Monday, December 30, 2013

Normal Snowflakes

People are not normal.

Ask any family and they will say they, as a group, are crazy. I am not questioning the truth of the statement. Most families are, in fact, crazy, especially when they’re all together. My own family has a tendency towards craziness, or maybe riotousness. Anyone who’s ever been in the same room with us will tell you that when we’re all talking at once and we can’t hear each other, we fix it all by shouting louder. It doesn’t bother most of us, because we’re used to it. And things get crazy.

The thing is, no matter how uniquely crazy I thought my family is, I’ve realized that other people think the same things about their families. 

Is it just that people want to be unusual, unique, that humans have an inborn desire to stand out, at least privately? So they claim craziness in an effort to avoid being ordinary?

Or is it that “normal” is a myth, that in reality, people are never normal.

Normal, according to the dictionary, is a noun or an adjective referring to the usual, average, typical state or condition of things.
And in some ways there is such a thing. There is a normal body temperature, normal childhood development, normal weather for this time of year. Normal in that sense can be a good thing. It implies that, good or bad, this is to be expected and can be survived. 

But is there such a thing as a normal person? An average person? What characterizes the “typical human being?”

There are normal people according to many books and movies. High schools have the jock who plays football, and the nerd who is ostracized, and the mean girl, who is always beautiful and a cheerleader. (Did it ever occur to them that ugly people are capable of meanness too?)
But in real life people don’t go in the little boxes that fictional people can be trimmed to fit into. And even in fiction the best characters are the ones that are far from normal. The ones that break barriers, are anything but average, and stand out.

Saying “a normal person” is like saying “a normal snowflake.” 
Sure, they’re all made of frozen water and they all have six sides. They’re all the same, normal, as long as you don’t look too close.
But look at a snowflake under a microscope and it is a wonder of crystal ice and glassy lace.

Get to know a person, a family, a group of people and they are unique and marvelous individual creations of God.

There are no normal people.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Choice and Compassion (Villains: Part Three)

What kind of villain is best?

That depends on what kind of story you want. Here's my take on what the three kinds of villains do to stories:

Scum add plot, not character. They are not bad for the story, you can develop your hero without personalizing your villain, but they’re not really even characters. They make no choices. They’re just “the bad guys.” They’re someone, something, for the good guys to fight. This is a villain for a clean cut, old fashioned “fighting bad guys” story. Often they are the villains of action movies or some of the bad guys in fantasy stories. They exist not just to die but to be killed. It is the hero who makes any choices regarding them, easy choices, like, “Which sword do I use to cut off it’s head?”

The fallen can be just something for the good guys to fight, but they have more to offer. The fallen want nothing more than to bring others with them into their fall. And so, as the dragon tempted the knight, they will try to trick and draw the heros into becoming nothing better than the evil they fight. The hero’s response to this gives you a myriad of opportunities. Does he stand firm and remain true to his values? Does he slip and then repent his mistake? Is he drawn into becoming one of the led astray? Or does he weigh the lies in the balance and choose death, becoming, as the villain wished, one of the fallen?
These are the villains of fantasy more than any other genre. They are the Black King and the Dark Lord, they are powerful as well as evil. This is a category that you can make any species fit into, but the most naturally suited to the part are those that are so far gone, they are not only evil themselves but they control all other evil things. They cause fear, they corrupt and destroy, they are dangerous. They force the hero to make the most important choice, one that will decide whether he remains a hero or not.

While the led astray can also develop the character of the hero, they are characters in their own right. They are not just, “the bad guy.” They may not show any inclination towards doing the right thing at first, but they do still have a conscience. They are still struggling, still choosing, still human. Sometimes, like the fallen, they may try to corrupt the hero. Misery loves company: they’ll feel better about themselves if they’re not the only ones on the path to destruction. Often they envy the hero. They see the choices they could have made and weep.

These are my favorite villains. They elicit compassion, and it is that which makes them human, makes them a character. Someone still loves them. Even if they are so wicked that there is only one man or woman in the story who still loves them, it is enough. At least one person, mother, sister, brother or even just the reader, weeps at their death. Because there was a chance for them. Whether they chose life or death, it was theirs to choose. They not only make the hero choose, but they are also choosing for themselves.
And choice is story.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Dragon's Blood (Villains: Part Two)

St. George and the Dragon

What difference does it make, which kind of villain a story has?

 It’s the same story either way, right? A knight battles a dragon.


Imagine a story about a knight battling dragons. Three dragons.

All three kill men, burn villages, and slaughter sheep. They kill more than they need, they incinerate for no good reason, they waste and destroy. They are villains, evil, wicked, and the knight sets off to free his land from these scourges.

The first dragon crawled from beneath a mountain. His scales, skin, and flesh are charcoal black. He loves evil, takes pleasure in burning villages and slaughtering sheep. He plays with death, spreading it about for entertainment. He was born like that, has always been that way. He is a wicked beast. No matter how smart he is, no matter if he had reasoning powers, he is a brute.

The second dragon fell from the sky. Somewhere up there he chose darkness, and it has pervaded his body until he too has black flesh. His scales are black as well, although when he washes they turn white again for a brief time until the darkness in his heart overcomes their natural color once more. He hates men for what they stand for, creatures that cling to a sense of morality no matter how depraved they become. Like the first beast, he kills for fun. For him, however, it is a different kind of fun. Not only does it offer him the pleasure of seeing that which he hates suffer, it has the added thrill of rebellion. He was created good, but he has chosen evil.

