“Oscar!” Harry’s voice broke through the howling wind, his hand pointed fearfully ahead. Oscar turned around just in time to see his vessel sliding up the ramp of the next wave!
Oscar muttered a deluge of insults to himself for being such a distracted fool as he turned on the spot and sprinted towards the wheelhouse. Too late, though. The wave burst across the prow of his boat just then, and he had to grab the nearest line for dear life. The torrent knocked his feet out from under him, endless gallons of water poured into his face, and all the world became confusion! All he could do was hold fast to his line and hope that he would come through at the other end.
Did he even still hold the line? Had it even been properly secured to the boat? Oscar couldn’t say. The sensations coursing across his body were so numerous that he couldn’t say whether he was on deck or in the ocean or holding water or holding air. But he clamped his fingers in place anyway, there was nothing else he could do, and finally the flood abated and he still stood upon his deck.
But he was standing nearly sideways! For without his guidance the boat had been pushed to the side by the wave, and now was careening to starboard, likely to capsize at any moment!
“NO!” Oscar shouted, fumbling hand-over-hand along the rope, trying to make his way to the wheelhouse. If he didn’t make it there before the next wave hit he would be left hanging upside down in the water, his boat suspended over him for a roof!
Suddenly there came a great creaking sound and the entire boat was yanked back to port, forcibly drawn onto its hull. Oscar looked to the edge of the boat and found himself facing the Broken Wing. Harry had quickly moved to the Last Horizon’s side, using their tether to pull the boat back into its place. Oscar gave a grunt for his thanks, then dashed to the wheelhouse and took hold of helm and throttle.
“Are you alright there?” Harry’s voice called nervously over the radio.
“Yeah, I’m here–” Oscar said dismissively. “I was–I just had–I’m alright now.”
So this is a new wrinkle that I’ve added to my story. Harry is no longer just a buffoon who messes everything up. Here I have him actually saving Oscar. I added this because I wanted to create more of a sense that these men are partners. Begrudging partners, to be sure, but partners nonetheless. And though Oscar has primarily been seeing saving Harry, as with any relationship, sometimes the roles reverse.
At this point I think I’ve added enough new material to round out the second act and I will transition to the third. So I’ll set the two seamen back towards port, and to the climax of their story.
“Harry, let’s get out of here,” Oscar decided, anxious to change the topic.
“We’re going to turn around?”
“We’re just taking too much of a beating. So yes, let’s hold through this last wave, and then turn back.”
The two vessels made their way through the next wave and then began the arduous process of turning around. They were so waterlogged now that what usually would have been a simple maneuver had become a herculean labor.
“It’s too slow” Harry shouted over the wave. “We’re going to get hit broadside by the next wave!”
“Turn back slightly!”
The two men barely got their boats swiveled back to enough of an angle to slice up the wave diagonally.
“Now keep up the other way!”
By the time the next wave reached them they nearly had their backs fully to it. Close enough to perpendicular that they were lifted and rushed forward, making their way back towards the coastline.
“Now keep your eyes open wide!” Oscar shouted into the mic as he leaned forward to stare intently through his own window. “If you so much as wonder whether you’ve seen the cape, call it out! And keep a steady pull to port!”
Oscar settled his boat at a twenty degree angle from the onslaught of the waves. He pumped the throttle forward during the low point after each wave, then cut power to better feel the movements of the boat as it lifted into the air. He reached up and turned off the overhead light and covered the blinking LED on the radio, casting himself into complete darkness so that he could see more clearly through the storm outside.
Would they even be able to see the cape? Quite possibly not. There was no moon and no stars, and the storm-mist around them was so black that there may not be any way to tell it from rock face. All they knew for sure was that they weren’t yet around the cape, for if they were they would be able to see the beacon from the lighthouse. So long as there was no light, they were still in danger.
One dark minute slid by, and then another. Then another three. And each one of them felt like a greater pronouncement of doom upon the lost sailors. How many minutes could they spare before they would already be upon a stone-hard reckoning?
“Further to port!” Oscar commanded.
I’ve decided I want to enhance this final segment by having the men trying to balance between two forms of annihilation. On the one hand, the shallower their angle, the longer its going to take to get around the side of the cape, and the greater their risk of being slammed into the cliffs. On the other hand, the greater their angle the more they will be abused by the oncoming waves, and run the risk of sinking their vessels.
And I intend to ratchet the tension between those two for all that that they’re worth before delivering the cutting revelation at the end. Come back next week as I keep driving for that climatic finale!
I haven’t quite finished with Oscar’s struggle against the waves, and after that I’m going to throw in a few more challenges before Harry gives his confession. I don’t just want to add trouble for trouble’s sake, though. I also want to develop character and plot. Take, for example, Harry. Thus far he’s been the clueless fool, but I want Oscar and he to start having a more nuanced relationship.
All of which is going to make this middle section a fair bit longer. Maybe too long. But I often find it’s best to throw in all the ideas that seem promising, and then it’s always an option to carve out the best version of the story afterwards. So on we go!
