The Changing of a Story

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The Kernel)

I am on the cusp of completing my story: The Toymaker. In it a small drummer toy is born to life, and then sent to find a mystical city. Along the way he makes a friend in another toy, a dancing ballerina. Unfortunately, the two are divided from one another when the dancer is kidnapped, and taken into a grimy town full of dirty hovels. The drummer charges in pursuit, but is further waylaid as one toy after another takes advantage of him. He become dirty and cracked, and even his innocent demeanor slowly becomes more desperate and angry. Almost he loses himself, but stops just short of doing so. In that same moment he discovers a strange connection that he has with some divine power, and by it is finally led back to the dancer that he has been searching for.

There is, of course, one or two more sentences to that outline, but I’ll leave it off so that you can see it for yourself this Thursday. It is very strange for me to read that synopsis, though, because it is absolutely nothing like the one that I started off with!

Whenever I get an idea for a story, I open up a text editor and get it down in as much detail as possible. Usually the idea is so small that it only fills out one paragraph, but I hope to transfer enough information that I can remember the heart of it for later development.

One night, I was making up a bedtime story for my son about a toy factory. As I spoke to him, my mind suggested to me a different plot. After the bedtime ritual was finished, and I left his room, this is the brief outline that I wrote down:

The Toy Factory. Idea of a man building a world, bit-by-bit giving it greater abilities and rules. Eventually a rebellion breaks out amongst it, and he himself is lost within its depths. Perhaps he has forgotten who he is, or was created in toy form by his own creations, and so his consciousness has been transposed to that toy and he needs to remember his original identity.
OR
The Castle-God. Some character has created a people and a world, little machinations that he kept around him, and which presently moved out to pursue their own ambitions. Now he still lives in that same castle, but forgotten and lonely in its massive halls. The character could be rediscovered, many generations later, having been fashioning a new set of creations all this time, ones to destroy the first.

 

The Theme)

So, as you can see, I was already of two minds about which direction this story could go, but in each rendition I had this idea of a creator regretting his creation. A godlike character whose subjects have all gone astray, and who is later tempted to use his powers to abandon or destroy them.

While working on this blog I shared an entry about responsibility, and I mentioned how Victor Frankenstein regretted the monstrosity he created, and sought to destroy it. I realized that this was very similar to my Toy Factory/Castle-God stories, and decided to expand on it with that theme. So I married the two together: the Toymaker would be refashioned as a mortal within the world of his own creation, would rediscover his omnipotent identity, and then would decide what responsibility he had to his subjects: either to spare them or create an army to destroy them.

And then, to this, I decided to add one more wrinkle. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the story started with him already in mortal form? That way his rediscovery of his divine identity would be as much of a surprise to the reader as to himself.

 

Things Go Awry)

Sometimes stories don’t follow their plotlines though. I started off with a simple introduction, one where I introduced the world of the toys, and explained how they began as inanimate objects that gradually gained self-awareness. I emphasized that fact, by having the drummer (who would later be revealed to be the creator) witness another toy, a ballerina dancer, come to life.

But now that I had created this second character, I felt that I had to do something with her. I made her his companion on his initial journey, and the two played off of one another quite nicely. I came up with ways that they supported and depended on one another, quickly making the two of them feel “right” together.

The thing is, up until now I had just been meandering about freely to get the feel of the world, but now I realized this dancer was taking up such a large percentage of the opening that she had to be a main character now. I wanted to start pushing the plot forward by showing how despicable the created world had become, and the most obvious way to do that was by having these two innocent companions ripped apart. It worked well, but now it only further cemented this random side-character, the dancer, as the main catalyst for our drummer’s journey.

Now the moment where imbalance occurs is with the loss of that dancer, so every reader naturally assumes the story will right itself with their triumphant reunion. I had created an expectation, and I couldn’t just shirk that.

 

The Story Fights Back)

Alright, fine, I thought, he goes and he gets her back, but then the story progresses as normal. But every time I tried to write their reunion it felt wrong. It was just too quick, too easy. I kept writing about him almost reaching her, but each time I had to pull the rug out from under him at the last moment. This was because I had written it so that the dancer was everything to that poor drummer. The quest to regain her needed to be appropriately epic.

Unless she died? I thought maybe this could be what compels him to find his powers and condemn the world. Just as he’s about to reach her she’ll be irrevocably broken and that will make him snap.

But where, then, is the responsibility? This isn’t a creator accepting the burden of his creation going astray anymore, this is an angry tyrant exacting terrible vengeance. Not what I was going for at all.

One solution might have been to go back to the start and take her out entirely, but I didn’t like that. She had emerged naturally and organically, and I liked her being in the story. Quite frankly I had become personally invested in her arc, and really wanted to see where it would land.

 

The Solution)

And so, it was in this very problem that I also found my solution. Her becoming broken and him going into a rage was not going to serve a story about a god’s responsibility to his people, but it her being broken would serve a story about a little drummer’s responsibility to the toy that he loves.

The story had not been stalling on its first chapter, rather it had turned that first chapter into the entire story. It isn’t the story of how he regains boundless power, it is the story of how he makes amends to the dancer he could not save.

Maybe the bigger story still exists, but if so it is a tale for another time. With that in mind, I knew how I needed to close things. Only after great effort, after nearly losing himself but then calling himself back, only then would he be ready to rejoin the dancer. And in that moment, he would find her broken.

Not only broken, though, but angry. Angry at the world, angry at herself, and angry at him. The climax of the story will be how he hears that anger, and how he takes responsibility for it. I like this approach quite a lot, and I am excited to share it with you on Thursday. Then, at long last, we will be on to something new.

The Toymaker: Part Six

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

A sudden chill ran through the drummer and he spun around on the spot, just in time to see a stream of metal sheaves flowing through the center of the doorway and straight into him. He didn’t even hear the impact as he was flung him across the room and slammed into the wall. Still the shafts kept pressing forward, skewering through his chest and pinning him to the spot. The metal blades that weren’t pinning him began to spin and slide, morphing into an erratic form, somewhat like a metal hand, walking on its fingers.

