Here we are approaching the end of The Favored Son: Alternate. It’s been a long road, and there’s been a great deal learned along the way. I want to pause and do a review on those lessons, because while it is important for me to practice my writing, my improvement accelerates when I then critique that practice and learn from it. There’s a lot to go over, so I’m going to have to split this review into two posts: this one today and another in a week. Now let’s get started.
The whole thing began with a post about the struggle of humanity’s reach exceeding their grasp. Like Frankenstein I wanted to try an experiment that I had never attempted before: to take the same foundation from an earlier story and construct an entirely different experience on top it.
Last week I took a look at what I’ve written so far and decided that the answer to that question was yes. The two versions of The Favored Son are very different from one another, not only in the events that occur within them, but in style, themes, and message. As I shared before, this second version of the story hews much more closely to my original vision. In fact, the title “The Favored Son” really makes a lot more sense in this second take than it ever did in the first attempt.
That being said, I found myself starting to drift again during the writing of this second tale, too. Towards the center of it I had Tharol uncovering Reis’s plot in a way that was weak and unimaginative. This revelation was supposed to be a hinge of the entire tale, but it just came off as a cheap coincidence. I struggled for a little while to find a better way forward, but eventually an idea suggested itself to me, which improved the rest of the story. Things transpire much more organically now, and that has meant the final product is much lengthier than I had expected, but it is also more complete.
There were smaller course corrections as well. Early on I mentioned that I was feeling bored when writing a certain piece, and realized that the audience would probably be bored when reading it as well. I saw an opportunity to introduce a small bit of inventiveness to the tale, which led me to create the “statue lady” who is trying to buy her way through the city gate.
While she has not been featured very much in the tale, she is absolutely essential to the entire thing, and I’ve realized that taking the time to give her distinctive qualities should have always been my plan. We’re about to see a lot more of her in these final two chapters, and I’ve realized that her stone nature is going to be a prominent piece in how the final action plays out. I sure am glad I acted on my boredom and breathed this new life into the tale!
Shortly after that sequence I came to yet another trouble area. My initial action scene felt a bit lacking, and given that I intended to write several more of those over the course of the story I figured I ought to do some research on the form. Ever since then I have tried to incorporate the lessons I learned of rapid, yet evocative sentences for every scene of combat. Some of these have come out better than others, but overall I am quite pleased with the result.
But while I was improving my technique in writing action scenes, I then stumbled into another issue of how to transition from them into more conversational pieces. I paused to examine the awkwardness in those scene changes, identified the conditions that led to them, and found a way to do smooth them over.
Last of all, I was dissatisfied with a sequence that showed the leader of the district as a clichéd villain. I wrote about why it is so easy to slip into using tired clichés rather than come up with more thoughtful solutions to our stories. Fortunately I paused and found a more creative way to vilify Lord Amathur, a way that will lead into the broader theme I intend to conclude this story with. In these last posts I am trying to make clear that Tharol exists in a much larger world than he realized, one that has politics and ideologies that he was unaware of, one that is torn between competing ideas and agendas that he doesn’t know his own side of.
This theme of uncovering a broader world was not part of my original vision for this story. It was an element I only discovered while writing out the first version of The Favored Son. It has become the binding theme between the two of them.
One way I will emphasize this theme is in my use of the “statue lady.” In my next post she and her forces will be presented in an extremely antagonistic light. But in the post following that we will see signs that she may not be as evil as we have thus far assumed. In a larger tale she might even have even become the hero.
Come and see this idea in play on Thursday, and then again next Monday where I will cover all the other lessons learned from writing The Favored Son: Alternate.
Tharol tried vainly to communicate to the other boys.
“Stop,” he mumbled, still half-dazed. “It’s a trap– it’s all a trap…. You have to stop Reis–I don’t know what he’s doing…but you have to stop him–“
Either they couldn’t understand his fragmented speech or they just didn’t care. They didn’t respond to him the whole way to Master Palthio’s quarters, and Tharol was nearly back to his full senses when they knocked on the Master’s door.
The door opened and Master Palthio’s voice came out weakly from the darkness. “Yes?”
“Sorry, Master,” Bovik said. “We know you need your rest, but we found out who poisoned you. We thought you’d want to know.”
“Oh…of course. Come in.”
They shuffled into the room as Master Palthio lit his lamps.
“What is this?” Master Palthio said in surprise as they placed Tharol in the middle of the room, wrists still firmly tied together.
“It was Tharol,” Bovik declared. “Tharol poisoned your dinner.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well for one thing he cooked dinner,” Golu spoke up. “He demanded to do it. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but it gave him the perfect opportunity to poison your plate.”
Tharol kicked himself inwardly. Once again he was his own worst enemy, making himself look suspicious to the boys that should have been his friends. Why did he keep doing that?
“But that’s not all,” Avro added. “Yesterday Tharol came to dinner late, said he had to patch a hole in his tunic or something. But Golu and I passed him rushing toward the cellar right before.”
Of course, Tharol thought, right after I saw the note about the wine being sabotaged. Avro wasn’t finished laying out evidence though.
“And last week when we did the combat practice Tharol was last to come to dinner again. Bovik, Reis, and I had just left the barracks and I looked back and saw him still inside, standing on a chest and looking at something over the door.”
This one took Tharol a moment to recollect. Then he realized Avro was talking about when he had investigated how Reis beat Golu in their duel. “I was just looking at the shield over the doorway,” he explained.
“That’s right,” Bovik said. “And guess where we found the wine?”
Ah, Tharol thought, so that was where Reis had planted it. He assumed Avro must have said something to Bovik and Reis on that day about seeing Tharol mess around with the shield, so Reis had known that hiding the bottle there would get Avro to connect it with him.
“And last time we brought in wine was when Tharol went to market,” Janeao chimed in.
“Hmm,” Master Palthio nodded thoughtfully. “Well that’s certainly quite the array of evidence. In fact it seems to me that you’ve all been keeping an unusually close eye on Tharol these past few weeks…”
“Yeah, Reis told us he thought something was up,” Janeao answered. “Told us we should keep tabs on him whenever we could. And clearly he was right.”
“Clearly,” Master Palthio repeated. “And where is young Reis now?”
“He took over the evening watch so the rest of us could bring Tharol to you,” Bovik explained.
“Yes, very sensible. Well alright, you all run along. I’ll take things from here.”
“What? Leave you alone with him?” Avro said in bewilderment.
“But he’s dangerous!”
“And I am a Master of the Order. Don’t fret yourselves, I really am feeling much better now. Our district needs you out there. Go now.”
There was a finality to his tone that quelled the unspoken protests in the boys’ eyes. Reluctantly they all shuffled out of the room and Master Palthio closed the door behind them.
“Master I know this doesn’t look good, but you’ve got to believe me!” Tharol blurted out. He still didn’t know whether Palthio was to be trusted, but frankly he didn’t have any other choice but to take his chances. “Reis is a traitor and he’s planning something very dangerous!”
Tharol braced himself for one of two reactions. Would Master Palthio be completely shocked, aghast that Tharol could make such a claim against his best student? Or would he round on Tharol in a rage, furious with him for having figured out his and Reis’s scheme?
The one reaction Tharol did not expect from Master Palthio, though, was annoyed indifference.
“Yes, yes, of course he is,” Palthio waved his hand dismissively, turning to his desk and rummaging through its drawers. “He has been since the first day he joined our order.”
Tharol’s mouth dropped. Was Master Palthio making fun of him?
“I’m serious!” he said hotly.
“So am I,” Master Palthio looked sharply up and Tharol could see that he meant it. “And I was serious when I told you to stop playing other peoples’ games, too. But you’ve gone and got yourself really mixed up in it now.”
He drew a long dagger from the drawers and came towards Tharol.
“Forgive me, but my extremities don’t have all their feeling back. I wouldn’t be able to untie that knot.” So saying he gripped Tharol’s wrists and quickly sawed through the rope. It fell to the ground and Tharol was free.
“You know?!” Tharol could still hardly believe it. “You’ve always known? Well come on then, we’ve got to go stop him.” He bounded for the door, but Master Palthio raised his hand behind Tharol and the door locked itself fast.
“Tharol…there is no stopping him,” Master Palthio said sadly. “Don’t you think that I would have already done something about it if there was?”
Tharol turned around, confusion etched all across his face. “You’ve got to let me out, Master. I have a plan. Reis isn’t going to get his way tonight.”
“Reis is the least of your problems, Tharol. Please take a seat,” Master Palthio gestured to the seat behind his desk. Tharol didn’t budge. “Tharol, I am going to let you out of here…but not until you hear what I have to tell you. Take. A. Seat.”