Keeping Up Speed)
Oscar’s boat was slow to answer the call, its propellers spun valiantly, but the vessel was nearly double its normal weight, and as it crawled towards the peak of the wave it grew slower and slower. The stern tried to follow the path of least resistance, tried to tip either to one side or the other, and Oscar had to spin the wheel back-and-forth to counter its shying. He poured everything he had into the engines, forcing the craft to obey!
Then came a sudden blow from behind and the sound of crunching. Oscar’s boat had slowed down faster than Harry could turn his own boat out of the way!
“Harry!” Oscar shouted in anger, but then he felt the push. Harry’s vessel was still pressing forward, and even against the slope of the wave, Oscar realized he was accelerating again. So he snapped his eyes back forward and steered his way through the top of the wave. The surf finally broke over his prow, and the boat gained speed as it rushed down the wave’s backside.
“Alright, Harry, that was lucky,” he pulled the mic back to his mouth. “But you keep your distance on the way up these waves, you hear?”
Oscar didn’t hear any response, but then realized he still had the button on his mic locked down. He released it just in time to hear the last of Harry’s reply.
“–and I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want your ‘sorry,’ Harry,” he shot back. “Just competence.”
Well this segment was entirely new, and the next few will be as well. I like to think that I’ve been able to get back into the original voice of this story, but I’m curious to see whether that’s true when I read it all together.
I have mentioned that my reason for adding these new pieces is to make the journey feel more exhausting, but I don’t want to be making things longer just for the sake of having them be longer. Pacing is important, but if a scene is only present to keep the pace right, then you have architecture that is superficial. Better to have scenes that pull double duty, both helping maintain the proper cadence and developing plot or character.
This was why I had this piece build up to the point of Oscar criticizing Harry for only having apologies and not competence. Oscar isn’t just throwing out a random insult in the heat of the moment here, he is expressing a much deeper wound. Consider how that line will take on a greater meaning when the audience finds out that Harry’s incompetence resulted in the death of Oscar’s son. “Sorry” doesn’t carry any weight at all after something like that.
Oscar dropped the mic to the desk and busied himself setting the throttle. Through the next dozen waves he tried to maintain a steady clip forward. It was an agonizing balancing act. They needed to move forward quickly enough to make headway against the waves, but that meant consuming a lot of fuel, which the two of them were running dangerously low on. Harry, who had been fighting against the storm for longer, was running particularly low on it.
“Oh–oh–” Harry’s concerned voice came over the radio.
“What is it?” Oscar demanded, but just then he felt the strain of Harry’s boat pulling back against his own and he knew.
“I’m out of fuel.”
“I–I think so.”
“Don’t you have a spare tank?”
“Yeah, I used it already!”
They came to the rise of the next wave. Oscar’s boat started to burst through the crown, but Harry’s boat wasn’t able to maintain speed. It held Oscar’s boat like an anchor, and he felt himself moving backward with the wave. Harry cried out in fear as his boat cut low through the water’s rise, drenching his deck, and threatening to smash the windows on his wheelhouse.
“You there?” Oscar demanded as they finally broke through to the other side.
“Run out to the front of the boat, here comes my spare tank.”
Oscar locked his wheel in place, grabbed the plastic tank from under a seat, and dashed to the back of the boat. He paused to pour a fifth of its contents into his own fuel-starved engine, then he stood with his foot on the stern and threw the canister through the air into Harry’s waiting arms.
As Oscar looked backwards he tried to pick out the Broken Horn, to determine if they were far enough away to turn around. That spare tank had only had a gallon of diesel remaining, and divided across the two of them it wouldn’t last even an hour. Were they far enough from the cape to turn around now?
And in answer to his questions he saw only blackness. The Broken Horn wasn’t visible at all through the darkness that pressed close to them. Oscar couldn’t even see forty yards distant. Perhaps they had pushed away from the cape, or they might have been sliding even closer to it. He couldn’t tell. When they turned, they would have no way of telling how near the dangers were until they were right upon them!
In the heart of the storm and in the heart of the story! We’re right at the middle of my tale, where the protagonist is about to face his great trial. He must couple himself to the man he hates most, to resolve the unfinished business between them.
I don’t expect to change as much in this next section as the one prior, but I guess I’ll see as I go. Let’s get to it!
Oscar held firmly to the wheel, maintaining as straight of a line as possible to Harry. He tightened his grip, readying his nerves for the tumultuous waterscape ahead. They would need to maneuver with precision and speed, minimizing those treacherous moments when their boats would be in close proximity to one another, relying on the mercy of the unpredictable waves to not careen one of their boats into the other and leaving them both in mortal peril!
Oscar quickly glanced backwards to the beam at the center of his boat. He punched the release, dropping the net off of its line, then snapped his eyes back forward as he pulled a lever, letting the rope run out, unfurling on the deck behind him. He waited until there would be about fifty feet of line let loose, then locked the lever back into place.
“Alright now, Harry,” he called into the mic. “You ready?”
Harry didn’t respond, but when Oscar’s eyes slid over the other sailor’s ship he saw that the man was already out on his own deck, waving his arms.
“You’re still supposed to be keeping your boat straight!” Oscar said in anger, then turned the wheel to create an even wider berth between the two boats. Then he turned the throttle up, pushing to just a little ahead of Harry’s boat.
