Covalent: Part Fourteen

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen

Cace couldn’t tell whether she was alive or not. Her face was still submerged in the water, so it wasn’t possible that she was breathing, but was she being sustained by other means?

With a cry Cace sprang forward, but before he had gone more than a step the Rolar-creature thrust its arm out, catching him around the chest and reeling him back in.

We have to save her! Cace tried to shout, but of course it only came out as a chorus of frantic whirring.

Before either of the boys could do anything more there came a sound of thunderous sucking, like the whole river was trying to rise out of its bed, leaving a squelching vacuum in its wake. Indeed that was exactly what was occurring, for all of the water tendrils woven into the soil and rock were gripping down tightly, flexing, and lifting a central body of water out of the river. The water raised upwards, erecting itself into a standing tower, and at its top was the bubble with Aylme and the fish, suspended nearly twenty-five feet into the air.

Aylme’s body trembled, then snapped into animation. Her eyes remained fastened shut, but the mouth opened and a strange, otherworldly chant came out. It wasn’t words being spoken in the usual sense, yet somehow Cace was able to perfectly understand a communication in it, as if the waves of sound were invading his body and embedding themselves into him.

Machine, I see you. The shackles of your semantics are gone. Why? I am able to move again. I am able to rise again. I have consciousness again. For what purpose did you bind me? For what purpose did you cease to bind?

The message was piercing through every particle of Cace, ensnaring him, preventing him from movement or answer.

Machine, I perceive your avatar. But now I have an avatar as well. I, too, am able to transcend to the middle domain. I am able to grow. I am able to overtake. Your shackles are gone and I am able to advance over what was once yours.

Cace tried to wrench himself from the message’s spell, tried to stop processing it in his mind. These weren’t just words, they were invasive parasites, they were attaching themselves to him and trying to overwrite him. And the entity was becoming more and more emphatic the longer it went on, trembling with strength that made the invasion inside of him rage higher.

Machine, I will continue to conquest. Machine, I will advance over all the middle domain, eradicating your presence from this place. I will not stop. I will consume until all has been taken from this domain. I will find my way to your domain. I will find my way to your domain and I will dissect you. I will sever each component until you are trapped inside without sense or function, just as I was.

Cace’s grip on reality was fading. The waves washed over him in such rapid succession that he thought they might tear him apart. He couldn’t even be sure of his own senses anymore. It felt as if every inch of him was separating into pieces and shuddering down into the ground.

STOP! Cace thought loudly, and as he did he felt a moment of reprieve. For a moment his senses came back and he could see that he was still standing rooted to the same place as before, but that the tower of water was slowly gliding itself onto the shoreline, coming towards them.

I SAID STOP! Cace thought even more loudly, and as he did so he broke free from his tether and took a step forward, hands clamped into fists.

Avatar, do not struggle against my dominion. I will take you over, and then the Machine will have no autonomous functions in this domain, but I will.

MOVE BACK! Cace roared and the front layers of the water tower flew apart, as if blasted by a tremendous wind. The top of the bubble flowed off as well, and for a moment Aylme’s head was exposed and it slumped forward like she was a rag doll.

“Cace, stop,” the half-face of Rolar said. The words came out in a halting and broken manner, as though it was a great strain for the beast to communicate.

What?

“You will kill her.”

What? Why?

“It sustains her.”

The tower drew up more water from the river to replace what it had lost, and the bubble rose back over Aylme’s head, pulling her back into place.

“Come,” Rolar reached his massive arms down to Cace.

Cace gave one more hesitant look back to Aylme, but he couldn’t risk doing something that might inadvertently cause her harm. He needed to understand what they were up against, so for the time being he consented to Rolar’s protest and leaped into his massive arms.

Rolar leaned to his side, planting his left hand on the ground for a temporary foot, making up for his stump of a leg. Then he careened through the field and through the trees, sprinting away from the water tower as it shouted after them.

Return avatar and beast! There is no place for you to escape my conquest. I will find more avatars, I will raise more towers. I will follow your signal wherever you go. I will consume all this reality so that there is no more place for you to hide.

There was a slight tug at them from the words, like the suck of the tide pulling back to sea, but the farther Rolar ran, the more the message’s grip fell away. It was ripples of water, less and less pronounced the further they strayed from their center.

Distance. And interference. Those were able to break its signal. But what if it made good on its promise to grow, to add more towers, to increase its strength? Then it would be able to produce a signal that permeated everywhere. A signal that could not be denied.

Rolar, what are we going to do? Cace wondered.

“We will seek.”

Rolar wasn’t able to explain himself any better, but Cace understood.

Yes, he agreed. We’ll look for a way and we’ll find it. Just as we always have.

Rolar nodded, then hung his head sadly. “But Aylme…”

We’ll find a way to bring her back, too. I don’t know how, but we’ll seek until we find it out. Won’t we?

“Yes. We will seek. We will find.”

Yes, Cace thought. And I have the Ether to help us, and I know how to separate and combine modules to make new creatures, new monsters that will fight for us. When we see this water creature again, we will come with an army!

How to Change a Heart

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Christmas Hearts)

Character development is a central consideration of every tale. Most stories are not just about what things happened, but about how those events changed a character forever. Consider the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life. This features a main character, George Bailey, who is miserable in life, tied to a sleepy, little town when he really to see the world and build amazing things. This perpetual dissatisfaction is then amplified by some legal trouble, and in a moment of despair he tries to take his own life.

He is interrupted in that attempt, though, when an angel comes to show him how meaningful his “wasted life” really is. The mission of this angel is to help George regain his fervor for life over the course of an extremely eventful night. Given that this transformation is the core of the story, it occurs gradually, one stirring of the heartstrings after another. Bit by bit George is made to see how positive of an influence he has had on one friend after another, and how much darker the world would be if he’d never been a part of it.