The third dragon was once a man. He got lost, made wrong choices, took the wrong path and became enchanted. He hates men because he is one, he sees their humanity and envies it. But he hates himself more. He burns villages in anger and then swoops down into the furnace he created to save a child crying and lost in the burning street. He kills fields of sheep, finding pleasure in his power, then weeps at what he has become. Betrayed and angry, he kills men, but he wants nothing more than to go back to the time when he was a man himself.

The first dragon will kill, be killed, or slink back into his hole to emerge somewhere else. He waits for the knight in the cave that he lives in. He will try every dirty tactic he knows. He has no sense of fighting fair, if he did, he wouldn’t care.
Eustace the dragon, from The Voyage
of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis.
The young knight engages, and after a hard struggle, kills the beast. The victory is complete. There is no sorrow, the brute was wicked and evil. The knight picks up his shield, shines his blackened armor, and sets out towards the second dragon.

The second dragon will kill, be killed, or turn the knight to the side of darkness. He waits on the top of a hill, watching the knight struggle uphill toward him. Unlike the first dragon, he knows perfectly well that his position gives him an unfair advantage. He chose the place on purpose.
His first aim is to wear the knight out. He dodges and ducks, not really fighting, raising hopes only to dash them, until the young knight is exhausted physically and mentally. And then the temptation begins.
He gives the knight opportunity after opportunity to fight dirty. He want to kill the knight, but even more than that, he wants the knight to do something unfair.
The knight struggles to continue to fight fair. Once he begins to give in, but stops. The fight wears on. The dragon starts to get flustered and frustrated. He makes a mistake and the young knight wounds him. Furious, the dragon throws himself on the young knight, and as they fall together the knight drives his sword into his heart.
The knight has won, but he is exhausted and wounded. It has been the fight of his life. He almost yielded to the dragon’s temptation and he feels his own vulnerability. His armor has been blackened by the dragon’s blood and not all of it will come off. He makes his way to the nearest village to recover before fighting more dragons.

The third dragon waits in an open field. He has heard of the knight coming. He is afraid, knowing that the knight is an expert dragon killer, but some part of him doesn’t care. He feels that death might be better than life as a dragon. 
The knight approaches cautiously, expecting a trap, but the dragon turns toward him and sends a fireball hurtling past him, a sort of warning shot. Then he attacks, with desperation and a desire to have it over.
The battle is fierce and dramatic. There is fire and explosions, a flashing sword and bent shield. The dragon and the man are both wounded, and blood is everywhere, but this dragon’s blood does not turn armor black. It is bright red, like the knight’s blood.
Finally, the desperate struggle ends. The dragon collapses upon the grass, but as it dies, it begins to shrink and change, until lying before the knight is a man. 

A man who opens his eyes to a world in which he is free at last.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Of Scum, the Fallen, and the Led Astray (Villains: Part One)

Many stories need villains, and for the infamy of playing villain the scum, the fallen, and the led astray compete.

The scum are evil. They do what is wrong for no reason other than that it is wrong. They delight in pain and suffering, they hate joy, peace, and love. They wallow in darkness and filth. The only thing anyone wants for them is death. There is no hope or even desire for redemption. They are evil born and bred and there is no good thing in them. 
They are not the fallen, for to fall one must have started high, and characters like these have crawled from below, not fallen from above. They come from darkness and unto darkness they will return. 

 The fallen are also evil. They also do what is wrong for wrongness’ sake. They too hate joy, peace and love and delight in pain and suffering. 
But they are not like the scum. They do not come from darkness.
The fallen have tasted heaven and spit it out. They have seen light and, unsatisfied, tried to conquer it. Their pride is insurmountable, they want to be above the sky. They were not born evil. They were born with a love for beauty, but in their quest to find it they forgot what they were looking for and thought that beauty was in themselves. They want to sit on top of the world, but, since in goodness there is no High Seat for the selfish, they turned away from goodness, valuing themselves above all else.
The fallen were not always evil. But they are even further from the good they were born for than the scum are, because they chose to turn to darkness for their own ends.

The led astray are not evil. They may do the works of darkness but they do not love it. The led astray were trapped as children, ensnared by the fallen, enslaved by the scum. They are deceived into thinking darkness is light, tricked into thinking that evil is good, or frightened into doing wrong. They know not what they do. Or, if they know, they do that which they hate.
They were born in the light and covered by the shadows. They tried to choose right but failed and lost their way. They have been led astray, by others or even by themselves. But a part of them still longs for what they have lost.
Forgiveness is their only hope. 

What difference does it make which kind of villain a story has? A lot of difference. 

I would argue that it can define the story. 

(To be continued)

Monday, December 16, 2013

Tell me everything....or don't.

"Le secret d'ennuyer est celui de tout dire."
(The secret of being a bore is to tell everything)

There are two rules.
"Show, don't tell. No one wants to be spoon-fed information, they want to find it out themselves."
"Tell, don't show. You are a story-teller."

"Show, don't tell," is a good rule. Some say that you should see yourself as a movie maker. Never tell the reader anything they wouldn't find out by watching the screen. (Especially never stop the movie to show a black screen while your voice says, "You'll want to keep an eye on Uncle Tom. He's hiding something and it's important!") I don't disagree. But a book is not a movie, and you are allowed to tell some things.