It was the last thing Tharol felt like doing, but there wasn’t any other choice. He marched over to the chair and perched on the corner of it, foot tapping impatiently.
“Thank you,” Master Palthio said, lowering himself into a seated position on his bed. “I’ll try to be brief.”
The sun had seemed to set extra quickly that evening, what with all the commotion that had occurred.
“Maybe we should stay up with you,” Avro offered Reis when it was time for the Night Watch to begin. “None of us are going to get much sleep anyway.”
“No, no,” Reis said. “We’ve had a ruffle, but we’ll carry on as we had intended, business as usual. Best way forward is to stick to our duties.”
Reluctantly the other boys retired to their barracks, leaving Reis alone on the wall. With hands on the ramparts he eagerly watched the sun fading behind the rolling hills, waiting for his moment of triumph. Already the first stars were appearing up above, and soon the moon would take over the realm. How fitting a symbol, Reis thought, for the power changes that were about to take place.
“Tharol, this district has been dying for a long while now,” Master Palthio began his explanation. “There was still the shadow of honor when Lord Oraliah–that’s Lord Amathur’s father–reigned over the district. There was still a great deal of corruption all around him, but he was mighty enough to keep it at bay. Then, once he died, he left a vacuum that was immediately filled by all those opportunistic, unprincipled vultures! The only reason we didn’t have a civil war was because his own son was the worst of the lot, willing to make every concession to keep the dukes and senators happy. I won’t go into all of the politics of it, but I believe even you have seen the effects of it. Order and decorum are a joke, scheming and underhanded deals are the norm, and no one has any sense of duty. All they care about is their own agenda.”
Tharol stopped tapping his foot so impatiently. He nodded sadly, but then added, “Well not all of us have lost our sense of duty.”
Master Palthio smiled. “No, you are correct. Forgive my cynicism. That, of course, is the other sickness that has pervaded our streets. A sense of hopelessness, a belief that we are beyond repair. That cynicism has been my own vice, and I have not fought against it as well as I ought to have. It has compromised me as much as if I had been another of the selfish opportunists. That cynicism has paved the way for even more dangerous enemies to the city.”
Reis heard a noise behind him and turned to see Inol mounting the stairs, large cup in hand.
“What’s this?” he asked in pretend surprise.
“Master Palthio’s orders,” Inol smiled. “The Night Watchman is to have a chalice of wine to keep him company through the night!”
Reis met the smile and took the cup. “Well that’s very thoughtful! Thank you, Inol.”
Inol nodded and stepped backwards, but his face fell slightly as Reis placed the cup down on the wall.
“You’re not going to take a drink from it?” he asked.
“No, not yet. I’ll save it.”
“Well…at the very least I had thought we should toast your commission.”
“Thank you, Inol, that’s very thoughtful. Wait here a moment and I will.”
“Reis is cynical, isn’t he?” Tharol asked.
“Yes. Extremely so. He hates the opportunists, the Beesks and Inols of this city. He wants to burn them to the ground and build a stronger, stricter order on top of it all. And he is not the only one that does. There has been a growing tide both within our walls and without that want to destroy this city for its weakness. And these revolutionaries know that they can manipulate the opportunistic fools into opening the doors for them. Offer them something that they value and they’ll let you get close enough to drive a dagger through their hearts.”
“But…you knew all about this and haven’t done anything?!”
Master Palthio sighed and looked downward heavily. “Tharol…I have tried. In quiet ways, I admit, but I really have tried. Maybe I could have done more, I don’t know, but I have tried. You have no idea how outnumbered we honest folk are. Every gate has been compromised. Every district. The very city core! Speaking up for principle has become a dangerous vocation. Sounding alarms that no one wants to hear gets you stifled. I know what Reis was came to our order for. I know what Beesk and Inol are doing behind our backs. But if I removed any of them there would just be more cynics and opportunists to take their place. If I kept weeding out the likes of Beesk and Inol Lord Amathur would have had me removed for cutting into his side ventures. If I kept weeding out the likes of Reis I would be assassinated! You can try to fight the inevitable but it will happen anyway. There is no stopping the coming tide.”
Inol shifted uncomfortably next to Reis. The statue lady was supposed to show up any moment now and the boy still hadn’t taken his drink. Inol would have to think of something fast or Reis would see her approaching!
“Well…I should really be getting to bed,” he said. “Why don’t we do that toast now and then I’ll get my rest.”
“Very soon, Inol. Very soon.” The last of the daylight had faded, leaving the sky a murky, navy blue. Reis kept his eyes fixated on the horizon, trying to still make out the line of hills in the dark. Suddenly he became aware of a thousand pinpricks of fire lining the most distant ridge. “Oh,” he breathed excitedly. “Come over here, Inol, I think the time for that toast has come!”
Reis’s back and arms were tensed in excitement. He didn’t turn a single degree as Inol stepped beside him and followed his gaze out to the rolling hills beyond. At first Inol couldn’t make out anything in the moonlight. The only movement was the tall grass waving in the wind upon the distant hills. But then, with a shock, Inol remembered that grass didn’t even grow on those rocky crests. And there was no wind. What he actually saw was a mass of people, an entire army silently marching towards the city wall. With a gasp he looked left and right, and he saw that the line continued as far as he could see in each direction. Thousands upon thousands quickly approaching, billowing out to meet each of the district’s gates!
And in all that empty air there was not a single sound of warning. No alerting bugle. No clash of swords. All the other gates must be seeing the approaching horde just as he did…but none of them were doing anything to stop it!
“Drink with me, Inol,” Reis smiled broadly. He lifted the goblet and looked over its rim in a salute to the coming masses. “My triumph has arrived!” Then he raised the cup to lips and took a long and deep draught. He was so flushed with success he didn’t even notice the unusual warmth of the liquid, the bitterness that was mingled with its rich flavor. “What’s the matter, Inol?” he said with a laugh at his comrade’s wide stare. “Aren’t you feeling well?”
Then, without warning, Reis’s whole body trembled violently. His eyes expanded in shock and he flung the goblet to the ground, clutching to the nearest brazier for support. He convulsed again, and fell the rest of the way to the ground, fingers scrabbling madly against the wood. He opened his mouth in agony and let out a single, long scream!
On Monday I compared my current version of The Favored Son to my first attempt at writing the story and I considered the elements that were stronger in each. From my freshman effort I specifically called out the greater creativity and heightened drama, and I stated that I would attempt to incorporate some of those elements here at the climax of my second version.
We got the first example of that in this highly dramatic scene of the army approaching and Reis being poisoned. The tension of that moment was built up more than any other scene in the story. It felt more on the level of that dramatic moment in the first story when the teachers suddenly assaulted their own students.
Here at the climax of this story it feels particularly fitting to cut loose in a loud moment of catharsis. Reis has been smugly pulling the strings on all the other boys for the entirety of the story. Now we finally get to see his mastery of the situation burst into pieces, and it works well for it to be a highly dramatic moment. With the next chapter of the story we will also see more magic coming to bear.
It’s certainly been a long time getting to this finale. There’s still two more chapters left to go, making this the longest tale I’ve published by a significant margin. We are finally coming to the end, though, and that means it’s time to take a step back and review all the lessons we’ve been learning along the way. Come back on Monday as we look back at it all, and then come on Thursday to see how the story continues.
Both of these stories began in a very similar manner. Both featured a group of students in an order, which eventually was overrun by an invasion. Both of them featured a battle of wills between the different students as each tried to champion their own way forward.
If you have been reading the second version you can certainly see that the style and plot have many drastic differences from the first. So now let me answer whether this second attempt has hewed more closely to my original idea or not.
It has. Like a lot. This new incarnation is very much in the vein of my original concept. Yes, a few things have changed as I’ve gone along, but not any more than is to be expected whenever a vague concept is written into a hard reality. So if you have read the first version of The Favored Son, now you should be able to understand why I felt there were several ideas being left on the table!
Is it Better This Way?)
Now that I have both the free-flowing-exploration-into-the-unknown version and the more stick-to-the-plan version, the natural question is which am I happier with the result of. The answer to that is a bit mixed.
On one hand, they really are just very different tales that do different things well. There are things that I appreciate about both and I wouldn’t want to be without either. On the other hand, I can’t help but appreciate that this newer attempt was more successful at capturing my intended vision. Yes, the other one took me into fresh material that I value, but I feel more competent as a writer with the second attempt because it was a better execution of being what I wanted it to be.
