My previous music post connected with quite a few genres of storytelling: mystery, horror, and adventure. I’d like to spend a touch more time on mystery, as I’m currently writing the third novel of the Fallen Princebornomnibus, whose plot is riddled with mysteries both solved and begun.
Finding the right atmosphere for mysteries is not always simple. Is this a murder mystery with a steady body count, death threats and chases galore? Or is this mystery more slow-burn style, a hunt for the conspiracy with little blood seen but destined to be found if the mystery isn’t solved?
I love both kinds, so of course my book’s a mix of both. While scores like Mad Max: Fury Road, Batman Begins, Bourne Supremacy, and others of heavy percussion help with action-heavy moments, it’s important to find the music to counter-balance that. Mychael Danna’s Breachhas some lovely tension-filled moments, but I’d like to highlight another score of beautiful, unsettling ambiance: Alexandre Desplat’s The Imitation Game.
Once again, Desplat’s use of the piano is superb. Those first few seconds of solo piano and a low running bass note immediately establish a sense of problem, of not-rightness. The repetitive run of four notes throughout the entire track also gives that feeling of mechanization, of clockwork not in our control. The strings that swell in around the 40-second mark bring a bittersweet air to them, harmonizing with the piano, but more often in a minor key than a traditional major one. Woodwinds are held off until the last minute of the track, and here, the oboe gets a chance to shine. I’m usually not a fan of the oboe (I blame one of my elementary school classmates in band who had one and NEVER learned to play it correctly. Honestly, nothing sounds worse than an awful oboe except maybe an awful violin played by me, ahem.), but when done right the oboe provides a strong yet light tragic air to a melody before it subtly fades into the quiet.
Even Desplat’s percussion is kept relatively light.
With another arpeggio, this time in a lower key, and a few percussion instruments like rhythm sticks, Desplat creates a menacing air fitting for the wartime conflict. This story is, after all, not one of the front lines and bomb raids, but the one fought out of sight, where coded words are as deadly as any missile strike. Even xylophones and chimes are put to use, but unlike Danna’s score for Breach, though here patterned melodies provide that feel of mechanization…but not the circuitry of some computer. Here it is time to follow the journeys of logic to decode nature and language.
Whether you are a reader or writer of mysteries, I heartily recommend Desplat’s The Imitation Game to create that air of hidden conflicts and pursuits for truth. Give characters the unspoken need to embrace the mystery.
With the eighteen gazillion snow days my kids have had this winter, reading’s been all but impossible. Cabin fever sets in sure and fast, nerves fray–you know the drill. It’s like the fall after our basement flooded,only now we can’t even utilize the outdoors much due to the extreme cold that sweeps in, sweeps out.
Yet here I am, determined to write a “lessons learned” post SOMEhow. Look to something I read a while ago? Well I could, but that would take some research time that I don’t have because my job interview for teaching full-time’s in…90 minutes.
Don’t worry, this is NOT like the panic of yesterday. It’s just that I haven’t worked full-time since Blondie was born, making even the potential for this culture shift intimidating. As Bo says, though, it is NOT worth worrying about unless I actually get the job.
So, let’s divert from that bridge for a moment and think of warmer climes, where dew drops hug the tree leaves and a million lives scurry around us, out of sight. Every day, every hour, these lives are in life or death struggles to eat, fight, and survive. Duels over prey, wars over homeland. Nonstop action at every turn….
…until winter when everyone’s gotta hibernate.
I’m talkin’ about bugs.
Bash is our bug kid. He’ll stare at books on insects for ages. He’ll watch ladybugs and ants traverse across the sidewalk (until Biff comes over to stomp on them). The tiniest life fascinates him.
I forget how, but I stumbled upon a cancelled show still on YouTube that brought his love for bugs to his siblings. This show was a savior during the snowdaypacolypse.
I’m talkin’ about Monster Bug Wars.
Just listen to that cool movie-trailer voice they got to narrate this show.
Every episode is like this! “In this life and death struggle….For the centipede, will it be fight, or flight?…The katydid, katydidn’t.”
Okay, I made that last one up, but this narrator is full of dark and dangerous turns of phrase to make every showdown the most epic showdown of them all. You’d think you’re watching a wrestling match, or some action schlock movie (probably why I like it, then, ahem).
But more than the voice, my attention was hooked by the bugs. For instance, check out this snippet on the moss mantis.
Look at that camouflage, all the little mossy-like bits on its exoskeleton. How it sways in the breeze like any other leafy growth.
Imagine something like that the size of a dog. A bear.
Suddenly those hooked arms and mandibles are pretty damn terrifying, aren’t they?
~TWO HOURS LATER~
How in Hades did I forget about the time difference?!
Okay, the job interview is done and done. A bit of rambling, a bit of awkward Loony Tunes-style vocal staggers into the phone, but I was me, and that’s…well, dramatic, to say the least. No different than I am in the classroom.
Anyway. Back to bugs.
As a fantasy writer, the pressure’s always on to create worlds unique unto themselves. This means I–and I’m assuming other writers–feel like we have to create from scratch. Yet when I look at creatures like this mantis or spider, I can’t help but wonder: why are we starting from scratch when such amazing monsters already live among us?