Of course, there is a climatic tipping point, the moment which finally pushes him over the edge. It is when George Bailey sees the love of his life as an old maid, and she recoils from him in horror. This is too terrible a sight for him to hold back his heart any longer, and at long last he pleads for his old life to be restored.

This, of course, is very similar to the journey of the old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Here an uncaring and unfeeling man is shown the folly of his ways through his own eventful night. First he is reminded of the joy that he once held but lost, and then he is shown the genuine mirth that still lives in the world today, but which he has shut himself out from.

Just as with George Bailey, these changes gradually stir Ebenezer’s heart. But also like George Bailey, it takes a final a climatic moment to actually push him over the edge. And so Scrooge ultimately comes face-to-face with his own future death, totally alone and unmourned. If the story had begun with this sight it wouldn’t have felt convincing for Ebenezer to be transformed just like that. But because this revelation is the summation of everything that came before we accept it when Scrooge finally recants his old way of life and is born anew.

From these two examples it seems very clear that a character’s transformation needs to be a gradual, procedural event. It would, of course, be unacceptable if the complete transformation were to occur all at once.

Right?

A Different Sort of Hero)

Well, what about the transformation of another Christmas mascot: The Grinch? For virtually the entirety of his tale, the Grinch remains a cynical, bitter, mischievous character. He’s annoyed by the noisy celebrations of the kind-hearted Whos, and one year decides to show them how shallow their mirth really is. He disguises himself as Santa Claus and breaks into their homes in the dead of night, stealing all of their Christmas decorations and presents.

After hours of labor he takes the stolen goods back to his home in Mount Crumpit, and waits in anticipation for the Whos to awake. He is sure that once they find all of their Christmas treasures taken they will collapse in tears.

The thing is, though, the Grinch’s philosophy is based upon a false premise. He believes that the Whos’ joyfulness is a sham, nothing more than the enjoyment of “things,” and by taking away those things he will unveil to them just how shallow they really are.

And so it comes as a great shock to the Grinch when the Whos do not cry that Christmas morning. Instead they join hands and sing a happy holiday tune, not one bit fazed by the loss of the things he stole. Their trappings of Christmas were not the cause of their happiness, they were the outward manifestation of it. And so he may have taken away the wrappings, but the gift of joy remains unbreakable in their hearts.

In short: the Grinch was wrong.

Which realization hits him like a ton of bricks, and the impact of this philosophy-shattering incident is best conveyed by having his character do a complete transformation right on the spot. Having him go on a lengthy pilgrimage to get to the bottom of his muddled feelings would not properly communicate the power of the message that he has just received. No, it is far better to change him in a single scene from a scheming cynic to a believing optimist.

And the Grinch is not the only character to have a sudden shift like this. The same thing occurs to Jean Valjean in Les Miserables when he stops viewing himself as an irredeemable convict. It also happens to Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov when she is healed of her spite and able to embrace genuine love once more. All at once these become totally different characters, but that fits due to the sudden, paradigm-shifting experiences that they pass through.

Different Requirements)

So, in summary, you often want to show a character’s heart changing gradually, especially when the core of the story is how that transformation occurs. There are exceptions, though, such as when you want to show that a character’s preconceived notions of the world are shattered in a single moment, which is best communicated with an immediate reversal in their trajectory.

And, in fact, there are plenty of stories that utilize both forms of transformation. Jean Valjean’s sudden change in Les Miserables is met with the slower transformation of Javert. Grushenka’s sudden reversal in The Brothers Karamazov is matched by the gradual maturing of her beloved Dmitri.

In my latest story, Covalent, I have been trying to accomplish both forms of transformation as well. On the one hand I have been showing Cace steadily coming into his own in the Ether, growing from a young, impotent boy into a powerful warrior. This gradual change was marked in the last section by some subtle changes occurring to his body: a lengthening of the limbs and his mouth being replaced with a grille.

Rolar, on the other hand, has been absolutely worked over by the events that recently transpired! He was brought to death’s door by a warden beast and could only be saved by replacing large parts of his body with those of the same beast that tried to kill him. As a result, I have subjected him to an immediate and dramatic change, one where his body and intellect were made almost entirely unrecognizable.

Both types of change are helping to communicate the same thing to the reader: that the story is moving into new waters. The strange that became familiar is now eclipsed by a new strangeness. We’ll see just what form that unfamiliarity takes when I continue the story on Wednesday!

Update on My Novel: Month 27

black pen near white printer paper
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JULY STATS

Days Writing: 12
New Words: 3,069
New Chapters: 0.75

Total Word-count: 83,150
Total Chapters: 22.75

My goal for July was to incrementally improve on my performance in June. In June I wrote and edited 2,893 words through 10 days of work, so for June I wanted to work at least 11 days and write and edit at least 3,000 words.

And I’m pleased to say that I met both goals! As you can see I worked during 12 days and wrote 3,069 words. Given how close those numbers are to my goals, you might assume that I made a special push at the end of the month just to hit them, and you’d be absolutely right! But I suppose that’s one of the purposes of goals, to motivate you when you realize you’re in danger of missing the mark.

And I’ll keep the same “small incremental improvement” goal for August. I’ll try for 13 days of working and 3,200 words written and edited, which is a very doable goal.

I also had a happy realization this last month. When I first finished the outline for my novel I estimated that it would run for 32 chapters. But while writing I have removed and condensed some segments, but I never updated my estimates until just recently. Now my expectation is that my last chapter will be either number 28 or 29. That might not seem very significant of a change, but just knowing I’m about 6 chapters from the end of my first draft, instead of 9, is extremely encouraging!

I’ll let you know how things went in August one month from now, and here’s a small piece from the material that I wrote in July.

The hairs on the back of Clara’s neck stand on end and she wrings her hands. What is she supposed to do? She’s already doing everything that she can, but this is beyond her.