Technically speaking, I would also say that my second attempt is more complex. There are more characters, more relationships, more arcs, and I am pleased with how they are all being given full expression.
Imaginatively speaking, though, I would say the first version had the more exciting ideas.
Obviously I mean this in terms of having a more involved magic system and a more surprising world to explore, but also in having more dramatic ideas, such as the order’s ritualistic self-destruction and characters being literally taken over by despair. There was a lot of creativity crammed into that tale.
But given all that bursting creativity is it any wonder that the plot went off track?
Lost in the Details)
I really do think it was all this deluge of ideas that caused me to lose the thread of my plot in the first version of The Favored Son. I came up with one imaginative idea after another. I included them without a second thought, and in the process of exploring their implications I realized that I had built a foundation that the original story wouldn’t fit on anymore.
It has to be appreciated that this is a package deal. How can you fully explore a new concept unless you are willing to surrender some control for where things are going to go with it? There is a trade-off in writing between discovering something new and meeting your original expectation.
On the one hand, by focusing on plot and character first and foremost in my second version of The Favored Son I had a more solid foundation, a better story at its core. And having that foundation I could now dress it up with all manner of rich world-building that I please. I could take all of the more magical elements of the first version and easily apply them throughout.
But on the other hand…how would I even know about those magical elements if I hadn’t allowed myself to get lost first?
Clearly there is a benefit to both approaches. I’m actually very glad that I decided to write both versions, if only to have discovered this fact. You can have freedom in your writing or you can have structure. Or, if you allow for each separately, then you can combine them together and have both. You can make an excursion into the unknown and discover all manner of raw, creative material, and then you can set down at the desk and compile it into a deliberate, crafted plot.
If it weren’t for the fact that I have already spent months on these stories and am ready for a change of scenery, I would consider now writing a third version of The Favored Son, one that marries the two previous attempts in the way I have described. I may still try it at some later date.
After finishing he finished the preparations for dinner, Tharol returned the poisoned bottle of wine, seal firmly reattached, back to the cellar. Then he carried the pots and pans out of the kitchen and to the scullery to help Golu finish with the cleaning.
The hardest thing to do now was keep a calm demeanor. He had to act as if today was just like any other. He couldn’t start acting jittery, that would make Inol and Beesk suspcious, and Reis, and Master Palthio. He had to pretend that he was totally duped, completely unaware of all the other threads being pulled around him.
Fortunately, cleaning the pots was a good way for him to get his anxieties out in a not-so-obvious way. He scrubbed at them as vigorously as he could, letting the jitters work out through his fingers as he went. In no time at all he and Golu had the task done and made their way up to the main hall to ring the bell for dinner.
A few minutes later and all of the boys were gathered together at the table. As before, Tharol avoided making eye contact with anyone, too afraid of what he might betray if his gaze was held for too long.
“Golu, I hope you don’t mind my saying, but this dinner is beneath your usual standard,” Master Palthio said as he took a bite with his fork and a little sip of wine. Tharol tried to hide his anxiety deep down. “I’m not sure what it is,” Master Palthio continued, “just everything is a little off-taste.”
“Oh…” Golu said blankly. “Sorry.”
Tharol breathed an inward sigh of relief. He didn’t want Reis to hear that he had swapped chores. That would be unusual for Tharol, and the last thing he wanted was for Reis to know he had been behaving unusually.
Master Palthio shrugged. “Just an observation, Golu. Don’t worry too much about it.”
He then turned to address the boys as a whole. “Well, I suppose we had better get things ready for the evening, don’t you? Golu, Bovik, you’re on evening watch, go relieve Janeao and Avro so that they may have their meal. Then we’ll–“
A strange expression fluttered over Master Palthio’s face and he leaned back again. He looked up to the ceiling, as if waiting for something to pass. Then small spasms started to pass over his face, symptoms of an irritating, recurring pain.
“Master?” Bovik asked, concern in his voice. “Is everything alright?”
“I–well–I’m not so sure.” Master Palthio brought his head downwards and kneaded his brow with his hands. “I have these strange spasms coming over me. I thought they would pass after a moment, but–” he winced sharply as the pain spiked.
“Master!” several of the boys cried as they leaped to their feet.
Palthio’s quivering hands clutched at his stomach and his face contorted into a painful grimace.
“Golu, you’ve given him food poisoning!” Bovik cried.
“But I didn’t even–“
“Don’t be stupid, Bovik!” Tharol sharply interjected. “We’ve all been having the same meal. This looks worse than food poisoning to me. We need to get a doctor!”
“No, I–” Master Palthio began, then suddenly lurched his head back away from the table and retched violently onto the floor.
“Get him a bucket!” Reis cried.
A few more heaves and Master Palthio had deposited his entire meal on the floor. He slumped back in his chair, exhausted, but he looked like he finally had some reprieve from the pain.
“I’m alright, boys,” he said faintly. “I’m alright. I’m just going to–going to need some rest. If a couple of you could support me back to my chambers I think I’ll turn in.”
All the boys moved forward to help, but Bovik and Golu reached him first. Each of them took an arm around their shoulders and the three of them ambled towards the Southern Wing where Master Palthio’s chambers waited.
Tharol turned to the remaining boys: Beesk, Inol, and Reis. The very last people he wanted to be alone in a room with right now. Inol and Beesk were nearest to him, and the two of them turned to face him, each bearing the same stupefied stare. Behind them Reis also made eye contact with Tharol, silently gesturing to the other boys with a cocked eyebrow.
Tharol would have liked nothing more than to lunge at him. Now he knew exactly what Reis had done with the wine he stole!
“Reis, did you want to clean up the mess,” he said, his voice came out strangely high-pitched from the anger he was trying to suppress. “Why don’t the rest of us circle round? Do a sweep of the area and make sure everything is secure? We can’t afford to have any vulnerabilities while our Master is unwell.”
It was a thin excuse, but everyone present saw it as a cover-up for different reasons. Reis would assume that Tharol was suspicious of Beesk and Inol and wanted a moment alone with them to get to the bottom of things. Beesk and Inol would assume Tharol wanted to check whether anyone had accidentally brought their poisoned wine to the table. As such, everyone nodded in agreement and Tharol, Beesk, and Inol made their way out to the courtyard.
“To the cellar,” Inol hissed as soon as they were out of earshot of Reis.
The three of them took the long way around the barracks, and soon they were crouched down among the bottles, swinging lamps overhead.
“Look at this!” Beesk exclaimed. “One of the bottles is broken. The other’s still here though.”
“Have the seals been tampered with?” Inol asked.
“Let me see…no…they’re both still secure.”
Each of them looked quizzically back to Tharol to see what he thought.
He paused for a fraction of a second, debating whether he should play this off as if he were relieved. He could just say that whatever had happened to Master Palthio…it didn’t look like it could be related to their poisoned wine. But no, he decided. That was not what they would expect from him.
“So what if the seals aren’t broken?” he demanded. “All that proves is that no one else used the wine. So it had to be one of us! And why’s that one bottle broken? Someone poured out a glass and then shattered it to hide the fact it was running low?!”
“Now you hang on just a second!” Inol fired back. “Are you trying to suggest one of us poisoned Master Palthio?!”
“Perhaps I am!”
“Why would we do that?” Beesk protested. “That doesn’t help us at all.”
“Makes him that much less likely to get involved in things tonight, doesn’t it?”
Inol sighed. “Alright…I see your point Tharol. But I don’t know what to tell you. I didn’t poison it, I trust that you two didn’t, so what else is there to say?”
“Yeah,” Beesk chimed in. “I thought you were more trusting than this Tharol.”
Tharol sighed and made as if he were taking their arguments in. That was good enough. “Alright,” he finally said. “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway. What’s done is done…I’m just going saying there better not be any more surprises tonight!”
“We’re all on the same page there,” Inol reassured.
“We should get back before Reis starts getting suspicious,” Beesk said. The other two agreed and they quickly returned to the main hall. Reis wasn’t there, though, and Tharol didn’t like that. He hadn’t considered when he left with Beesk and Inol that he was leaving Reis alone to do whatever he pleased yet again.
“Well…you two make sure everything’s ready for tonight,” Tharol said. “I’m going to check on Master Palthio.”
As soon as he was apart from the other two Tharol started sweeping the grounds, glancing through each window and round ever corner for any sign of Reis. He scolded himself for having not realized that Reis would have had some nefarious intent for the poisoned wine he stole. He wondered if there were any other poisonings likely to occur. At first he thought no, because no one else at the table had become sick, but maybe Reis had figured that would look too suspicious. Maybe Reis had other traps meant for all the rest of the order. One thing was for sure, Tharol wouldn’t be taking a drink of anything for the rest of the night, nor indeed leaving himself alone in a corner.