It happens that most beginning writers shamelessly abuse their ability to tell. I can't tell you how many times I've read something like this:
"Joe has always been a daredevil, but when he was sixteen he jumped off a barn roof playing Superman and broke his leg. Ever since he has had a fear of heights. The cliff part of the trail was hard for him, but he got through it."

Bo-ring. Because the writer told us everything.

"Joe hesitated as they reached the part where the trail skirted the cliff. Scott looked back and saw that Joe's face was white and drawn. He'd never seen Joe look so sick.
           'What's wrong?' Scott asked.
           'Is there another way around?' Joe asked. 'I hate heights.'
Scott looked down at the cliff dropping away beneath them.
           'No,' he said. 'There isn't.'
Joe edged out onto the trail, one hand gripping the railing, staying as far from the edge as he could. Scott walked slowly in front of him, trying not to leave him behind.
          'Sorry,' Scott said.
         'It's OK,' Joe said. 'I need to get over it anyway.'
Slowly they moved across the cliff and back into the forest."

In this example, instead of saying, "Oh, Joe is afraid of heights," the writer showed that Joe becomes very uncomfortable around heights. And we understand, because Joe is gripping the rail and keeping away from the edge and we can feel his fear.

You can tell a little bit. You can tell us that Scott had never seen Joe look so sick. You can tell us that he was trying not to leave Joe behind, that's why he was walking slowly.

Just don't tell everything. Don't even show everything. Leave a little bit of mystery. Readers aren't stupid.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Imagine your first thaw...

Imagine that you are eleven years old. You live in Arctikia, where it stays below freezing for years at a time. The last time there was a warm year and everything melted was the year before you were born. You have never known anything but snow and ice, and you are used to it. Twenty degrees is warm to you. At that temperature, you take your sweatshirt off.
Of course you’ve heard the stories. For years after the periodic Great Thaws, tales of flooding and water and crocuses circulate. But you can’t imagine the world any other way than the way you’ve always known it: frozen.

One day your father tells you that the weather man has predicted a warm year, nothing less than a Thaw. And you are not sure whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. The reactions of the grown ups around you don’t help your uncertainty.
Some are excited. It has been a long time since a Thaw. They miss the smells, the splashing, the color in all the plants that come out of hibernation for the month or so that the world is warm.
Others scowl and mutter, foretelling everything from floods to fire to dragons awakened by the heat. There are good reasons for Arctikia being frozen, they say. Thaws are unnatural, they cause suffering and death.

One day you awake to the sound of wind, a wind unlike any you’ve ever heard, and with the wind another sound that is new to you, the sound of rain.
You get up quickly and climb down from the loft in the little cabin where you live. Your father is standing at the window, looking out at the storm. You join him and for a long moment you can’t even speak.
The snow, the white snow you have known for your entire childhood, is being pelted by water falling from the sky. It’s riddled with holes and beginning to look brown. It’s limp and tired looking. It’s melting. You’re dismayed.
“Go outside,” your mother says. “You’ll like it, you’ll see.”
You are reluctant, you want to go up and hide under your bed and cry. But instead you bundle into your coat and hat, don your gloves, and step outside onto the porch.
The warmth amazes you.
There is rain on your cheeks and wind in your hair. You pull off your coat and hat and gloves, dropping them heedlessly in the melting snow.

There are little green leaves peeking from bare patches, the trees are dark and dripping, twelve years of snow is running down the driveway, the ground is soft and muddy and you take off your shoes.
For the first time, mud squishes up between your toes. 

It doesn’t matter if there are floods and fires and dragons. There are green plants, mud puddles, and the air is soft. The rain is cool and wet on your bare arms and your legs are spattered with mud. You run and laugh and fall down and you don’t care. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

No Greater Love

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
John 15:13

When I was a little girl, I thought that if the occasion presented itself, I would be a hero, would fearlessly risk my life for someone else, that I was the kind of person who would die for a total stranger.

I know myself better now, and I am not a hero. I would probably hesitate, would freeze in agonized horror until it was too late. 
And if there was time to think about it, I would think.
My life is very sweet. I look forward to my future. I want to see what’s going to happen next. I want to get married, have children, grandchildren, like most other people. I want to build a house and travel to foreign countries and publish the stories I write. I want to learn to sail and fly and weld.

I would hesitate to give up all that I look forward to for the life of another man. Humankind is not, as I used to think, generally good, kind, caring. Actually, a good percentage of them seem to be losers and idiots and jerks. (Especially if you look at them quick.)
If I was to die for a man or woman, I would want to be sure that the person I was dying for was the kind of person who would do great things, that they would be worth dying for, worth sacrificing all the things I want to do in the future for.

I grew up in a Christian home, and I heard this all the time: “Jesus came to earth, lived a sinless life and died on the cross for our sins. All you have to do is believe and you’ll have eternal life and live in heaven forever…”
 I have lived my life believing it, and from time to time, when I think about it, I am thankful. Too often I take it for granted. It’s something I grew up with. 

Like air, and water. 

Like life.

But once in a while something happens, something small and insignificant, but for some reason, for however short a time, I see. Sometimes whatever clears my head for that moment is completely unrelated. Sometimes it’s something as unholy as a song by Bruno Mars: “I’d catch a grenade for you, throw my hand on a blade for you, I’d jump in front of a train for you…” 
For some reason hearing those lines made me think. How many people on earth would I catch a grenade for, throw my hand on a blade for, jump on a train for? Could I, would I, really die for someone?