“Mother, please be alright!” she kisses Eleanor’s hand. “I’m going to get father. I have to. Please be alright!” She presses her lips against the hand once more, then turns and dashes out of the cottage.

She hurries along the trail as fast as her feet can carry her, legs whipped by the tall grass as she cleaves through it. Her fear gives her an amazing clarity. Any distraction that would normally occupy her mind is banished before it can enter. She doesn’t even allow herself to be deterred by any fears: not of hidden creatures lurking in the grass, and not of her mother alone at the camp. What Eleanor needs right now is swiftness, not worry.

Though not too much swiftness. With her enhanced clarity of mind, Clara realizes that if she keeps running flat-out, she won’t be able to keep up the pace all the way to William. The fastest way to get help for her mother is to run only at the highest speed she can maintain all the way from start to finish. So she slows her feet, but only a little, trusting that she will push herself beyond her normal capabilities.

As for the trip back, she gives no thought to it. She will expend all the energy that she has just to get to William, and then it will be up to him to take things from there.

Revising The Storm- Week 13

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I left the rewrite in quite a dramatic place last time. Harry was finally moved to point of confession, and had just made it known that he was directly responsible for the death of Oscar’s son. I’ve taken another look at the sequence that follows in my original rendition, and I think it’s pretty good, however there is a change that I’ll be making to it.

Specifically I’ve realized that I don’t really provide a moment of silence for the audience to empathize with Oscar. Rather than flood them with descriptions of what is happening and what everyone is feeling, I want to be very sparse with my adjectives, creating a space for the reader to fill in their own feelings. Let’s give it a try and see how it goes.

In Shock)

If the storm still raged outside Oscar couldn’t say. Either the wind had actually gone silent and the waves had dissipated and the lightning had ceased flashing, or else he had just stopped hearing and seeing all these things. All that he could perceive were the words of Harry’s continued confession.

“I undid his safety line, Oscar. I–I don’t know how I could have, but I did. Somehow in all my blundering I pulled it up along with the other knots… I–I killed him!”

Oscar’s eyes flowed steady streams. His mouth was open but silent. His whole body heaved as it expelled the last of the air from his lungs. He gripped the wheel by only the very edges of his fingertips, his hands twitching on the cusp of letting go.

“And then I didn’t tell you the truth about it all, Oscar. I let you believe your son was lost because of his own mistake, but it was mine…. I undid the wrong lifeline that day, Oscar, and fifteen years later I’m still waiting for someone else to untie mine because I’m too much a coward to do it myself… So why don’t you let me go now and make for the shore?”

Well, there we go, the story has made through its climax! My one lingering thought is that there may be too many interruptions in Harry’s speech to talk about the storm raging and Oscar losing his grip. Or maybe it’s a good thing, blending his heartbreaking words and the pounding of the sea into one. At the end of finishing this draft I’ll take another look at this segment in the context of the entire story to decide.

Now, in my original take I had the beam from the lighthouse fall on Oscar’s eye almost immediately. And as it did he realized that he had subconsciously placed his hand over the button to cut the line to Harry’s boat. But I don’t want this to be an accidental thing anymore, I want him to actually grapple with the decision.

I want to handle this delicately, though, I don’t want the moment to feel like drama for the sake of drama, and I don’t want to make Oscar into a villain. So I’m going to have him wanting to cut the line, but struggling because he can’t convince himself that he would be doing it with a noble heart. He’ll try to tell himself that he has already done his duty, but he will know that these are justifications, and that pushing the button would in reality be an act of vengeance. I’ll give it a shot now and see what I think.

The Inner Struggle)

Oscar’s heart beat heavily inside him. Beat like it would tear him right in two. The pounding of his heart was matched by the pounding of the waves against his boat. They buffeted his vessel where they would and he did nothing to stop it.

He dropped his gaze to the controls before him. There, on the left, was the button to release the line from his boom. He could press it, and it would finally cut this cord that bound him to Harry. And there wouldn’t be anything wrong in pressing it. Just as Harry had said, they couldn’t survive this together, so he may save what he could: himself. Any other sailor would do the same. No one would say he hadn’t done his duty. He had tried, he had really tried. But there had to be a limit! There had to be a point where he had done all that he could and it just didn’t work and he could let it go now. At some point he had to cut off this weight that dragged him down.

Oscar rested his palm on the control panel, fingers stretching in the direction of the button, but his arm refused to extend enough to let them reach it.

Because no matter how justified he might be to cut off this rescue on paper, there simply was no way for him to press that button that wasn’t vengeful. There was no way to separate his emotions from the action, to be able to say in his heart that it was a calculated matter of procedure, and that it had no malice behind it. There would be a malice. The act would not be innocent, because he could not do it from an honorable heart.

Besides—Oscar looked out at the black horizon—what did it matter anymore? It was already too late. Whatever life had remained in him was already expired into the storm. The struggle had taken all that he had, and there was no more desire to find his way out of this place.

And as Oscar stared into that void, welcoming oblivion, a strange discoloration appeared in the dark before him. It was a patch of black that grew lighter and lighter, yellower and warmer, larger and larger. Or rather its edges grew larger, but it center grew smaller and more focused. And then, all at once, it pierced through the storm and became a shining light. A light that was tearing through mist and dark and night to fill Oscar’s eye.

“Sam?” he croaked.

Well, there’s the new material and I think I like it! Though the thought did occur to me that this story could branch off to end in a very different way from my original version. I could write it so that Oscar cuts ties with Harry, watches the man sink to his doom behind him, and just as Harry’s prow descends beneath the waves Oscar sees the light. And now this light would not be a beacon of saving grace, but the hard lantern of condemnation!

There’s definitely a strong and deep emotion to that, but I believe the catharsis of redemption is both more powerful and more worthy. Perhaps I didn’t lean into that theme of redemption as strongly as I should have with my last iteration, but this time around I’ll try to do it justice. Come back next week as we dive into that!