With that thought Tharol took in his current surroundings and realized he had already done exactly that! During his search he had ambled into the corner where the barracks met the storage. He turned himself around, just as the barracks door flung open in front of him and Avro, Bovik, and Janeao came storming out.
“There he is!” Bovik cried and the other two boys spread out so that the three of them could move at him in a pincer movement.
“Hey, what is this?!” Tharol exclaimed.
“Come with us,” Avro ordered. As he spoke each of the boys drew knives out of their cloaks. “Just come with us and you won’t come to any harm.”
Tharol backed up until he hit the wall. “Are you guys crazy! Put those knives away!”
“It’s alright, Tharol,” Bovik soothed. “We don’t want to use them. We will if we have to, but we don’t want to.” He turned to Janeao. “Throw him the rope.”
The three boys halted their advance, but remained in an alert, defensive stance. Janeao stowed his blade, reached into his tunic, pulled out a length of rope, and flung it through the air to Tharol’s feet.
“Tie your hands,” Bovik instructed. “We won’t come any closer while you do. After that we’ll put away the knives and all go to Master Palthio. Nice and simple, see?”
Tharol picked up the rope. It was coarse and rough.
“What is this, Bovik?” he asked quietly. “What’s going on?”
“We know what you did, Tharol,” Bovik sad softly, even sadly. “The game’s over, alright? We know all about the poison.”
For the first time Tharol noticed the jug of wine fastened to Avro’s belt. He wasn’t near enough to see the broken wax seal, but he was sure it was the one Reis had taken, the one that had been used to poison Master Palthio. No doubt it had been planted somewhere that would incriminate Tharol.
Reis was taking care of two birds with one stone.
“Alright,” he said, then twisted his hand around the end of the rope and swung it out like whip! The other boys ducked to the ground just in time to dodge the flail, and while they were down Tharol surged forward, leaped over Bovik’s crouched form, and sprinted for the courtyard.
Just as he passed the edge of the barracks a dark blur rushed at him. Golu slammed in from the side and threw Tharol to the ground! For a moment Tharol lost consciousness, then awareness came back slowly. He remained dazed for a few minutes, only vaguely aware of the other boys binding his wrists with the rope and carrying him off to Master Palthio. He was in for it now!
Thus at the end of my last chapter I had Tharol increase the toxicity of the wine to a point that it might be lethal for Reis. I realize that today’s chapter might feel like it then distracts from that element of suspense by focusing more on Reis’s schemes, and how he is removing Master Palthio and Tharol out of the picture, but I have a specific reason for having spent some time here.
In the next section Tharol will remain incapacitated. He is the only one that can prevent Reis from drinking that poisoned wine and now he will be physically incapable of doing so. The wheel has been set in motion and the only one that can call out a warning has been removed. I believe that this will accentuate the tension in the moment where Reis finally does take that wine, but setting up for it required me to briefly shift the focus elsewhere.
In the next section I will ramp the tension back up around the poisoned cup, by pausing around his moment of actually drinking it, making the audience wonder if he will go through with it or not.
I promise that we’ll get to this moment of catharsis soon. This story has extended much longer than I had originally anticipated, but now I am down to the last three chapters. At this point I would say I am close enough to the end to compare it to the original version of The Favored Son, the version that strayed into a different path than I had originally intended. I want to share how well this current attempt has done at meeting my original vision, and how I feel about the two stories compared against one another. I also want to identify why I feel the first one went off into such different waters to begin with.
Last summer was the first time my son appreciated holiday fireworks. Before then the suddenness and the loudness of them were just too overwhelming. During those earlier years I noticed that there was a particular part of setting off a firework that filled him with the most dread, and it was not the explosion at the end. It was the fuse fizzling before the boom.
Once the actual eruption occurred he was usually fine. Then he could see that it was only a small shower of sparks coming out, and he knew there wouldn’t be anything too overwhelming. But before that moment of realization, to his young mind anything might come out of that small cardboard tube. No matter how many assurances we gave him that we had only bought “small ones,” he remained unconvinced until he could see it for himself. Thus at the lighting of the fuse he wasn’t yet sure that he was safe and now it was too late to halt the process!
The master of suspense in cinema, Alfred Hitchcock, hit on this very same point. He once said “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” There is an excellent example of this in his movie Rear Window. In this film’s nearly two-hour runtime there is almost no action from beginning to end. But there is plenty of burning fuse.
Our main character, Jeff, is stuck at home with a broken leg, snooping on the neighbors in the apartment across the courtyard. A certain one of those neighbors starts showing a series of suspicious behaviors, leading Jeff to believe that the man has killed his wife. At one point he sees an opportunity to uncover incriminating evidence, but as he is stuck at home with a broken leg his girlfriend (Lisa) decides to carry out the mission for him. The fuse is lit.
Jeff makes an anonymous call to the neighbor, telling him he knows what he did and organizes a blackmail meeting. Jeff has no intention of actually meeting the man, but it gets him out of the house while Lisa breaks into his apartment and finds a damning piece of evidence. But of course she discovers it just as the man returns back home!
The fuse is very hot now. We’re all anxious for the explosion that is about to follow. At this moment that fallout might hold anything, including a second murder. We watch helplessly as Lisa hides, the man finds her handbag, searches for, and finds her! He starts drilling her with questions and she tries to make a break for it, but he grabs her and turns off the lights! All the way to this moment nothing decisive has happened, but we are withering at the burning of the fuse! As before, so long as it continues to burn, any gruesome outburst is still on the table.
But then the explosion doesn’t happen. Jeff called the police at the first sign of the man returning home and they arrive just before Lisa can meet a violent end. At this point violence didn’t really have anything more to add to the film. The terror had already been maximized by the long suspense.
I have tried to implement this same idea of the burning fuse with the most recent post of my story. In it we already know that Reis is planning to betray the order, but we are left wondering as to how. Any outcome is possible right now, and we have to wait to see it.
How To Wait)
Alfred Hitchcock also said that “suspense is when the spectator knows more than the characters in the movie.” And this is true of that same scene in Rear Window, for we see the man coming up the stairs to his apartment before Lisa knows that he has returned home. That, in fact, is the moment where the suspense burns the brightest, even more so than when he is actually having his altercation with her. She is ignorantly wasting her last possible seconds for escape because she doesn’t know what’s about to come through that door and we don’t have any way to warn her.
But how to include this ingredient of suspense in The Favored Som? The most obvious choice would be to reveal Reis’s plot to the audience before Tharol uncovers it. Then Tharol could ignorantly walk into the snare, all while the audience squirms in anticipation. But I didn’t want to go that route. Thus far Tharol and the audience have uncovered each piece of the truth together, and I didn’t want to break that balance.
What I realized I could do, though, was invert the element of suspense in this story. Instead of the audience knowing about Reis’s trap, and Tharol being oblivious, I could make the audience aware of Tharol’s trap, and Reis would be oblivious. And thus I wrote the scene of Tharol increasing the dose of poison in the wine.
At this point Reis doesn’t believe that there is any poisoned wine remaining. He has no reason not to drink the cup that Beesk and Inol will bring to him. And as he toys with that cup I think the audience will enjoy a sense of anticipation for what it about to follow.
Because anticipation is the positive counterpart to suspense. Where my son used to see the fuse burn and was filled with dread of the unknown, now he bounces excitedly, anticipating that same unknown. It’s the same basic idea, it’s just inverted from fear to excitement.
Suspense is a powerful tool in how it keeps the audience on the edge of their seat. It works best by suggesting to the audience that something dramatic will happen, something that the characters involved are unaware of, but while still leaving an air of mystery as to what exactly the coming fallout will look like.
With my next post I won’t get to payoff for all this suspense, though. First I’m going to ratchet up the tension with a twist that will be as surprising to the audience as it is to Tharol. My hope is that this will make the anticipation of the poisoned cup raise even higher in the chapter after that. Come back on Thursday to see what you think.
Tharol barely slept that night. He lay motionless in bed, turning matters over in his mind, silently wondering if Reis was laying awake as well.
He had intentionally laid down with his face pointed at Reis’s cot so that he could watch him all night long. It was incredible to think that he had slept every night just a few feet away from Reis, totally vulnerable to any attack of the night. All of the boys had. All of them had shared that one room together every single night, and they had just blindly trusted each other to not stab them in their sleep.