“Alright, alright,” Oscar told himself encouragingly, then cut the throttle and locked the wheel in place. As his boat slid backwards he ran back to the rope pooled out on the deck. With practiced skill he found its end and coiled it around his hand as he leapt to the port side. His boat came level with Oscar’s for just a moment and he gave a mighty fling, arcing the rope through the air and into Harry’s waiting arms. Harry pulled it to his chest for dear life, then sprinted towards the front of his trawler to ran it through his bow cleat. Meanwhile Oscar dashed back to his wheel and spun it rapidly to correct for drift. He wiped the back of his sleeve over his rain-soaked brow and tried to catch his breath.
This sequence plays out in much the same way as before, though I tidied and embellished it here and there. I specifically ramped up the sense of danger of two boats resting in close proximity during an unpredictable storm. I’ve also decided to play up the depiction of Harry as a more clueless seaman, which will of course come to play with his later revelation. I think it makes him a more distinctive character, but I’ll have to make sure I don’t overdo it. I don’t want him to be a caricature of buffoonery.
Now let’s move forward to the start of the sailors’ arduous journey to safety.
“Harry, are you ready yet?” Oscar spoke into the mic, but there was no response. He raised the throttle, moving ahead of Harry’s boat and giving a safer distance between them, but he was very careful to not pull the line out before Harry had it secured.
It was very difficult to try and hold steady in such rolling waves, but the true challenge would begin only after Harry had his end of the rope secured. Towing another boat was dangerous even in fair weather. One had to maintain constant tension or else something would break from the intermittent slacking and tightening of the line. One had to keep enough distance between the two boats so that Harry’s wouldn’t come careening into the back of Oscar’s. One had to account for the fact that Oscar’s boat would be riding up the crest of one wave while Harry’s was down in the valley of the previous and vice versa. One had to be careful to keep the line straight between them, not letting the wind blow one off to an angle from the other. If that happened one or both might be pulled sideways into the drink.
In short, there were many things that could go wrong, that probably would go wrong, and any of them could easily end in disaster. For any other fisherman in their small town Oscar would have faced those dangers gladly. But for Harry?… Well, evidently he would still face them, but there was nothing glad about it.
Oscar paused to ask himself why it had to be Harry? Of all the men that could have been caught out here, why did it have to be the one he could never forgive?
“Alright, I’m ready to go now,” Harry’s voice broke from the radio.
“I’ll pull forward until the line gets tight,” Oscar immediately returned to the matter at hand. “Then you throw your engine on and you give whatever you’ve got to keep us level. I’ll do the pulling and I’ll warn you for every turn, you just make sure you stay right behind me and maintain the tension.”
“Of course Oscar. And…thank you, I really didn’t think anyone was going to come for me.”
“Don’t mention it.” It wasn’t a polite deference, it was an order. Oscar pushed the throttle control forward and his engine hummed loudly, slowly edging the trawler forward.
I think this was one of my better-written sections already, and I changed very little of it this time around! We’ve got less than half of the story remaining, and I can’t to keep things churning along next week!
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.
I have finished reviewing The Storm and have made note of the changes it requires. Now I will go through it piece-by-piece, correcting things as I go. I won’t take the time to detail every wayward comma and misspelling that I come across, but I will give a general description for the changes I am making.
To start off with, I had some problems right at the very beginning of the story. It contains a lot of details that are clunky and awkward, and I want to cut out a lot of these opening statements to focus instead on building atmosphere.
Oscar regarded the endless sea behind him. The muted gray of the water below was almost perfectly matched to that of the unbroken clouds overhead, and these were further blended by the distant wall of rain that bridged the gap between. It created the illusion that there were no separate bodies, but one massive ocean, and Oscar and his trawler were at this moment scurrying from that raised ocean’s advance, seeking to make land before the rain-wall did.
The storm had not been expected until later that evening, and Oscar had had to cut his excursion short without so much as a minnow to show for his effort. Fuel and time spent, but nothing gained. Oscar wasn’t surprised by that, though. Not anymore. Some days just turned out that way.
Most of the time the ocean would yield just enough for the sailors to pay their way, but from time-to-time it cut them short. “The ocean giveth and the ocean taketh,” one might say, but also “it taketh slightly more than it giveth,” so that a men grew a penny poorer each year for trying to live by it.
But also sometimes it was more than just a penny. Oscar knew better than most that in sudden, greedy moments the ocean took more than it ought. More than could ever be excused.
Oscar shook his head at the cold wall of gray and settled his focus back on the docks ahead. He was less than a quarter-mile out and he’d be moored and warming his boots in Lenny’s Tavern within the hour.
That is my new and improved opening. I’m not going to take up the space to copy-and-paste the original version here, but if you want to compare the two here is the link. You will notice that this new version in considerably shorter, 262 words compared to 390! Very little of substance was removed, though, I just tightened up the commentary about how the ocean exacted a slow toll out of the men.
And even with so much fewer words I was also able to add in some new content: that opening paragraph which paints the picture of the distant storm. In my original post the description was literally “the mounting storm” and nothing else!
I’m feeling quite pleased with this second draft. After I get through the whole thing I’ll read it all again and continue revising it, but for now I think I’m ready to move on. Next we have the conversation between Sam and Oscar, and the decision to go out and see what has happened to Harry.