No, I’m not saying you make giant bugs be the monsters of your stories. What I am saying is that these creatures are a wealth of inspiration: the way they melt into their surrounding environments. Their weapons. Their weaknesses. Their fighting styles. The way they hunt, breed, survive.
Our world overflows with creations both beautiful and terrible. In the writer’s quest to bring the unique and never-before-seen to readers, we too often forget the wealth of unknown predators that move in our oceans and forests. Utilize the mind-blowing traits of such predators, and you’ll create a monster that truly terrifies characters and readers alike.
There are other times, however, when inspiration is the last thing I get from my family.
Take this month. Writing’s been a tough racket, what with preparation for a new term, snow days, and teachers cancelling school for “professional development.” But I am a hearty Midwesterner and shall prevail! I continue working on the third Fallen Princebornnovel while prepping the first novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, to go on sale for ALL OF FEBRUARY.
(Oh yeah. Watch out for that price drop. Tell your fantasy-lovin’ friends!)
I’m also brainstorming up some fresh’n’FREETales of the River Vineand a few other stories to be shared exclusively with newsletter subscribers.
So I’m developing another project, one I alluded to a while back: a fantasy adventure story featuring twins who need to learn the strengths of brotherhood. (Can’t imagine where I found the inspiration for that story…)
I had an epiphany about what to name the brothers, but realized the names would require permission from a big-time person in order to pull it off. That meant having a title and rough synopsis worked out. Typing up a wee synopsis was one thing, but the title…ugh, the title. This is a title that must reflect fantasy, adventure, and NOT romance. For once, let’s have a story where protagonists don’t find love and/or sex in the plot. The title needs to reflect that absence. Something strong…otherworldly…
I poke the back of Bo’s neck, for surely Blondie’s math homework doesn’t have to be reviewed right this minute.
Hey. You’re a guy.
I need your take on a title.
Race the Bronze Breath.
Bo’s face twists. He stifles a laugh…then gives up and lets it out. “Seriously?”
What? It’s racing. It’s fantasy.
Bo’s still laughing. “What’s that even mean?”
I…I dunno. I just thought it sounded cool and steampunky.
“Well racing’s fine. Racing says something’s got a time limit, and it’s, you know, tense. But what’s bronze breath?”
Okay, I get it, it doesn’t work. What kind of fantasy adventure title would work for dudes?
Bo without blinking: “Not Game of Thrones.”
That is not a title.
I think about my brainstorm of race names, the current YA titles out there that are really long, a touch blunt.
How about Break the Centurion or Die Trying?
Bo throws down the pencil: “Again, what…are you trying to be Sergio Leone?”
Well then YOU think of a cool dude title.
“Racing Adventure with Marathon Quest.”
O-kay. But that doesn’t sound really dangerous.
“Super Killer Race of Deathly Death.”
“Bloody Hearts of Death Kill the Dead.”
Blondie looks up from her fraction muddle. “Bloody Heart of the Dragon’s Throne!”
Hush, that doesn’t…well, hmmm. I write it down anyway, even though I wasn’t planning on having any dragons this time round. Time for a squeeze and a kiss for my eldest.
Thanks, Kiddo. Now back to those fractions!
Bo follows me as I scribble in my notebook, all the way down the hall where I plop down on our bed. I click the pen in that fast, annoying fashion Biff adores, and say:
The problem is I do want a bit of camp to it, like Death Race 2000.Suppose I can’t call it Lethal Prix or Killer Run.
“Not if you don’t want Roger Corman to sue you…oh hey! Let’s Get Sued! Great title. And then I can get an autograph.”
The kind that makes you go, “NOOOOOOOOOO!” because a beloved and/or cool character is about to die.
Every time. Seriously, every time I see Predator, I say, “Nooo, Billy!” at the screen. As a member of the audience, I’m invested in seeing the characters’ survival against the Predator. I want to see the characters’ skill sets aid them in overcoming the conflicts and obstacles that await them before the journey’s end.
This can be said as a reader of any high-stakes story, really. Look at a few big SFF series for examples. We want Captain Kirk and his crew to survive. We want Harry Potter and all his friends to survive. We want the Fellowship of the Ring to survive. We want Katniss Everdeen and her loved ones to survive. We want Luke Skywalker and his friends to survive.
We know these people are fictional, but there are facets of these characters that connect within us. This makes us care about them, so of course we go “NOOOOO!” when Dumbledore is struck down by Snape, when Prim and dozens of others are bombed by a device made by the Katniss’ oldest friend, Gabe.
…and then there are the deaths that just don’t feel necessary.
Now I just want to pause here that I’m talking about this as both a reader and a writer. I get that pain and consequence have to occur in a high-stakes story. You can’t threaten death without delivering at least a little bit of death or you risk hollowing out the stakes.
What bothers me as a reader and worries me as a writer are those unnecessary character deaths. You know you’ve encountered stories with this problem. That’s why I showed the aforementioned Predator clip of Billy. Billy, the biggest and buffest bad-ass of Dutch’s team, stops on the tree-bridge to face the Predator. Why?
On screen, we’re not given a reason apart from MANLINESS. Just look at him, stripping down and cutting his own chest. It’s the ultimate bad-ass standoff!