That had always been taken for granted. None of them had ever actually questioned whether their lives were at risk in their own home. But now Tharol couldn’t repress a rush of questions that terrified him. Just how many threats had he slumbered peacefully through? How many times had he almost lost his breath and didn’t even know it? How close had he been to his own end?
Tharol believed he would not get any sleep that night. He certainly didn’t intend to. Being the only boy awake to the realities of their danger it was his duty to stay alert and watch over them all.
But somewhere through the night he failed in that endeavor. He didn’t even know when he fell asleep, he wasn’t ever aware of having stopped staring at Reis’s bed. But he must have, for the next thing he knew a hand was shaking his shoulder and he startled back awake.
“Tharol, didn’t you hear the bell?” Reis was looking down at him with a bemused smile. “You almost missed dinner last night and now you’ll miss breakfast?”
Tharol blinked rapidly. At the sight of Reis so near he instantly tensed up, but then he played that off as the shock of being awoken.
“Reis, you scared me,” he laughed. He was relieved to hear that the laugh sounded decently natural. “I guess I had trouble sleeping last night.”
“Well you’d better get yourself ready. You don’t want to come to morning practice on an empty stomach.”
Tharol quickly shot his eyes around. No one else was there. Here in the morning light a fresh idea occurred to him. Reis’s behavior suggested that he didn’t think Tharol suspected him. Or he wasn’t sure what Tharol thought, and he didn’t want to do anything hasty until he was certain. So this meant Tharol had a chance to assuage any fears that Reis had. He could make Reis believe that Tharol thought they were still friends.
“Reis,” he hissed, “there’s something I need to tell you about last night.”
“Yeah? What is it?”
“I stole one of the notes Beesk and Inol got from the statue lady last night. She left it on the wall and I grabbed it before they got there!”
“Where is it?”
“I burned it.”
“Why would you do that?!”
“I don’t know…I panicked. Didn’t want them to find it on me, I guess. I’m sorry, I should have brought it to you.”
“Yes, you should have. But never mind that now. What did it say?”
“It said she knew I was a traitor and that I had messed up their plan and they needed to get rid of me!”
“And I was late to dinner last night because I went to check the wine and someone actually had changed the wine! The poison is gone out of it.”
“Oh no!… And you didn’t swap it yourself?”
“No. You said we should leave it.”
“I know, but I also know that you didn’t like that idea.”
“Well I left it. I swear I did.”
“Alright…well…who would have swapped it then?”
Tharol sighed heavily. “I think you were right. I figure it had to have been one of Beesk or Inol. They’re probably trying to rub me out so they don’t have split their reward three ways.”
“Yes,” Reis mused thoughtfully, “you’re right. That has to be it.”
“But I don’t know which one.”
“Well which one was coming up on the ramparts to check for the note that day?”
“So probably Inol planted it earlier for Beesk’s benefit, don’t you think?”
“Good point. Inol is the more intelligent of them, too. That fits. And I’m sure Beesk told him he didn’t find any paper, so he’s got to be suspecting me right now.”
“Though, on the other hand, he might just assume that the wind ripped the note off of the wall…”
“No. Don’t assume he assumes that. Maybe he does, but you don’t do yourself any favors by letting your guard down.”
“You’ve got to be careful moving forward now. Whether there’s a threat or not, you’ve got to believe that there is one and you’ve got to protect yourself from it.”
Tharol stiffened his lips and exhaled bracingly. “Alright, Reis, I will…. Thank goodness this all ends tonight, though.”
The two nodded reassuringly at one another, then set off to their breakfast.
The day that followed was the strangest that Tharol had ever lived through. He was hyper-aware of everything that occurred around him. Every time someone entered a room, every time someone left. Every ordinary behavior seemed somehow suspicious now, as if everyone else was part of a conspiracy, play-acting the entire day’s events just to deceive him.
There were only a few short hours remaining until that night, and he felt that he absolutely had to do something in preparation for that. But as to what he didn’t know. He felt paralyzed by all of the different possibilities, none of which seemed quite right.
First he wondered if he should go to Master Palthio with everything he knew. He was long past wondering whether Master Palthio was in on Beesk and Inol’s plot, but the question now was whether the man was part of Reis’s. And while it wasn’t a definitive sign of guilt, there was the fact that Master Palthio had chosen Reis for the Night Watch. It could very well have been an innocent decision because Reis was the best student, in which case Master Palthio probably wouldn’t even believe Tharol anyway. Or if Master Palthio was not so innocent, if he was in on whatever Reis was plotting, then he would get in Tharol’s way all the more! Either way Tharol couldn’t speak with him.
So next he wondered about tipping off Beesk and Inol. What if he told them that Reis was plotting something, that Reis was trying to use all three of them as an accessory to his own motives and they had to stop him? But how would Tharol convince them of that? By telling them the truth? That he had been working with Reis as a mole to try and get them expelled from the order? Going to them for help would quickly backfire on him!
What about Avro, Janeao, Bovik, and Golu? Could he tell everything that had happened, win back their trust, and get their help? No. If he had been coming to tell them about a plot uncovered about Beesk or Inol they might accept it, but about Reis? Reis was the most stainless boy in the whole order. They would see his accusations as nothing more than a desperate ploy to make himself look better by slinging mud at their hero.
The simple fact was that Tharol remained safest so long as the only person who knew what he knew was himself. Anyone that he opened himself up to just introduced that much more chance for things to go wrong.
So whatever Tharol did it would have to be alone. But that brought up the same, old question: just what was he supposed to do? Reis had tried to have Inol and Beesk get rid of him once, and following their morning conversation he must be looking for another way to still do that. If Tharol didn’t try to counter that move he was a fool.
But how to counter a move he didn’t know? He racked his brain trying to think of what Reis’s play would be. There were too many possibilities, including ones as simple as Reis just hitting him over the head at the next opportune moment!
It wouldn’t work to play defensively. He would have to take an offensive stance. He would have to forcibly remove Reis, just as how Reis had tried to forcibly remove him.
That was another point that was aggravating Tharol. Why had Reis tried to have Beesk and Inol get rid of him? He remembered how upset Reis had been about Tharol’s insistence to be out on the grounds during the Night Watch. Did that make him a loose end that had to be tied off?
But why? What was Reis planning? If all Reis wanted was to let the statue lady come in then he wouldn’t have been interfering with Beesk and Inol. He would have just let them do what they already planned to do and he’d have what he wanted. So that couldn’t be his objective. To say nothing of the fact that Tharol still couldn’t believe Reis would be swayed by anything as petty as money. Whatever he was trying to do it was for deeply held ideological reasons. And those reasons he had felt he couldn’t share with Tharol, not even in private. And that meant they were extreme and dangerous.
“As I am sure you all recall, this evening Reis will stand over the Night Watch,” Master Palthio’s words snapped Tharol out of his thoughts. All of the boys were assembled in the main hall at the end of their early afternoon lesson. “And as such, he shall be excused from his duties this afternoon and allowed to get a little extra rest. I’m sure you’re very excited for your duties tonight, but do try to get some sleep if you can.”
“Of course, Master,” Reis nodded.
“And what had been your duties for this afternoon?”
“I was supposed to scrub pots.”
“And Tharol, you were on dinner preparation, correct?”
“Yes, with Golu.”
“I’m sure that Golu will be able to manage that himself. You will take over scrubbing the pots for Reis. Understood?”
“Yes–I mean–actually Master, I didn’t sleep very well last night and I had been going to ask whether I could have some extra rest, too.”
“Well that’s an unusual request, isn’t it?”
“We haven’t ever had special provisions to get out of duties just because we were tired have we?”
“And I’m sure you can understand why not. That could be abused by any boy who just didn’t want to do his fair share.”
“So you will take care of scrubbing the pots this afternoon. Understood?”
It took all of Tharol’s composure to hide his anxiety. So Reis was going to be absolutely free this afternoon, conveniently able to do whatever he needed to get Tharol out of the way that night? More than ever, Tharol couldn’t help but feel that Master Palthio was clearing the way for Reis intentionally. The man had already expressed a deep resentment for being a pawn of his superiors and Reis had spoken about their system being flawed and unchangeable. Well perhaps tonight Palthio, Reis, and that statue woman would have their revenge. Perhaps on the Masters of the other gates? Perhaps on Lord Amathur himself?
Tharol didn’t know and it didn’t matter. Reis was going to be free to do as he pleased and that meant Tharol couldn’t hold back in his own strategies. It was time to take that offensive stance.
Tharol waited until all of the other boys had left the main hall for their different duties, then he approached Golu as he was getting the flour out in preparation for making dinner.
