly pull the rug out from under. The reason why “Luke, I am your father” lands with such impact is because that up to this moment audiences felt that they already had a complete understanding of the world. We had a story about Luke’s father already, and it made perfect sense. His father had been killed by the enemy and needed to be avenged.
But then, suddenly, the tale shifted with the reveal that the villain actually is Luke’s father. Most importantly, this reveal somehow seemed truer than the previous arc. That is the key to every great twist in a story. It takes what already appeared true, but then makes it truer.
A story rings truer when it has greater catharsis. Luke’s need to avenge his father was certainly cathartic, but Luke’s need to save his good-turned-evil father was even more so.
In my story The Storm, we are told that a sailor lost his son when a friend took the youth sailing and the youth forgot to tie his lifeline in a storm. Later the twist comes. Actually the boy did tie his lifeline, and the friend later untied it by mistake, thinking the knot went out to the rest of the boat’s rigging. The loss of a son was already quite an emotional toll, but to have lost him at the blunder of a friend all the more so. As soon as I wrote the change into that tale I knew it was the true version of my story.
But of course Star Wars is not a mystery story, it is a fantasy. And The Storm was not what you would call a “twist” story, it was a drama. It turns out that creating an initial premise, but then upending it with a later revelation, is an essential part to all kinds of tales.
Strider being revealed as the absent King of Gondor is character development in Lord of the Rings, Ilsa revealing that her thought-to-be-dead husband is actually alive adds intrigue to Casablanca. Madame Defarge revealing that she was the girl who’s family was tortured by the Evrémondes bolsters the theme of cyclical violence in A Tale of Two Cities.
Last Thursday I posted a story where the conclusion was foreshadowed by the beginning: a King needed to plot an unforgettable revenge on one of his districts. This foreshadowing was followed by detailing each individual piece that would reside in that revenge. In spite of all that setup, I feel that the tale’s final revelation was still shocking, and that it revealed a deeper catharsis that rang more true and satisfying than any other moment in the story.
Every type of story can benefit by giving the reader one thing to believe, foreshadowing a later revelation, and through it uncovering a higher, more true story. Every story can use a bit of magic. Every author can benefit from practicing their sleight of hand, and figuring out the proper balance of obfuscation and anticipation.
I have been too nervous to write any murder mysteries on this blog so far. Those require a firm understanding of the end from the very beginning, and a very tricky balance of foreshadowing the unforeseeable. I write these stories under tight time constraints, and therefore don’t invest in careful, airtight outlines at the outset. Even so, I do love a good mystery, and I think the time has come for me to pay my respects to that genre. Come back on Thursday as we get started on my magic trick!
On Thursday we had the second segment of Phisherman, in which our narrator let us into his home, more of his thought processes, and described various body sensations. But all of these are only surface periphery, and he has still stubbornly avoided sharing anything truly vulnerable. We don’t know what it is that makes him tick or what his real motivations are, and he adamantly refuses to tell us what he’s even feeling.
A narrator that has an adversarial relationship with the reader is not a new invention, but it still remains an interesting mechanic due to how it goes against the basic idea of what a story is. A story is supposed to be a way to share knowledge, to communicate, to bring to an understanding. Therefore an unreliable narrator seems that it would only make a story defeat itself in much the same way that telling lies defeats the natural purpose of communication.
Indeed almost every story begins with the assumption that the narrator is truthful and somewhat omniscient. Usually they know everything that is needed to communicate their tale accurately, and they will be used as the standard of truth that all else is measured against. Therefore when a narrator is not trustworthy it is something that has to be discovered. Bit by bit things just aren’t adding up, and finally there’s a breaking apart where our creeping suspicions become confirmed.
And it is in that moment of discovery that the self-defeating nature of an unreliable narrator is undone. When pulled off properly the communication that follows can actually become more true, due to its initial concealing nature. But don’t take my word for it, there have been some excellent stories which have proved this very point.
