Something a little different this week! My sister and I have still been exchanging writing prompts (albeit at a slower rate than in July), and this is a recent result from a musical prompt.
They had forgotten about the portal. The thin space at the valley, the one that had started all this horror. They’d known it wasn’t sealed. But sealed or not, it hadn’t been the one belching out monsters and bleeding them into the world for the past three weeks, and they had ignored it in favor of greater threats. And so there was no one to blame. Not really. Which didn’t change the fact that there was now something more terrible there than anything else that crept and prowled in from the other doors to Elsewhere.
Siana was only there because that was where they were going to take the wounded. It was supposed to be a safe place at the eye of the storm, an island of peace in the rising chaos. It was supposed to be somewhere they could, if they were very, very lucky, save a handful of lives. Instead, it became a jagged opening into depths of Elsewhere itself, and the thing that stood silhouetted against the weird light of the rift was like every monster that had ever tormented her in her worst nightmares.
It was huge. Ugly. Terrifying, and yet magnificent. It—he—stood fifteen feet tall from the soles of his two massive feet to the plated crown of his head, and thick battle armor covered every inch of him. His eyes, cold blue and baleful, stared down at her. Why he chose to take notice of her she never knew.
She had no choice. It would make no difference, she was certain, save that it let her keep her honor. Her pride. She lifted her gun, only a handgun, and fired.
Sometimes, you find a story that lodges itself somewhere deep in your soul. Maybe you know why, or maybe you just can’t figure it out. Either way, whether it’s something you watch or something you read, something about it resonates with you and grips you and won’t let go. And then, if you’re like me, you want to figure out what it is so that you can make your own stories do the same thing. Which then leads to the fear that you’re going to accidentally just rewrite the thing that inspired you in the first place.
Now, first. I know. There’s nothing new under the sun. So-called “originality” is an impossible dream. But that’s not what I’m talking about here; there’s a huge difference between writing a story that involves elves and halflings and an evil world, and writing one about a halfling called Fauxdo and his loyal friend Hamwise saving the world by throwing an amulet of power into a river lava. And unfortunately, when trying to capture the same sort of excitement that is caused by a specific work of fiction, it can be far too easy to fall back on the specific scenes that were your favorites. Or the specific characters who captured your imagination.
Then again, they say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So maybe there’s a middle ground.
At the moment, my best answer is this: try to figure out what it is that captured your imagination in the first place, and why it is that this particular story seems to resonate with you the way it does. I know. That’s hard. REALLY hard. Because to do that, you have to get through to the heart of the story, past all the shiny stuff on the outside that you might also really like. But if you can do that, if you can figure what the story is actually about, at its core, then it becomes easier to tell a story about that same theme. For example: Fringe. Fundamentally, it’s a story about family, and how a family has to face truly terrible odds and dangers together. Yes, I’m still talking about Fringe. Because that’s the latest thing that’s lodged itself in my mind.
So if, to continue the example, you enjoy a particular story because it’s about a family and how they have to survive insurmountable odds, if you were to write a story about a different family and their own insurmountable odds, then perhaps it will create the same sort of soul-nourishing yearning that the other story created. And yet, it won’t be the other story. It will be your own, because you are answer the same question in your own words, colored by your own experiences and knowledge. And unless I miss my guess, that’s what writing is all about.
Writers are scavengers. We ought to be, at any rate. We pick out pieces of the world we live in and leave them in the words we put on the page like a magpie stealing shiny trinkets. Maybe it’s a word we like, one that means the same thing as two or three others but has the perfect connotation– such as exasperated; it’s like annoyed, and even more like vexed, but if your character is exasperated there’s a lighter note to it that’s missing from the others.
Or maybe it’s the emotions that well up inside us when we are reunited with a dear friend we haven’t seen in years. I imagine they’re the same feelings that surge in our characters’ bellies when they finally, finally return to their loved ones after the chaos of their story.
Or it’s the cold gust of autumn wind that chills a warm day, reminding us that summer is over and winter is coming, and it’s the smell of wood smoke and fallen leaves beckoning us homeward before the early darkness shrouds our way.
Or it’s the aching exhaustion that clings to your bones after a long day of hard work.
Or the way you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can trust your closest friends.
Or maybe it’s just the last story you read, or watched, or listened to. The one that wrapped the vines of its tale around your heart, sharing with you some truth about being human in a broken world that resonated like a rung bell.
In some ways, even the best writers are anything but original, and the best pieces of their stories are made up of truth, and not whole cloth. Because that’s why we can connect with them the way we do. And that’s what makes them so important.
If you’ve watched a certain type of science fiction, you’ve probably noticed something: weird things happen on planes. I recently started watching the show Manifest, the premise of which is that a plane goes missing and then reappears years later, to everyone’s surprise and consternation. Fringe had at least three episodes dedicated to bizarre happenings on planes. I’ve never seen it, but I imagine the accurately titled Snakes on a Plane fits this mold as well, as I understand the title is an accurate description of the entire movie.