I like to think that in the heat of the moment I would be a “hero,” save strangers just because they needed saving, that I would act without regard to my own safety, but I don’t know that. I can’t know what I would do in that moment, until I am in that moment.

But what if you picked ten random strangers, and showed them to me and said, 
“These people will die if you don’t die in their place.” Would I give my life for theirs? 
I wouldn't know these people. Even if I did know them, if I knew they had greater promise or talent than me, if they were smart like Einstein or gifted like Beethoven, what if they wasted it? 
What if they weren’t ten random strangers? What if they were ten people that I know, but do not like? What if I knew them well enough to know that they were not worth dying for?

What if, even if I died for them, they could all commit suicide ten minutes later? 
They might shrug their shoulders and walk away, not caring that I just saved them. They might not know that I died for them. They might be right back here tomorrow, and next time, without me here to save them, they will die.

Even if I knew that one of the ten was going to do something worthwhile, that only one of the ten would care, would honor me, would live on, while the other nine would commit suicide ten minutes later, I don’t think I would do it. Like them, I am only human. I don’t think I could. I would say, "No."

 Jesus said, “Yes.”

Jesus knew the world. He saw it exactly how it is, imperfections, horrors, beauties, bad and good. Millions of people, living from hand to mouth, fighting, scrabbling, scraping an existence from a cursed earth. We weren’t doing anything worthwhile. We weren’t doing anything important. We were spiraling downward into a messier mess than we were already in and we weren’t even asking for help. We may have seen Death coming but we never thought to ask for someone to take our place. 

Jesus could see that in the future, men would know about his sacrifice. Some men would care, some men would have eternal life, some men would become the immortal splendors they were created to be.
He could also see that many of them would turn their heads. Many would ignore his sacrifice, many would deny that it ever happened. The way out of Death would only be taken by a few. Maybe as few as one out of ten. The other nine would go on, unthankful, uncaring, to commit a slow and stubborn suicide.

  “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
Romans 5:7-8

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Word Play

I love playing with obscure and unusual words. So today I wrote paragraphs describing some. Introducing two little-used adjectives, lugubrious and insouciant.

Lugubrious, a lugubrious aunt and uncle:
Aunt Lucinda sat on one side of the room and stitched mournfully at clothes for poor children; Uncle Alfred sat on the other side and stitched gloomily at the old harness for the horses, which wasn’t needed any more because their son, Benjamin, was in charge of the land now, and he used a tractor. Uncle Alfred persisted in using every scrap of leather in the old barn to mend ancient harnesses, in preparation for the coming day when that darn tractor broke down and there was no harnessing to be had anywhere, so even the horses they still had would be useless. Aunt Lucinda only hoped that the clothing she was laboring over would be of some use to the poor creatures that were unwanted and unwelcome to this vale of tears that was life. Occasionally they would share these hopes and plans with each other, by way of conversation. They were both firmly fixed in the idea that sooner or later, the world would come to pieces and so prove the foolishness of the present generation. Their only consolation, it seemed, was the thought of being there to see it, and, in the best of cases, have the opportunity to say, “I always said this was going to happen, didn’t I, Lucinda?”

Insouciant, an insouciant boy:
The storm was breaking dramatically around the lighthouse, yet when Jem slammed the door it was not with haste, but with mere thoughtless impatience.
His father was putting his coat on in preparation for mounting the open stairs that led to the top of the light.
“This looks like being a big one, Jem,” the lighthouse keeper said. “We’d better close the shutters.”
“Are you worried?” Jem asked lightly. “Why, we’ve ridden out worse gales on board ship.”
“You’ve never experienced a storm on land,” his father said rather sternly. “Go close the windows.”
Jem did, but his lighthearted whistling as he made the rounds of the tiny, weatherbeaten house at the base of the light betrayed his carefree disrespect of the coming storm. This blithe lack of concern caused his father to frown as he came down the stairs from lighting the lamp.
“It’s going to be a rough night,” he said grimly. “Look at the clouds coming. We must be sure to keep the light burning.”
Jem squinted out over the ocean with the air of a hardened sailor. “Aw,” he said confidently. “We’ll be fine.”
His father looked down and met his son’s fearless eyes. He permitted himself a brief smile.
“Just listen to me and do as I say,” he said.
“Yes, sir!” Jem responded with a casual salute. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Freedom Fighter