Only in the story, it’s not the ultimate bad-ass standoff. That’s for Dutch (also stripped down) and the Predator.
So why did Billy have to die?
As a “reader,” I could shrug to “noble sacrifice,” except no other death has bought the survivors time or advantage. Billy would know that. I could also shrug to “acceptance,” since earlier in the film Billy says, “We’re all going to die.”
But as a writer, I think I really know why.
It’s because you can’t have an ultimate bad-ass standoff between TWO good guys and a bad guy. Plus, in terms of physique, Billy and Dutch are an equal match. Heck, I think Billy could have beaten Dutch in arm wrestling.
So Billy had to die.
It feels like when there has to be a bit of death in the story, writers sometimes choose the character most similar to the protagonist. Take Finnick Odair from the Hunger Games trilogy: he’s strong, knowledgeable, another survivor of the Hunger Games (also: pretty). We meet him in Catching Fire, grow connected to his personality and backstory, root for him when he gets married….aaaaand watch him die on the assault on the Capital. Now it can be argued his arc’s complete, so the audience knows who he is. SOMEone’s got to die in a war; his death will have the strongest emotional impact while primary heroine Katniss can continue on.
Fine. Fair enough. At least Finnick got to die on page/screen, UNLIKE BILLY.
Notice how after all his bad-ass preparation, we never get to see Billy fight the Predator. We just hear his anguished scream, and know he’s dead. Such off-screen deaths drive me nuts. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is guilty of this, too, both in book and on film, when it comes to characters like Professor Lupin and the Auror Tonks. They die during the battle at Hogwarts while Harry’s elsewhere, so we never see their final moments. They’re just dead.
Wow, I went off longer on this than planned. Dammit, Billy, you got me all wound up!
I get that I have to accept beloved characters dying. I just want those deaths to MATTER. You bet your ass I cry when Beth dies in Little Women. I bawl when Clint Eastwood’s character Walt is shot in Gran Torino. I refused to believe Hercule Poirot was really dead in Curtain until I went online for evidence to prove otherwise…and couldn’t find it. Even Dobby, that goofy little house-elf Dobby, had me sobbing both while reading and watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I hated that these characters had to die.
But their deaths help spur the protagonists–and the narrative–forward. Without their deaths, there is less at stake; therefore, there is less concern for the characters.
Now I have waaaaaay more to say about character death, but Bo’s up and given me the giggles by saying, “Billy will always be in the chopper of your heart.” Yes, yes he will!
So let’s pause to talk. Is there a story with a character death that really frustrates you? Should I kill more characters in my own books?
Lastly, be sure to stay tuned to my monthly newsletter. Big changes are coming, and I don’t want you to miss out!
What is it about the stories we save for Christmas time? Why do we pack them up with the ornaments and stockings as another special sparkly for December? This week I talk with my family about their favorite Christmas stories to discover what makes them so special.
Takeaway: Christmas stories should be fun, and elves are hilarious.
Takeaway: Christmas stories require a bit of action, even violence, in order to achieve the “happily ever after.” Also, alien robots.
Wonder what Blondie will add to the mix…
Takeaway: Learning what Christmas is all about is very important, especially when animals are involved.
Kids tucked up in bed, Bo and I pull out one of the many Christmas catalogs we’ve received lately to talk about a unique occurrence with Christmas: the HallmarkChristmas film. What has Hallmark figured out about Christmas stories that gives them the knack to make so many every year?
Takeaway: Pretty people with Christmasy names and/or places facing a little problem and/or a little death in order to achieve love…which basically means that Die Hard is the greatest Christmas movie ever. Even the 30th Anniversary trailer that just came out agrees. (For the record, Bo and I recorded our talk before seeing this trailer. Guess this makes us amazing!)
Will I ever write a Christmas story? I’m not sure. Bo and I began dating and even married around Christmas time, so I cannot deny there’s a certain magic to the season. I also know how sharp grief grows at Christmas, making its hope all the more critical to share before it’s too late.
Hmmm. Maybe Hallmark has a point about love…after Charles Dickens made it over 150 years ago:
I have always thought of Christmastime…[as] a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time…the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely…
-Nephew Fred, A Christmas Carol
So yeah, Christmas stories may seem a bit too schmaltzy at times, but know what? That’s okay. This is the season when we’re all just a bit more open to love’s magic. There’s a power in these December days unknown at any other time of the year. Use that power, friends, be it in your storytelling or your life’s story, to share the magic. Use whatever you need, be it dogs, cookies, or flying reindeer.
Also, alien robots.
Oh! Lest I forget, be sure to give some indie books to your fellow readers, and reviews to your fellow writers on Amazonand Goodreads! Nothing’s as awesome as the gift of words.
A most blessed Christmas to you all. Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!
Last week’s poston Alan Silvestri’s score for Predator didn’t have any room to touch on the bombastic ending that was Schwarzenegger vs. Alien From Unknown Planet.
Man, what a spectacle. Muscle and teeth and gutteral roars vs. creepy four-pronged jaws and lazers and bombs and stuff. Lazers! Helicopters! Green gooey blood! HUGE explosions! It’s an ending that has you knocking your beer over as you cheer for Earth’s Last Action Hero. Kick interplanetary ass, Arnie!