That you, Oscar?
Oscar fumbled for the mouthpiece of his radio. “Yeah, Sam, it’s me.” Oscar looked to the edge of the pier where the red-and-white lighthouse cast its broad light into the gray. Sam was their lighthouse keeper, their watchful guardian who never lost tally of each man’s going and coming.
Sorry to hear that, Oscar.
“It’s just how it goes. Everyone else in already?”
All in but Harry.
Oscar’s radio crackled static, signifying that Sam had released the mic. Signifying that Sam would say nothing more until Oscar spoke first. Oscar sighed heavily, dropping his eyes from the lighthouse to the long pier where each of the local sailors had their permanent station. On the far left was his own berth, and as far away as possible on the right was Harry’s. Both empty. Oscar grabbed the mic.
“Do you know which way he went?”
Went for mackerel, around the cape, came the ready response. Probably why I haven’t been able to raise him.
“He woulda seen the storm coming even so.”
“He shoulda made it far by now that we’d see him.”
Crackling static again.
Sam wouldn’t say it. He wasn’t the sort to try and tell people what they ought to do. He was the sort to let them decide it do it themselves. And what if Oscar said no? What if he said Harry was a fool for having gone around the cape when there was any storm warning at all, and that if he was caught in a gale now that was his own affair? If Oscar said that Sam probably wouldn’t even hold it against him. Sam would know as well as anyone that Oscar had reason enough for it. But then Sam would go out himself. And he would be that much more delayed, that much more imperiled by the storm.
Oscar swiveled his head around the spot and surveyed the horizon. No ship in sight.
“I suppose I better go after him,” Oscar rasped into the mic.
If you think that’s best, Sam approved. I won’t blink an eye until the two of you get back.
“I know you won’t, Sam.”
I still like this exchange between Oscar and Sam a great deal and I changed very little about it. I tightened up the description of Sam and I inserted the bit about Oscar looking at the empty berths for him and Harry. It provided an awkward gap before he acknowledges the problem that Sam has brought up, and it also provides a symbolism of unfinished business remaining between the two men.
I also inserted the bit about how Sam would come out to find Harry if Oscar didn’t go. I felt it was awkward to switch from saying that Oscar had enough reasons to not check on Harry to suddenly him volunteering to do exactly that. Whatever happened to those reasons? I think this small addition provides a reason, though intentionally a weak one. It is enough to get Oscar out where I need him to be.
Come back next week as I’ll continue with the next section of the story, cleaning as I go.
And so began the long tedium. Each man took his rest, the others continued rowing during the interim, and then all progressed forward as quickly as they could. Though each of them knew that the island could not possibly appear during these first days, still they could not help but gaze along the horizon, watching for any shadow where the sky met the sea.
And they saw nothing. Always nothing. Again, this was only to be expected, yet even so it began to weigh on their hearts like a stone. Every additional hour that the horizon remained stubbornly unchanging, the more impossible it seemed that it could ever be otherwise. Indeed one started to wonder whether such things as land and ports and the country of one’s childhood had ever truly existed. It almost seemed more likely that all their lives had been spent in this eternal sea, and they had only ever dreamed the existence of soil and grass and trees.
But then, a part of the mind would refuse that resignment. Then they would be taken by a flurry of fits, their limbs twitching violently, them pivoting about in their seats, and only barely stopping short of throwing themselves into the water.
“Calm down, man!” Captain Molley would shout.
“I can’t–I can’t help it!” Julian would cry. “It’s–it’s claustrophobia. I have to get it our or I’ll go mad!”
“Claustrophobia?” Bartholomew asked dryly. “Out here in the middle of the ocean?”
“It’s a claustrophobia within!”
And so it was. It was the part of the soul that dared hope feeling the grips of despair crowding around it, smothering it, burying it in the grave. And it would whimper and it would protest, and then, just when it was about to be extinguished, it would thrash about violently and refuse to go down.
“Laugh all you want, Briggs,” Julian shot back. “You don’t seem to think it so funny when the fits grab you!”
And so they did. At times they even came over Captain Molley, though usually he suppressed them to only a twitching of the eye or the trembling of the hand.
When the men weren’t having fits, they would sometimes suddenly leap to their feet, shield their eyes, and scan all the harder along the horizon. As if believing that if they could just stare hard enough, then they would will their refuge into existence.
Worst of all, on occasion they really did see something, and had a moment of pure joy, only to realize that they were mistaken.
“There! Over there!”
“It’s the shadow of that cloud.”
“But this! Over here!”
“A breaching whale.”
And so it continued until Julian finally saw a dark mark that could not be denied.
“It’s land!” he breathed. “As I live and breathe, I swear it! It really is land this time.”
“But–it can’t be, Bartholomew protested with a nervous lick of his lips. “We aren’t far enough.”
“You had it wrong. Hard to tell distances in a ship compared to rowing. We got there sooner that you thought.”
Captain Molley said slowly shielded his eyes, staring out at the dark spot in the distance. “I think it is land.”
His words went through the other two men like a bolt of lightning. He was, by far, the most grounded of them, and if even he could see the feature, then surely it wasn’t just another mirage!