The priest sat down in one of the chairs near Tegan’s in the empty, echoing cathedral.
“Can I help you?” he asked softly.
Tegan raised his head from his hands and looked over at the priest, glancing over his black robes and meeting his politely friendly eyes. 
It had been a mistake to take refuge in a church.
“I don’t think so,” Tegan said. He stood and pushed his jacket back to reveal the gun on his hip. “Whether you are a true man or not, you do not want to lose your license helping me.”
The priest’s eyes narrowed slightly.
“Perhaps I can help you in a different way,” he said, his tone only slightly patronizing. “Are you one of the rebels the Guard is hunting?”
 “Yes,” Tegan said shortly. The man had probably been sent in to delay him. “Excuse me, I have to go.” He stood up.
The priest stood and turned to follow him as Tegan made his way towards the little side door.
“You rebels fight against the cause you claim to fight for,” he said loudly. 
Tegan stopped. He hesitated, knowing it was a mistake to allow this man to draw him into conversation. The Guard was probably closing in around the church now as the state-sanctioned priest bought them time.
“Say what you mean by that,” he snapped.
“You claim to be fighting for freedom,” the priest said. “And yet your secret society of outlaws is not free. You run for your lives and fight the government.”
“I have said rebellion brings freedom,” Tegan said. “I never claimed that rebellion is freedom.”
“Look at me,” the priest said. “I have not rebelled. And I am free to have a comfortable house, a family, even to worship God.”
“As long as you think the way they want you to think,” Tegan took a step forward. “You can do what ever you want—as long as it’s what they want.”
“I do not do things that are wrong,” the priest said. “And so I am free.”
“You preach lies and propaganda every week in this church,” Tegan said. “You enslave the people’s souls with sermons of a God that backs the government, and for this service the state lets you live in peace. You speak as if from a God you do not believe in. You set the government above your own conscience. All in payment for comfort and peace.”
“And you kill and steal for an ideal you call freedom,” the priest retorted, quickly, as if stung. “How does your conscience condone that?”
“We do not murder and we do not steal,” said Tegan. “We fight a government that kills the innocent and steals not only homes and livelihoods but lives and freedoms.”
“The government sometimes has to kill rebels like you so that everyone else can have freedom,” the priest said sternly. He glanced down at a device in his hand. Tegan recognized it. It was a linker, a device on which all the man had to do was press a button and call in the Guard.
“Who are they to decide what is right and wrong?” Tegan asked. “Freedom means each man follows his own conscience. Each man is born with a knowledge of right and wrong.”
“Anarchy!” the priest said. His thumb hesitated over the red call button on the linker. “Your ideals would have riots in the streets.”
“Maybe,” said Tegan. “But a free people does not need to riot. They can simply say what they think.”
“The people need government,” the priest said.
“Let them govern themselves,” Tegan said. “It has been done.”
“Never successfully,” the priest said scornfully.
“The tribes that were here before us have been doing it for hundreds of years,” Tegan said. 
“We’re getting off the subject,” the priest snapped. The hand holding the linker dropped to his side, momentarily forgotten.“The state government does no harm to law-abiding citizens. You are always free to do what is right.”
“No,” said Tegan. “The right thing to do is to say that oppression is wrong. I am not free to do that. And so I fight for freedom.”
The priest looked down for a moment and Tegan went on.
“You have seen it too,” he said. “You have seen the government murder, steal, and you have been unable to say anything. You hate your own cowardice and you wish you could renounce your comfortable life and make a difference.”
The priest looked up and Tegan saw the truth of his words in the man’s eyes.
“Do not tell me I am wrong for doing what you wish you had the courage to do,” Tegan said gently.
The priest stared at him and the linker dropped from his hand onto the stone floor of the church. The knock of metal on stone echoed in the silence.
“Do not tempt me to do my duty to the state and call the Guard,” the priest said. “Begone from here.”
Tegan turned instantly and walked out, stepping through the little door in the side of the church. Back in the church, the priest slowly picked up the linker and put it back into its place in his pocket. 
Tegan slipped away through back streets towards the edge of town, heading for the woods where his little band of outlaws lived, hunted, but free.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Act Two-and-a-Half

"No story ever really ends, and I think I know why. " 
George Macdonald

In fiction writing, stories often start with "Once Upon A Time..." and end with "The End." In between, they often have a traceable plot, a predictable framework they are built on.  It's called “three act structure,” and it works like this:

Act One is the set up. 

"Roberta lives with her grandmother, helping care for her elderly great-aunt, until one day she finds a map of the farm that shows her grandfather’s treasure hidden under the barn, along with some unreadable marks in a cipher of some kind. Roberta, who has never known her grandfather and yearns to know about her family, starts spending her afternoons digging holes in the unused stalls. But then, she realized that there is a mysterious stranger in town who is also looking for the treasure. Now, she has to find the treasure before he does."

Act Two comes after the main character is committed to the story. It is the building up, the raising of the stakes, the development and the drama. 

"Roberta, by this time, is determined to find her grandfather’s treasure, find out what it is, and keep it safe, all before this threatening stranger can steal it. She hears her grandmother having a conversation with someone late at night, but doesn’t know who. Her grandmother refuses to discuss the map, and finally, exasperated by prolonged questioning, burns it. Roberta is now unable to access whatever information was in the coded message. She is furious at her grandmother and they refuse to speak to each other. Rather than giving her more information about her family, the treasure is pulling what little family she has apart. And her digging about in the barn is getting her nowhere. The stranger in town has not been heard from or seen in a week. She is near giving up one night, when she looks out her window and sees someone moving about by lantern light in the barn."

Act Three contains both the crisis and the “denouement” or winding down. It’s where everything comes together and where the rubber hits the road. 

"Roberta sneaks out of her room and into the barn, where she watches a strange man with a copy of the map poke around the barn. She returns to the house to find her grandmother’s shotgun, and confronts the stranger with it. As they talk, the stranger reveals that he is actually her uncle, her mother’s brother and her grandmother’s son. Grandmother, who disapproves of both her husband’s “treasure” and her son’s desire to uncover it, has not spoken to him in years, and burned the map to keep him from getting it. He was able to find another copy hidden by his father and now, having decoded the message, is following the instructions to find the treasure. Roberta and her uncle are lifting the box from it’s hiding place what Grandmother walks in. A family fight ensues, and everything comes out. It turns out that Grandfather’s treasure was books, books that he wrote about his wild adventures as a young man. He buried them in the barn with a treasure map as a game for his sons. But after he died, Grandmother was terrified that reading the stories would make the boys want to leave home and travel the world, so she hid the maps and discouraged searching for them. Everything is tidily wrapped up, explained, and ends in family reconciliation."
The End.