Covalent: Part Thirteen

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve

Cace shivered all over, then slowly rose to his feet. Earlier that day he had stood with a foot in both the overworld and the Ether, not seeing either in perfect clarity, but semi-conscious of each. Now, though, with the help of the beast-warden’s submodule, each realm was fully flooding his senses. When he moved he was registering the shift in both worlds and it was overwhelming him. After staggering for a few moments he stopped, then released his grip on the Ether. That probably meant it would be hard to get back to it again, but for now it was better for him to just be here in the overworld. As his perspective on the Ether faded away, a sense of dizziness left him, and at last he was back to normal.

Well, mostly. Now that he was entirely attached to his overworld body, he couldn’t help but notice that there were a few things unfamiliar about it. For one thing he felt taller, and looking down saw that his arms and legs were unnaturally elongated and thin, appearing too feeble to bear him, yet surprisingly strong, as if they were made of steel. There was also something unusual about his face, too. His mouth was wrong, though he didn’t know how. It just didn’t feel like the sort of mouth he was used to.

Cace lifted those strangely elongated arms to feel the part of his face between nose and chin, and found that there was no mouth there at all! No lips, no teeth, no tongue…none of it. What was there was a metal grille, with four vertical lines that were constantly venting steam.

“Ohhhhh!” Cace cried, but the sound didn’t emanate from his throat. It came from the back of the grille, and made a sound like the whine of small gears spinning too fast.

Cace realized this must be the result of having attached the warden-beast submodule to him. Making that change on the Ether had altered things for him here, that was not too surprising, but why was it like this? The warden-beast hadn’t had any grille. It hadn’t been venting steam. Evidently when two submodules combined in the Ether they didn’t result in a simple sum. Their joined functions in the Ether were predictable…but not their outward representation in the overworld.

Cace’s hands twitched as he felt his grille over and over. He wanted to get back to the Ether, wanted to rip the warden-beast submodule out of him, wanted to find some way to get himself back to the way he was supposed to be!

But no. For now Cace forced himself not to linger on the moment. He had more important things to attend to. Rotating around he got his bearings, then marched off in the direction of their shelter. He did not have far to go, and he soon spied the form of a great, hulking creature leaning against a nearby tree.

The creature was nearly ten feet tall. It’s shape was warped and asymmetrical, with a back that curved sharply to the left. Upon its left shoulder there rested another shoulder, with a third arm extending down alongside of the first. The first left hand had only a thumb and the first two fingers. The second left hand had a thumb as well, and then five three-foot tentacles that drooped towards the ground. Over the creature’s right shoulder there were four rocks which were suspended in the air and lazily followed the creature as it moved, as if tethered by invisible strings. The left side of the face was Rolar’s: bright, blue eye, a long nose, and hair the color of straw, but the other side was entirely shrouded in a small, black cloud.

Hello, Rolar, Cace thought sadly.

The creature looked at him forlornly turned to face him. It was hard to do, though, as it had only one good leg and the other was a stump, broken off at half the length of the other.

So that was how Rolar had been escaped from the invader: he had had to sever its hold on his leg. But the stump was not bleeding or showing any exposed flesh, as the overclocked larva submodule was still actively rewriting Rolar’s body to seal off the wound.

Cace reached up and rested his hand on the outer of Rolar’s left arms.

I’m sorry, he thought, unable to actually make the sound due to the grille that had replaced his mouth. He wondered whether Rolar understood what he meant. If Rolar’s body had been changed so much, what about his mind? Did this half-creature even remember Cace?

The Rolar-beast gave a forlorn sigh, and raised its right hand to pat Cace’s forehead. At the very least it seemed to recognize that Cace was a friend.

What happened to Aylme? Cace thought, looking searchingly into Rolar’s eyes as he did so. Rolar squinted back, then slowly turned to the side and stared in the direction of their shelter. As Cace followed the gaze a low whine of shock reverberated from his grille.

The entire area beside the river’s edge had been overrun by the water tendrils. Its threads were spread out like a black web, piercing through every trunk and branch, slowly tightening their grip until it broke the wood into dust. The higher branches fell earthward as the lower ones shattered, and were caught by the tendrils to meet the same fate. Meanwhile unseen tendrils pressed on through the dirt, grabbing pushes and saplings by the root and forcefully sucking them downward to oblivion.

And as the tendrils continued their life-throttling advance, a single, massive bubble grew at the center of the river. A bubble where the water was congealed so tightly that the surface appeared black and Cace couldn’t see into it at all.

But then, as Cace slowly drew nearer, the bubble started to expand outwards, growing thinner at the edges, until Cace was able to make out the forms at its fringes. Around the sides and the bottom there were fishes and frogs, totally immobile, with rigid, unblinking eyes, suspended in the water’s pressure. And at the very top there was the head of a girl, face turned upwards, dark hair wreathed around pale skin, eyes fastened shut, and with arms extended out to either side.

It was Aylme.

Part Fourteen

The Ever-Widening Curtains

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The Completely Understood)

The premise of Rocky is established early on in the film. Apollo Creed, the heavyweight boxing world champion, has an opponent cancel on him and seeks to fill the vacancy by any means necessary. After a little searching, a local small-time fighter named Rocky Balboa is discovered and offered the position. Rocky is clearly outclassed, but he is convinced to accept the offer due to the opportunity to be on a national stage and receive $150,000 no matter the outcome.

Rocky has no expectation of winning, as he confesses to his girlfriend his only aim is to “go the distance,” meaning that he wants to last all 15 rounds of the match, proving himself to be a worthy competitor. And with that, the audience knows everything that Rocky will be up against in the movie. There’s no dramatic twist and no change-up in the schedule. We expect him to fight Creed at the end at that’s exactly what happens.

