Missing Shots

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The Original Plot)

I mentioned at the end of my last post that I was dramatically altering the final act of The Favored Son. The original version of it just didn’t feel right there weren’t any minor change that would fix it, so I just rewrote the entire thing.

So where did that change take place? Well, it remained the same through Tharol breaking his leg at the end of the second competition, and also through his finding out that several of the students assume he has lost his conscience.

But after this point my current version and the original split apart. In today’s version the next scene is Tharol having a conversation where Reis emboldens him to lean into his “bad guy” role. In the original version he instead discovered that Reis was conversing with the strange statue lady at this point. He saw Reis exiting the parapets with the Order’s pet hawk on his shoulder, he walked out onto the parapet himself, he looked over the grounds, and suddenly he saw the statue lady’s bodyguard sprinting from the city walls with a letter held firmly in hand. A letter presumably carried to him by a bird!

Dun dun dunnnnhh!

Upstaged by Self)

Actually not so dun dun dunnnnhh. This revelation felt very tepid, and this was the main reason for scrapping my work.

This twist just felt incredibly weak compared to the rest of the story. Consider, for example, the earlier scene where the boys are in their second competition and Reis reveals that he swapped a fake crystal with Tharol. That twist was far more clever and far more satisfying. Even though readers were told to expect some trickery, I imagine that most still wouldn’t have seen that particular maneuver coming.

But this scene of Tharol realizing that Reis is in communication with the statue lady? It just sort of…happened. There wasn’t any real suspense leading up to it, there wasn’t anything particular clever to how he figured it out, he literally just stumbled into the revelation by accident.

And the thing is, I knew that this was a weak twist even when I first wrote it, but I didn’t have anything better to replace it with. It was the first thing that popped into my head and I wrote it down as a placeholder. I kept expecting to have some epiphany for how to improve on it…but nothing else came.

And just so you know, I write placeholder stuff like this in my outlines all the time, hoping that I’ll be able to find a better solution before it comes time to deliver. And usually I do. In fact Reis swapping the crystals during the second competition is an example of where this method worked perfectly! In my outline I originally just wrote “some trick should happen at this point,” and trusted myself to figure it out when I got there. That’s exactly what happened and it was incredibly satisfying. But when I tried to use this same method for my bigger reveal?…Nothing.

Eventually I decided I had to just take the weak plot point as it was and move on. I set it in stone, wrote several other chapters on top of it, and very nearly published things that way.

Time to Deliver)

Like I said, usually I’m able to come up with richer plot devices to replace my initial placeholders, but each of us will occasionally miss our shot no matter how proficient we usually are at making them.

Literally, in some cases.

Paul Millsap is a current player in the NBA and a four-time All-Star. He is able to play the game at a very high level. On November 15, 2015, his team, the Atlanta Hawks, were playing against the Utah Jazz. With 3.8 seconds remaining the Hawks were down 97-96, but found themselves with a chance to make a basket and win the game. The ball was bounced in to Paul Millsap, he expertly sidestepped his defender, pulled back, jumped up, and sent off a beautiful shot. There was no other player to obstruct his view, no one in position to swat his shot out of the air, and he was at an excellent angle to make full use of the backboard. It was a very easy basket to make. The sort of basket that Millsap makes all the time.

But he missed, and the Atlanta Hawks lost the game.

And this is not rare occurrence. Every season in every sport there are numerous instances of an athlete stepping up to a shot they’ve made a thousand times before and still missing it. Because at the end of the day none of us are perfect at making our shot. All we can do is increase our percentage chance of hitting our mark but it never becomes a 100% guaranteed thing. When I took a shot with Reis’s betrayal during the boys’ second competition I scored a hit, but when I tried again for his alliance with the statue lady I just came up short.

Endings and New Beginnings)

And this certainly happens in the broader world of storytelling, too. I’m sure we can all recall stories that begin with an excellent premise, but then fail to cash in on that potential with their final act. I believe that many of these misfires are simply due to the author being faced with a hard deadline. In those situations no matter how well you’ve trained yourself for a high percentage chance of success, sooner or later you’re going to slip and deliver something that is beneath your standard.

Fortunately for me, I write my stories a few weeks in advance, which affords me the chance to take a second shot at things.

Two weeks after writing that weak twist I found myself able to view the trouble-area with fresh eyes. I realized a new direction I could take the story in. It would mean scrapping most of what I had been writing ever since, but ultimately I decided it would be worth it. I made the change, published it, and the story you have been reading ever since is the result of that transition. I truly feel that my story is much stronger with this new direction.

Hopefully this little peek behind the curtain has been helpful for you. At the very least I hope I’ve been able to demonstrate that:

  1. Everybody misses. We might reduce the frequency of those misses but they will always still happen.
  2. Failure truly isn’t the end of the story. So long as you keep writing you’ll be able to take that shot again. And chances are you’ll make it that time.