Real life isn’t like that. In life, Act One can be interrupted by a sudden and unexpected crisis whose set-up was “off-stage” and unseen. So that Act One is disturbed by Act Three or even Act Four of some completely different story instead of tidily following into Act Two. The stranger in town comes three weeks after Roberta finds the books, and comes straight home to confront his mother. Roberta and her grandmother patch up their relationship over the course of years, including Roberta's husband and children in the saga. Very few things happen at convenient or dramatic times, and when Roberta sneaks out her window it is not at midnight to confront a stranger in the barn with a shotgun, but after lunch one spring day just to see if it could be done if she ever needed to do it. 

Sometimes a book that isn’t true mimics the trajectory of a true story. Stories like The Swiss Family Robinson and Mrs. Mike weave in and out of people and events and stories, tracing the path of a life and ignoring three act structure. One one hand, this can make the story feel disjointed and a little unsettled. On the other hand, often the story feels far more true than stories that tie off neatly. Because in real life everything doesn't tie off neatly, because no story ever really ends.

Because people live on and stories continue, and, even after death, the story isn't over.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Wages and the Gift

Auschwitz, Germany, 1944

The thought came again, like the relentless washing of waves crashing against a rocky beach, flooding my brain and freezing my fingers.
God hates me.
My heart was pounding. I looked up into Major Braun's cold scowl.
"What's wrong with you, Kohn?" he barked. "Pull that --------- lever!"
I could see the suspicion in his eyes. They had no use for men who snapped. I shoved my mind away and swallowed hard as I pulled the lever down, as fast as I could, slamming it against the stone wall.
The familiar hissing sound filled the room as gas rushed into the room next to us. I could hear gasping cries as the tightly packed prisoners, mostly women and children who had been told they were to take a shower, succumbed to the deadly gas. Then all sounds ceased, except the hissing of the gas through the vents.
"Shut it off," said Major Braun.
I obeyed the order mechanically, pushing the lever back up. My jaw was clenched so tightly that it hurt.
A few moments passed, then men were sent to clear the room for the next batch. Over 150 bodies, packed in as tightly as possible. Mothers, babies, sisters, brothers.
God hates me. I shook my head, but the thoughts would not go away this time. I didn't cause their deaths! I was just obeying orders.
I pulled the lever.

Then, like a ghost from my childhood, I heard my mother's voice.
"I don't care if it wasn't your idea! You helped, so you are responsible." I was twelve. My older brother suggested throwing a rock through the schoolmaster's window. I did. When my mother found out, she scolded, and then told me, "Now you go over there and pay him for the broken window. Then come back here and ask God's forgiveness. You're sorry, I know. Go make it right."
My hand dropped from the lever. I couldn't make it right. Even if I refused to obey my orders, it would not save a single life.
God hates me.The next group of prisoners was being loaded into the shower room. The Major told me to get ready.
I could see myself as if from above the compound, sitting at the controls staring at the lever, surrounded by gray concrete and drab green uniforms.
My hands were shaking. I clenched them at my sides.
I could pull the lever again. 150 more lives. Dead in that shower room, gas hissing from the vents.
God hates me.I could refuse. It was not to late to stand up and walk away. It would mean death. The crack of a gun. Blood spreading over my uniform, my body limp on the ground. There was relief in the thought.
"...then ask for God's forgiveness. And the next time..."
My head dropped into my hands. It was far too late, but I had to try.
"God, if you can forgive me," I stammered through shaking lips, "I beg your forgiveness. I have nothing to give you, but..." My voice trailed off and a feeling of grief filled me. My life was over. I could give Him nothing but my death. "Please forgive me," I repeated.
I took a deep breath. A feeling I barely remembered washed over me.
A feeling of lightness. I felt as if I could dance on the wind.
"Are you listening to me, Caro?" Major Braun's voice was harsh and strident. "I said pull that lever!"
I had strength, I had courage I didn't understand. I stood up and faced the Major.
"No," I said. "I won't do it."
My world exploded, the Major yelling, the other soldiers questioning, another officer explaining. My detachment surprised me. I didn't care what they said.
"They are subhuman. They need to be removed for the greater good!"
"This is murder," I responded. "I won't do it anymore."
"Then we'll put you in there with them," the Major shouted.
I think he expected me to beg for mercy, but I didn't falter. Two soldiers grabbed me and pushed me out of the room, down the hall, and into the shower room.
The door slammed shut with a clang. I was pressed in with a mass of bony, starved bodies. Their dull, sunken eyes regarded me emptily.
I helped do this.
For me, the thought of death was an escape. Not from the guilt. For some reason I no longer felt guilty, just inexpressibly sad. Escape from a life with what I'd helped do always in my head. I envied these people for their innocence.
The hiss was louder in this room than the other. As the strange smell filled the air there were some cries of surprise, of fear. Then silence as the air grew black.
I couldn't breathe. I couldn't stand. I fell to the concrete floor with the others.
As the swirling darkness gathered around me, for the last time the thought came.
God loves me.