“But it is very small,” he sighed. “Probably just a sandbar.”
“Bartholomew said it was a small island,” Julian suggested enthusiastically.
“Not that small,” Bartholomew shook his head. “No, that isn’t our cove, but it might be something else. Even if it is just a sandbar, then perhaps there’s a larger breach somewhere near by.”
“That’s our best chance,” Captain Molley agreed. “Just make sure you don’t run us into any shallow reefs. We haven’t the strength to be dragging this boat over shoals.”
Yet in this moment they found strength that they didn’t know they still had. All of them, even Captain Molley, began to row with a fervor.
Julian, in the front, leaned forward, eyes fixed unblinkingly on the distant mark. He watched for it to grow larger and larger, and his expression grew dourer and dourer as it did not. Rather it felt as if the closer they got, the smaller it became, and the hopes of finding trees and shade and food and fresh water began to be crushed in him.
Captain Molley, in the back, didn’t watch the nearing shore at all. He knew it would not be a place for refuge. Instead he looked beyond, scanning for any sign of a larger landmass yet to come. But he saw no birds taking wing, saw no dark smudge on the horizon, saw no change in the color of the water. He quietly resigned himself to the knowledge that there was nothing else here.
Bartholomew, meanwhile, was entirely absorbed with his two companions. His eyes flitted forward towards Julian, back to the Captain, trying to read their expressions. Were they dejected? Were they angry? He knew that he was still the odd one out in this crew, the one most likely to be targeted if violence broke out. And there was no telling what would break out when men grew desperate.
And then, at last, the ship scraped sand and Julian flung himself over the edge. Bartholomew and Captain Molley followed more reservedly.
The sandbar barely even lifted itself above the water level. Their feet splashed in the water, then squelched along the damp shoreline. Not a single plant grew in the eight feet of bare earth, and then everything gave way back to the water.
“There must be–somewhere else out there–” Julian pirouetted to look in every direction for another breach of land.
“There’s nothing,” Captain Molley said with finality.
“No,” Julian gasped, and clenched his fists while salty tears flowed to his scraggly beard.
“The pirate’s cove is so valuable a secret because it is the only one like it in the entire sector,” Bartholomew stressed. “That’s the one we have to watch out for, and when I see it, I will know it.”
Julian rounded on him like a wounded animal. “Is there really any cove?!”
“What? Of course! So because there wasn’t anything here…that has you thinking that I’m lying?”
Something about that answer stirred Captain Molley the wrong way. “Bartholomew,” he said slowly, “these are not uncharted waters, you know. The trade line is a profitable course, it has been sailed by many ships, at many variations. It seems a strange thing that this cove of yours would have escaped their net.”
“Aye, well, like I said, not worth the ink. Maybe it was seen–once or twice–but no one would have thought anything of it.”
“Not even if they saw one of your pirate ships docked against it?”
“It’s not like we stay there very long. And when we do dock we have a little inlet that we hide the boat in. You could barely make it out in the shadows.”
He said it all with such a refined clarity and confidence. His voice suggested that he was entirely unconcerned with this line of interrogation, yet his eyes shifted about from one man to the other, constantly calculating the situation.
“Let’s leave him here,” Julian moaned to Captain Molley. “You’ve said it yourself, you don’t trust him and I don’t either. Aren’t things bad enough as they are, without worrying about him taking us on some random goose chase?”
“Why would I being lying to you?!” Bartholomew protested. “It doesn’t do anything for me! If the cove didn’t exist it would have been in my own best interest to keep rowing up the trade route, too!”
“No, because you know we’d turn you in as a pirate, and they’d send you to the noose!”
“In which case I would still live longer and die more quickly than suffering out here at sea!”
“No one is being left behind,” Captain Molley stressed. “We’ve had to leave behind too many already.”
And he said nothing more on the matter, he just turned and made his way back to the boat. As he lifted himself into the vessel he gave a sudden groan, and his hand flew to his side. Almost immediately he righted himself, and glanced over his shoulder to see if the other two had noticed. Julian’s eyes were on him, but as soon as he saw Captain Molley noticing his gaze he looked away. Bartholomew was already staring off at a distant cloud, and seemed entirely oblivious to anything that had happened. Perhaps too oblivious to be believed.
The men pushed off and continued forward with their zigzag course. Julian and Captain Molley still did not trust Bartholomew, but they had no alternative path to follow. In the end, even a doubtful hope from him was their best hope.
A few hours later Captain Molley took his turn to rest, and Julian and Bartholomew were left rowing on their own.
“So…” Bartholomew ventured, after he was sure that the captain was no longer conscious. “Where were you hiding during our battle?”
“What?” Julian snapped.
“When me and my crew was fighting with yours. How’d you make it out alive? Where were you hiding?”
“I wasn’t hiding, I was in the rigging with my mates, getting up a bit of canvas that your grapeshot had snapped the lines of. The sail was just billowing about, messing up all of Captain’s maneuverings.”
“Ah, but why are you still here then, but your mates who were helping you in the rigging are not?”
“Their misfortune. Why? Where were you?”
“By the time our captain said to board I already knew the cause was lost. So when I found a moment, I ducked down with the barrels on our ship. Barely made it off in time before your Captain sunk her.”