“Golu,” Tharol said. “I hate scrubbing pots. I’d rather cook. What do you want? I’ll give you anything you ask for.”
Golu shrugged in a carefree manner. “I like scrubbing,” he said, tipped the sack of flour into Tharol’s empty hands and left without another word.
Tharol set the flour on the counter and started the preparations for their meal. He soon had a pot bubbling over the fire, the counter littered with all manner of chopped vegetables, and a stack of pans on the floor. Anyone who walked in now would see a busy kitchen, one that was too chaotic to notice a single pan simmering in the back corner. Tharol went back to that pan and gave it another stir.
It was filled with wine. The wine. He had brought up the last bottle of poisoned wine, peeled off its wax seal, and poured it into the hot pan. Tharol was no chemist, but he knew from stories that Tinstin had been popular for assassinations because it could be cooked into meals. Apparently the heat involved did not cause it to break down and lose its lethality. He therefore assumed he could evaporate the wine and still leave the poison behind.
Fifteen minutes later Tharol lifted the pan of wine and carefully poured it back into its original vessel. There was only enough wine to half-fill the jug now. Half the wine, but the same amount of poison inside, a double distribution. It was back to the same level that Inol had initially prepared in the market. A very dangerous level. Possibly a lethal level.
“Give me a reason, Reis, and I’ll gladly shout out a warning not to drink it,” he murmured. “What happens next is up to you.”
On Monday I mentioned how betrayal is an extremely prominent theme in storytelling. Often the actual act of betrayal occurs in a sudden and surprising way, as a twist meant to catch both protagonist and audience off guard.
But with The Favored Son I wanted to go a different route. I wanted Reis’s coming betrayal to be signaled well in advance. I didn’t want there to be any surprise when it finally came to fruition. That allows me to ramp up the anticipation of it and create suspense. And this is exactly what I have been showing in today’s chapter. Tharol is stewing in his anxiety and he is becoming increasingly frazzled by it.
Of course that does mean there is a sort prolonged amount of time between our knowing that something bad is going to happen and our seeing it come to fruition. Delaying catharsis can build suspense for a while, but delaying it for too long eventually causes the tension to dissipate.
This is something I have to be careful with these chapters of my story. I am anxious about slowing things down too much before the end. In preparation for the next sequence I would like to dig into the concept of suspense and see what I can learn. How do great thrillers keep you waiting but not bored?
Come back on Monday as I consider exactly this. I will look at a few examples of great suspense stories and try to learn the lessons that they teach. Then we’ll see how well I can apply those concepts to my story on Thursday. See you then.
Brutus has a problem in William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. He is good friends with the titular character…but he is also deeply opposed to the man and all he represents! The historical backdrop of the play is that Rome was run as a republic for centuries until Julius Caesar put down all of his foes, domestic and abroad, and is now on the precipice of ruling as a dictator. Brutus is sickened by this totality of power, convinced that the republic was the morally correct form of government. As Brutus later tells the masses, he loves Julius Caesar but he loves Rome more.
And to that end he joins forces with Caesar’s enemies. Together they hatch a plot to assassinate their leader and Brutus is instrumental in laying the trap for his own friend. Things unfold until we come to a pivotal scene on the steps of the senate. Suddenly the assassins draw out concealed blades and stab their leader one at a time! Last of all comes Brutus to finish the job.
And then Julius Caesar says something that immediately shifts us from Brutus’s perspective to his own.
“Et tu, Brute?” which simply means “you too, Brutus?”
Who knew that three words could pack so much of pain and betrayal? In this moment there is little to do with politics and greater goods and saving the Republic. In this moment there is just one friend being killed by another.
Even though Caesar has been shown as a pompous and deeply flawed character, even though the arguments for his death have been presented in a very sound and convincing manner, one cannot help but be moved by pity for the man in this very moment.
This, we understand, is what it really means to betray another.
Snakes of History and Scripture)
And it’s worth noting that the intimate relationship between Julius Caesar and Brutus was by no means a fabrication of Shakespeare. The two of them really did have a powerful bond, much like that of a father and son. Indeed there are some that theorize Brutus may have actually been Caesar’s bastard child! But even if not, Caesar was still a very paternal figure in Brutus’s life.
It is important to remember that fiction has its basis in fact. The idea of a betrayal is so dramatically interesting and has been incorporated into so many stories, that one can lose sight of the fact that it is not merely a work of fiction. Every romanticized story of a traitor has its roots in the soil of history.
Consider Benedict Arnold, the powerful general who led the fledgling United States to a number of decisive victories in the Revolutionary War. But after advancing the Revolution in such an instrumental way he did not feel appropriately recognized by his comrades. For their negligence he became bitter and ultimately threw in with the British against his former allies!
There is also Robert Ford, who was enamored with the outlaw Jesse James and eventually joined his gang. A wild life of freedom came at a heavy cost, though, and Ford learned the great burden of being a wanted man. One-by-one the gang’s numbers were whittled down until Ford was one of the few people James still felt he could trust. He brought Ford into his own house and fed him from his own table. And all the while Ford was tempted by the $10,000 reward and full pardon that were promised to the man who brought in Jesse James’s dead body. There, in James’ own living room, Ford picked up a gun and shot his hero in the back of head.
The scriptures are full of betrayal as well. There is Joseph who had his precious coat torn apart, was cast into a pit, and sold into Egypt by his very own brothers! To be fair, they did stop just short of killing him, unlike Cain, who out-and-out slew his own brother Abel. Jacob connived Esau into selling away his birthright, and then took his blessing by deception. Then, of course, there is the matter of Judas, who walked with Jesus, saw the miracles, and still sold his master for thirty pieces of silver. Even Lucifer is described by Isaiah as a “son of the morning,” a great angel in the courts of God, but he sought to overthrow his Maker and was cast down to earth as a traitor.
The Tendency to Betray)
Betrayals for money. Betrayals for political gain. Betrayals for ideology. Betrayals for jealousy. Betrayals for spite.
Betrayals against the state. Betrayals against friendship. Betrayals against one’s own family. Betrayals against God.
The fact is treachery is in our DNA. When we humans are given with the chance to lift ourselves upon the bones of another…we pause and give it serious consideration. And if we expand our scope to less fatal acts of betrayal, we can see that the vast majority of us have already been traitors in one way or another.
We cheat on our romantic partners, we let our siblings take the fall for our naughty behavior, we tell the secrets of a friend, we steal another’s possessions, we let down those that trust us. At every level of love, family, and society we find ways to trade those who matter most for our own gain. And even those who do not give in to the temptation are still tempted. Our animalistic instinct is to choose ourselves.
At their worst, stories present so many examples of betrayal that we start to think it is the common destiny of us all. At their best they alert us to the reality of our own shortcomings so that we can prepare against them.
Stories show us the best and the worst, and in between they let us choose our own role to play. We get to decide if we are Boromir clutching for the ring of power or if we are Sam refusing to leave our friend’s side. Do we identify with Fernand Mondego betraying a rival to steal the woman he loves, or with Edmond Dantès who will swallow his revenge to spare her added grief? Within the spectrum of story there is a place for us all.
Well, as you can see from these numbers, January was a very different sort of month, unlike any that I have worked before. My goal had been to carry on December’s “no back-to-back missed days,” but I didn’t meet that goal at all. And more alarmingly, I didn’t add any new words to my draft, I only refined the previous chapter.
To be perfectly blunt the work of this month was a very difficult slog for me. I had a long, troubled sequence to correct in Chapter 18, and I rewrote it multiple times before I was finally satisfied with the result. It was hard to motivate myself each day to grapple with it again, and that is what led to the low number of days.
I am pleased to say that I have the deed done now, though. There will, of course, be later drafts and refinements, but the sequence in question is at least on the same caliber as the rest of my novel now.
What finally got me over this hurdle was that I wrote the sequence in as verbose of a way as I could manage. I pumped it full of prose and complexity until it was bloated to nearly twice the size of what I wanted in the final product! Then it was a relatively easy task to read through the mass and carve out only the best chunks, chipping away at the sculpture until the proper form emerged from within. Next time I’m having trouble with a piece I’ll have to remember this method try it earlier in the process!
Today I start writing Chapter 19. I’m very excited to get going with the new material and I hope it leads to a more satisfying experience for the month. Come back on March when I’ll give you the next update. Before I go, here’s a section from my work in January. It is, of course, extracted from that large sequence that gave me so much trouble. Enjoy!
Thus, one morning John goes into his favorite grove, cuts down that giant tree, takes the top off, and clears it of every branch until it is ready for the carry.