~by Sara-Anne Leavitt
September, 2011

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Moods and Raindrops

“Pray don't talk to me about the weather, Mr. Worthing. Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. And that makes me quite nervous.”
Oscar Wilde

Weather may not be a very original conversation topic, in and of itself, but when writing, describing the weather sets the scene in a way that instantly correlates with emotion. Weather is mood. Here are some examples:

         The sky was gray and gloomy and constantly dripping. It was the kind of weather in which old people complain of depression and rheumatism, and young people make faces at the sky and stay home by choice. It was cold and damp and even the small fire in the huge fireplace seemed like a hopeless attempt.
        "Atrocious," Mr. Frederick said around the pipe clenched in his teeth. He was staring out through the drops covering the window at the grey sky and grey moor. "How long has the weather been behaving in this unacceptable way?"
       His son Mark didn't look up from the book he was reading by the fire. "Over two weeks," he said shortly.
       "That's what I thought," Mr. Frederick mumbled. He turned away from the window and pulled his old red dressing gown around his shoulders. He shuffled away in the direction of the kitchen and a hot cup of tea.


  The snowflakes were white in the light of the street lamps, swirling and drifting down into the street to join the snow that was already heaped up on houses and frosting the empty branches of the trees. The couple walking along the street were so bundled in scarves and overcoats and hats that they would have been unrecognizable even to freinds. The girl threw her head back to catch a snowflake on her tongue. The young man with her smiled, but took her arm to hurry her along.
      "Come on," he said. "We don't have time."
      "I know," the girl said, but she stood there a moment longer, staring up at the sky where thousands of white flecks were whirling out of nowhere.
      Ahead of them the sound of a train whistle echoed through the snow. The girl took a deep breath of cold air that tasted like snow and hurried after her brother.

You could also write something where everyone is happy to see the rain because there has been a drought, or a scene in which the snow is threatening instead of peaceful. In any case, the way you describe the weather, and the weather being described, can set your scene almost by itself. It's also fun to write about! I love thunderstorms especially. Lightning and thunder are like Drama Mix: just add water...

Monday, November 18, 2013

Book Review: The Chief Mourner of Marne

"There is a limit to human charity," said Lady Outram, trembling all over.
"There is," said Father Brown dryly, "and that is the real difference between human charity and Christian charity."
G.K. Chesterton, The Chief Mourner of Marne

Gilbert Keith Chesterton
G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown is an amateur detective, an inconspicuous and simple little English priest who somehow manages to get mixed up in more murders and thefts than the average Scotland Yard police inspector.
Father Brown's adventures are recounted, in five collections: The Innocence of Father Brown, The Wisdom of Father Brown, The Incredulity of Father Brown, The Secret of Father Brown, and The Scandal of Father Brown. The story I'm talking about is in The Secret of Father Brown, and it's called "The Chief Mourner of Marne."
It involves a dark castle and a reclusive nobleman, an old tragedy and a terrible secret.
Many years ago, James and Maurice Mair were cousins, brought up as brothers. James Mair, the elder and the Marquis of Marne, practically worshipped Maurice. The story is that Maurice died in a sudden illness and James, heartbroken, broke off all communication with the world, including his fiancee, and left the country, traveling for years before coming home to shut himself in his family castle and, apparently encouraged by priests, became a religious hermit.
When Sir. John Cockspur, a newspaper man, hears the story from the General and Lady Outram, old friends of James Mair's, he determines to write it up in his newspaper as a scathing representation of the way the Church ruins people's lives. Mr. Mallow, a young friend of the Outrams, hears the story at the same time and is shaken by the allegations against religion. He goes to see his friend Father Brown and recounts the story, telling him that Cockspur intends to write an anti-clerical article about it.
Father Brown is unwilling to allow his creed to be so slandered and goes to see General Outram, who, he suspects, knows that there is more to the story. He points out that in a tragedy, a man would be more likely to turn to his fiancee for comfort, not break off the engagement. He reminds the general that Maurice Mair was buried without a funeral, rather hurriedly, perhaps even secretly. And James Mair instantly left, you might say fled, the country. There's more to the story than the General told his wife.
Of course there is more to the story, but I'm not telling either. Mysteries are much more fun to read when you don't know what's going to happen next. The Father Brown mysteries are extremely well written, engaging, and thought-provoking. I highly recommend them.
My favorite part about this and the other Father Brown stories, is Father Brown's attitude towards the culprit. While he never condones the crime, often times he almost sympathizes with the criminal, trying to bring the thief or the murderer to repentance. In the Chief Mourner of Marne, Lady Outram chastises him for his seemingly cruel and unforgiving attitude towards the Marquis of Marne. But when she finds out the whole story, she shudderingly says that there is a limit to human charity. Someone else says that he wouldn't touch the sinner with a barge pole.
"We have to touch such men, not with a bargepole, but with a benediction," Father Brown says. The Church has not condemned a man to live alone, buried in the past, for the remainder of his life. Instead, the Church is the only place where such a "vile thing" can find forgiveness. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Making Anything

"You can make anything by writing."
C.S. Lewis

God must have had fun when he created the world. We, the people he made in his image, get so much pleasure out of making things, out of writing and crafting and building, it must have been a joy like no other to build flowers and waterfalls and design the cell and sculpt atoms so that hydrogen and oxygen made water. Then to release everything he had made to live on its own, reproducing itself.