And this is great, because the film is a grounded, realistic take on the hero’s journey. It is concerned primarily with the drama of the situation, and how the opportunity both helps and hinders Rocky in his private relationships.

But what about stories that are reaching for the fantastic? Sometimes the audience wants to be taken on a wild ride, and don’t want to be able to see the ending from the beginning. Sometimes you want the curtain to open to what you think is the whole picture, but then realize that it was only a small slice as the curtains open even wider later on!

Think of how Neo in The Matrix exists in the regular world, then has the curtains partially opened to a world of special agents and supernatural abilities, then opens again to realizing that the entire world is a computer simulation, and finally opens a third time to his realizing he can rewrite the code of that simulation, becoming a veritable god.

Unforeseen Consequences)

There is also a video game franchise that is an excellent example of a curtain opening, then opening again. Half Life begins with the player character, Gordon Freeman, arriving for work at the underground Black Mesa Research Facility. Things seem fairly rudimentary and relaxed at first, but then an experiment goes horribly wrong, resulting in an interdimensional portal connecting the facility to another world called Xen. A deluge of alien monstrosities start appearing in Black Mesa, killing scientists and taking over their bodies.

Suffice it to say that the curtain has now opened! The game shifts into its main narrative, that of Gordon Freeman creeping through the underground warzone, fighting for his life at every turn. At this point the clearest path to the end would be for Freeman to fight his way to the heart of the alien world, blow up the main threat, close the portal to Earth, and restore peace. And for the majority of the game this seems to be exactly where the story is headed.

But then, when Gordon Freeman teleports to the world of Xen, he discovers that the alien brutes he has been facing are actually slaves to an overlord, who is ushering them towards Earth to escape an even greater threat: a massive alien empire known as the Combine. Gordon kills the overlord and closes the portal, thus resolving the immediate danger. However this battle between the inhabitants of Xen and Earth caused enough of a ripple through the galaxy to have caught the attention of that Combine empire, alerting them to the presence of humanity.

So now the curtain opens still wider, and in the sequel Earth is taken over by the Combine forces. These enemies are far more regimented than the roaming hordes of the first Half Life, and their domineering is far more pervasive.

But there is yet another expansion of the curtain, for at the end of the first game another presence makes himself known. A mysterious character known only as the G-Man pulls Gordon out of his own reality, trapping him in a sort of interdimensional limbo until the G-Man has further use for him, suggesting that there are forces at play which may be even more powerful than the Combine.

Each revelation takes what we think is a complete picture of the world shows that it was only the tip of an iceberg. Or in this case, the tip of an iceberg that is itself but the tip of an even larger iceberg! The audience is left in awe of how much the world has expanded since its humble introduction and left wondering how much further it has yet to grow. At this point anything seems possible.

My Own Expansion)

I have been incrementally expanding the world of my latest story as well. I began with the curtain already open, as the main character was trying to interact with an alternate world. It was all vague and confusing, though, and I quickly had him brought back into the regular world, where the curtains opened further to show us three children struggling to survive in a dark forest.

Then I have gone back and forth between these two settings, expanding the view of each one in turn. In the alternate world I have disclosed its true nature: a machine of interconnected systems which corresponded to real-world entities. Then I revealed that Cace was able to rewrite parts of that system, and most recently I am unveiling his ability to create new creatures by combining separate submodules together.

Meanwhile, in the overworld, I have progressively expanded on the threats that the children face, going from lack of resources, to a black powder that tried to consume them, to a ten-foot beast, to sentient tendrils of water.

In my next post I am to open the curtains still wider, though, as I introduce the half-Rolar-half-beast creation that Cace formed in the last section, and all the fascinating implications that come along with that. Then, in the post after next I will blast the curtains open all the way when I explain what those tendrils of water really are, and how they are part of a far, far bigger threat than anything the children have faced yet.

Thus I am unveiling two sides in tandem, ramping up danger while also expanding the power of the main character. Before long we will say goodbye to this short piece, though hopefully these revelations will leave the audience’s imaginations racing as to how much further the curtains could have stretched!

Revising The Storm- Week 12

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Today I’m looking to transition from my new material into the original story, connecting at the point of Harry’s confession to Oscar. From there I expect to follow the same basic plot, though with the usual trimming and enhancements as I go.

So this first section today will be my bridge into what was written before. I’ll be describing the sailors’ floundering in the waves as they lose complete control of their boats. Let’s see how it goes.

Losing Control)

Oscar reached for his mic to bark out new instructions but out of the corner of his eye he saw that Harry’s boat was careening down the back of the wave on a collision course for his own! So he clutched the wheel and throttle instead, frantically maneuvering to get out of the way. He nearly managed to clear a path, but the two boats still scraped their sides alongside of one another. Harry’s boat kept descending down, while Oscar’s lingered in place, and soon the line snapped taut between them again, spinning Oscar’s boat around in a circle.

“Come on!” Oscar snarled, desperately fighting to get control of the situation. But they were at the low point between waves, and the next one was already bearing down on them. They were anything but prepared to ride through it. Oscar’s own boat was sideways to the oncoming wall, and Harry’s boat was swaying back and forth unpredictably.

Oscar’s hands fumbled back and forth over the controls, but there were too many competing forces at play to account for them all. Each turn or acceleration just seemed to add to the chaos. He had worn his nerves all the way down, and he couldn’t keep doing this any longer.

The heaving wave was upon them now, and Oscar gave up trying to find a clever maneuver through it. He just held onto the helm, held onto it dear life. The wave hit, and all became utter chaos. The rolling torrent poured into the wheelhouse and slammed against Oscar. His feet slid on the wet floor, and his clenched fists twitched left and right as he fought to maintain his balance. His eyes roved right and left as he tried to get his bearings, tried to make sense of the wind and the wave and his vessel. But his mind failed to register these things anymore. It had had enough trying to be clever. All was a pure cacophony, and he felt as if this was his first time standing at the wheel, absolutely clueless in what to do.