On Thursday I’ll be publishing the next chapter of The Favored Son. At the end I’ll also be revealing a little more of how this version varies from the original. Come back then to see what you think of the differences!

Now You See Me

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I’ve noticed an interesting phenomena of human behavior at work this last little while. We’ve been hiring a lot of new employees and there seems to be a pattern where you only meet the new hire’s mask on their first day, and then the actual person a few weeks later.

This is a common social pattern, of course. When we find ourselves in an unfamiliar environment we feel endangered. Perhaps not physically endangered, but socially endangered. We wish to protect ourselves by wearing a persona that we expect to be better received. For some that persona is more loud and confident than they really feel, for others it is more quiet and reserved. I fall into that latter category. When I start a new job or move to a new residence I hardly speak at all, then, after a few weeks I start to come out of my shell, crack jokes, and share about the things that really interest me.

It’s always interesting when meeting someone for the first time to wonder who they really are, and to look forward to eventually figuring that out. You might say you should never judge a book by its cover…. Pretty smooth segue, don’t you think 😉

In literature there are all manner of first impressions and later revelations. From the very first pages the reader is making first impressions of the story and themes as a whole, and also of the individual characters as they meet each one. But sometimes these first impressions don’t bear out through the rest of the story, and that can be both a good or a bad thing. Let’s look at both aspects.

 

The Story)

In a prior post I spoke of how a good opening can establish the tone of the narrative and also introduce the main arc that will carry the tale. But there is another aspect of a story’s opening that authors have to deal with, that of providing a hook, something that will convince the reader to forge past the first chapter all the way to the end. Opening your story with a mystery or a problem that is intriguing is how you convince the reader that your book is going to be worth their time.

The danger here, though, is that it is very easy to promise more than your story can deliver, as it is far easier to write a compelling beginning than a satisfying ending. Sadly there are many stories where strong characters, an interesting world, and a creative mechanic quickly establish an intriguing premise, but then just meander aimlessly to a weak conclusion. In this instance the story’s first chapter truly is a facade, one that looks impressive and suggests extravagant interiors, but behind is only enough lattice to make the story marketable.

I consider it poor taste to give specific examples of poorly crafted work, but I’m sure you can readily recall many such examples of this shortcoming on your own. Fortunately there are more positive examples we can consider, and one of my favorites is the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

By and large Doyle is a master of capturing intrigue at the outset of his tales and then delivering satisfaction by their close. His general template often involves a hook where Holmes is presented a baffling case, a recount of  the detective’s investigation, and finally gives a clever solution that neatly answers all that had seemed impossible.

Even more impressive is that Doyle realized his formula had become expected, and so he began to alter the pattern to surprise the reader with an even better ending than anticipated. The Adventure of the Yellow Face is my favorite example of this.

 

The Characters)

And then of course there are the individual characters of the story. In most cases a story’s characters are fully understood at all times. They may have arcs and changes, but at each moment they are telling you who they honestly are at that point. The heroes really are good, and the villains really are bad, and if a villain is going to transform into someone good or a hero into someone bad, all of these changes will be signaled well in advance. Thus nothing about them really catches us by surprise.

But although most characters wear their hearts on their sleeves, there are those that refuse to show you all of their cards until later in the game. These sudden reveals can come with powerful shifts in tone and perspective, and will certainly capture the audience’s attention.

Take special note, though: even if the author may not be foreshadowing this change and it comes as a surprise, still it must not feel random. If a character simply flips their entire personality at the drop of a hat then it just becomes ludicrous.

One of the central mysteries in the biopic Capote is whether Perry Smith is the murderous terror that the press has made him out to be. All throughout the film Perry maintains that he is more innocent than has been portrayed, and speaks in such a refined and sensitive manner that we have our misgivings to his guilt. And so this continues, right up to the point that he bluntly details how he carried out every one of the monstrous acts of which he has been accused.

The reason the scene lands so well is because as shocking as the revelation is, we still fully accept this new perspective of Perry. Perhaps the label of a raging monster did not fit with the quiet demeanor he portrayed, but that of a quiet monster does. We are able to accept this more encompassing perspective of sweetness laced with menace.

In the first section of The Heart of Something Wild I introduced three main characters and established their basic identities. In the second entry I intend to have a moment of transition where some of these roles will change, and the characters’ deeper natures will suddenly be revealed.

At the same time, though, I will need to ensure that the ending of the story remains satisfying, too. I cannot simply shake reader’s expectations loose to the point that they lose their capacity to care about the outcomes. I think it will be challenging to pull off, and I’m excited to give it a try. Come back on Thursday to see what I am able to make of it!