Wincing through the pain the drummer gripped his hammer tightly and swung it in a wide arc. Or at least he tried to. He barely got it more than an inch before one of those metal fingers snapped out, bursting the hammer into a thousand pieces. The blades piercing the drummer’s chest drove in deeper. A humming sound came from inside the metal demon, and now the skewers began to push out in each direction, straining against the drummer’s core, trying to burst his whole body apart.

“What do you–? Why–?” the drummer’s voice came out strained and weak. He was vaguely aware of another of these strange demons bursting into the room and charging down the squealing teddy bear.

The drummer’s eyes fluttered rapidly, his vision floated in and out of focus. “I’m the maker,” he mouthed. Cracks were widening in his chest, snapping up his body, splitting across his lips. “I made every toy.” His body made a loud popping noise and the metal blades sprung partway open. The drummer’s few remaining fibers began to twist and divide. “I made the hands that made you,” the two separate halves of his mouth motioned. “I am you.”

There was a tremendous snap and the drummer’s body burst apart, his entire torso exploding into a cloud of splinters. All thoughts ceased within his mind, and what chunks of body still remained collapsed lifelessly to the floor.

And yet. With that snapping of his body, all of his silent words suddenly reverberated off the walls like a great, rushing wind. It pounded through the space and quaked through the core of the scowlie. Though it had not been fashioned with any ears, it heard it all, and the fingers it walked upon flailed about wildly. A spasmodic shriek emanated from its rubbing sheaves, and the blades started folding and turning, reassembling, fusing together in fervent heat. The edges became less sharp, the pallor less cold, the features less random. The whole being glowed bright yellow, lost entirely from view as it shone like a mortal star!

Sparks rained off of the fusing metal, and as they showered downwards they landed on the boots of a new, metal drummer. It was not merely similar to the wooden version that had just been destroyed, it was the exact image, fresh as the day the drummer had first created. Even his original coloring had somehow been baked into the steel. Though this new version stood in this room, still there also lay the broken and lifeless version of the drummer on the floor. The one that was crafted of cheap wood, stained black by soot, and cracked by heat. The one that still held the handle of the hammer in its glove.

The second scowlie, which had finished with the bear, turned and shrieked at the metal drummer, trying to discern if this was another target or not. The drummer turned and faced it back, unflinching.

“I am you, too,” he said confidently, then raised his baton and brought it down on the drum. It’s metal top resonated much more brightly than when it had been made of wood, and a spasm rippled through the scowlie. It gave one more shriek, then dashed out of the room.

The drummer nodded approvingly, then exited the room himself. He walked back to the hole that had once been a window. He ignored the ladder-bridge, and instead leaped out, falling the full four stories to the ground. He landed gingerly on his boots, then marched off down the street, heading in the direction that the knight had led the guards down.

It did not take him long to find them, the clatter of metal and wood soon echoed to him from a side-alley. There, at its end, he found the knight laughing in combat with the guards. He was outnumbered 20-to-1, but he was a well-made figure, cast from solid pewter. The guard’s thin blades were simply too weak to do more than scratch his armor, and so he danced about, systematically cleaving their spears in two.

“Charge him!” the Guard-Sergeant shouted. “Your weapons are useless, grab him with your arms!”

His weapon isn’t useless!” one of the guards returned, not wanting to put his own, wooden neck anywhere near the knight’s sword.

“Cowards!” the Sergeant charged forward himself. The knight spun quickly and put a well-placed kick in the assailant’s chest, knocking him back to the ground.

“Haven’t we done enough of this?” the knight chortled.

“The scowlies will get you!” the Sergeant spat, slinking away while rubbing his chest.

Immediately the knight’s jovial nature turned dark. “What’s that?!” he demanded.

“Knight, don’t worry,” the drummer said, rushing to his side.

“I leave you toys alive and you’ll send scowlies after me next, is that about right?!” the knight continued after the Sergeant, pointing his sword at the toy’s chest.

“Knight, the scowlies aren’t a problem.”

“No drummer, you haven’t seen them. They absolutely are a problem. I know you won’t like this, but we have to break these toys now.”

“I have seen them. In fact, I am one of them.”

If the knight’s helm could have opened his jaw would have been agape. Instead he just cocked his head in a strange away, unable to fathom why the drummer would even say something like that. Even the guards cowering against the back wall stared to the drummer in bewilderment.

“You don’t know what you’re saying–” the knight began slowly.

Before he could continue the drummer closed his eyes, then his face split and his metal sheaves began to unfold, twisting and re-forming back into the shape of a scowlie.

“A trap!” the knight cried, driving his sword into the heart of the creature. The scowlie grabbed the sword lazily, and yanked it out of the knight’s grip. Then it shuffled again, reforming back into the drummer, holding the sword aloft in his hand.

“No, knight. It’s still me.”

The knight made a strange, flustered noise, and flailed his arms like he was in danger of losing his balance. “But–but all this time?”

“No, just now. When the scowlie killed my old body up in the Administration Building.”

“A scowlie…killed you…?”

“Killed the body. But I was in the scowlie, just as much as I was in that old body. Just as much as I’m in you. Just as much as I’m in them,” he nodded his head towards the still-cowering guards.

“You mean–wait, just what are you trying to say?…Surely not…the Maker?”

The drummer cocked his head in amusement. “Didn’t you say that the Maker put part of himself into each toy?”

“Did I? I think that’s what they say, yes.”

“I liked that part. So I decided that that was who I was. So I don’t think it’s just me who is the Maker. So are you, if you to decide to be. So is everyone. And if everyone decides to be the Maker, and brings their part together, we’ll finally be able to make him again.”

The knight didn’t respond. He took a few shaky steps over to the guards he had just been fighting, and sat down among them. All the toys stared at the drummer in a silent stupor.

“I thought you’d be happy,” the drummer frowned.

“I–I’m overwhelmed,” the knight’s voice was hollow.

“Why?”

“Because it…it…well it breaks everything I thought I knew.”

“So? Isn’t this better?”

“Yes, I suppose…if…”

“If what?”

“If it’s true.”

“So you don’t believe me?” the drummer sounded hurt.

“I don’t know. Really I’m not saying that. Just that it’s–overwhelming. You figured all of this out while you were up with the bear, did you?”

“Yes.”

“See, it doesn’t come that easily for the rest of us.”

“It wasn’t so easy. I had to die to figure it out.”