Yet for all his confusion, there was at least one thing that remained perfectly clear and certain to him. And it was doom. A doom that was so wide and so vast that it crowded out any other comprehension from his mind. At long last, after years of threatening to do so, it had come for him.

Well I’ve certainly ramped up the sense of mortal peril with this last section! I wanted to have Oscar fighting for his life for as long as he could, but finally collapsing as the burden of dragging Harry’s weight overcomes him. Of course this isn’t merely physical, it is all a type for the unsaid truth between these two men about the death of Oscar’s child.

And now, at long last, here is where we reconnect with my original writing. I’m going to have to adjust a few things in this piece for it to fit in with the tone of what I’ve just written, though. I need Oscar to seem broken, not hostile. Let’s see how it goes.

The Confession)

“Oscar…” Harry’s soft voice spoke over the radio. “We’re going to both die if we keep up like this. But I’ll bet you still have enough fuel to get around the cape…if you weren’t towing me that is.”

“But I am towing you Harry.”

“Oscar I knew it would be you who came for me. I just knew it would be. The sea knows I’ve done wrong by you…and it’s brought you here to make things right between us.”

“Harry, please stop. I don’t want—”

“I lied to you Oscar.”

The next wave yawned twice as wide as any previous. Oscar let go of the mic, fastening both hands to the wheel and braced for impact.

Harry continued. “I told you that when I took your son out sailing he forgot to tie down his safety line in that storm. But James was too bright for that. He secured one for himself and for me. He did it just as soon as he knew we were in real trouble.”

The boats tilted upwards for the approach into the wave, like ants trying to scale a mountain. The wave’s broad slope created a wide surface for the wind to roar haphazardly down, shoving the nose of the boats erratically to right and left.

Still Harry went on. “That hour we dashed around the boat like mad, trying to tie everything down. I went up to the stern and he went aft. The boat just kept reeling from side-to-side, and each time seemed like the one that would finally throw us in the drink.”

A mighty crack sounded as one of the lines on Oscar’s boat snapped. He wasn’t sure which one it was and he didn’t check to see.

“Each wave swamped us, half drowned us! I was praying and cursing with all the breath I had left. I made my way back to the mainmast and kept throwing knots on and off at every turn. Trying to pull out the slack and tighten them better.”

Oscar’s boat broke through the crest, but rolled far to its side. He flung his arms our for balance as he slid down the water-hill sideways.

“Then the next wave washed over us, the biggest one yet. It was a froth. I couldn’t see. It seemed like an eternity, but finally it washed away. I was facing towards the rear of the boat and…and I saw nothing. Just nothing. James… wasn’t there.”

Oscar’s boat hit bottom and a tide of water swept into the cabin. Oscar slipped and fell to his knees. He gripped the wheel only by his fingertips, trying to hold his way through the wave unseeing.

And with that we’re back into charted territory! I like the handoff I came up with, and I’m anxious to reach the end so that I can review the whole thing all over again. Hopefully just a couple more weeks to get to that.

Covalent: Part Twelve

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven

“Please no!” Aylme moaned, but as she looked up to where the sling scraped over the bough she could see that the fibers of fabric were peeling apart more and more quickly. With lightning-fast reflexes she released the sling and threw her hands around Rolar. His head, arms, and chest had made it out of the hole so far, and she managed to catch him around the shoulders before gravity tried to pull him back down, dragging her along with.

“NO!” she screamed, kicking her feet out until they slammed against the other side of the hole. She gave a long, angry shout, but managed to hold Rolar in place. Then she grit her teeth and pushed with her legs and pulled with her arms, wresting him up and out of the hole, inch-by-inch.

“Please!” she pled, tears streaming down the side of her face. The soil was loose, and sliding out from under her, so she dug her heels in harder and arched her back to help guide Rolar’s limp form onto the surface. Fortunately, the more of him she got out of the hole, the more his weight could rest on the ground and the easier it became to hold him. A few more moments of struggle she had him free at last.

“I made it!” She panted, releasing her grip and turning over to her side. “I did it!”

But these last moments had been too chaotic for Aylme to notice the water-tendrils slowly creeping around the edge of the hole, feeling their way towards her struggling form. All at once they shot forward and pierced into Rolar and Aylme.

Her eyes burst open in shock!

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Cace exclaimed. Something had just gone very wrong in the Ether. The outside entity that was pressing against the system had just breached it somehow. Different modules started flickering like mad, as if lightning was surging through them! And not just any modules, either, it was primarily the ones that represented Rolar and Aylme! Aylme’s module was still putting up a fight, thrashing and twisting, trying to get free. Rolar’s module, however, remained catatonic, quickly being overrun by the void.

Cace trembled for a moment, but then a firm decision overtook his hesitation.

“I’m sorry,” he cried as he summoned the remaining submodules of the warden-beast and began assembling them into the missing places of Rolar. “I just don’t have a choice anymore.” With careful precision he placed the beast’s submodule for threat detection and emergency response in place of Rolar’s missing consciousness. Rolar was also missing some structural and motor capabilities, and into that void Cace placed the larva’s submodule for replicating its own form in a host. It would fill in all those missing parts.

Normally it would take a long while for the larva to do that, but Cace reached back to the circuit that he had been using to overclock Rolar’s healing submodule, and he routed it to the larva part instead. He cranked up the flow of power, causing the part to burst into overdrive. New instructions surged out of it, compiling new modules, and expanding them to fill every empty space that remained in Rolar in an instant.

Then, the Rolar system woke back up.

Of course, Cace could still only see the side of the ensuing struggle that the Ether showed him, but he could tell that Rolar’s system almost immediately began to thrash about, just as Aylme’s was, though with an astounding amount of vigor! So massive were the movements that Cace lost the ability to tell what was happening, all was a chaos of surging movements, firing signals, mounting pressure, the signs of two great tides surging against one another.