His cart cannot assist him for the first part of this journey, the ground is much too uneven. He must negotiate the way with his two feet alone, the full weight of the tree upon his back. He knew this, though, and has already fashioned a rope-and-leather harness just for the job.
So he sits against the fallen log and secures it to his back, then rises to his feet in stages. At a few points he is in danger of falling backwards again, but finally he manages to stand erect. However no sooner does he accomplish this than his whole frame starts to shake and he has to drop to his knees to keep from tipping over. It takes some effort to adjust to this massive and very top-heavy load, but gradually he becomes acclimated to it, and then he is steady enough to stand and walk forward.
What follows then is a very deliberate march. Every bump and divot, every tangle of roots, every patch of concealing leaves is a terrible menace, and his eyes constantly scour the tapestry before him, careful not to miss any nuance of the land.
Now he goes up a small rise in the land, toes digging hard against the slope. Now down the other side, each step planted broadside for better stability. Now descending a rocky outcropping, shoulders rolled so that the edge of the trunk scrapes against the stones for an anchor. Now splashing through a narrow stream, knees bent to absorb the shock of the water’s force. Now picking across the washout of a rockslide, heels crushing loose pebbles and sliding shale underfoot. Now lifting feet high over a series of fallen trees. Now stiffening against winds that pelt down the mouth of a ravine. Now slamming feet to a halt when a rabbit startles out of a bush just ahead. So many little obstacles that normally would not require any special consideration, but today they are all herculean trials!
“Master,” Tharol panted, “I–I didn’t see you there–“
“No, you were more intent on getting to your perch to spy on young Beesk, weren’t you?”
Tharol fidgeted uncomfortably.
“As you have been every day for the past week…when you’re not too busy spending time with Reis.”
“Very different sets of company, wouldn’t you say?”
“Well–we’re all members of the same order, aren’t we?”
Master Palthio smiled and shook his head. “No. And you know that.”
Tharol’s could feel the initial rush of adrenalin dissipating. He wasn’t feeling so startled anymore, and as it passed he found anger underneath.
“Is there something you want to say to me, Master?” even he was surprised to hear how much sarcasm dripped from that last word. There was no way Master Palthio had missed the slight…but he chose not to regard it.
“Very well. I won’t be coy with you anymore, Tharol. I know you, of all my students, crave directness. As I said, you seem to be spending your time in two very different circles. I can only assume this is for your own personal purposes that you wish to keep secret, and don’t worry, I won’t be prying.”
“But I will offer you a word of caution. If you’re acting as the pawn for both sides, you’re likely to be played against yourself.”
Tharol’s eyes narrowed as he processed that.
“And believe me,” Master Palthio continued with a sigh, “I know a great deal about being another person’s pawn. I’ve tried to play by the rules of others, doing things I didn’t agree with, been manipulated against my will. And all because I hoped to sneak in something good along the way…. Things don’t work that way, Tharol.”
“Manipulated against your will?” The heat was coming back into Tharol’s voice. “Like me in the last competition! You set me up to fall off the ledge and break my leg!”
Master Palthio looked sadly at Tharol. “I was sorry to teach that lesson.”
“What did you do? Make the gap too large for me to clear on purpose?”
“Just the opposite. I specifically crafted that gap to be exactly one yard less than your record in our bounding exercises.”
Tharol blinked in surprise at that. “But…what did you mean when you said you ensured I would fail that jump then? How did you make sure of that?”
“Oh…I told you that you would. And you believed me.”
Tharol was stunned.
Master Palthio sighed and turned to go, but he stopped at the hatch for a parting word. “Stop playing by other peoples’ rules, Tharol. Be your own piece in the game. Better yet…don’t even play the game any longer.”
Tharol leaned back against the wall and tried to make sense of Master Palthio was saying. There was a lot to it…but he couldn’t parse it out. He shook his head and brought himself back to the matters at hand: the correspondence he had just stolen. He moved over to the hanging lantern and by its light read the contents of his pilfered note.
Change of plans. I have it on excellent authority that the third boy you recruited is a traitor to our cause! Check if he has sabotaged your plans, and if so remove him.
Tharol read through it twice, just to be sure he hadn’t misunderstood. The third boy? That had to mean him. A traitor? Sabotaging plans? What was this?! He crumpled the paper into a ball, knuckles white with anger. Remove him?! As in…kill?! And where did she get into her head that he had sabotaged anything? Yes, of course he was attempting to subvert their plans, but he had no idea how she would have caught wind of that. And he certainly hadn’t actually sabotaged anything. What even was there to sabotage? The wine in the cellar?
A sudden fear passed through Tharol’s mind. What if the wine had been tampered with and now he was being set up to take the fall? He couldn’t see why or how…but now that the thought had passed through his mind he had to check on things. He shoved the crumpled letter into his robes and strode out of the tower. The dinner bell was ringing but he ignored it entirely. He’d be a few minutes late again today.
Golu and Avro passed him as he made his way to the cellar, but they didn’t say a word to him, nor he to them. All the other boys were already gone to the main hall and that was just as well. He’d come up with an excuse for his delayed arrival later.
Tharol reached his destination and stepped down through the hatch. He went with the lantern to the back of the room and began moving the jugs until he had unburied the two poisoned vessels. He grabbed the first one and spun it under the light until he found its wax seal.
The seal was broken.
Tharol lifted the stopper and took a deep waft of its contents. Perfectly good wine, not so much as a hint of bitter Tinstin. The poisoned wine had been replaced, just as the letter from the statue woman suggested.
“What is this?” Tharol asked aloud. Someone was trying to set him up. It was the only conclusion that made sense. He couldn’t accept it was a coincidence that the bottle had been tampered with and then this note arrived. The same person was behind both. They had changed the wine and then told the woman to write the note. Actually, Tharol thought it highly unlikely that the statue woman had written the letter. Anyone who knew Beesk and Inol’s system could have easily planted the note in her place.
So did that mean it was one of them? Was Beesk or Inol trying to muscle him out, just as Reis had suggested they might do?
“Look at this, Inol,” Tharol imagined Beesk saying. “Got this note and the wine’s been replaced! Tharol’s a no-good traitor and you’ve got to help me get rid of him!”
But no sooner did Tharol picture that scene then he rejected it.
“I don’t know,” pretend-Inol responded. “The wax seal’s been broken and Tharol knew all about that. He was here when we put it on….If he was the one who replaced the wine wouldn’t he have had the sense to put it back?”
If it had been Inol or Beesk trying to frame Tharol they would have known to put the wax seal back. So that could only mean…
“Reis,” Tharol whispered.
Reis was the only other person that Tharol had told about the poisoned wine. Reis had even asked exactly where it was located in the cellar. The only thing Tharol hadn’t mentioned to Reis was the wax seal, it hadn’t seemed like an important piece of information. And the seal was so small that Reis wouldn’t noticed it when making the swap.
Tharol realized there was one other piece of information that he hadn’t mentioned to Reis either. Tharol grabbed the bottle that had been resting beside the first and turned it around to examine its wax seal.
Rather than open it he pressed his nose against the stopper and inhaled. Through the cork and clay he could just barely make out the scent of wine inside…and also the faintest traces of the poison. This one had been left untouched.
He hadn’t thought it necessary to mention to Reis the issue of the first batch of poisoned wine being too potent and how they had diluted it across two bottles. So Reis had only known to replace the bottle directly in the corner and not the one next to it.
Tharol paused for a moment, thinking things through. There were many problems to sort out, but first and foremost was what to do with these bottles and the letter. He quickly determined that it was best to keep Beesk and Inol in the dark about it all. He was pretty sure they weren’t so corrupt that they would actually try to kill him, but he wouldn’t put it past them to hit him over the head and leave him trussed up in the cellar tomorrow night.
To that end he opened the lantern and stuffed the letter inside, letting it reduce to harmless ash. Then he tipped the lantern sideways and drippled wax on the altered bottle until the broken seal was mended. He found a loose rock on the ground and carefully tapped at the bottom of the bottle with increasing force until a shard broke off and the wine started dribbling out. He quickly placed it back in its corner, returned the unaltered bottle beside it, then covered them up with all the other bottles that had been concealing them from view.
Now he would proceed with Beesk and Inol like nothing had happened. When they found the broken bottle he would be just as dumbfounded as them. He would simply suppose that they must have hit it too hard against the wall when they placed it in the corner, but fortunately they had a backup with the other bottle. Things would proceed just as planned.
Now that that was taken care of Tharol moved on to the next problem. Would Reis realize that his plan hadn’t worked out?