Take, for example, the story in Fight Club. I’ve have not yet read the novel, but the film’s snappy, cynical dialogue was actually a direct influence on crafting Phisherman’s tone. Interestingly, this film starts by surprising us with just how brutally honest it is willing to be. We understand exactly how Edward Norton’s character feels about the media, society, and all the world’s various problems. He sees a lot to complain about, including of himself, and he doesn’t hold back in cutting down everything he despises.
But while that honesty is invigorating, the audience still gets the notion that something is being hidden from them. People occasionally treat Edward Norton’s character in a way that doesn’t make sense, and there are strange black-out periods that are entirely unaccounted for. It isn’t necessarily that we think our narrator is lying to us, just that he isn’t as in control of the situation as he should be. In the end it turns out to be both. He is lying to us, but he isn’t even aware of doing so.
In the final act the story reveals its secret, and we find out that our leading man is a far more complex individual than we had been led to believe. Certainly more than he, himself, had ever believed. Thus this tale is particularly interesting in that it features a narrator that is being duped right along with the audience. That “aha moment” where everything comes to light is even more of a shock to him than it is to us.
The takeaway here would be that the narrator does not have to always know when they are being unreliable. They might just be expressing the truth according to their limited understanding of it.
The Beginner’s Guide)
Another example of an unreliable narrator is that of the indie game called The Beginner’s Guide. This is a game that is unlike anything I’ve seen before, right from its initial moments. It opens with the game’s real-life creator giving you his real-life name and his real-life email address. It is incredibly, disarmingly honest, and leaves the player feeling a little embarrassed at just how far they being are invited into the creator’s personal space. But all of this is just a façade, and when it comes down things are only going to become more intimate.
The basic construct of the game is that the creator, Davey Wreden, wants to show you some small minigames that his friend “Coda” has made. These games are all quite short and about a very limited objective. They’re also very different, and feel less interested in providing compelling gameplay as being virtual art pieces that communicate an experience. For example a maze that is impossible to beat may not be very fun to play, but it recreates the sensation of being trapped that Coda was experiencing in his life at that time.
Then, at the end, Davey confesses that Coda actually hates him for sharing his games with the public like this. These weren’t meant to be put on display for everyone, they were very personal to Coda. Davey even admits that he has been altering the games, giving them glimmers of hope that he felt had been missing.
So clearly there was a deception here, and the player feels dirty for having been made an accomplice to violating Coda’s personal life. This might seem like it’s the “aha moment” of catching the unreliable narrator in the act, but there’s an even greater revelation still to uncover.
This one comes when you understand that Coda and Davey are not actually two different people, but rather two sides of the same individual. There’s plenty to suggest this fact within the game itself, but it is further confirmed by reading the blog posts that Davey Wreden has published about himself. He gets very personal and honest in those blogs, and they talk about his two conflicting interests: to be purely creative and also to feed his never-ending hunger for validation.
From his blog posts and this game we understand that “Coda” is the name that Davey has given to his muse, the part of him that provides him pure inspiration. But then there’s this other part of him, the public part, that tries to make those games more marketable and entertaining so that he can be praised for them. The more he does that, the more his private life is thrust into the limelight, and the more he starts to feel that honest creativity dying within him.
The Beginner’s Guide is very unique in that it makes the player believe it is being entirely honest, then convinces the player they have been deceived, and then let’s them discover it was actually being more honest than ever.
Truth Through Deception)
So obviously these are two very different examples of an unreliable narrator, however there is one aspect that they share, that of actually unveiling more as a result of their covering up.
If in Fight Club we had understood all the wrinkles of the main character from the outset, then we would not have experienced the same sense of confusion and foreboding that he was experiencing. He would have been wandering around scared and confused and we would have been waiting for him to catch up to our level. Being left in a place of uncertainty only better connected the audience to the lack of completeness he had been feeling the whole film long.
And as for The Beginner’s Guide, it could have been introduced as simply “here are two different sides of me,” but that would have lessened the sense of betrayal that we experienced at the end. By dividing the psyche into two individuals we better have this idea of a relationship, one which requires respect from one to another to survive. In this way this story is able to make its point that we know it would be unquestionably wrong to exploit another person, but why do we think it any better to exploit oneself?