“Oh,” the knight said stupidly, really not sure how to properly respond to that. “Little drummer, please don’t be offended. But it’s really going to take some time before I even know what I think about what you’re saying.”

“Oh…okay, I guess. We can talk about something else if you’d like.”

“Um, sure. Uh, did you find out where the dancer was?”

“No, I didn’t,” the drummer’s face looked troubled, then almost instantly brightened. “But I’ve just thought of a way to find her.”

“I’m sure you have. Why don’t we go find her, and maybe–maybe that’ll give me some time to just think about everything you’ve said along the way?”

“Alright.”

“What about us?” one of the guard’s piped up.

“What about you?” the knight returned. “You’re free to go if you’ve had enough.”

“Or free to come with us if you want more,” the drummer added enthusiastically.

The Sergeant frowned at that, rose to his feet, and ducked down the alley with his head bowed. One-by-one the other guards followed until only two remained. Each of them looked to one another, and then back to the drummer.

“We’d rather come with you. Come and see–whatever it is you’re doing. Looking for a dancer, you said?”

“Yes,” the drummer nodded. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier, but she and I came up with a dance, and when I played the music for it we always knew just how to move together.”

“So…?”

“So follow me.” And with that the drummer whisked out his baton and brought it back down on his drum. Rump-a-dum-a-dum-a-dum! And as he struck out his old, familiar tune, his legs snapped to attention and whisked him down the alley. His rhythm reverberated loudly off the walls, and the knight and two guards fell into step behind him.

They marched out into the street, then made a turn and were off on their way. One street, then another, then another. The whole area was still reeling from the attack on the Administration Building, but whatever toys recognized the drummer and the knight were much too frightened to approach them. Instead crowds parted and stared wide-eyed at them as they passed. After a little while the marchers were past the heart of the city, and on their way into the next district.

Here the houses were more modest, and had wide spaces between them for growing groves of trees. The ground hadn’t been leveled here, and naturally rose and fell in little hills and dells. As more and more of the city-proper fell behind them, it became clear that the drummer’s dance was leading them in a straight line for the gutted remnants of an old town in the distance.

It was perched atop a steep rise in the land, an old suburb of the city that had been almost entirely consumed in a terrible fire long ago. There was no official community there now, only vagrants and gangs of criminals, competing with the local wildlife for a hole to sleep in. Of course the knight with his sword and the guards with their half-spears were already better armed than any peasant that they might find, and so the party wasn’t too worried as they followed the slope of the land into its blackened ruins.

No one tried to molest them anyhow. Indeed, they didn’t even see any of the toys, only the ratty bedrolls and smoldering fires of their camps. So strange in this place was the sight of the visitors, that the inhabitants had scurried for cover, and now peeped out at them in awe from their hiding places.

The journeyers marched straight down the central street, old rubble crumbling into dust beneath their feet. The drummer’s beat echoed unnaturally off the half-toppled buildings, as if it had been so long since those old walls reverberated sound, that now they didn’t quite remember how.

All at once the drummer felt his feet turning, taking him off the central road. He quickened his rhythm, beating a trail down a nearby alley. Over the moldy frames fallen out of the windows, and across the crunching beads of shattered glass. His feet began to slow, and presently he came face-to-face with a small apartment, its door hanging on just one hinge, yellow paint peeling off in chunks.

The drummer stilled his batons, then looked back to his accompaniment, they looked back at him, eyes unblinking. He turned back, swallowed, and pushed his way through the creaky door. The knight and the guards waited respectfully outside.

 

This last Monday I discussed the importance of self-reflection in a character, and how it is most often used to signal a fundamental change within them. I took a very literal route with that in today’s post! Previously the drummer chose to spare the bear, only doing so after he took a little look inside of himself and decided what he wanted to be.

Of course even though he had made that choice, he had still betrayed the fact that his heart was quite changed from what it once had been. Yes, this time he managed to restrain himself, but what about next time? I felt it was essential for him to have a token of grace, a chance to be reborn entirely. It was then that I decided his old, tortured husk had to die, and he would be remade, as clean and pristine as at the very start of his tale.

Now, having been restored, he is at last ready to rejoin the dancer. As I reread this segment I realized that I rushed things quite a good deal here at the end. I’m sorry about that, unfortunately I did not have time to correct this imbalance. At the very least I can pause here, and take the time to give our penultimate scene between the drummer and the dancer some proper breathing space. As such, the conclusion of this story is going to come next Thursday.

Before we get to that, though, I want to take a moment to talk a bit more in-depth about how my vision for this story shifted while writing this tale. I actually had a pretty clear idea of where I wanted it to go when I began, and then it got off the rails quite quickly! On Monday I’ll pull back the curtain on what my original intent was, how and why it changed, and how it then proceeded to change again and again several times throughout. I hope you’ll find it interesting, and until then have a wonderful weekend!

A Little Self-Reflection

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Seeing Ourselves)

Quite regularly we look at ourselves. Bathroom mirrors are an integral part of every morning routine, after all, and even if we say we don’t care about appearances we can’t help but catch a glimpse every now and again.

During my youth I was in the Boy Scouts, and on occasion would go on camping trips, sometimes for as long as a week. Over that time I would never once see my reflection, and it would become a very a surreal experience. I could feel the dirt sticking to my sunburned face and knew that I must appear a mess, but I could only imagine to what degree. After coming home I would look in the mirror again and the imagined image was superseded by the real reflection. Some bits of who I was met my expectation, and others did not.

Even without extended periods away from silver-backed glass, each one one of us will invariably have moments where we go from looking at ourselves in the mirror to actually seeing ourselves. All at once the reality of our image comes into stark relief.

An example of this was just a few weeks ago when I noticed more smile-wrinkles around my eyes than there used to be. I’m far from old, and I’m not having a midlife crisis, but it was a moment of realizing that I had changed somewhere, and I was a little concerned that I hadn’t noticed it as it happened.

 

Inescapable Change)

Each of us wants to change, of course. But we want to be in control of that change, to choose in which ways we are altered and in which we are not. We want to be smarter, more confident, and kinder, but we don’t want to get older, slower, and fatter along the way. When I saw those extra wrinkles around my eyes, it was not just me realizing that my face was changing, but that it was doing so without my permission.