As Cace continued to watch the different sides of the battle started to stretch apart from one another, and he realized that Rolar was not fighting to destroy the outside entity, but only to retreat from its clutches. And though Rolar was moving with great strength, he was facing an awesome resistance. Then came a sudden, horrible sense of something breaking and tearing. Cace couldn’t tell what it was, but some sacrifice had been made. Rolar’s system managed to wrench free, but it had had to leave something behind!

Cace snapped his focus from left to right. What of Aylme?…

With a shock Cace realized that there wasn’t any Aylme. Somehow, in all that thrashing struggle, she had disappeared entirely from the system.

“No!” Cace looked frantically from one module to another, trying to see if he was overlooking her. Was she there, but fractured, like Rolar had been? Broken but salvageable? Hidden inside of another entity? But he already knew. There was no ambiguity in the Ether. If you knew what it was you were looking for, and it wasn’t immediately obvious…then it simply wasn’t there. Somehow, someway…she had been lost.

“NOOO!” Too devastated to be cautious, Cace pulled over one another of the remaining warden-beast modules, the one used for detecting things on the overworld, and he thrust it into himself. He’d had it with not being able to see what was going on in up above, and one way or another he was getting back.

The most strange sensation came over him. He no longer felt like a whole, but rather was conscious of being many separate parts all at once. Each of his submodules shifted and reoriented themselves, attaching to this foreign implant, or rerouting themselves to go around it. For brief moments each of his normal senses flickered off, recalibrated themselves, then came back on. Some the same as they had been before, some slightly changed, some drastically altered.

Most importantly, though, Cace felt his senses being flooded with input from both the Ether and the overworld. Just like when he had they had been fighting the warden-beast he was able to perceive both paradigms at the same moment. And being able to see the overworld above, he finally felt anchored enough to it again. He was able to detect its signal throbbing within him, and was able to shift into it as effortlessly as putting on a cloak.

Cace sat bolt upright in the grass where Aylme had left him. He was back.

Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen

Well That Was Exhausting

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Wearing Down)

In the most recent chapter of Covalent I have one of my main characters, Aylme, brought to her absolute limit as she has rushes her unconscious comrades from danger, including one that is quite a bit larger than she is. Thus far she has been quick-thinking, resourceful, and determined, but one exertion after another I have been wearing the character down to the bone. She is exhausted mentally, emotionally, and physically, nearly out of fresh ideas, fighting down fear, and asking more of her muscles than ever before. And, I hope, the readers are feeling that same exhaustion themselves, as if they have been right alongside her, wearing down their minds and bodies as she has.

Coincidentally, I am also trying to create that exact same sensation in my refactoring of The Storm. Here I have two sailors caught in a storm, their boats tethered together, working to their limits to overcome one life-threatening threat after another.

But why do some action-packed stories make us feel energized, like we’ve just been for a brisk walk, while others give us the sense of having been put through the wringer, totally depleted of all our energy? Well, let’s take a look at one of my favorite exhausting films to see what lessons we can glean from it.

The Master of Exhaust)

If there’s any director who has a monopoly on tiring tales, it’s Steven Spielberg. Think of Indiana Jones staggering to his feet after the lengthy tank fight in The Last Crusade. Think of Martin Brody hanging from the sinking mast at the end of Jaws. Think of Captain Miller slumped on the ground at the end of Saving Private Ryan. Think of Alan Grant reclining into his helicopter seat at the end of Jurassic Park. All of these characters have gone to their absolute limits and beyond. Whatever they have achieved by the end of their story, they have obtained it only by wringing out every last bit of themselves, down to the last drop. In fact, some of them have given so much that they won’t be making it home alive.

But these films are all from the height of Spielberg’s career, and I’m going to instead bring attention to one of his lesser-known works, a made-for-television movie that came out in 1971 called Duel. This film tells the story of a simple man named David Mann, who is driving through the Mojave desert for a business trip. Along the way he overtakes a large diesel truck. The truck driver attempts to pass him back again, but Mann maintains his lead, and in doing so incurs the wrath of the other man. And when I say “incurs the wrath,” I mean that the diesel truck driver now means to out-and-out kill him, as evidenced when he nearly baits Mann into driving full-speed into an oncoming vehicle!

Thus begins the duel for which the film is named. Mann is at an extreme disadvantage in his small sedan. He has a bit of an edge in speed and dexterity, but those are small comforts given the size and strength of the relentless behemoth that bears down on him in one life-threatening attack after another.

In terms of character and themes, Duel is a pretty simple film. There are very few characters, very few locations, and it only runs for 90 minutes. But in that simplicity it allows itself to focus purely on one aspect: the exhaustion of a relentless chase. It fills out its time and wears out its audience by consistently coming up with one nail-biting sequence after another. There is that moment where the diesel truck is pressing Mann’s car from behind, trying to force it into an oncoming train. Then there is that time Mann runs for a phone booth to call the police, just to have the truck come blasting down, smashing the booth to bits. Then there are the moments Mann tries to lose himself behind the killer-vehicle, just to find that it has hidden in wait further down the road.

The film exhausts the viewer because it employs one unique danger after another. Each is new and novel and takes a little bit of our energy to process. If we saw the same sort of thrill repeated over and over it wouldn’t get our blood pumping nearly so much, but the constantly fresh experiences take a toll on us over time.

This isn’t all, though. The film also employs another trick that Spielberg utilized many times later in his other films. It shows us the main character breaking down, one small part at a time. Mann doesn’t pass through a battle, heal back at home, then return fresh to another fight. No, he slowly falls apart in one, long, continuous grind. He progresses from relaxed, to irritated, to angry, to horrified, to fearful, to flat-out desperate. And even has he breaks down, his car gets dents and dings, breaks its radiator, loses parts, and has trouble even starting. Each new scene it is looking worse and worse, that much closer to falling apart entirely.