Perfect Days doesn’t end with an explosion, or aliens, or any of that. It’s a novel of the thriller genre, a tale told of one man’s love for a girl and the lengths to which he’ll go–i.e., abduction, rape, and murder–to have her.
(Spoilers abound. I still recommend the read, if you can handle this sort of thing.)
Are you familiar with the concept of “bookending”? It’s a method I recommend to my students when they don’t know how to write a conclusion paragraph for an essay. You look at how you began your work, and see what element can be brought back in the end.
In short, set up in the beginning for the pay off at the end.
No, it’s not easy, because for once it’s a pay off you don’t want readers looking for. This element needs to be something it feels like characters have walked away from, discarded, grown from, etc. Such is the case with Teo, a student on the verge of graduating med school. The book opens during one of his last classes.
Gertrude was the only person Teo liked. The other students weren’t quite as at ease around her….Teo didn’t want anyone to notice how good he felt there. He’d walk over to the metal table with his head down.
There she’d be, serenely waiting for him. Gertrude. …
In her company, his imagination knew no bounds. The world melted away, until he and Gertrude were all that was left. (1-2)
Teo, our main character, has forged a relationship with a corpse. Not physical, but intimate. Opening this way, Montes not only shows readers how uncomfortable Teo is around other people, but how much his imagination fills in reality for him; for instance, when another student makes a conclusion about something, Teo wants to laugh, “And if Gertrude could have heard that nonsense, she’d have hooted with laughter too” (3). Teo “knows” Gertrude, even though Gertrude is not this corpse’s name. He’s studied this body, and imagined all the rest. When the class–and chapter–end, so ends his time with Gertrude, and Teo is “alone again” (4). The character must now move on from this point.
So readers move on as well, and see Teo attend a party with his mother and meet Clarice, a petite free-spirit whose brief conversation leaves him absolutely smitten. He uses the university database to find her and, after another encounter, ends up striking her unconscious and taking her to the flat he shares with his mother.
He felt bad: it was the first time he had thought of himself as a villain. By stuffing Clarice in a suitcase and bringing her home, had he become a criminal? (32)
(I just had to share that line. No, this isn’t asked sarcastically–Teo genuinely contemplates whether or not he’s done something wrong. What a killer bit of pov.)
For the majority of the novel, Teo has Clarice locked up in two different cabins Clarice has used in the past, cabins owned by others who are used to her coming and going. At one point in the first cabin they’ve settled into a routine of sorts, and Teo begins to open up about his personal life.
He even mentioned Gertrude….He told her a serious [sic] of funny anecdotes about things he’d done with Gertrude. Clarice found it interesting that he was friends with a much older woman and said she wanted to meet her….It made him a little ill at ease, as he didn’t want to spoil things by telling her that Gertrude was a corpse. (81)
Teo doesn’t talk about Gertrude again with Clarice, and as tensions mount in Teo’s determination to keep Clarice and avoid arrest, readers don’t think much about Gertrude, either. Teo kills Clarice’s boyfriend, rapes Clarice, and even severs her spine to prevent her escape.
Climax: Teo is driving off a ferry, certain Clarice is still unconscious in the passenger seat from the last dose of sedative. But Clarice suddenly yanks the steering wheel, and their car goes straight into a restraining wall. Teo wakes up in a hospital. Surely it’s all over, with her family and police present, asking questions.
Yet there are no charges.
He asks to see Clarice, and is escorted to her room.
When Clarice looked up at him…she stared at him with unprecedented interest… “I’m sorry, but… who are you?” (253)
She couldn’t remember having seen Teo before, or what had happened in the previous month or year…. She seemed truly perplexed that she was engaged. (254)
The advantage of her lack of memory was that he could tell her whatever he wanted; he exaggerated the details in order to make it all sound poetic and inevitable. (255)
As the last chapter progresses, we can’t help but think Teo’s won. He’s successfully avoided the police and familial scrutiny. He marries Clarice, and all is as it should be.
Clarice was having fewer nightmares, although sometimes she’d still wake up acting strangely, and it was very distressing–she’d shout and break plates of food against the wall, saying they’d been poisoned. Maybe their marriage wasn’t perfect, but there were much worse ones out there. (260)
Last page: Clarice is pregnant. A family! Teo’s happy, and “Clarice appeared to be too” (260). Teo’s overwhelmed with love when they learn they’re having a girl, and is about to speak when Clarice interrupts him.
She smiled at Teo and said, “A beautiful name came to me just now. Gertrude. What do you think, my love?”
No last-minute duel. No savior to put all things to right. But BOOM nonetheless.
A few things.
First, we’re left wondering about Clarice. Did she really lose her memory? She still calls him “my love.” But such a name as Gertrude…oh, that does not come out of the blue. We wonder now if Clarice is no longer trying to escape, but to dominate. Perhaps she has plans of her own for Teo.
Speaking of Teo, is he going to panic and kill Clarice? He’s killed his mother’s dog and Clarice’s boyfriend, so the act is not beyond him. He’s never handled moments of Clarice’s superiority well at all. Yet she’s smiling at him, calling him “love.” Will Teo leave his wife and unborn child lifeless as he did the corpse Gertrude at the end of the first chapter, and be alone all over again?