This element makes for one of my favorite styles of unreliable narrator. Even though the narrator may not be telling you the truth about the details, they are informing you of other truths about themselves. This, however, is not the technique that I am utilizing for Phisherman. In fact I’ve decided to do the exact opposite to see how that affects the outcome.
Jake is being entirely honest about all of the details, and there is not going to be any sort of twist where he has a split personality or an imaginary friend. The deceit is one that he, himself, doesn’t recognize as a deceit because it is really a self-deceit. Jake has been able to omit his feelings from the story thus far because he is very practiced at numbing them, even to the point that he would doubt their existence. In the final section of the story we will have a moment where the pure terror that always lives beneath his surface finally rages to the forefront for all to see. My hope is that that moment of stark clarity will then color every scene that came before.
This last Thursday I posted the first third of a short story that starred a pretty deplorable character. Jake was either born without ethical restraints, or else he managed to sand them away over time. Also, he happens to be a jerk. Particularly vicious was the scene where he sees a stranger and proceeds to scathingly critique him as one of the lowest dregs of humanity.
And yet, I actually intended for that scene to ultimately make the audience feel more sympathetic to Jake. In time, as more of his character is revealed, it will become evident that that vicious mockery is more inwardly directed than outwards. Jake still has problems, and is still the story’s villain, but he is more of a victim of his actions than anyone else.
As I wrote the segment where Jake mocks a stranger I allowed myself to be crueler because of my knowledge that it was self-reflective for him. However I also knew that the reader wouldn’t have this information, and so might misread the moment. And that was intended.
It’s almost unavoidable at the beginning of a story for readers to make first impressions and take all that they are shown at face value. One of my favorite things is when an author is aware of these two facts, and structure their story so that it will support the readers’ in their initial perceptions upon a first reading, and then challenge them upon a second.
I could, of course, have opened the story by establishing how much Jake loathes himself, but then the audience would have been sympathetic to him from the outset. That would have limited their ability to despise him, so instead I let him introduce himself as he believes himself to be: creepy, unrepentant, and cruel. When at the end of my post he started applying these sorts of labels to himself, the readers only heard him echoing their own thoughts for him. Perhaps as they come to see how miserable he is they might feel bad for having made those initial judgments.
Or maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll feel he is only receiving his just desserts. Either way, the reader will be making a choice, thus be more actively engaged in the story, and thus be more affected by it.
A Christmas Carol)
In writing my story this way I’m actually paying homage to one of my most favorite tales of all time: A Christmas Carol. When we are introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge we are not told first about his unhappy childhood, about how he was banished from his home by an unfeeling father. We don’t hear about his immense poverty and his drive to become something more. We don’t know the tragedy of how that misguided ambition ultimately lost him the love of his life.
No, we do not hear about those things until later, so that there can be nothing in the way of our reviling this bitter and cold man. All we know at the outset is that he is cruel, deservedly despised, and we very easily dismiss him.
But then, as these sadder elements of his life are unfolded, we find ourselves grieving for the lost child still within him and we are deeply relieved when his soul eventually finds its reclamation. From the first impressions we are able understand why the world is so disbelieving of his dramatic transformation, but by the end of our journey we are believing of it ourselves.
The fact is, if Charles Dickens had laid out the story to capture our sympathy for Scrooge first, then his reclamation would not have tasted nearly so sweet. To despise a character, and then pity him, and then joy for him is a far more moving arc than any other arrangement of those same sensations.
Another favorite example of this is from the film Citizen Kane. Charles Foster Kane is not a very pleasant person. He happens to be rich, powerful, and a genius, but also pompous, self-righteous, and manipulative. He possesses a constant hunger for more, and by his obsessive and overbearing nature he manages to sour his every relationship until all that remain in his household are the servants.
We’ve seen how he demands control of every situation. He tries to force love and friendship from those that would have given it willingly. He wants to own happiness, to buy it. He lavishes the woman he loves with gifts until she feels smothered and ends the relationship. It is almost pitiable, except for the fact that he is wholly responsible for his own suffering.