We’re organic beings. We don’t get to selectively isolate parts of us to change while leaving the other’s untouched. You cannot help but ripple the whole tapestry when you start to pull on a thread.

Of course we know and accept that change and decay happens to everyone else, and theoretically we “know” that it must happen to us as well. But each one of us has that singular moment where we accept that change, uncontrollable change, really is our fate.

This was the story of Siddhattha Gotama, a young man born thousands of years ago, in-or-around present-day India. He was a royal prince, and his father took immense precautions to shelter him from the realities of life. Siddhattha later said that the cold facts of aging, sickness, and death did not distill in his heart until the age of 29.

No matter how protected he had been, sooner or later he had to face and accept that these realities did exist. Not so much that they existed generally, but that they existed for him. He perceived that he was just as subject to the wheel of time as all the rest of humanity, and the soberness of that moment led him on a great spiritual journey. A journey that concluded in his becoming the Buddha.

 

Change Through Reflection)

There is a very interesting element to that story of the Buddha. Notice that this major turning point in his life comes about as a result of reflecting on his life, and coming to accept the unpreventable, ever-changing nature of it. Siddhattha revokes the illusion of control in life…but by doing that then steers himself into a different path than he had been on. It would seem that by admitting his powerlessness, he gained just a bit more power.

This is extremely similar to the story of Socrates, who craved knowledge, and sought out sages to teach it to him. Instead he was disappointed to find that none of them knew anything at all. Then, after a little self-reflection, he realized that the only thing that he, or anyone else, could really know, was the fact that they knew nothing at all. And so by admitting his complete ignorance, he gained a nugget of knowledge.

In both of these historical stories, illusion and imagination are dropped, replaced with something truer, and both times as a result of properly seeing oneself. Many times when we look in the mirror we just see a face, but sometimes we get a glimpse of the actual soul.

Now these “stories” are biographical, they are about real-life people. But they are still stories, and the experiences drawn from them have certainly found their way into works of fiction as well. A pivotal moment of character development comes in a moment of quiet self-reflection in A Christmas Carol. Here the old curmudgeon, Ebenezer Scrooge, sees his boyhood self, and how he was once so full of innocent wonder.

Then, with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character, he said, in pity for his former self, “Poor boy!” and cried again.
“I wish,” Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: “but it’s too late now.”
“What is the matter?” asked the Spirit.
“Nothing,” said Scrooge. “Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all.”

“I should like to have given him something: that’s all.” Only really that isn’t all. In this moment Ebenezer is finally starting to see himself rightly. He is seeing the man in the mirror as he really is, and there’s a thing or two he’d like to change about him.

And that is the real power of self-reflection, both in real life and in literature. It creates a moment where the individual has the opportunity to choose. Change is inevitable, it falls upon us all, but if we see ourselves rightly, we can choose which way that change will fall.

In my most recent story post, our protagonist had a pivotal moment of self-reflection. He was staring down another toy that had hurt him deeply, and seriously contemplated doing the same in turn. But then he stayed himself, because he realized that he was straying from the toy that he had been made as, and he didn’t want to do that. Sometimes the greatest change brought about by self-reflection is simply to return to where we had been before. On Thursday I will push that idea further, where as a reward for his rediscovery of self, the drummer will be refashioned in a higher form. Then, at last, he will be ready to return to his long-lost dancer.

Update on My Novel: Month 7

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NOVEMBER STATS
Days Writing: 17
New Words: 6,577
New Chapters: 2

Total Word-count: 23,554
Total Chapters: 7

This was my first full month of new draft-writing material, and it felt great! This month I wrote out two chapters that have only existed in outline-form for years. It was surreal to see them suddenly become so much more full-bodied, and so exhilarating as well!

One element of writing that excites me is how familiar of a place my story has become. When I talk about my explorers in their camp, I feel like I am talking about somewhere that I am very intimately aware of. I have visited there so many times, such that I feel I know it better than many real places. Indeed the image I have for it in my mind is very specific and unchanging.

In these two new chapters I also got to write the first real inflection point of the story, the point where we shift from Act 1 into Act 2, and the real meat of the tale. I feel it might have taken a little long to get to it, its something I might try to cinch up with later passes, but for now I’m just happy to have arrived.

My goal for November was to write for 19 days, I ended up with 17. I expected 7,500 words, I was a thousand less. I did, however, manage to achieve two full chapters, which is exactly what I had hoped. December is going to be a bit different of a month. I am taking a lot of vacation plan, and have a lot of plans taking up those days. I frankly have too much uncertainty to make any sort of reasonable goals. As such I’ll simply write what I write, and then let you know at the start of the new year what it ended up being. See you then!

The Toymaker: Part Five

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

They did get a look at the building, and what they saw was not quite as disheartening as the knight had feared. There was a central lobby to the building, a place with public access that anyone could approach. The rest of that floor, and the one above, were office spaces, where various representatives could meet with you if you had an appointment. Above that was seven more floors, which were inaccessible to anyone who wasn’t authorized. There were guards at each stairwell and lift that would only admit those that knew the right password.

The knight spent his few remaining discs and managed to track down one of the workers who had been involved in the construction of the building. They got access to some old blueprints, and got a general idea of how things were laid out up above.

“So these top three stories are the highest security areas,” the knight explained to the drummer, after he had had some time to review the plans. “The Boss and other high-profile officials stay here, as well as some of the more historically significant documents, and who knows what else.”

“The teddy bear?”

“I would guess…not, actually. From what I’ve been able to gather, he might be important as an image of the Administration’s ‘divine will,’ but most toys see him only as a lackey. No one gets the impression that he is actually involved in any real administrative decisions. If anything they’re probably more worried about him getting out than anyone getting to him.”

“I see.”

“So that leaves these middle three floors. Considering that the bear is known to live in this building at all times, that further rules out floor five, it’s only small spaces large enough for offices.”

“So four or six?’

“Six is something of an enigma. It’s simply a grid of large, divided spaces, and no one really has any idea what they are for. Conceivably one of them could be the living quarters of the bear. But there’s nothing more definite to point to it as a likely place for him.

“Anything for four?”