We do not know. We will never know.
That name, that single little element, is Montes’ bookend. He took the single most vulnerable point in the Teo’s life and gave it a body–a lifeless body, but a body nevertheless. And like all bodies left unburied, they come back to haunt even the most resilient of natures. By waiting until the absolute last line, Montes leaves readers in the wake of a narrative bomb: we don’t know if blood will be shed, if foundations will be cracked, or if all will go on as before, with “distressing” moments that might, just might, lead to a peculiar food poisoning.
So as you work out your ending, writers, ask: What element from the opening chapters can help create a narrative bookend? Perhaps a person, a token, a place may return. It could be as monumental as a dream fulfilled, or as momentary as a single name whispered on dying lips. It all depends if you wish to leave your readers happily tired by the journey, or blinded by the bomb. Either way, they’ll return to you knowing thrills are hidden in every chapter, right down to the final line.
(Oh don’t you think I’m done with Alan Silvestri yet. I’ve got a word or three to say about his score for The Polar Express.)
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As 2018’s National Novel Writing Month draws to a close, I thought I’d offer a little music to help those entangled in face-offs and final battles. We all could use a little muscle to pull us out and onward.
I know: you’re not here to start an adventure. You’re here because it’s time for you–and the characters of your story–to kick some villainous butt.
So let’s join up with the best of the best, the men of muscle who fly across the border and walk into a guerrilla nest without flinching. Men who chew cigars, sweat through camo paint, and say lines like “I ain’t got time to bleed” and sound tooootally bad-ass.
Predator isn’t a scifi-action classic purely because of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance, or only because of Stan Winston’s monster creation. Silvestri’s score plays a HUGE role in this story’s atmosphere, too.
Arnie’s military group is sent on what they think is a rescue mission deep in central America–until they find men of a previous “rescue mission” skinned and hanging from a tree. We see no evil, but we see its horror. Silvestri gives only a single, drum-like percussion, far off. An alien’s heartbeat, an echo of another nature. It’s never completely gone; rather, it hides in the rest of the orchestra’s bursts of harmony in the brass, strings, and percussion. The music sweeps up, sweeps down, all stealth and caution….until the two minute mark. The low brass of epiphany emphasizes the characters’ realization the situation is not what they presupposed.
Silvestri nails suspense with a moment when Arnold’s crew sets a trap for whatever’s killing them. The strings remain high, tight. No aggression in these first few moments, only fear–though no one wants to admit it. The combination of high strings and oppressive jungle makes characters and audience alike ready to snap under the pressure to wait. This moment often helps me add extra setting details to make the characters look hard for the villain as they wait for the trap to be sprung. And you’ll know when the villain comes, all brass and drums.
Silvestri and violins, man…he just knows how to set them running up and down in arpeggios to quicken the heartbeat. With opening in a dissonance, we put our survival instincts into a panic. We run with the strings, and the moment they stop we skid to a halt. The brass and piano takes up the chase, hunting us, hunting the characters, both.
And climax? Ye GODS, Silvestri knows his pacing. The first minute is almost sweetly mysterious with the strings as we think we’ve won against the fantastic thing, this hunter. We can stand over it victorious as its strange insides are exposed to us…until the brass and piano begin. They begin a steady build, add the percussion, build. Then the strings start to run and you know you’ve got to get the hell out of there before evil steals your victory in death.
We all want our heroes to win the day, but we don’t want it to be easy for them–there’s no story without conflict. We gotta make our heroes scared. It takes some serious fear to make the final victory all the sweeter for characters and readers alike.
~*~ ~*~ ~*~ ~*~
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A rare gift comes to the writer when the story and its mixed tape of music ka-chunk and transform. No longer is the music merely the writer’s atmosphere, her source of ambience while storytelling. Oh no. The music is the heroine. The music is the villain. The music is the tension. The music is the scene.
This happened to me during 2010’s National Novel Writing Monthwhen I first began drafting Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. At the time I was only using instrumental music for storytelling, while music like The Who’s Quadropheniahelped me survive the piles of grading in my dropbox. The month had barely started, so I was early in the story of Charlotte and her sister leaving their abusive family in the Dakotas for Wisconsin. Their coach bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Another peculiar bus appears with far-too-friendly good Samaritans, and despite Charlotte’s suspicions, she gets on, too.
I tried magical feathers. I tried mysterious goo in the axles. How could I get Charlotte and her sister to the Wall if I can’t make this frickin’ Samaritan trap–I mean, bus–have a plausible reason (for humans, anyway) to break down near the farmland by the Wall? I shoved the story aside and opened up a batch of essays. In the midst of telling the umpteenth student to please remember her thesis statement in the introduction, The Who’s “The Real Me” came on…
…and I saw it.
I saw the scene. I saw it all, frame by frame like a movie trailer. I knew what had to happen: utilize the shapeshifters’ gifts, the song to feel Charlotte’s fear race like a heartbeat.
For this song, I realized, embodies Charlotte.
The percussion, guitar, and style of singing are defiant to the point of raging. The song demands anyone, everyone, to look past the surface and see the pain, confusion, and ambition to be.