Then he dies with a single word on his lips: “Rosebud,” which is revealed to be the name of a sled he played with as a young boy at his parent’s home. There he was happy, and it was a simple and authentic happiness. Tragically that moment of bliss was taken from him suddenly, and he has never since found it again. Just like that we understand his enigma.
We realize that he has been made afraid of all good things being taken away. He wants to be in control so that he won’t be hurt again. And, ironically, it has been his avid pursuing that has lead to his constant losing, a vicious and never-ending cycle of loss and clutching.
In all of these cases the understanding that dawns on the reader is not meant to excuse the main character’s flaws. What they have done is still just as wrong, but now at least we see the motivations that led them to do those wrong things. Actions can be both wrong and understandable, after all. and the beginning of prejudice is when we forget that there is a humanity behind the mistakes people make.
I think we can all agree that the world needs more stories like these. I’m not going to get political on this forum, but it is clear that intolerance for opposing ideals is a depressing epidemic of our lives. It’s not wrong to want this world to be better, but society will never be improved via argument or insult. If someone doesn’t agree with your particular point-of-view then there is an understandable, even if misguided, reason for that. People don’t need to be forced into becoming better, they only need a sympathetic voice that truly hears, understands, and validates their concerns. When nurtured in this way people will naturally recognize their own faults and rise to their best.
When it comes to writing, though, this sort of sympathy for a negative character can be difficult to pull off. It’s difficult to do in real life, so of course it would be tricky in the written word, too. I don’t mind admitting that I’m nervous about tackling the subject with Jake. At the very least I do understand the template to follow: first introduce the character as they are perceived, then reveal them as they actually are.
Khalil spun around in surprise and found Paki peering into the hut, his eyes locked on Urafiki.
“Yes,” Khalil grinned. “It is soothed, well fed, and resting. It will not eat you today.”
“I am grateful” Paki laughed back as he stepped fully into the home. “Am I disturbing you now?”
“No, Paki, in fact I’ve wanted to speak with you.”
“About the challenge?”
Paki shook his head. “I do not see why you are so hesitant about it. Who else would you have stand with you? I am the finest warrior in all of the camp, everyone says so.”
“I would say so, too,” Khalil sighed. “But I would also say that one man against two makes for difficult odds. By that I mean no slight to you.”
Paki waved dismissively. “Did you not hear how I fought two Oroko at once in their last raid?” He folded his arms impressively and assumed the boastful stance he always used when recounting battlefield glories. “I used my disadvantage to my advantage. You see, I let one of them–”
“Stab you in the arm so that you could reel him in with your other hand,” Khalil finished. “And then you could dispatch of the other in one-on-one combat. Yes, I know the story, Paki…. Everyone in the camp knows the story, just as everyone in the camp knows how you fight. Abasi has even sparred with you!”
“And I have sparred with him!” Paki added forcefully, frowning at the stings to his pride. “You really believe that I could not defend you?”
“You would protect me too well! Even if it cost you your own life.”
Paki nodded slowly, his frown turning into contemplation. “I see now. And you are right, there is a great risk in this.” He nodded his head in deep thought, then spoke with conviction. “But…this is also what is right. You being our chief is right. Protecting my friend is right. This is the honorable fight for me, and it is the natural order of things that that which is honorable comes with great risk. All the more glory that follows it as well.” This last part he added with a broad smile. “I do wish to earn my calling as head warrior after all.”
Khalil grimaced and shook his head. “Is it right for me to be chief, though? Suppose you could defeat Abasi and whomever he chooses for his companion, what would happen then? Abasi has raised great support these past months, and his death would not be taken well. It could mean civil war for our tribe.”
“And what of us who support you? If you were to fall we would rebel against this coup.” Paki made a spitting noise, but did not actually desecrate the floor of his friend’s hut.
“If you did then you would be rebelling against me, as well!” Khalil snapped and fully spat on the ground. “I am going to ask–I am going to order–all those loyal to me to accept what I have already accepted. We must choose the better compromise here, and the better is that I die quickly and the tribe loses neither its best warrior nor its unity.”
“And serve Abasi? The man is a fool!” Tears were forming in Paki’s eyes. It was impossible to tell if they were of sorrow or anger.