Probably. He would have known that Tharol was going up in the tower to spy on Beesk and Inol, and now Reis was sitting at the dinner table, silently wondering why Tharol was arriving late. And Reis would be paying special attention to Beesk and Inol at that same table, trying to gauge whether they were behaving like they had just been rattled by a note with some shocking news. And they wouldn’t be. They would be laughing and joking like there wasn’t a care in the world. And then Reis would start to piece it all together.
Tharol took a deep, bracing breath. Well he certainly was in it now.
Three minutes later Tharol finally came to dinner, prepared with an excuse of having discovered a hole in his tunic that needed patching. He entered the room, offered his apology to Master Palthio, and took his seat at the table. Through all this he steadfastly avoided making eye contact with Reis. Tharol couldn’t trust himself to keep his face unemotional if he did. He felt his skin hot and sensitive, as if he could sense Reis sneaking suspicious glares down the table at him.
In reality he was sure Reis was making no glares whatsoever. That would have been too revealing. He was sure that Reis was perfectly playing the part of an unconcerned pupil without a care in the world. He was sure Reis was eating his food with a steady hand and a tranquil expression, even as the wheels would be churning in his mind.
Tharol’s eyes instinctively flicked upwards against his will, finally making eye contact with Reis. And to his great amazement, Reis turned and met his stare with perfectly neutral eyes.
“Hey, Tharol, could you pass the salt?” the boy drawled.
It was so nonchalant that Tharol started to wonder whether his suspicions were entirely misplaced! Was it possible that he had drawn the wrong conclusions? That someone else had swapped the poison? That Tharol had diluted it more than he thought? Maybe he was just being paranoid again.
But no. Even though a part of him really wished that this was the case, in his heart Tharol knew it wasn’t true. It wasn’t his reasoning that convinced him either, it was his instincts. Reis had seemed the last true friend he had left at the order, and it hurt him to call the boy a traitor, but he was sure of it. It simply fit.
To what end…Tharol still did not know. He couldn’t fathom what Reis’s game was and he wouldn’t be able to until the next night. But the fact that it was Reis who was pulling the strings made him certain that this situation was even more serious than he had ever imagined. There was no chance that Reis would be extending himself like this for anything trivial. This wasn’t about money like with Beesk and Inol. Indeed, there now settled on Tharol’s heart a realization that they were all in very grave danger.
On Monday I spoke of stories that have scenes the reader can immediately relate to. Whether by simulating a typical life experience or by connecting to the private fantasies in us all, these stories are able to spark an immediate connection in their reader.
Today I decided to try something a bit different from this, though. I specifically incorporated a scene that was would not be relatable to most audience members. Certainly all of us have experienced betrayal at some point or another, but I would imagine most of us have never had our lives being threatened by a traitor!
Of course this is a common scenario in stories: describing an experience that the user has never encountered before. This is a large reason of why we seek out stories, to explore situations that are exciting or interesting, but impossible or undesirable in real life.
And so here we find a little bit of a conundrum. Our stories will have scenes that are impossible for the reader to directly relate to, but we still want them to feel connected to the experience. This means the writer needs to use to have a healthy enough imagination to present an experience that the reader will feel is authentic. Perhaps we haven’t had our lives threatened by an act of betrayal, but we can try to imagine “what that sort of situation would probably feel like.”
As I tried to imagine what such an experience would be like the overwhelming emotion that came to the surface was numbing shock. There would be anger and hurt eventually, but I really think if I were in Tharol’s shoes those emotions would be too large to register initially, resulting in a sort of hollow emptiness instead. Hopefully my interpretation will ring true to the reader as well.
While we’re on the subject of betrayal, though, I want to point out how this has long been a staple of literature. I’d like to look at a few examples of this in famous stories and consider why we have a fascination with such a somber theme. Come back on Monday as I’ll do exactly this, and then join me on Thursday as we experience Tharol’s betrayal further in the next chapter of The Favored Son.
There is a scene in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix where Harry and Cho Chang are at a café in the wizarding town of Hogsmeade. Harry, of course, has a crush on Cho and is hoping to cultivate a relationship with her. As they sit together at the table he starts to tell himself that he should reach out and hold her hand.
A few more minutes passed in total silence, Harry drinking his coffee so fast that he would soon need a fresh cup....
Cho's hand was lying on the table beside her coffee, and Harry was feeling a mounting pressure to take hold of it. Just do it, he told himself, as a fount of mingled panic and excitement surged up inside his chest. Just reach out and grab it. . . Amazing how much more difficult it was to extend his arm twelve inches and touch her hand than to snatch a speeding Snitch from midair...
But just as he moved his hand forward, Cho took hers off the table.
Seeing or reading about a character’s awkward discomfort often gets a visceral reaction from the audience. Seeing smiling faces has a chance to make you feel happy and frowns could possibly make you sad, but watching someone squirm in a socially painful situation seems guaranteed to turn your own insides as well.
This is because most of us who read about Harry’s internal struggle are immediately brought back to similar moments in our own life. All of us who have dated can share experiences of such times where we felt paralyzed between the excitement of potential success and the horror of potential rejection. Whether to hold a hand, or put an arm around the shoulders, or to lean in for a kiss, we’ve all been there, and this evocative scene immediately taps into those personal emotions.
Of course there are other stories that go as far away from these relatable moments of ordinary life as possible. They don’t dwell on typical social dramas, they project amazing power fantasies instead!
Consider the scene near the end of the first Matrix film where Neo and Trinity storm the building that Morpheus is being held captive in. Clad in black leather, hair slicked back, shades permanently affixed to their faces they stride past the security checkpoint like they own the place.
A team of heavily armored guards rush out to meet them with shotguns and assault rifles at the ready. Guns are whipped out, techno music kicks into high gear, and we are treated to a scene of exorbitant action! Neo and Trinity are flipping off of walls, rubble and smoke fills the air, baddies drop like dominos. This is not a duel between evenly matched forces, it is a scene of total domination!
The whole thing is entirely over-the-top and absolutely nothing like real life. Of course no one could relate to a scene like this!
Except that yeah, I totally did.
I mean, no, never in my life have I ever been a situation remotely like this, but long before I saw this scene I had already been rehearsing moments just like it in my head. And I’m far from the only one.
This scene landed so powerfully with audiences because it tapped into the power fantasies that each of us hold in our private moments. We love to imagine a problem that calls for a new hero to enter, us. We arrive on one the scene looking the very epitome of cool, and then cut the baddies down left and right with our ridiculously overpowered arsenal.
The scene in The Matrix might ring entirely false in the “real world,” but it is very, very true in the imagined one. Some scenes can be relatable in how they capture the nuances of ordinary life, and some in how they capture the nuances of deepest desire.
Somewhere In Between)
The painfully awkward and the power fantasy. Must a story choose one style of relatability over the other? Is it possible to be both grounded and fantastic?
The 2011 film Moneyball is a sports film that feels far more true-to-life than most other sports films. It is about the business of baseball, the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing of managers trying to synergize the perfect roster. It is about budgets and algorithms.
Thus it is a very grounded take on the sport and it is filled with all manner of down-to-earth, understated, totally relatable scenes. Take for example when the film develops the relationship between the main character and his daughter. They are both in a guitar store and he is trying to coax her to play a little song for him. She’s nervous because they’re in public, but with a little encouragement she recites a few simple lines from a song.
It’s one of very few scenes in the entire film that the main character shows strong emotion, nearly brought to tears at the delight of seeing his daughter just doing what she loves. It’s a moment both small and large, both mundane and fantastic.
Furthermore, the entire film is all about that main character trying to make something of substance by very simple, deliberate means. Each scene by itself seems of little consequence, advancing goals by only the tiniest of margins, immediately relatable to the slow march we perceive in our own lives. But by the end of the film something truly special comes to fruition, immediately relatable to the hope we each have that our slow and steady march is leading to somewhere grand. Both the mundanity of real life and the fantasy of our deepest desires are fully represented.
In my current story I have been trying to take the opposite approach to Moneyball. Rather than adding mundane moments until they become a fantasy, I have begun with a fantasy setting tried to fill it with mundane moments.
I showed this last time where the two main character discussed conspiracies while chopping firewood and where the main character’s moment of boldness was just to grab a paper without being seen by another. Important things are happening, but they’re intentionally being couched in basic moments of life.
Of course as things continue the fantastic will win out, but hopefully even then it will be in a way that remains relatable to our private fantasies. Come back on Thursday when I post the next section of The Favored Son to see how I pursue that goal.