“A bit of a stretch, but yes. See we do know that in one of these floors has the printing press where they put together their propaganda. Those flyers have to reach the ground floor to go out in the caravans, and the fourth level is the last one that the lifts on the ground floor have direct access to. To get to the higher levels you have to get on a second set of lifts that start on number four. Four is kind of the cap-off point of the first half of the building, and for sheer convenience’s sake it would make sense if the press was on it.”

“Is that helpful?”

“Just a hunch, but if the communications department is indeed on the fourth floor, and the bear is so frequently featured in those communications…then it might stand to reason that he’s on the fourth floor as well.”

“Alright.”

“Which of course brings up the question, well where on that floor? See here, it’s a sort of spider-web design of rooms. This large central one probably holds the press itself, and all the different departments extend from that down these hallways. They’d want him out of the way until he needed to rehearse a script, so probably one of the large rooms at the far end of these halls. Here, here, here, or here.”

The drummer rubbed his batons together. They were getting close!

“These two have windows, which would not work, because that would risk him being seen by the public outside of their control. So that leaves two. Room number 422 and 478.”

“Yes, and…?”

“And they’re identical. For the life of me I’ve tried to find some way to reduce our options down further, but this is far as I can get. Keep in mind, I might have made a mistake at any of the earlier steps already.”

“Which room is easier to get to?”

“You’re still okay with the distraction-and-bridge idea?”

“Yes.”

“Then 422. It’s right next to a room with a window, which window is right across from the roof of the Spring Club.”

“Alright, 422 then.”

The knight shrugs. “Just as well. In the end it was always going to be a bit of a guess. You’re still sure that you’re the one who should confront the bear? I’m bigger than you are.”

“The dancer knows me. I should go.”

“And even if the bear is there, there’s no guarantee that the dancer is with him. Or that he has any real clue where she is. And even if she is there, or he does know…well, I can promise you that getting out of there isn’t going to be easy.”

“That’s okay. I don’t need it to be easy.”

The knight clapped the drummer on the back. “Well alright then. We’ll do it tomorrow.”

The next day the drummer stood perched on top of the Spring Club. It wasn’t exactly open to public access, but the knight had managed to smuggle him up there via a ladder placed in the back alley. Then the knight had left to go perform his own part of this heist.

The drummer leveled his eyes at the tall, many-windowed building across the way. The knight had pointed out the window in question to him, the one that he would have to pierce through. Just to the right of that was cold, dark concrete, seemingly innocuous, but the drummer knew it was the wall of the room where the bear was this very moment.

The knight seemed less certain of that fact, but the drummer knew it. He was there.

Even just thinking of that bear, the anger started to stir up in the drummer. How could that toy have hurt the dancer like that? He had no right to take advantage of her like that. It hadn’t been an accident, and it hadn’t been a mistake. That the drummer could have understood. But no, the bear had done it only to be cruel!

Slowly the drummer became aware of his tiny fists raised in front of his eyes, trembling with a flowing rage. He didn’t know why or how, but some part of him wanted to hurt that bear. Because the bear had been a hurter, too.

BANG!

A large crack split the air and a corner of the administration building rippled. A cloud of rubble and smoke rushed up against the windows on the first floor. Soon those windows flung open, and various toys stuck their heads out into the air, coughing and gasping for fresh air, while others spilled out through the front doors.

The drummer and knight hadn’t been sure if the firecracker would just make a loud noise, or actually collapse the corner pillar. Apparently it had been the latter!

BANG!

Another equally loud crack burst from the opposite corner of the building, right beneath the cart full of the day’s propaganda papers. Wood splinters and shreds of paper flew everywhere!

“NO TOYS, BUT FREE TOYS!” the knight’s voice echoed from the streets below. “THE FACTORY SUPPRESSES ITS WORKERS AND ENGAGES IN ILLEGAL PRACTICES, AND THE ADMINISTRATION KNOWS IT!”

A few other various shouts from frightened passerby echoed up and down the streets, and then a troop of guards came filing out of the administration building. As soon as they appeared on the scene the knight turned around and ran away, leading them on a chase and calling further criticisms over his shoulder as he went. Hopefully he would get away alright.

The drummer snapped his head up, and narrowed his eyes at the window that was his mark. He stepped back to the edge of the roof, and reached down to where their ladder still emerged from the dank alleyway. He hoisted it up until he could grip its mid-section, then ran forward with all his might. He streaked across the roof, faster and faster. The other edge rushed up to meet him, and he dove to the ground, skidding his legs along the gravel as he thrust the ladder upwards and outwards like a javelin.

It sailed through the air, rungs whipping by him as they measured the distance to the window of the administration building. The ladder’s firecracker-tipped ends touched against the pane.

BANG!

The glass burst into a thousand pieces, and further cries echoed up and down the street. The ladder clanged into place, extending as a bridge at the drummer’s feet. The drummer didn’t pause for a second. He raced across the chasm, knowing full well that it would not be long before more security arrived!

Through the broken window he could see a hallway and a few toys fleeing down it, afraid that he was some maniac come to murder them, no doubt. Well good. Hopefully their stampede would keep the guards back for a few extra moments.

The drummer took one last leap, clearing the last of the ladder and landing inside of the building. He had already made out the bronze 422 on the second door on the right. He stomped over to it, pulling out the hammer slung at his waist. The knight had told him to not even bother turning the knob, the first thing that the bear would have done once the explosions went off was lock it.

Instead the drummer lifted the hammer high over head, and slammed it down on the doorknob, popping the whole thing off with a satisfying crunch. Then he kicked out at the door and let it swing wide.

“Oh no, no, please no!” a panicky voice shrieked from inside. Though it had been a long while now, the drummer recognized it instantly.

“Bear!” he growled. “Where is the dancer?!”

He advanced on the large, misshapen lump huddled on the floor of the lavish receiving room. The lump shuffled and the bear’s faced poked up in terrified confusion.

“The who?”

“The dancer! You took her and ran away, remember?!”

The bear shook his head frantically.

“On the road, on our way to the Great City. We passed by you and spoke to you, then you took her and ran into this dirty town!”

The bear’s eyes squinted at him, as if trying to see someone different. For the first moment it dawned on the drummer that he must look very, very different than he had back on that day. Now he was stained black with soot, scorched and cracked, to say nothing of the haunted glint in his eyes. For the first time it dawned on him that the bear looked very different as well. His fur had been swept back and painted. It made him look unearthly, like some sort of mystic.