“He will need all of the help you can provide,” Khalil admitted, “I need you to be there for him.”
Paki did not respond, he only hung his head downwards with his eyes closed, tears seeping from them.
“Paki I am now a chief, and though my legacy may be short, let me at least have this one choice to do what is right for the tribe. And for you.” He stepped forward and raised his hand to place it on Paki’s shoulder. But Paki heaved backwards and out of reach, staring up at Khalil with a deep wound. He held the gaze for a moment and sniffed angrily, then stormed out of the hut without another word.
Khalil’s hand was still suspended in the air, but slowly he closed the fingers into a fist and turned back. He was surprised to see Urafiki awake, watching him from the basket. Urafiki was making a low growl in its throat, and its eyes were narrowed. Those eyes were not on Khalil, though, but on Paki’s retreating back.
The moon had already begun waning when Paki and Khalil returned to the camp, and now it seemed to shrink more quickly than usual with every passing day. Khalil had tried to catch Abasi’s eye a few times to see what lurked within, but the warrior was steadfastly avoiding him at all times. Khalil supposed that was gracious of Abasi, better to be ignored by him than to be publicly taunted.
More unpleasant was the fact that Paki was now avoiding him, too. When they had their feasts Paki would come for food and then carry it back to his hut. When they held their councils Paki would stare ceaselessly at the ground and never speak a word. The thought had occurred to Khalil that as chief he could demand Paki and Abasi to acknowledge his presence, but what would be the point of that? To satiate his pride? He would be gone before long anyway.
As promised, Khalil held a private meeting with the elders and warriors he knew to be most sympathetic to his cause. He thanked them for their support and then ordered them to respect the rituals and traditions of the tribe. If he was to fall, then preserving the community was what mattered most. Some of them tried to argue, but he merely held up his hand and revealed his intention to face the challenge unaided. The significance of that was clear. He would die, and if Khalil was no longer around for them to rally behind, then it would be hard to justify any rebellion.
Those supporters now avoided making eye contact with Khalil as well. Pleasantries would have sounded too hollow, so numb silence prevailed instead. When Khalil felt the loneliness become overwhelming him he would go back to his hut and be with Urafiki. Though their time together had been short, they had already developed a close bond. Khalil made a collar-restraint so that the creature would not be able to bite him when applying the poultice to its wounds. When it came time for the next application of the salve, though, he found himself hesitating to put the restraint on his friend.
Urafiki’s biting him was not unjustified from the creature’s perspective. How could it understand that he meant it goodwill with the stinging cure? If anything Urafiki was being quite forgiving, and it felt wrong to therefore suppress it. And so Khalil tossed the wood and string contraption to the side and administered the poultice to Urafiki’s hurt while bracing for the bite. It didn’t come. Urafiki raised itself up and hissed, but never latched onto Khalil’s arm as before. All following treatments followed this same pattern and soon Urafiki’s condition was markedly improved.
After a week the creature began to move around the floor of the hut, crawling on four legs like a dog. With the finger-like claws on its hands it could climb up onto Khalil’s table and cot, and at times would also raise up on its back legs. It could stretch up to three times its regular height, and in doing so revealed a long, spindly body beneath the bat-like wings that stretched between its joints.
Khalil had found the creature to be playful, its favorite activity being play-fighting with him. Generally this was initiated as he was ambling about the hut and Urafiki would bowl into his legs from behind, knocking him to the ground. In a flash Urafiki would move up to his chest and neck and hiss menacingly, pausing to let him grip it and throw it to the side. Then it would circle about and make another lunge.
Khalil was grateful that the creature did not try to venture out of his hut, any camp members who had caught a glimpse of Urafiki in his home had all hurried away, disturbed by its strange and somewhat sinister appearance. As such Khalil knew that the creature would have to return to the wild, and so it was that on the afternoon preceding the new moon he lifted Urafiki into his arms and hobbled out of the camp’s clearing, looking for a quiet clump of trees to meditate under.
“You won’t be able to stay here anymore,” he said while stroking Urafiki. “You have your strength back and now you must leave. I hope things go better for you than before?”