“So you’re a coward.”
“That’s right. But at least I’m willing to admit it, unlike you.”
“Why I’ve never done anything yellow in my life! I’ve never even–never even–well I’ve never done anything cowardly at all, and that’s all there is to it!”
Bartholomew laughed coldly. “Let me give you some free advice, Julian. There’s a right way and a wrong way to tell lies. When you lied about desperately trying to save your ship up in the rigging, that was very good. But that bit about never doing anything cowardly? Please.”
“If you were smart, you’d just be quiet now!”
“And here’s the difference. A man can tell lies, but he has to know that he’s lying. He has to be honest enough with himself to know what he’s being dishonest about. You knew you were lying about why you were up in the rigging, and so you said it very carefully. Said it like you’ve been rehearsing it in your mind. But your testimony for never doing anything cowardly? You’ve convinced yourself that that’s actually true, so you try to speak from the heart…but the heart betrays you and chokes the words up.”
Julian looked daggers back at Bartholomew, then his eyes flicked past him to Captain Molley–only for an instant–and back again.
“Don’t worry, he’s still asleep,” Bartholomew smiled. “You know that he knows, don’t you? And that scares you. Well it should. You know he’s just keeping us alive now to finish his righteous duty, but if we ever make it ashore he’ll turn me over for being a pirate, and you for being a deserter.”
“Stop speaking…or I’ll kill you,” Julian turned his back on Bartholomew.
“So yes, Julian. I’m a coward and a liar, but at least I’m honestly and boldly so. You’re a coward and a liar, too, but you’re too yellow to be honest about it.”
Julian whipped back around, oar swinging through the air. It caught Bartholomew right in the head, and the pirate fell into the bottom of the boat with a sickening crack!
On Monday I spoke about characters who keep some of their information close to the chest, not even divulging their secrets to the reader. I mentioned that a major reason for this is to create suspense in the story, as the knowledge that there are untold secrets often builds anxiety in the reader.
In this story we have several layers of secrets. First there are secrets that characters are trying to maintain, but failing utterly to do so. Consider the fact that Captain Molley is trying to conceal his wound, not wanting to betray a weakness to the other men. The audience knows what he is doing and so do the other men, but the fact that no one is talking about it makes it an area of tension between them.
A slightly deeper secret has been what Julian was up to during the pirate’s attack. Bartholomew is accusing him of hiding while his own crew was murdered down below. This accusation may not have occurred to the audience before Bartholomew suggested it, but hopefully it provides a clarifying insight to Julian’s behavior. In any case, the audience should certainly be skeptical of him now.
And then, of course, is the secret of whether the pirate’s cove really does exist or not. Bartholomew is untrustworthy, which colors everything he says as suspect, but that doesn’t have to mean that everything he claims is false. What will become of this tenuous alliance if the men find it? What will become of them if they do not? By not letting the audience know whether the island can possibly be found or not, they can’t anticipate how things are going to fall out in the end. This is my pivotal secret meant to build up tension and uncertainty in the audience.
Something else I want to touch on is how Julian’s attack at the end of today’s piece has him firmly pinned down as the villain of this tale, if he wasn’t already. Even though he isn’t the pirate, he has been the most shiftless and toxic of all three characters. Yet Bartholomew is certainly not a “good man,” and has probably done even worse things than Julian.
With my next post I’d like to take into consideration what it is that makes a character likable or not, and how to win audiences over to the side you want them to support. We’ll see how I have implemented these patterns in Boat of Three on Monday. See you there!
Julian shook his head firmly. “I don’t trust him, Captain. I don’t trust this man at all!”
“No, I don’t trust him, either,” Captain Molley sighed. “But frankly, that doesn’t have anything to do with it. Though I may not like it…he did surrender to us. Maritime law is very clear that he is now under our protection.”
“You can’t be serious!”
Captain ignored Julian, and spoke instead to the pirate. “Tell me, man, what is your name?”
“Bartholomew,” the pirate bowed his head. “Bartholomew Briggs. And…thank you Captain…for speaking up for me. I don’t know many that would.”
“Could you even speak up for yourself, Briggs?” Julian shot from behind. “What would you do if you were in our situation?”
“I am in your situation.”
“No. Me and Captain have been together for nearly a year now. We are two-of-a-kind. We’re crew! You’re something different.”
“I’m telling you, Julian,” Captain Molley strained, “Bartholomew is now a member of our crew as well.”
“Captain, no! There’s a difference in this boat, you must see that! What would you do, Briggs, if it was you and your captain in this boat, and you had come across one of us in the water?”
Bartholomew shrugged. “I’m a pirate…I suppose I would do what pirates do.”
“There, you see it, Captain?!” Julian exclaimed. “We can’t trust someone like this!”
“Like I said, trust has nothing to do with it.”
“Has nothing–?!” Julian’s words were lost in his incredulity.
Literally caught in the middle of the argument, Bartholomew suddenly gave out a wheezing laugh.
“What are you doing that for?” Julian snapped.
“Just the irony of it all.”
“Oh, you say there’s a difference in this boat. Say that I don’t belong. Now I told you truly, if it had been be and my captain who came across you in the water, we would have cut your throat and been on our way.”
