Boat of Three: Part One

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“Come to, man! I say, come to!”

A slap across the face and Julian snapped awake with a gasp of horror. In his mind’s eye he still saw the ship’s mainmast falling for him and his hands quaked in front of his face to protect himself from that phantom.

“Row, you fool!” Captain Molley snapped, throwing an oar grip into Julian’s trembling fingers.

Julian shook his head head and sat upright. All the world bobbed around him, and he came to the realization that he was in a lifeboat. Not on the ship, then? No. Evidently not. For there was the ship twenty feet behind them, mast broken and engulfed in flames!

“Row!”

Julian snapped around and plunged his oar into the water. He moved lazily, though, as if in a daze while comprehension still set in.

“Row, man!” the Captain shrieked from the back of the lifeboat, plunging his own oar earnestly on the starboard side.

Julian looked back. There was a chorus of cracking sounds as the ship’s wood, weakened by the fire, started collapsing under its own weight. The whole thing began folding inwards, and water was spewing out the portholes. It was sinking! And…Julian and Captain Molley were still so near to it that they would be dragged under in its vacuum!

“Captain–?” Julian asked in terror.

“ROOOOW!!!”

Finally Julian dug his oar into the water with earnest. The two men carved the water in a fervor, flailing back whole gallons of the stuff with each stroke. Their small craft lurched precipitously, bounding sideways through current of the ocean, threatening to tip into the drink any minute.

But they did not dare slow down. All the while they continued to hear the sounds of cracking and burning and spewing, all the while they tasted smoke and flecks of ash, all the while they imagined a chain about their ankles, pulling them back to the watery deep.

Then it happened. They heard a deafening roar of a frothing foment behind them, their oars skidded over the water as if it was glass, and their little craft lurched violently backwards. Both men lost their balance and slammed their faces into their knees. Never mind that, they simply sat right back up and scrabbled their oars madly in the sea, hoping against hope to feel friction again.

There came a loud popping sound, the water swelled back where the vacuum had been, and a long, tall wave lifted the men and their boat high into the air. Their hands gripped the edges of their vessel and tried to stay balance as they were rushed forward to safety. Death had refused their admittance today.

At last they came to a halt, and they rested their hands and panted heavily. Only after they had regained some composure did they turn around to see what remained of their ship and crew: naught but splintered beams and oil glossing the surface of the water.

“What–what happened?” Julian asked. “The last thing I remember was the mainmast falling towards me.”

“Yes, it hit you,” Captain Molley said simply, “and knocked you unconscious. Fortunately for you, you fell next to the lifeboat. I threw you in just before shoving off.”

“But–the rest of the crew?”

“All dead before I pushed off. If it hadn’t been necessary to save you…I would have stayed on the boat to go do with the rest.”

Julian shook his head in sorrow. He had been up above deck when things had started to go wrong on the ship, working the rigging while his mates had fought with the pirates down below.

“And the marauders?” he asked.

“It would seem that they did all go down with the ship.”

Captain Molley had managed to sink the corsair’s frigate, but not before the scoundrels had boarded his own ship, the Equinox. The pirate invaders, seeing that they had lost their own vessel, fought with a terrifying ferocity, desperate to take the Equinox for their very own. Somewhere in that chaos, a fire had broken out on their ship. It was that fire which had brought Julian down to the deck, just in time for the mast to collapse on him.

“Well we don’t have map or compass on us,” Captain Molley took stock of their situation, glancing about the tranquil water, as if half hoping to see his cabin chest ascending from the depths. But, of course, there was nothing. “We might as well accept the reality that this is a–delicate situation.”

The color drained from Julian’s face. “Just how far are we from land?”

“But I still have our heading,” Captain Molley continued confidently. “I know where we are, I know which way we’re pointed, and I know what we will do. We’re going to set ourselves that way,” he pointed northeast, “and we’re going to row back along the shipping route. If fortune continues to smile on us, we’ll find some merchant coming along the way.”

“So we’ll be rowing back towards…Port Smith?”

“Yes.”

“Which port we left seven weeks ago?”

“Yes.”

“We’re not any closer to the next port instead?”

“No.”

“How much farther is it?”

“Farther.”

“We can’t last seven weeks!”

“No. I did instruct First Mate Blythe to store a supply of food in each lifeboat, but what we have would barely last us a week. So we will hope to pass a merchant along our way. Or a naval ship. Or anything that we can hope for.”

Hope?!

“We will do what we can do. I have given you our course, now start row–” Captain Molley’s faced winced sharply and his hand instinctively flew to his side.