Khalil found a quiet corner of the jungle, and knelt down to meditate and pray. As he did, Urafiki paced around him like a sentinel. Khalil quieted his mind and connected with his core. As he did so, he was unsurprised to find a well of fear and sorrow bursting out over him. He had done well in repressing it these past days, but this consignment to death went too strongly against all his basic instincts. Khalil did not try to fight the torrent of tears and shaking, letting them roll over him in one successive wave after another. With each one he collapsed more and more until he was laying prone on the ground, fatigued by the surging emotions. The did not engulf him, though, rather they expressed themselves and then moved on. As their ripples slowly diminished he at last felt the quiet peace of their absence. There simply was not any capacity to grieve left in him.
The beating of the drum back at camp signaled that the sun had just begun to dip between the horizon. All challenges to the chief were to be made before it had set completely, and it was Khalil’s duty to be there to receive them. Wiping his face with the back of his hand he rose to his feet and staggered back towards camp.
Urafiki instinctively followed but Khalil shook his hand at it with a loud “Shah!” and it halted. It did not retreat though, only paused and transfixed with eyes of confusion.
“Live a long and happy life, my friend,” Khalil bowed, then continued his walk to the center of camp.
Here the beginnings of a bonfire were crackling and the tribe members were trickling one-by-one into the circle of its glow. Khalil nodded to the priest beating on the drum, and stood at attention on the circular rug at the head of the gathering. Already he could see a ripple moving through the crowd and Abasi emerged from their depths to approach him. Khalil closed his eyes, breathed in deeply, then looked to the man and nodded.
“Great chief,” Abasi saluted him, bowing low and then rising. “Though your rule has been brief it has been gracious. I want it to be known that I have no disrespect for your character.”
Khalil nodded blandly. Abasi meant no offense but he was come to kill him? What was he supposed to say to that?
“Even so,” Abasi continued, “may all the tribe bear witness that I come to deliver a challenge to Khalil, son of Kibali…”
“…on behalf of Paki, son of Jomo.”
There was another stir in the crowd as a second figure emerged from their midst. Paki was covered in full war paints and carrying two war clubs on his shoulder. On one end of them was the heavy cudgel, the other end was whittled down to a vicious point. Paki strode up to Khalil, meeting his gaze for the first time in days with harshly intent eyes. He held out one of the clubs to Abasi and gave only the shallowest of nods to Khalil.
“I challenge your right as ruler of this tribe,” he murmured in a low whisper.
Khalil was taken aback, but kept the surprise from his face. “Is this an honorable fight, too, Paki?” he asked coolly.
“We’re past that now.”
“Paki, son of Jomo,” the priest with the drum chimed in. “You have challenged our chief, and so there must be a blood duel. You cannot withdraw until one of you lies dead. You understand?”
“And you have chosen Abasi as your companion in this challenge?”
“Khalil, son of Kibali, you have been challenged. Who will fight as your companion?”
Khalil shook his head. “None stand with me.”
The priest sighed. “So be it.” He waved to the other priests and they spaced themselves out, pressing the crowd back to form an open circle with the bonfire at its center. Paki and Abasi backed away to one side of the circle and Khalil turned to another of the priest’s who had retrieved a war club for him.
“When I strike the drum the challenge will begin,” the first priest announced.
Khalil looked to Paki first, and then Abasi. Abasi must have known that the tribe would more willingly fall into line behind Paki, and he would still receive a promotion for his loyalty, probably be made head warrior. It made sense. And yet…. though it was a clever and rational betrayal on Paki’s part…it was still a betrayal.
Abasi and Paki advanced at him from either direction, Abasi hanging back slightly to allow Paki the honor of the kill. Khalil stood motionless, letting them advance. As Paki’s figure loomed nearer though he found himself gripping the handle of the club he had been given.
Paki stepped into a charge and raised his war club high. Khalil’s heart skipped a beat. Not out of fear, but of anger. He moved so suddenly he caught himself by surprise, swinging up in answer to Paki’s challenge. Paki was caught off guard by the motion and barely managed to transition his own attack into a block. He did not fully deflect Khalil’s blow, instead diverting it to his shoulder, where it connected with a cracking thud.