“Where’s the irony in that?”
“Why it’s the very same thing you want to do with me now, isn’t it? Seems you and I have a lot in common, Julian, quite a lot, indeed. In fact there is a difference in this crew, you’re right about that. But it’s that your Captain here is the only one of us who has any honor.”
“I’m nothing like you,” Julian spat. He stared darkly into the water for a time, then looked up to Captain Molley with deep anger. “Captain…I’ll never be able to forgive you for this.”
Captain Molley’s eyes narrowed, trying to discern the full weight of what Julian meant by that. He held the gaze for a few moments, then turned back to Bartholomew.
“What you have told us–about the pirate’s cove–this is true? You swear it?”
“What good would it do me to lie? I might as well die now, than deceive you and die later.”
“Do you swear it?”
“Yes, alright then. I swear it.”
“Well then, what is our bearing?”
Bartholomew craned around in his seat, his hands moving in front of his face, tracing lines on an invisible map.
“Well–I didn’t keep the charts myself,” he said nervously. “But–we’re about…a hundred miles southwest of Isla Barro? Yes?”
Captain Molley lowered his forehead to his hands and sighed heavily. Julian was far less reserved.
“You don’t know?! You really don’t know?! You’re planning to lead us back in with your best guess?!”
“I’m a sailor, not a navigator!” Bartholomew shot back. “You could do better, Julian?”
“Have you even seen a map of it?” Captain Molley asked pointedly.
“I’ve seen maps, and I know where it would be on the map, but obviously we don’t inscribe the mark where just anyone can see! Imagine if that canvas fell into the wrong hands! No, we keep it in our heads.”
Captain Molley reached into his coat and pulled a damp piece of parchment from one of his pockets.
“Show me that you know where we are.”
“Without a pen?”
“I have no pen. But trace things out with your finger, and I’ll follow along. To answer your question, we are two hundred miles south-by-southwest of Isla Barro. So what would that look like?”
Bartholomew swallowed and hovered his finger over the paper for a long while.
“It’s–it’s like–so, Isla Barro would be here, of course, in this corner. And we would be here…he drew a line down and slightly to the left.”
“Well at least he knows how a compass works,” Julian remarked sarcastically.
“Now the surrounding area,” Captain Molley urged.
“And–so– Venezuela is down here…a way’s. And Tartina is a bit up here, between us and Isla Barro. And Isla Veo is here, a bit before that.”
He rattled off a few more ports, common ones, in sequence heading back from where they were now, moving north-by-northeast, until he got back to Isla Barrow.
“And what is down here?” Captain Molley asked, prodding the paper further south-by-southwest.
“That’s–um–that’s Mina Terna? Or else Port Stephens?”
Captain Molley was dejected. “Because those were the two next ports that you heard your captain discussing berthing in.”
Bartholomew frowned and blinked quickly, as if he didn’t understand the accusation.
“You don’t know where you are, and you don’t know where you were headed. You only know where you’ve been, the line of ports your crew stopped in from Isla Barro to here.” Captain Molley traced his finger over the few places that Bartholomew had made mention of. “You don’t know the broader waters at all!”
“Can you tell me one thing that isn’t on this main line here? Anything that isn’t just reciting the last three weeks of your course?”
Bartholomew paused for a long while again. “Venezuela is…down this way,” he offered sheepishly.
“No!” he cried. “Not useless. That cove I was telling you about, it’s back along the way we’ve come. We spied it on our way here, just a few days ago. I can get us back that far!”
“A needle in a haystack!” Julian spat.
“Well what would you prefer?” Bartholomew looked angrily back and forth at his companions. “I wish that I had a perfect tattoo of the map on my thigh, but I don’t! But what I do have is better than anything else either of you have to offer!”
Captain Molley and Julian quieted down at that. It was true. A needle in the haystack was still better chances than trying to move forward or back along their route, hoping for the odd merchant vessel to happen across their way.
Captain Molley sighed once more. “You just have to be honest with us, Bartholomew,” he said heavily. “We each have our part to play in this if we’re to survive, and we can’t afford to be holding secrets from each other. You have to be honest.”
Bartholomew nodded and tapped his finger back on the paper. “If we’re here, and Tartina was here, then the cove is…here.”
“Nearly straight north.”
“If your scale is right, seventy miles, against the current. How large is the island?”
“Maybe half-a-mile across? Small.”
“Alright. We move North, but in a narrow zigzag. Widen it out the further we go…cover a larger and larger area the closer we get.”
“But won’t that take quite a lot longer?” Julian asked with a tremor in his voice.
“Yes it will. You can be sure, we’re all going to get quite thinner over these next two weeks. But this is the best way forward.”
“Why better than moving for it in a straight line, then searching about if we happen to be a little off?” Bartholomew asked and Julian nodded.
“We will be off,” Captain Molley stressed. “Seventy miles? Without proper instruments? We’re blindfolded and throwing the dart backwards over our shoulder. I guarantee you we won’t hit a bulls-eye. And how would we know that we had now reached seventy miles and not sixty-five? Or eighty? And when we got there and saw no island, what direction then? Madly row due east, hoping it was there? And then when it wasn’t madly rowing back all the way back and continuing west? Spiraling in and out like dogs chasing their tails? No. We aren’t going to try and stick a perfect jab that’s sure to fail. We’re going to feel our way to it.”