“Captain?” Julian asked in concern.

“No,” Captain Molley stated firmly and rose himself back to his full height. “Just a stray blow from one of those pirates, but I’m fine.”

To prove the point he took oar in hand and began rowing again. Only the slightest flicker in his eyes betrayed the pain that the action caused him. Julian saw it, but did not say any more on the matter. He simply turned and continued rowing.

They only went a few more feet when their attention was arrested by a flurry of splashes to port. A frantic voice rang across the water to them: “You! You there! Please help!”

“There’s a man there!” Captain Molley observed. “Turn to port!”

They turn their little vessel and quickly closed the distance. Just before they reached the sailor though, Julian slammed his oar into the water to halt them.

“Take no note of him, Captain, it’s a pirate!”

“No!” the floundering man cried. “You must help me! I can’t–I can’t–”

His head started bobbing beneath the rolling current.

“Let’s turn, Captain, he won’t be able to reach us if we row just a little farther.”

“Hold on a moment,” Captain Molley muttered.

“Captain!” Julian said incredulously. “You can’t be considering–”

“I haven’t decided. But this is a delicate…Pull him up. That’s it, pull him up. At the very least we’ll give him a quick death.”

“But sir!”

“Pull him up!”

Looking like he would rather grab hold of a shark, Julian reached down and seized the man under the shoulders while Captain Molley leaned to the other side to balance out the shifting weight. A heave and a drag and the man was laid at the bottom of their lifeboat, in the middle, between the two other men. He rolled onto his belly and coughed water out onto the floor. Even after his lungs were clear he remained prostrate on the floor, limbs trembling for fear, half expecting to feel a knife between his shoulders at any moment.

“Look at me, pirate!” Captain Molley said sternly.

The man turned just enough to look at the captain out of the corners of his eyes. “Please sir, I surrender.”

“We’re hardly in a position to take on prisoners,” Captain Molley shook his head.

The pirate turned more fully to face the Captain and clasped his hands at his breast. Behind him, Julian was reaching for the rope coiled at the front of the boat.

“I am unarmed!” the pirate protested. “There’s just the one of me, and two of you!”

Captain Molley didn’t appear swayed.

“But more than that, I’m your shipmate now! Truly! You think I have any sort of loyalty to those back-stabbing pirates? I curse them!” He spat over the side of the boat.

“I’m far more concerned about your loyalty to your own skin. As soon as it was in your best interests, you’d cut our throats while we slept.”

“No sir! You can’t brand me the same as all them! Yes I’ve been wicked, to a degree, but  never so cruel as that. I’m loyal! And here, you two are the only ones to be loyal to anymore. There’s no one else, it’s just us.” He gestured to Captain Molley, himself, and back towards Julian. As he did so he saw the length of rope Julian was wrapping around his hands. His eyes went wide with terror and he snapped back to Captain Molley. “We three are the crew now! We have to work together! You need me and I need you!”

“Not a lot of good you do us,” Captain Molley said darkly. “If anything, having more mouths is a problem.”

“I–I won’t eat. I won’t, you keep it all. I surrender, sir. I surrender to you! You have to protect me.”

The Captain’s brow furrowed, and it was clear that he was a man divided. All of his arguments against sparing the pirate went contrary to his sense of honor. With each pleading word his conscience was slowly being won over.

“Captain,” Julian raised his voice from behind, “this has gone on long enough. If he eats, we run out of food. If he doesn’t eat, he won’t have strength to row…. Honestly, even let out the fact that he’s a pirate. We couldn’t keep him even if he was another crewman!”

Captain Molley’s eyes flashed at that, and Julian realized immediately that he had said the wrong thing.

“Even if he was another crewman?!” he spat. “If you’d rather we make it two, then why not make it one?!”

“What–?”

“Go on, that’s the obvious next conclusion, isn’t it? Throw our prisoner overboard, then kill me off and keep all that’s left for yourself!”

“Sir, I never said any such thing! I would never attack you!”

“No, of course not,” Captain Molley said sarcastically. “Never even crossed your mind, I’m sure. Not that it would do you much good.” He pushed back the side of his coat and exposed the large knife held at his waist. Both Julian and the pirate leaned back. “You make me very nervous being my crew Mister Holstead. Very nervous indeed.”

All this while the pirate’s eyes had been darting about, weighing his two companions, one thought after another racing through his mind. At last he seemed to come to a final determination, and when he saw the opportunity to speak up he did so.