“That was quite a long while ago,” the bear finally said. “Yes, I remember. I took her, I kept her for some time. But I haven’t seen her in a long, long while.”

“Where did you send her?”

“Send her? No, I woke up one day and she was gone.”

“She didn’t say where?”

“Of course not. She hated me.”

What?!” hot tears sprang from the drummer’s eyes. This was too much. She was alone out there? And no one knew where! This was the one good thread they had had to follow, and it didn’t get them any closer at all.

“Maybe–maybe she’s back on the road for the Great City,” the drummer said suddenly, grasping for some stray glimmer of hope.

“I–doubt it,” the bear said slowly, backing away towards the corner. “I don’t think she wants the same things that she did before. She’s not really the same toy as she was then…none of us are.”

“I AM!” the drummer roared, charging forward so that the bear scurried flat against the wall. “I STILL WANT TO GO TO THE GREAT CITY!”

“I don’t think you’re the same. Not at all the same at all…”

The bear had a point. For never before would the drummer have considered the violences that his mind was entertaining here and now. He still had that hammer gripped tightly in his hand. Maybe the dancer wasn’t here. Maybe he couldn’t save her yet. But the bear was here, and he could still punish him.

The drummer’s eyes winced shut and his fists shook. A deep struggle rippled through him. At last he dropped the hammer to the ground with a thud.

“I am the same!” he strained. “Same enough anyway.”

The bear looked from the drummer towering over him to the hammer down on the ground.

“You probably should hold onto that, y’know.”

“Why?”

“Don’t you know what they keep on floor six here?”

“No.”

“The scowlies!” the bear shuddered involuntarily. “They’ll already be on their way.”

“I don’t hear anything out there.”

“That’s how you know that they’ve arrived!”

Part Six

 

And so our little drummer comes to another dead-end. This one is a bit bleaker than the previous ones, there really isn’t an obvious next step available to him. As I mentioned on Monday, though, he is still progressing in the journey of his soul.

For the first time we start to see the temper that has been growing in our hero. It’s a progression in him that only feels fitting only because of us blocking the journey to the dancer. We start to realize that his quest to find the dancer is also a quest to reclaim his happy, carefree nature. But in pursuing that, and being frustrated, he is instead moving further from self-peace. This brings up the question, even if he does succeed in finding the dancer, will that be enough to bring him back to innocence?

Perhaps our drummer is beginning to become aware of these inner conflicts as well. It is implied that he realized harming the bear would be an admission that he had changed from who he was before. Moments of self-realization like that are very interesting in stories. Most stories feature a protagonist that changes, but it is only some in which the protagonist is aware of that process. I’d like to take a closer look at this narrative tool, what purpose it fulfills, and how it can be employed most effectively. Come back on Monday to see that discussion, then on Thursday we will see the drummer’s encounter with the scowlies!

It’s a Long Way Home

white and brown wooden house near calm body of water under cumulus clouds
Photo by Nathan Moore on Pexels.com

Empty Halls)

They say you can’t go home again. In my case that is most definitely true because, you see, the new owners blew it up!

True story. One Sunday they left for church, and while they were gone a gas line started leaking. The garage filled up with the gas until finally the vapor came in contact with some faulty wiring that ignited it…. And that was that.

There have been several times that I have wanted to retrace the steps of my childhood, and at least this one avenue for doing so is forever closed to me. Though, now that I think about it, even the parts of my childhood that didn’t burn down still feel just as cut off. I could walk the old, familiar streets of my youth, but I will not be the same boy that tread them once before. That experience is lost to memory alone.

Memory, nostalgia, the past. There is a sort of sad sweetness that accompanies us when we consider these words. We enjoy the ruminations at first, but inevitably they lead us to our losses. There are things we had back then which we will never have again: old friendships, innocence, an unbridled sense of wonder.

Even worse is the realization of the things we didn’t have, and now have lost the last opportunity for: apologies left unsaid, causes left unchampioned, joys left unclaimed.

Loss. And regret.

These are ponderous things to think about, and it comes as no surprise that many stories have sought to tackle this reality of human life. How Green Was My Valley is one achingly somber example. In this film and book we start with the main character Huw, who is living as a young boy in an idyllic Welsh village. His family are close, loving, and happy.

From there the threads are slowly unraveled. Though there are one or two greater tragedies, so much of the falling apart feels like the quiet, but persistent, erosion of time. In a word, life happens, and eventually the boy, now grown to a young man, cannot find the beautiful childhood home in the walls that surround him today. Though he has stayed ever-faithful, those moments have left of their own accord. He realizes the vanity of trying to hold onto that which cannot be held, and finally he, too, departs.

 

Never Hopeless)

Much of that story rings true, and yet we often struggle with this sense of permanent loss. It seems that it is a core part of our nature to believe in reclamation. To believe that yes, something might be lost, but also that it can be restored, or at least replaced.

Some might say that this is merely idle dreaming, a lie that we tell ourselves to try and cope with our loss. But on the other hand, there is no shortage of prodigal sons that attest to a once-stained soul being made as clean as the day they were born.

Perhaps circumstances and moments are lost forever, but hearts and souls are not. The impermanence of the world can be real, and yet not discredit the enduring nature of heaven. Perhaps our great confusion arises simply from conflating these two places as one.

That is certainly the case in the Disney animated feature Hercules. Throughout this film, Hercules is forever hoping to return to his home with the gods. He left them long ago, and simply wishes to restore things back as they were. He attempts to achieve this by the accrual of worldly talent and fame.

In the end end, none of these efforts succeed. No matter of finite accomplishments will be able to add up to the infinite reward that he seeks. He has mistakenly assumed that the path back home depends on physical prowess. Fortunately, fate intervenes, and Hercules finds himself facing a situation where he can save another, but only at the loss of his own life. It is then, by surrendering himself to impermanence of the world, by subjecting himself to change, and decay, and death, that finally he overcomes them and becomes immortal.

There is a very spiritual message at the heart of this, one reflected in many world religions. Instead of feeling bad about the childhood home burning down, I can accept that those moments were lost to me already. And maybe if I stop worrying about the losses and the regrets I formed in that place, I’ll be able to rediscover the infinite, childlike soul. Like Hercules, I can go home, but only if I am looking for it within.