In this snippet of the story, though, it is Charlotte who does the seeing. Only she sees the bus driver’s inhumane ability, and realizes they’re all trapped. I could feel all this when I first drafted the scene with the song on repeat in 2010.
Eight years later, little’s changed.
~*~ From Fallen Princeborn: Stolen ~*~
Charlotte bites back the snark and hides in her headphones again. She starts “The Real
Me,” thinking, The bus SMELLS old and gross, but nothing FEELS old and gross. Give me two seconds and I’d be out cold, it’s so damn comfortable.…
… At least food has settled Anna down. Now she’s content to walk that quarter from Uncle Mattie up and down the fingers of her right hand. Then flips to her left. The quarter continues its deliberate tumble from pinky to ring to middle to forefinger to thumb and back again. Up and down. Then down and up. Like practicing scales on a piano, observes Charlotte.
“Nice moves.” Studchin’s face betrays a lack of skills with a napkin.
“Thanks. My uncle taught me.”
Charlotte does a quick passenger check: Potential Homicidal Maniac sits as far from Anna as possible. Twitchy is de-threading his own coat. Mumbles starts singing “Lizzy likes locked things.” The Sweenils argue over who won that Waters Meet Bingo tournament. Mr. Smith sings too softly for her to hear.
Black feathers fly across their window. Violet flashes, a cackle rumbles.
Charlotte spins ’round and stares at the back of the bus.
Jamie is gone.
“Where is he?”
Anna bats those damn glitter-lashes at Studchin one more time before asking, “Who?” Slurp.
“The crazy acne boy with the bags. Where is he?”
Anna opens another cake. “Probably bathroom. Why, wanna ask for his number?”
“What’s this about numbers?” Studchin’s breath reeks of mouse turds and sugar. “Cuz I’ve got one, if you want it.” |Charlotte’s chest burns beneath the pendant. It’s burning like hell, she’s going to pass out— “Can you see the real me, can ya? Can ya?” What the—? Who the—? Who has the audacity to sing a Who song OVER The Who? Charlotte swivels around in her seat, trying to locate the source. Not Studchin, he wouldn’t know good music if a chorus of show girls sang it from a Jacuzzi of custard. Not his bandmates and, thank god, not Mumbles. Potential Homicidal Maniac? Nope. Dead silent, head still.
It’s Mr. Smith, singing right along with Roger. But how can he hear what she’s listening to on her headphones, from that far up front? Charlotte shakes her head and stares at the back of Burly Man’s head. He stares right back at her from the rearview mirror. Not even the Sweenils notice him singing. No one but Charlotte, always Charlotte.
“Charlie?” Slu-urp. “What’s going on?”
“Char—” “Can you see, can you see the real me?”
“SHUT IT.” To Anna or to Mr. Smith—Charlotte doesn’t care. Get away from my music, my head, my sister. Get away.
Ash-wind pulls on Charlotte’s nose. Black, green, black, green, black: the raven’s circling again. Get AWAY! “Can you see the real me, Preacher?”
“I mean it, where is that Jamie guy?”
“I don’t know, Charlie. Why do you care?”
“Dude, what is up with your sister?” Studchin to Anna. “Can you see the real me, Doctor?”
Ash chokes, feathers fly, song deafens, eyes glitter— “Can you see the real me, Mother?”
Charlotte sees Mr. Smith’s fingers drum along in perfect sync with the song.
And he stares right back. His teeth are painted, ablaze in his smile. “Can you see the real me me me me me me?”
The raven strikes.
Of course, using a song in a story is one thing. Getting permission to use that song is another matter entirely, as I explain in “Days of Walkmans Past.”
My deepest thanks to all fellow writers and readers who have been sharing my stories and thoughts on craft. No matter how much I beat myself up for not writing enough, reading enough, living enough, you step up and share my words and make every struggle matter. Folks, these are writers well worth sharing, reading, and befriending, I promise you.
In the meantime, I’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo for the first time in years. It’s time to rewrite the third novel of the Fallen Princeborn Omnibus. I promise you even more mystery and mayhem, perhaps even a murder or two in the dank Pits dark and deep…
Are you joining thirty days and nights of literary abandon? Let me know so we can be writing buddies!
My sons dress in their Transformer costumes with giggling hops. “Trick or treating!” They chime over and over, so thrilled to begin the candy feast early with a special Halloween event at the zoo. My little Optimus Prime and Bumblebee are ready to roll out against Decepticons and other devious evildoers in the name of candy.
Our exteriors say so much about us. I’m not just talking about donning the armor of alien transforming heroes, but our behaviors around other people. How we are around others can differ vastly with how we think, act, and exist in solitude. We–and our characters–are so often “more than meets the eye.”
Let’s consider a few examples, beginning with the well-known Katniss Everdeen of Hunger Games. The story opens with Kat being tender to her younger sister Primrose on the morning before the Reaping, when candidates are selected for the Hunger Games. When Prim’s name is chosen, Kat cries out to volunteer in her sister’s place. Prim tries to stop her, but Kat refuses to give in.