Paki roared in anger, easily ducked under Khalil’s next swing, and then swept Khalil’s legs out from under him. The world turned on its side and Khalil fell onto his back, hard. He was winded and dazed, and unable to hold onto his club as Abasi kicked it out of his grasp. Above him Paki was turning his own club over, pointing the sharp end down towards Khalil’s heart. Paki looked upwards, giving a war cry as he plunged the weapon downwards.
It never connected. To Khalil’s surprise a white blur streaked through the air and wrapped itself around Paki’s head. The warrior shrieked in surprise and lurched backwards, trying to grapple the blanket that had secured itself to his face. Suddenly he stopped his struggling, instead raising himself higher and higher, clear up onto his tiptoes, his hands limp at his side. It seemed as though he were in a trance, then suddenly the spell was broken and he collapsed down to the ground, dead. The white “something” spun off from Paki’s face and revealed itself to be Urafiki.
Khalil staggered back up to his feet as Urafiki slowly raised up onto its back legs, its arms dangling a few inches off the ground. It was hissing menacingly, with ears flattened back against the skull and mandibles were drawn back to reveal its gaping mouth. Its eyes were wide and bloodshot, staring intently as Abasi.
Abasi was clearly unnerved, backing away as Urafiki sidled side-to-side before lunging forward at him.
“No!” Khalil cried, lurching to the side just in time to intercept the creature. He wrapped his arms around the beast, but it was manic, scrabbling up and over his shoulder. Khalil fumbled at his waist, pulling out a knife and stabbing the creature in the side. Urafiki cried in pain and dug a claw into Khalil’s arm.
“Just stop!” Khalil ordered, but the creature was filled with the bloodlust and continued to writhe after Abasi. Khalil drew out the knife and plunged it again, rewarded with another gouge from the creature’s claw, this time in the side of his neck.
Urafiki gave a confused cry, but lurched once more for Abasi.
“I’m sorry,” Khalil gasped, finally burying the knife in Urafiki’s heart. The creature seized up in his arms, going rigid and then slowly limp. Khalil looked into its eyes, wild and wondering, then fading into emptiness.
As I mentioned in an earlier post about communication, it is essential for the audience to feel connected to the character so that they may share in the emotions they are feeling. I would imagine, and intend, that most readers will feel sorrier for Urafiki’s loss than Paki’s. In the bigger scheme of things that might seem unbalanced, given that Khalil and Paki have shared an entire life together, but the audience did not personally experience that history. Instead our window has spent more time on Khalil and Urafiki’s relationship and it has been a more positive one as well. Therefore I am able to steer the reader to giving that loss the far greater weight.
On Monday I also wrote about the concept of characters and plotlines subverting the reader’s expectations with a surprising reveal. I suggested in that post that usually a character’s actions are telegraphed well in advance so that their shifts and turns are expected. Paki’s betrayal would fall under that category, as I first show him being greatly distressed and then removed from Khalil.
Urafiki’s sudden involvement may not have come as too much of a surprise either, most readers probably assumed that the creature was going to get involved in the ending somehow. My hope, though, was that Khalil then slaying Urafiki would come as a shock. Urafiki was his friend and Abasi was his enemy, so it seems counterintuitive for him to do that. However I have tried to establish a trait that Khalil honors duty above friendship, and so hopefully it will still feel honest.
I also hope that Khalil’s surviving the challenge feels earned. Obviously I set him up as the underdog, and therefore needed him to come out of the ordeal by more unconventional means. That’s a common theme to stories, the hero who somehow manages to best the insurmountable challenge. I’d like to spend some time exploring that idea this next Monday.
Then, on Thursday, we’ll have the third and final piece of The Heart of Something Wild I’ve been working on this story right up to the final minute, and still felt that the closing segment needs to feel less rushed. Come back in a week to read that conclusion.
I’ve noticed an interesting phenomena of human behavior at work this last little while. We’ve been hiring a lot of new employees and there seems to be a pattern where you only meet the new hire’s mask on their first day, and then the actual person a few weeks later.