 

The Endless Pursuit)

And then begins the most difficult journey of all. For voyages into the soul do not come with well-placed markers and paved roads. It is rugged territory, and fraught with dangers.

That is not all. It is a long quest, too, the longest that there is. Because you see, chasing the infinite, childlike soul is like chasing a mirage. With each step you draw nearer…but then it slips farther on. Always. Hercules was able to walk it to the end, but he was a god. For we mere mortals it is unattainable.

So in this journey we stumble over a world forever in flux, hoping that when the last of that changeable terrain slips out from beneath our feet that we find ourselves treading water in the infinite.

There exist stories that explore this dynamic, too. Roverandom is a charming tale about a dog that just wants to find the wizard who turned him into a toy, and ask him to please change him back into a real dog. That’s it. And then the entire rest of the story is how that wizard keeps slipping further and further away. Roverandom finds himself on the moon, in a seaside cove, and deep beneath the sea, until one starts to believe that this journey will continue forever.

It is this sort of ever-slipping pursuit that I have tried to imbue in my story The Toymaker. Here a drummer chases after his first friend, a delicate dancer. But though he makes a valiant effort, he never seems to draw any nearer to her. Last week he was about to perform a daring raid on a high-security building, all in the hopes of finding more information on her whereabouts. As you might expect, all that he will really find is just another breadcrumb to follow.

But his journey is not in vain. With each effort he is growing as an individual. He is coming to recognize right from wrong, and friend from fiend. He is learning his own strengths, and using them to take a stand for what is right. Perhaps when he has finally plumbed the fullest depths of his soul, he will at last have the power to locate his missing friend.

Come back on Thursday to see how his story progresses, and until then, happy trails!

The Toymaker: Part Four

multicolored broken mirror decor
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

“So how can we find the dancer now?” the drummer asked as soon as the knight’s attention had returned to the present.

“We’ll have to ask around I suppose. You’ve got a description of her? And of the bear what took her? Alright, I know a few good places to float those out. Someone will have seen them, don’t you worry.”

The drummer still didn’t understand, but the knight seemed confident, so that was reassuring. He decided he would just wait and watch what the knight did, and then he would understand what he had meant.

So they ambled along, the knight trying to find his way through roads that he only half-remembered. He had been down in the factories for quite a very long time, and things had changed a great deal in the meantime.

“Things haven’t been kept up very well, have they?” he said as they hopped across a particularly pothole-riddled road. “I mean they were never very good here to begin with. But somehow they’ve gotten even worse!”

“This is not a nice place,” the drummer affirmed. “Is the city at the end of the main road nicer?”

“What? You mean the one they tell you to go to when you first get made? You can’t ever get there, y’know. Probably doesn’t even exist.”

The drummer came to a sudden stop, taken aback by hearing the knight echoing the exact same thoughts as the bear when he took the dancer. “Why do you say that?” he asked sadly.

“Oh…don’t listen to me,” the knight waved his hand dismissively. “People around here just say that, but they don’t know anything.”

“Why do they say that?”

“Listen, when I first went down that road I was quite committed to it. I passed this city and went a long way farther before giving up and coming back. And let me tell you, there is unquestionably something strange about it. Not a normal road at all! Really you get the sense that you’re not even moving forward after a bit, like you’re walking in place and the turns will never end.

“And that’s not just me, either,” the knight continued. “Lots of other toys got the sense that something wasn’t ordinary about it, too. Like some of them turned around and went back to talk to those chess pieces that first set you on the road. They could never find them. The road just seemed to keep stretching out forever in that direction once you got set on it. So don’t let me cast a shadow on your hopes, but I do say that that is no ordinary road.”

“I guess it doesn’t go to an ordinary place then.”

“What’s that? Oho! I rather like that, good point! Couldn’t be a run-of-the-mill road that takes you to the Great City, now could it? You’re probably on to something there.”

“The Great City is supposed to be something special then?”

“Of course! It’s supposed to be paradise! Now don’t ask me what that means, I thought I knew once, now I know that I don’t know at all. But it’s good. And special.”

“I see. Well once we get the dancer free, she and I will be taking the special road to find the special city. You’ll have to decide if you want to come with us or not.”

“I’m with you for as long as you’ll have me, Captain. I like you. So what if I don’t believe that there’s a city at the end of that road? I didn’t believe you could save up all those discs either, and see what happened there!”

At this point they had come to a low, dilapidated tavern.

“This isn’t a nice place, either,” the knight told the drummer as they walked up to the door. “But it was the best place for information back in my day, probably still is. You just keep close to me.”

The drummer didn’t need telling twice, and so the two went through as one, peering through the smoky dark until their eyes adjusted enough to take in the scene. There were a dozen rough tables strewn about haphazardly; the clientele were in the habit of moving them about as they saw fit, and the management was in the habit of not caring. Along the back wall were two counters, the one for buying food was greasy, and the one for buying drinks was splotch-stained. The only light in the place came from some chandeliers with candles set in a ring. The place was so smoke-filled that it seemed to choke the flickering flames, and bid them shine only dimly.

“This way,” the knight said after a moment, leading the way forward to the bar.

“What can I get for you?” the wind-up clock barkeeper asked as they draw near.

“Some information, my good fellow,” the knight said brightly, flicking a medium disc onto the counter. “I’m trying to find someone.”

“Mm,” the clock said, pocketing the disc and cleaning a glass with a rag.

“A dancer, a spinning ballerina in fact. Possibly in the company of a large, tan teddy bear. They would have come into town over a year ago.”

“Well I remember the bear, of course, but not the dancer.”

“The bear is well enough. Where is he?”

“You mean you really don’t know?” the barkeeper asked incredulously.

“Well, no,” the knight cocked his head, wondering just what it is that they weren’t cluing in on. “You see, my friend and I have only just came out of the factory. Been down there for quite a long while.”

“Oho! Hope you aren’t leading the guards to my nice establishment!”

“Not at all! We came out honestly.”

“Sure, sure. Well then you probably don’t know, but a little while back they started a registry. Made everybody sign up, and kept tabs on where they all were all the time. And all the newcomers had to sign it, too. Even if they was just visiting.”