“Prim, let go,” I say harshly, because this is upsetting me and I don’t want to cry. When they televise the replay of the reapings tonight, everyone will make note of my tears, and I’ll be marked as an easy target. A weakling. I will give no one that satisfaction. “Let go!” (23)
From here on out, Kat is about as gruff and curt as she can be with nearly every other character in the book. She knows what it means to hunt, starve, and lose a loved one. Kat’s determined to survive for her family’s sake, which means she will not let any other tributes figure out her skill set or weaknesses.
But I want to note here that Kat does have a tender heart. It’s been burned, yes, but it’s there, visible any time Kat’s with her sister (and her eventual love interests, but blah blah on that for this post). Had Suzanne Collins merely wrote Kat as a hunter without family–that is, made Kat nothing but her tough shell–then what would Kat’s motivation be? The entire tone of the narrative would change from one of survival to protect to…acceptance? Glory? Who knows?
Heroes and villains both can have these tough exteriors with the occasional crack. And cracks they must have, or again, readers will think the character nothing but the tough shell. Take two of the primary characters in The Boys— Homelander, leader of the elite superhero group The Seven who is also the primary antagonist of the series, and Butcher, leader of The Boys, the group created to keep superheroes in line.
Each has their tough exterior: Butcher can be a right bastard to people, ready to literally rip someone to shreds for being a “supe.” Homelander, all posh and elegance in front of the cameras, is all too eager to make Starlight have oral sex with him in order to join The Seven. He’s also gathering up all the superheros to support a takeover of the American government, all too eager to cut the corporate leash upon him with a blink of his eye lazers.
Yet this same Homelander will cry in a fetal position in the bathroom, asking himself why he can’t remember ripping up human beings with his teeth. This same Butcher didn’t always swing fists or revel in pain. He had a wife once. He had love once. And because Butcher once knew love, he’s willing to give his fellow Boy and friend Hughie a chance to save his girlfriend Starlight before Butcher attempts to wipe every supe off the planet.
These cracks don’t have to appear often. If they did, then readers and other characters aren’t going to see a “tough” exterior at all. These cracks need only be visible at a few important moments for the sake of plot, conflict, or other narrative element.
Consider the classic A Christmas Carol (Yes, I know it’s only October, but hey, there’s ghosts in this.) The Ghost of Christmas Past has brought Scrooge to his years of apprenticeship under Fezziwig. The Ghost points at Apprentice Scrooge and the other youths praising and thanking Fezziwig and says:
“A small matter…to make these silly folks so full of gratitude…He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four, perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”
“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count’em up: what then? The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”
He felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.
“What is the matter?” asked the Ghost.
“Nothing particular,” said Scrooge. (49)
See that? For a brief moment, Scrooge is no longer the “Scrooge” we saw at the beginning. The bitter miser has been replaced with a man of passion for his first employer and mentor. Only when the Ghost of Christmas Past studies him and calls attention to the crack does Scrooge seal his exterior back up again. But thanks to this moment, the Spirit and readers both know there is more to Scrooge than the opening pages suggest.
I’ve been thinking about these tough exteriors a good deal with my Fallen Princeborn series, especially with my latest short story, “Tattered Rhapsody.” The last story in my collection Tales of the River Vinecenters on heroine Charlotte: her ragged, “goblin-bent” form of broken fingers and boney limbs. Her quick words and quicker fists. Her music. Her sister. And, at last, a moment of true hope.
One of the elements within a timeless story are complete characters: not just HEROES made only of dash and daring, or VILLAINS only vile and wicked, but people. People who don an armor to protect their inner selves, who only reveal those inner selves when least expected by readers–or themselves. What hopes and fears hide behind your characters’ armor? Set them alight, and let readers see–just for a moment–the cracks in the tough exterior.
Thanks so much for reading. As previously mentioned, the last short story in my collection is now available FREE on Amazon, Nook, and other outlets.
It’s been so exciting to read comments and reviews from readers. If you snatched a free copy of Fallen Princeborn: Stolenduring my ARC giveaway, I hope you’ll share your thoughts on Amazonand Goodreads! You can share your thoughts on the short stories there, too. Seriously, every review makes a HUGE difference for these stories’ visibility on the global bookshelf. Even Kirkus Reviews has some pretty sweet things to say about Stolen—click here and see!
For those waiting to purchase a copy: next week, folks. Next. Week.
Autumn washes over Wisconsin with gold, crimson, orange, and steel. Rain keeps the farmland cold and wet, turning three pumpkin pickers into wet whiners.
Still, we manage to pick pumpkins without kicking them at the tractor like soccer balls (don’t ask about that year). Bo stocks our freezer with delicious apple pies. Time to settle in with some hot spiced cider and a spooky read.
First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month: school begins. Consider August, a good month: school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine: there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away.
But you take October, now. School’s been on a month and you’re riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you’ll dump on old man Prickett’s porch, or the hairy-ape costume you’ll wear to the YMCA the last night of the month. And it it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.
But one strange wild dark long year, Halloween came early.
One year Halloween came on October 24, three hours after midnight.