“Captain…I may actually be able to provide a solution. A way to save us all. I can see that it’s time to lay all my cards on the table….. So…you wouldn’t know it, but there’s actually a pirate’s cove quite near to here.”

“What?”

“A pirate cove, a hideout for when we need to get away from patrols, or bunker down in a storm. It wouldn’t be on any of your maps. It’s a very small rock, not worth the ink, but bounteous in hidden supplies and refuge. We’re about–” he seemed to be doing some figuring in his head, “well, seeing that we’d be rowing, we’re about two weeks away.”

“And you know how to get there?”

“Aye,” the pirate nodded. “I do.”

Part Two

 

On Monday we spoke about stories that are built around a single, critical idea. They either begin with a compelling premise, or they build up to a single lynch-pin finale. In some cases they do both.

Wait Until Dark, for example, opens with a very strong premise. A blind woman has unwittingly come into possession of a doll smuggled with drugs. A trio of criminals descend on her home, intent upon getting it from her by any means possible. This sharp imbalance of power makes the story fascinating to us, right from the get-go. It is a strong foundation, one which amply supports all the twists and turns that follow.

But then, all those twists and turns are actually working towards a penultimate finale. Everything that has come before is setting up for the final confrontation between that woman and the lead villain, after he has decided enough of all the games, he’s just going to hurt her until she gives him what he wants. They face each other down in a battle of wits, in which the woman proves that she has been severely underestimated by these men.

The premise suggests a great imbalance, where the poor woman is helpless. The payoff rejects that notion of helplessness, and changes all character and audience perceptions in a single stroke.

In this first section of this story we see how I am trying to start things off with my own compelling premise. The idea is very simple: a noble captain, a surly sailor, and a cutthroat pirate are alone in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, tied together under the most tenuous of stalemates. The pirate claims to know the location of the only refuge for miles, which is the crux of the bond between them. This, I feel, is a very promising premise, it is a foundation sown with intrigue, strong enough to support all manner of twisting threads, character drama, and rising tension.

These men are going to have to work together, but they certainly aren’t going to trust one another. And that friction is going to continue building up until it breaks out in our pivotal finale. Hopefully this will result in a story that, like Wait Until Dark, has two all-important lynch-pins. One at the very beginning and one at the very end, with a rich and engrossing story laid out in between.

But before we see it through, I want to say a little bit about that tension and friction between my main characters. It turns out that this sense of a fragile alliances is a staple of story-telling. There has long been a tradition of characters being bound together by need, but also harboring deep mistrust for one another. The friction of having to be together, but not wanting to be, is a place we love to experience as an audience. Let’s take a closer look at why that is with our next post, and then we’ll see how I maintain that tension in the next section of Boat of Three.

Would I Lie to You?

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On Thursday we had the second segment of Phisherman, in which our narrator let us into his home, more of his thought processes, and described various body sensations. But all of these are only surface periphery, and he has still stubbornly avoided sharing anything truly vulnerable. We don’t know what it is that makes him tick or what his real motivations are, and he adamantly refuses to tell us what he’s even feeling.

A narrator that has an adversarial relationship with the reader is not a new invention, but it still remains an interesting mechanic due to how it goes against the basic idea of what a story is. A story is supposed to be a way to share knowledge, to communicate, to bring to an understanding. Therefore an unreliable narrator seems that it would only make a story defeat itself in much the same way that telling lies defeats the natural purpose of communication.

Indeed almost every story begins with the assumption that the narrator is truthful and somewhat omniscient. Usually they know everything that is needed to communicate their tale accurately, and they will be used as the standard of truth that all else is measured against. Therefore when a narrator is not trustworthy it is something that has to be discovered. Bit by bit things just aren’t adding up, and finally there’s a breaking apart where our creeping suspicions become confirmed.

And it is in that moment of discovery that the self-defeating nature of an unreliable narrator is undone. When pulled off properly the communication that follows can actually become more true, due to its initial concealing nature. But don’t take my word for it, there have been some excellent stories which have proved this very point.

 

Fight Club)

Take, for example, the story in Fight Club. I’ve have not yet read the novel, but the film’s snappy, cynical dialogue was actually a direct influence on crafting Phisherman’s tone. Interestingly, this film starts by surprising us with just how brutally honest it is willing to be. We understand exactly how Edward Norton’s character feels about the media, society, and all the world’s various problems. He sees a lot to complain about, including of himself, and he doesn’t hold back in cutting down everything he despises.