“So?”

“So that teddy bear is the last name in the book!”

“What? You don’t mean…?”

“I do! Hasn’t been a single other toy shown up since that day.”

“The Maker?”

At that the clock snorted. “Hardly. I mean some say so, but those of us with sense figure this finally proves that the Maker isn’t real. Course administration claims that he is, and rushed the bear straight up into their penthouse. They use him for a figurehead to push all their campaigns forward. That’s where he is if you want to see him, but good luck!”

“I see.”

“You said you’re from the factory? Any idea why its still running then? We sorta figured it would have shut down after the ‘Maker’ was found.”

“Well it’s not like my friend and I were privy to the board’s motivations…. But really a lot of us inside doubt that summoning the Maker was their real intention at all. Maybe at the start, but not for a long while now.”

“What then? Surely they aren’t trying to make the scowlies?”

The knight leaned in close, to be sure he wasn’t overheard. “Oh yes, indeed. They’re entirely committed to it now, trying to find ways to make them useful.”

“Train a scowlie? Why I never!”

“Only very basic things, you understand. They’ll never talk or reason like you and I do, but I’ve seen some tests run with them, where they had been fashioned for single, simple behaviors.”

“Like what?”

“Well…” the knight drew back somberly. “Not very nice things. But enough of that for now. Thank you for the information.”

The clock clearly wanted to speak more with the knight, but already the knight had turned, shepherding the drummer across the room and out into the light.

“What is a Maker?” the drummer asked when they were out in the open again. “And a scowlie?”

“You mean all that time in the factory and you never found out what we were doing there?”

The drummer just shook his head.

“Well…the Maker, according to those who believe, is some great being who made all of us. That’s why none of us knows where we come from, because he makes somewhere else, puts some of his own life inside of us, and then places us secretly in the world. Now that’s a long-old religion, and people don’t really believe in that today. They don’t like the idea of anyone out there having that sort of unbridled power.”

“Why?”

“They’re afraid of him. See we all know he wouldn’t be too pleased with us if he saw us right now. And anytime something bad happens they say its him punishing us. So one day, long time ago now, some of the richer toys got together and built the factory. Said they were going to start making toys of their own. Take the responsibility from the Maker. Not only that, but they said they were going to make the Maker! Fashion him right here in toy form!”

“But…I thought you said they didn’t believe in him?”

“Well, they don’t…and they do. It’s confusing, I know. I guess you could say they wanted to make him here just in case. Because then he couldn’t be up there anymore if ever he did exist.”

“So how did they know how to make him?”

“They figured that if they made enough toys they might make one that looked just like him. And then he would sort of–transfer into it. I don’t understand it all, it was based on ancient manuals that had been written about the Maker. Something to do with: if you capture his image, then he will be in that toy. Don’t quote me on that, but that was the gist of it. Anyway, just think about it: then you would have the Maker of us all caught up in a box. If he still had any powers you could make him do whatever you wanted, or at the very least keep him bound down so that he can’t blast us all into dust.”

“I see…and now they think that the bear is him?”

“Well, you heard the clock. They do and they don’t, same as ever I suppose.”

“Well I think that I’m the Maker.”

“What?! Don’t say that!”

“Why not?”

“It’s blasphemy. Well, I guess maybe you don’t know enough for it to be blasphemy. But a lot of people around here would find a claim like that insulting. They’d say you were being disrespectful to the Maker.”

“But what if I am him?”

“Well…no offense, but you just don’t seem the type.”

“What is he like, then?”

“I–I don’t really know…. Well, obviously he makes things, right? That much is clear. Can you make things like he can?”

“Sure.” The drummer reached down and stacked one rock sideways onto another.

The knight laughed and slapped the drummer on the back.

“Well who’s to say you aren’t, then! Really if any of us was, I suppose why not you?”

“Anyway…the teddy bear wasn’t even the last toy made either. I came after him, I just never signed the registry.”

“You what?! Well I guess that makes sense, you’ve already mentioned that you were around at the time.”

“And actually the dancer came even after me.”

“Well then maybe she’s the Maker!” the drummer laughs.

“I suppose she might be.”

“Curious that she wasn’t on the registry either…. Course, if the bear had her against her will, perhaps he was keeping her hid at the time.”

“But what’s a scowlie, then?”

The knight shuddered. “Nasty thing. See they couldn’t make anything proper in the factory. They couldn’t even make toys like you and I. They could make things that looked like toys, but they were just vacant and lifeless. They tried figuring out the secret of life, and that led them into…weirder experiments. The result were these strange, warped beasts. Random forms of metal, monsters really. And they weren’t ever really alive either. Just like I said in there, they can’t talk or reason, they just operate on one intent, usually a destructive one.”

“I don’t think I like the sound of that.”

“No, you don’t. Trust me.”

“But at least we know where the bear is now.”

Here the knight sighed deeply. “Sure, we know. But that’s a long ways from actually being there. You can’t just stroll into the Administration Building. Especially if he’s their precious figurehead, he’ll be safe from the public, somewhere locked down tight.”

“You don’t think we could get there?”

He shrugged. “Frankly I don’t know how…. But I imagine you will want to try anyhow?”

“Yes.”

“Of course. And if that’s where your quest goes, then I will come along. Whether I can see success in it or not, I meant my pledge to you sincerely.”

“Thank you.”

“Well then…I guess the first thing for us to do is get a look at this place. Let’s go.”

Part Five
Part Six

 

On Monday I shared how story characters do not always progress towards the destination they are striving for, but that they should at least progress towards the conclusion of the story. They should be ever drawing nearer to their own, personal conclusion, even if it isn’t the one that they wanted.

This is certainly the case with our little drummer. He finally found his freedom, but still has yet to reach his long-lost dancer. In fact, he seems to have only grown further and further from her, the breadcrumbs are being laid down faster than he can pick them up.

That is an intentional pattern of this story, as I want it to have a theme of tireless pursuit, no matter how many discouragements he faces. With this I am taking cues from some of my most favorite heroic epics, stories that feature a very long way home. Come back on Monday where we will examine this theme more closely, and then on Thursday we’ll get to see the drummer and knight’s daring heist played out!