So the question is: why?
The simplest answer is that planes are a convenient box to put your characters in. No way on. No way off. If something happens, no help is coming. You have to try to deal with it by yourself. It’s the perfect setting for a Blake Snyder style Monster in the House story.
Another answer is that we recognize the madness inherent in climbing inside a metal tube and hurling ourselves across the world at ridiculous speeds. The fact that we do it so often that it has become normal doesn’t change that. Telling ourselves stories about strange things happening while undertaking this wild endeavor is its own sort of catharsis: an acknowledgement, perhaps, that this is a far cry from walking, or running, or even climbing on the back of an animal five times our size and riding it to get from place to place.
Or maybe it’s because of the opposite. Most of us have ridden in planes frequently enough that it is commonplace and accepted as safe. Having something strange, dangerous, or bizarre happen in such a familiar space immediately draws us in and heightens the tension. After all, if it can happen on that plane ride, why can’t it happen on the next one we take?
Whatever the reason, it appears often enough that I’ve noticed it while just casually watching. Out of blatant curiosity, I did a quick search over at TV Tropes (yes, yes, foolhardy, I know) and discovered that I had just barely scratched the surface. This is unsurprising thanks to the aforementioned casual watching. Which speaks to my point. If we write enough stories about things happening on planes that there is an entire list of them, then clearly there is something about it that catches the human imagination. Or. You know. Several somethings.
If you interact with other humans, chances are you’ll end up either hurting someone else or being hurt by them. Most likely, it’s both. Maybe it’s accidental. Maybe it’s not. Most of us try not to, but that doesn’t stop it from happening. And naturally, we are more likely to hurt those we interact with more often, meaning that when we do wrong someone else, it’s more likely to be a friend or a family member than the stranger we pass in the grocery store.
As with so many things in life, in part because of its inevitability, the most important thing ends up being not whether or not we hurt or are hurt, but how we respond when it happens. Does a harsh word or a thoughtless comment destroy a relationship? Or do we find a way to work through it and forgive? Do we accept that some friendships are not worth saving? Do we decide that this one is, no matter how hard you have to fight for it? There isn’t a single right answer that fits every situation. As a Christian, I am called to love my enemies–not to mention friends or annoying coworkers–and forgiveness heals much.
But that’s a topic for another time. Today, I want to talk about what hurting each other has meant in some of the relationships I value most. And then about how my writer-brain connects that to good storytelling, because we all knew that was going to happen.
Perhaps it’s counterintuitive, but my closest friendships are the ones where we have hurt each other. More than once. Often deeply. We’ve said things, or made assumptions, or lashed out, or… the list goes on. I don’t have to continue it, because I know anyone reading this will have a list of their own, with specific events and particular people. And, I hope, anyone reading this will also know that the story doesn’t end there with the argument, or the silent treatment, or the unexpected ghosting.
Or it doesn’t have to.
Those same friendships I was talking about have thrived because when we did hurt each other we also forgave each other, and we worked through it. Love covers a multitude of sins. And thank God for that.
(A quick note: this, of course, does not meant that there is never a time to end things. David didn’t keep hanging out in King Saul’s court after a certain number of thrown spears; he left. He also straight up refused to hurt Saul, even when given multiple chances, which says plenty as well.)
As for how this applies to storytelling, if working through mutual injury in real life relationships can end up strengthening them, then the same is true in good writing, which aims to be an accurate reflection of the real world. Your characters, even your heroes, will not always agree. They might betray each other, or their values, or do any of another thousand things that create a rift between them. And they might realize it, or they might think they were in the right the entire time. Either way, it’s those moments that create the most compelling story: the ones where the characters end up going head to head in a conflict that can’t just be explained away, where it can’t be resolved unless something fundamentally changes.
Unsurprisingly, I noticed a particularly good example of this during my most recent rewatch of Fringe (shush, everyone’s allowed to be a fangirl every once in a while). There are a few episodes near the middle of the third season where a couple of the characters have to work through some things. The sort of things that only apply when you’re a character in a dramatic science fiction setting that involves alternate universes, but the point remains. And it hurts to watch. Because you understand both of their points of view. And you know that they both have completely valid points. And you also know that the harm done is real, and it’s not just going to vanish on its own.
And it’s resolved! The characters talk through it, work through it, and find a way to move on. They don’t just let their relationship float in whatever direction it wants, they choose to put the effort in to make it work. This could be it’s own blog post, but I can’t give enough praise for mature, intelligent characters. Conflict is so much more compelling when it’s not caused by one or both parties being idiots.
Now, I’m not going to lie. Despite knowing all this, it’s still incredibly difficult for me to work that into my writing. If several of my favorite characters aren’t getting along and are actually at odds, it make me sad. I don’t like it. I want it to stop. And it’s a lot easier to make it stop by not writing it in the first place than by putting in the work to figure out how those characters are going to have to get through it. I need to fix that. Because once I do, it’s going to make me a better writer.