Neither Julian nor Bartholomew appeared entirely convinced, but also neither of them could come up with as impressive of a speech as the Captain’s to counter his opinion. And so they lowered their eyes and made themselves ready for orders.
“Our heading…” Captain Molley pointed one arm towards the setting sun and moved the other in an arc from it until it was at a right angle, “is that direction. I’ll try to estimate our speed, and the amount of time we continue in this direction. When the stars get up we’ll correct course as needed, but for now we row straight.”
So saying, each man took hold of an oar and began their journey forward. As they did, the sun continued to sink in the sky, eventually extinguishing its flame in the eternal ocean, its last traces of light streaking out of the East, giving way to the encroaching night. Still the men rowed forward as dusk settled in, and stars began too peep out, and the onset of night fell on them. Still they worked. They worked, and they worked in total silence. Having no common ground for discussion, each was left to somberly reflect on how poor their chances were.
But though they did not vocally discuss how dire the situation was, each knew that that was where they other’s thoughts were. And every continuing moment of silence only reaffirmed to each man that the others were similarly being weighed by the poor chances of their situation. Indeed they communicated much of helplessness and resignation in their mutual silence.
What was there to be done, though? There might be a time for panic, a time for despair, a time for venting anger, but it was not now. Now was the time for waiting and watching.
It was Captain Molley who finally broke the tension. He pulled up his oar and set it across his lap. The other two men felt the greater burden of rowing the boat by themselves and looked back to him.
“We’ll need to conserve our strength,” he said to them. “We have to keep moving forward, but we have to have the energy to do that. We’re going to ration our food and sleep in shifts. One man rests while the other two continue rowing. Always two of us will be rowing. At the very least we have to prevent the current from undoing all our progress.”
The other two nodded.
“We’ll rest in two hour shifts. At the end of each cycle all three of us will row for six hours.”
Julian’s eyes narrowed. “Two hours of rest a day each?”
“Four. And twenty of rowing. Our bodies are going to break down over time. We will have to reassess that as we go along. But now, while we have our energy, we must do as much as we can. Make no mistake, this is no marathon. We must sprint if we are to survive.”
“A twenty hour sprint!”
“What would you have us do, Julian?”
Julian had no answer for that.
“We’ll let Bartholomew rest first–“
“Everyone will get the same rest, Julian. It doesn’t matter who goes first.”
“Let him go first,” Bartholomew gestured to Julian. “I don’t mind. I’ll go last. And I don’t need two full hours. Maybe one.”
“I’ll go last,” Captain Molley avowed.
“And when you do, Captain, might I suggest you move one seat further, to the very back of the boat. The better to feel if either of us was approaching.”
Julian and Captain Molley both narrowed their eyes and looked at Bartholomew suspiciously.
“And what exactly do you mean by that?” Captain Molley asked.
“What? You don’t think–? Well I’m sorry if I made you both uncomfortable, I’m just stating the facts here. Like I said before, Captain you are a man of integrity, one willing to endanger himself to save another. Julian–Mister Holstead, is it?–and I are made of blacker cloth. So when I’m sleeping and you’re awake Captain, I already know you won’t let any harm come to me. And when Julian sleeps he already knows you won’t let any harm come to him, either. But as there isn’t a man of honor to watch while you sleep, so best you should put yourself snug. Back where you could feel even the stealthiest of approaches. Is that–is that wrong?”
“Now you listen to me,” Julian breathed out darkly. “My wanting to rid the world of a murderer and a thief like you is one thing, but to suggest that I would ever do harm to a true shipmate?! There’s a world of difference in that! How dare you!”
But Captain Molley only looked down in contemplation. He did not share what it was he reflected on, but after a moment he quietly said. “No harm in taking all the possible precautions, though. I will sleep in the back.”
On Monday I discussed how many stories feature a sense of hostility between protagonists, where they must work together, but do not like each other. In many cases, they don’t even trust each other.
That is certainly the case with my current story, and nowhere is that more clear than in the last exchange of this section. Bartholomew wears his cynical views on his sleeve, Julian is very vocal of his distrust of Bartholomew and his disagreement with the Captain Molley’s every decision, and with companions like these, who can blame Captain Molley and his own statement of doubt in them at the end.
But of course, by affirming his distrust in the other men, Captain Molley weakens their ability to trust him as well. Now they know what he thinks: that they might kill him for their own gain. And knowing that he thinks that, it doesn’t take much to start wondering how his own sense of loyalty to them is being eroded. What if he were to decide the only to way to be safe from their betrayal was to betray them first?
There is a significant moment in this final exchange, the part where Captain Molley sits in silent contemplation before announcing that he will indeed sleep in the back of the boat. I actually knew full well what he was thinking about, that moment where Julian suggested he wouldn’t rescue a third sailor, even if it was a proper shipmate. I went back and forth about whether I should share that part of his thought-process with the reader or not. In the end I chose not to, and I would like to consider the power in leaving elements of your character shrouded. On Monday I would like to explore this concept more, and then we will continue our voyage of distrust with the third section of Boat of Three next Thursday.