We can't make live things. Everything we "create" is destined, for moths and rust. Books included. But in writing we come very close to creation. We can make things that live. People and mountains and valleys and even entire universes. We can even make things that, to our knowledge, have never existed. Aliens and glowing swords and hobbits. 

We can make worlds. We can create places where animals talk, men fight with swords, and the land is always beautiful. We can make up languages, mythologies, and create horrid slimy creatures that live in dark places and are obsessed with one possession. 

We can borrow from ancient times, from real life, and other people's imaginations. We can melt things together, pull things apart, rearrange and reconstitute, add our own ideas, come up with new things, and produce something that is ours and ours alone. 

We come up with amazing things.
From boys that fly to priests that solve mysteries. From children having fantastic adventures to an old man caring for his wife even though she can't remember him anymore. Retelling old stories, creating new ones, telling true stories, creating myths. 

We can make anything by writing. And it's so much fun!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Name, Please

“I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I've never been able to believe it. I don't believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.” 
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

I love names. I like unique, creative, names, I like foreign names, I like old fashioned names. My father (and probably many other people) doesn't understand my feelings about the names of my characters. He feels that I would make like easier for both my readers and myself if I changed Brogan to Bob and Sonja to Susan.
I'm sorry, I can't. A Sonja is not at all the same person as a Susan.

Susan is a middle-aged woman who works in the office during the week and goes running on the weekends. She has straight, cosmopolitan, respectable hair. She is dependable, charitable, and a Democrat.
Or maybe she's a English schoolgirl. In that case she belongs to C.S. Lewis.

Sonja is Russian or maybe Scandinavian. In whatever setting she is in, she is a rebel. She is a part of the resistance during World War Two, or she is the only person who will talk to that one girl at school. She is a spy or a journalist or the first woman doctor. She doesn't care what people think. She is determined, intelligent, and she walks her own path.
Sonja is not Susan.

Nor is a Brogan anything like a Bob.
A "Bob" is an older man, American, who probably owns a motorhome and watches the Superbowl on TV. Or Bob is a young grocery store clerk, amiable, ambitious, and enthusiastic. Someday he will be the Fred Meyer's store manager. Bob is suburban and average.

Brogan, on the other hand, may be in his fifties but he is still as fierce and intense as he was when he was younger. It's hard to believe, but he's even more stubborn now than he was when he was fifteen. He's been fighting the "cursed English" all his life and yet they still pollute his Irish homeland. He wears skins and homespun and his shoulder length dark hair is rough and tangled. He's the chief of the clan and if his son ever measures up to his expectations, he will in turn become chief and take his turn in fighting English oppression. He may kind of know that the fight is hopeless but he will never give up.

Brogan is not Bob.

(If your name is Bob or Susan, I apologize. Your name does not really define you. You can be intense, Irish, stubborn, rebellious, or Scandinavian. You can give other people the opportunity to see "Bob" and "Susan" as very different people.)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Everlasting Souls

"There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors."
C.S. Lewis 

Traveling is a great opportunity for people watching. Airports, jets, foreign countries no matter how familiar...they're all an opportunity to observe the beautiful, horrible, amazing world and everyone in it.

There were people going to Dubai, South Africa, and Thailand. There were Americans, Asians, and Indians. They were all dressed differently, speaking different languages, from different cultures, different climates, different worlds.
All going somewhere different.
And yet they were all the same. All mothers or fathers or sons or daughters. Brothers and sisters and cousins. Waiting and working, walking or riding and carrying bags and making sure the children get on the subway. Tired and stressed out, excited and happy. At their best, at their worst. Loving or hating, searching for God or running away from him. Immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

I saw a young Arab couple working together to take their tiny baby through customs. They didn't want the baby to go through the scanner. But the mother was dressed in the full headdress and black cloak and she wasn't about to get a pat-down. Nor did they want to hand their child to a TSA official. So she handed the baby to the dad, and he took the baby through the other side while she went through the scanner. I assume he got a pat down on the other side. They were so cute, seemingly so ordinary and yet so unusual.

Sometimes I love people. They're friendly and thoughtful and unpredictable. They're beautiful and whimsical and eccentric. Everyone is unique but they all are the same in the best ways. 

Sometimes I hate people. They're selfish and obnoxious, they talk all the time or they refuse to talk, they're ugly and boring and they're all exactly alike in the worst ways. 

But no matter how I feel about them at the moment, every person I come across is an immortal. Eternal. They will live forever and their life in eternity depends on their life here on Earth. They are all searching for answers, for love, for truth. Some of them have found it, some only think they have found it. Some of them have found it and decided they don't like it.

Some of them may see it in me. Am I showing them light and truth even when surrounded by darkness and lies? Am I showing them love when all I feel is revulsion? (You are so mean. So stupid. So ugly. Why are you bringing four cats on the plane with you? Your clothes don't fit right. Your clothes are immodest. You're wearing too much make-up.) That may be what I see when I look at people. That may be what anyone would see when they look at those people. 

But those are not just people. Those are the bodies of everlasting souls.

You are so fragile. So misinformed. So unhappy. Do you know what is really important in life? Your clothes and make-up don't matter. The way you are acting, good or bad, doesn't matter. You are destined for eternal death or everlasting life. It is your choice to make. What can I do?