This is a common social pattern, of course. When we find ourselves in an unfamiliar environment we feel endangered. Perhaps not physically endangered, but socially endangered. We wish to protect ourselves by wearing a persona that we expect to be better received. For some that persona is more loud and confident than they really feel, for others it is more quiet and reserved. I fall into that latter category. When I start a new job or move to a new residence I hardly speak at all, then, after a few weeks I start to come out of my shell, crack jokes, and share about the things that really interest me.
It’s always interesting when meeting someone for the first time to wonder who they really are, and to look forward to eventually figuring that out. You might say you should never judge a book by its cover…. Pretty smooth segue, don’t you think 😉
In literature there are all manner of first impressions and later revelations. From the very first pages the reader is making first impressions of the story and themes as a whole, and also of the individual characters as they meet each one. But sometimes these first impressions don’t bear out through the rest of the story, and that can be both a good or a bad thing. Let’s look at both aspects.
In a prior post I spoke of how a good opening can establish the tone of the narrative and also introduce the main arc that will carry the tale. But there is another aspect of a story’s opening that authors have to deal with, that of providing a hook, something that will convince the reader to forge past the first chapter all the way to the end. Opening your story with a mystery or a problem that is intriguing is how you convince the reader that your book is going to be worth their time.
The danger here, though, is that it is very easy to promise more than your story can deliver, as it is far easier to write a compelling beginning than a satisfying ending. Sadly there are many stories where strong characters, an interesting world, and a creative mechanic quickly establish an intriguing premise, but then just meander aimlessly to a weak conclusion. In this instance the story’s first chapter truly is a facade, one that looks impressive and suggests extravagant interiors, but behind is only enough lattice to make the story marketable.
I consider it poor taste to give specific examples of poorly crafted work, but I’m sure you can readily recall many such examples of this shortcoming on your own. Fortunately there are more positive examples we can consider, and one of my favorites is the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
By and large Doyle is a master of capturing intrigue at the outset of his tales and then delivering satisfaction by their close. His general template often involves a hook where Holmes is presented a baffling case, a recount of the detective’s investigation, and finally gives a clever solution that neatly answers all that had seemed impossible.
Even more impressive is that Doyle realized his formula had become expected, and so he began to alter the pattern to surprise the reader with an even better ending than anticipated. The Adventure of the Yellow Face is my favorite example of this.
And then of course there are the individual characters of the story. In most cases a story’s characters are fully understood at all times. They may have arcs and changes, but at each moment they are telling you who they honestly are at that point. The heroes really are good, and the villains really are bad, and if a villain is going to transform into someone good or a hero into someone bad, all of these changes will be signaled well in advance. Thus nothing about them really catches us by surprise.
But although most characters wear their hearts on their sleeves, there are those that refuse to show you all of their cards until later in the game. These sudden reveals can come with powerful shifts in tone and perspective, and will certainly capture the audience’s attention.
Take special note, though: even if the author may not be foreshadowing this change and it comes as a surprise, still it must not feel random. If a character simply flips their entire personality at the drop of a hat then it just becomes ludicrous.
One of the central mysteries in the biopic Capote is whether Perry Smith is the murderous terror that the press has made him out to be. All throughout the film Perry maintains that he is more innocent than has been portrayed, and speaks in such a refined and sensitive manner that we have our misgivings to his guilt. And so this continues, right up to the point that he bluntly details how he carried out every one of the monstrous acts of which he has been accused.
The reason the scene lands so well is because as shocking as the revelation is, we still fully accept this new perspective of Perry. Perhaps the label of a raging monster did not fit with the quiet demeanor he portrayed, but that of a quiet monster does. We are able to accept this more encompassing perspective of sweetness laced with menace.
In the first section of The Heart of Something Wild I introduced three main characters and established their basic identities. In the second entry I intend to have a moment of transition where some of these roles will change, and the characters’ deeper natures will suddenly be revealed.
At the same time, though, I will need to ensure that the ending of the story remains satisfying, too. I cannot simply shake reader’s expectations loose to the point that they lose their capacity to care about the outcomes. I think it will be challenging to pull off, and I’m excited to give it a try. Come back on Thursday to see what I am able to make of it!