But while that honesty is invigorating, the audience still gets the notion that something is being hidden from them. People occasionally treat Edward Norton’s character in a way that doesn’t make sense, and there are strange black-out periods that are entirely unaccounted for. It isn’t necessarily that we think our narrator is lying to us, just that he isn’t as in control of the situation as he should be. In the end it turns out to be both. He is lying to us, but he isn’t even aware of doing so.

In the final act the story reveals its secret, and we find out that our leading man is a far more complex individual than we had been led to believe. Certainly more than he, himself, had ever believed. Thus this tale is particularly interesting in that it features a narrator that is being duped right along with the audience. That “aha moment” where everything comes to light is even more of a shock to him than it is to us.

The takeaway here would be that the narrator does not have to always know when they are being unreliable. They might just be expressing the truth according to their limited understanding of it.

 

The Beginner’s Guide)

Another example of an unreliable narrator is that of the indie game called The Beginner’s Guide. This is a game that is unlike anything I’ve seen before, right from its initial moments. It opens with the game’s real-life creator giving you his real-life name and his real-life email address. It is incredibly, disarmingly honest, and leaves the player feeling a little embarrassed at just how far they being are invited into the creator’s personal space. But all of this is just a façade, and when it comes down things are only going to become more intimate.

The basic construct of the game is that the creator, Davey Wreden, wants to show you some small minigames that his friend “Coda” has made. These games are all quite short and about a very limited objective. They’re also very different, and feel less interested in providing compelling gameplay as being virtual art pieces that communicate an experience. For example a maze that is impossible to beat may not be very fun to play, but it recreates the sensation of being trapped that Coda was experiencing in his life at that time.

Then, at the end, Davey confesses that Coda actually hates him for sharing his games with the public like this. These weren’t meant to be put on display for everyone, they were very personal to Coda. Davey even admits that he has been altering the games, giving them glimmers of hope that he felt had been missing.

So clearly there was a deception here, and the player feels dirty for having been made an accomplice to violating Coda’s personal life. This might seem like it’s the “aha moment” of catching the unreliable narrator in the act, but there’s an even greater revelation still to uncover.

This one comes when you understand that Coda and Davey are not actually two different people, but rather two sides of the same individual. There’s plenty to suggest this fact within the game itself, but it is further confirmed by reading the blog posts that Davey Wreden has published about himself. He gets very personal and honest in those blogs, and they talk about his two conflicting interests: to be purely creative and also to feed his never-ending hunger for validation.

From his blog posts and this game we understand that “Coda” is the name that Davey has given to his muse, the part of him that provides him pure inspiration. But then there’s this other part of him, the public part, that tries to make those games more marketable and entertaining so that he can be praised for them. The more he does that, the more his private life is thrust into the limelight, and the more he starts to feel that honest creativity dying within him.

The Beginner’s Guide is very unique in that it makes the player believe it is being entirely honest, then convinces the player they have been deceived, and then let’s them discover it was actually being more honest than ever.

 

Truth Through Deception)

So obviously these are two very different examples of an unreliable narrator, however there is one aspect that they share, that of actually unveiling more as a result of their covering up.

If in Fight Club we had understood all the wrinkles of the main character from the outset, then we would not have experienced the same sense of confusion and foreboding that he was experiencing. He would have been wandering around scared and confused and we would have been waiting for him to catch up to our level. Being left in a place of uncertainty only better connected the audience to the lack of completeness he had been feeling the whole film long.

And as for The Beginner’s Guide, it could have been introduced as simply “here are two different sides of me,” but that would have lessened the sense of betrayal that we experienced at the end. By dividing the psyche into two individuals we better have this idea of a relationship, one which requires respect from one to another to survive. In this way this story is able to make its point that we know it would be unquestionably wrong to exploit another person, but why do we think it any better to exploit oneself?

This element makes for one of my favorite styles of unreliable narrator. Even though the narrator may not be telling you the truth about the details, they are informing you of other truths about themselves. This, however, is not the technique that I am utilizing for Phisherman. In fact I’ve decided to do the exact opposite to see how that affects the outcome.

Jake is being entirely honest about all of the details, and there is not going to be any sort of twist where he has a split personality or an imaginary friend. The deceit is one that he, himself, doesn’t recognize as a deceit because it is really a self-deceit. Jake has been able to omit his feelings from the story thus far because he is very practiced at numbing them, even to the point that he would doubt their existence. In the final section of the story we will have a moment where the pure terror that always lives beneath his surface finally rages to the forefront for all to see. My hope is that that moment of stark clarity will then color every scene that came before.

Come back Thursday to see how that works out. I’ll be waiting for you there!