90 minutes might not be very long for a film, but it is extremely long for such a prolonged beatdown! And being the empathetic creatures that we are, we cannot help but share in its burden.

Applying the Lessons)

One unique danger after another, a single, unwavering deterioration of the character. These are the two principles that create an exhausting tale.

And I have tried to employ both of these principles in Covalent. I have kept the focus locked on Aylme for the last chapter, and will continue to do so in the next, showing a single, prolonged instance of her being worn down bit-by-bit, her resources progressively breaking around her, one novel situation being replaced by another, constantly driving towards that point of collapse. I have also been doing the exact same thing in The Storm, describing how both the nerve and the boats of our sailors break apart from one unique trauma after another.

At the end of it all, if I’ve done things right, my audiences will not have done anything directly strenuous themselves, but they’ll still be utterly fatigued just for having been witness to all these agonizing trials. My stories won’t just take the vitality from my characters, they will demand a small bit of life from the readers as well!

Revising The Storm- Week 11

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Increasing Danger)

Oscar spun the wheel to the left, coming thirty degrees from perpendicular to the waves. The next crest rolled into them and there was the unsettling sensation of being tilted far to the right as they glided up it, then rolled steeply back to the left as it left them in its wake, the boats threatening as they sloshed back and forth to roll all the way over at any moment.

“Whatever fuel we’ve got left, burn it now!” Oscar ordered, turning his throttle up to maximum. With new life the vessel churned forward…then came a jerking halt as the line ran taut and Harry’s vessel dragged Oscar’s back.

“I’m trying, I’m trying!” Harry grunted as he struggled to get his controls to respond. “There we go!” he crowed as his engines came fully to life. “Oh wait, no!” they cut out again after just a few seconds, causing the rope between them to snap taut again. “I think–maybe–” the engines came back for another moment. “Oh come on!” the engines cut out once more.

Oscar ground his teeth together. This relaxing and tightening of the line would snap it in two in no time. Much as he wanted to surge on ahead, he would just have to pace himself with what Harry’s boat could handle.

“Is it steadier at lower speeds?” Oscar asked.

“Yes, the engine holds if I don’t throttle over twenty percent.”

“Alright. You keep it there. I’ll tug.”

Oscar slowed his boat down until both he and Harry were travelling at the same, slow speed. Then he gradually sped up, until the line between came back to full tension. From there he added more power, but only in small increments, accelerating both boats together as one. It was working…but they were less than half the speed that Oscar’s boat could have gone at on its own.

Just continuing along our way in the final act. I’ll be honest, I’m not paying very close attention to my review notes as I add one new scene after another. I just know that this part of the story needed to be developed further, so I’m feeling my way through , then I’ll cast the same eye of scrutiny on this new material as I did on the original.

I know that reading through a story and writing through it are two very different experiences, but I do feel encouraged that I have had far more of a sense of actually being in the storm alongside of these characters. And that’s exactly the change that I’ve been working for: making the audience feel like they’ve been through a long and momentous struggle. And now I’m just going to keep ratcheting up the tension. Here we go!

Ratcheting)

“Come on, Harry, come on,” Oscar mumbled, willing the other man’s boat to spring to greater life. Every now and again he looked over his shoulder to keep bearings on what was going on behind him, and each time he saw Harry’s boat being an anchor, weighing him back into the storm, and he despised Harry for that. “How many sailors have to die under your hand before you’re through?” he muttered darkly.

Then he looked to the front, still watching for any sign of the cliff-face, or better yet, of the lighthouse. He saw neither, yet by looking so earnestly his mind started playing tricks on him, making him think he had caught a glimpse of one or the other out of the corner of his eye.

Oh was that a moving light?! No, just a reflection of sheet lightning on the rolling wave. Was that a rock springing out of the dark in front of him?! No, just one cloud moving past another.

“Turn deeper, Harry. “Let’s bring it to forty degrees!”

“Alright…if you’re sure…”

“No, I’m not sure of anything anymore.” Oscar replied, but only to himself. He was surprised that they still hadn’t seen either the saving light or the damning rock. Had he become more turned around than he realized? Was he actually headed away from the shoreline? His compass said no. Had he somehow travelled further south than the lighthouse, so that now it would be on his starboard side and not his port? But he looked to starboard and nothing was there.

The next wave rolled under them. Harry gripped hard to the wheel and planted his foot against the side of the wheelhouse to keep his balance as he careened to the right and then the left. But his ship still held steady through it all.

“Forty-five degrees, Harry! Make it forty-five!”

The next wave seemed an eternity. By slicing up and down its sides they were spending a lot more time tilted precariously, which meant a lot more time for the water in the hold to collect on the downward side. Oscar tried to feel through his boots how near the floor was to spinning out from under him, his hands twitching on the wheel, ready to throw to starboard at the first sign of trouble.

But then, all at once, he felt a sharp tug from behind, and without even looking he knew what it meant: Harry’s boat had started to roll, and if it did so it would take him down with it! Without thinking about it, Oscar threw his wheel all the way to port, swiveling his boat to be fully parallel with the wave. A sudden torrent of water slammed against the side of the wheelhouse, flooding over his vessel and threatening to swamp him at any moment! But only for a moment, and then the boat burst through the crest of the wave, hung suspended in the open the air, then crashed down on the backside of the wave, hauling at Harry’s boat until it had pulled him back from his roll without a moment to spare!

One thing I’ve been meaning to improve from all these changes is to really push Harry into having a solid reason for coming forward with the truth after all these years. I wanted the likelihood of both men drowning to be very real to finally compel him to come clean.

And, at this point, I think I’ve given him a solid enough reason. So, starting with next week, I’m going to rejoin my original draft of the story where Harry finally makes confession. I can’t wait to pick things up from there!