The prologue goes on for just a little bit, but I want to focus on the setting here. The first paragraph establishes a unique focus: the autumn season through the eyes of a boy. Sure, we grown-ups might like the pretty colors. The little kids may be keen to jump into leaf piles. But we’re not talking about those age groups. We’re talking about boys, boys the age of 13, we learn. They’re not too old for pirate voices or costumes for Halloween, not too young for pranks about the town. Bradbury’s voice and choice in detail are going to reflect this “elder youth,” which come in a beautiful trio of sensory details in that second paragraph: “…everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.” In a single sentence, Bradbury moves us from the boyish plans of Halloween to the smell, sight, and sound of late October. We are on the streets as child-ghosts float by in the dusk, adults sitting round their fire-pits in drive ways with chili and beer…
…oh wait. That’s Wisconsin now.
Timeless details, I tell you!
But it doesn’t end there. Let’s keep going a bit. I want to show you how just a few drops of sensory detail in the first chapters fill readers—and our protagonists—with foreboding before Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show even arrives.
Take the opening of Chapter 1:
The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm. He came along the street of Green Town, Illinois, in the late cloudy October day, sneaking glances over his shoulder. Somewhere not so far back, vast lightnings stomped the earth. Somewhere, a storm like a great beast with terrible teeth could not be denied.
Firstly, one doesn’t come across a traveling lightning rod salesman every day. Already, we have a touch of not-normal coming into a typical small town, the kind of town that builds on the railroad in the middle of farming country. That the man “sneaks glances over his shoulder” gives readers that sense of foreboding and intimidation. Were this man unafraid, he’d simply look back. But no—he’s “sneaking” the looks, just like Bash sneaks looks out of his bedroom door when the scary owl flies towards the television screen at the beginning ofIt’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
Bradbury also instills a visual in readers of something not yet seen: the storm, a “great beast with terrible teeth.” A storm-sized monster “stomping” the earth surely cannot be stopped by mere mortals, can it?
By opening our first chapter with this storm, we already have a sense of “something wicked” coming—only the true wickedness is something else. Bradbury continues to use the storm, too, to crackle the setting and our senses: “Thunder sounded far off in the cloud-shadowed hills…The air smelled fresh and raw, on top of Jim Nightshade’s roof” (11, 12). Once more Bradbury touches our ears, eyes, and noses. The thunder may be “far off,” but the “cloud-shadowed hills” reveal its hiding place. We all love our “fresh” smells, so very pleasant and enjoyable, but “raw”? “Raw” immediately calls up bloody meat, yucky veg, skin cracked and bleeding beneath a dry cold.
These unsettling sensations follows protagonists Will and Jim to the library in Chapter 2. Now we’re in town, where something creeps along behind them, invisible yet…
Jim and Will grinned at each other. It was all so good, these blowing quiet October nights and the library waiting inside now with its green-shaded lamps and papyrus dust.
Jim listened. “What’s that?”
“What, the wind?”
“Like music…” Jim squinted at the horizon.
“Don’t hear no music.”
Jim shook his head. “Gone. Or it wasn’t even there. Come on!”(13)
Because only one ear catches it, both boys are quick to excuse this single-sense moment. But when the boys leave the library in Chapter 4, another single sense is touched again…
Mr. Crosetti, in front of his barber shop, his door key in his trembling fingers, did not see them stop.
What had stopped them?
It moved shining down Mr. Crosetti’s left cheek. He breathed heavily. … “Don’t you smell it?”
Jim and Will sniffed.
“Heck, no. Cotton candy! … Now, my nose tells me, breathe! And I’m crying. Why? Because I remember how a long time ago, boys ate that stuff. Why haven’t I stopped to think and smell the last thirty years?”
…And they left him behind in a wind that very faintly smelled of licorice and cotton candy. (21-22)
Now we know that the boys aren’t the only ones catching a whiff, as it were, of something peculiar in the wind. Not only is this adult moved to concentrate on a single smell, but he’s moved to tears. This speaks to a longing inside the character, a want for what was.
For what’s coming.
With lightning and licorice, Bradbury tangles our senses with intrigue. We need to see what lightnings stomp in the hills. We need to see what brings the cotton candy so sweet the very scent of it makes a grown man cry. As you write the first few chapters of your story, take a moment to drop setting details for a few senses, just enough to put the heroes–and readers–on edge.
Charlotte’s hand presses the pendant into her sternum as if to cover
whatever’s cracked open inside her. It’s all she can touch—Anna’s out of reach,
she and every other passenger, their bodies floating about behind dimmed
windows. Does no one else smell the old oil and neglect, like meat burned down
to nothing? The way Jamie stands by the door, hands clasped behind him,
grinning like a choir boy, all pleased with himself, Charlotte knows, freakin’ knows, someone’s pulled an Ed Gein and made the bus seats out of bodies.
“Sweetheart, you’ve got to board, okay?” Maisy calls from the coach. “You
can’t stay here with me. It’ll take days to get the bus fixed.”
And you know you’re oversmelling it, Charlie, just like earlier with the bears and shit. It’s just an old bus, is all. But Charlotte continues to hesitate.
“Hurry up, Charlie, let’s go!” her sister calls from a window. “They’ve got
food in here. And it’s all posh, come on!”
Jamie’s grin grows.
It’s just a bus. Charlotte decides, and tucks the necklace away.
~STILL SHOUTING FOR SHOUT OUTS!~
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