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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Justine

"When I am young girl Russian army take my husband Ivan. Gypsy caravan I travel with disown me saying I bring them bad luck. Go, they say. So I walk away. Never before have I been so alone in this world. I am fourteen years old with dress I wear and the few coins in my pocket I have earned telling fortunes.

"I walk dusty path until I come to what look from distance like small village. I think how I might find food there and water to drink. But as I stand looking I see no sign of life. In those days there are always wagons full of people coming and going. But not here. Even birds have stopped their song. I see lumps in field leading into village. I cannot understand what these lumps could be.

"I stand there very still looking at these lumps. I walk forward ten yards or so to shift perspective but still I cannot guess what this could be. Voice inside head tell me to hide so I listen and find shelter by kneeling in nearby patch of nettle. They itch but I do not scratch. I am completely quiet. Sun is hot and no air move to cool my face. Mosquitoes bite me many times but I stay where I am.

"Soon I hear strange noise. This sound is like clacking and tapping… nothing I have ever heard before. I peek from my hiding spot to see strange metal beast crawling past me on path I where I stood before. Is like giant iron cook pan turned upside down. This strange beast has no wheels like my father's truck but instead huge treads that go round and round. There is big gun mounted to top… many soldiers walk behind this beast all carrying rifles… they look this way and that as if searching for something… or someone.

"I understand these are not Russian soldiers when I hear them calling out to each other. Their language is harsh on my ears. I know instinctively that their eyes are sharp. I ease back into my patch of nettle taking care to make no disturbance. Soldiers walk past only inches from my hiding place. I wonder why they do not step upon me… perhaps stinging nettle keep them away. I know what they look for… or who. People have run away from village. This is what I see laying in field… dead bodies of villagers.

"I am so still… I fear to even breathe. I wonder if they might hear my heart beating so loudly in my chest that it sound like drum. When last of soldiers pass I stay still for very long time… until darkness has fallen all around me quiet and ominous. I hear rustling in weeds… my heart stop… I think I am discovered. But is only night shrews foraging for food.

"Moon is rising on horizon swollen large and orange like bloated balloon ready to burst. I listen but I hear nothing at all. I am alone. I emerge from nettle thicket with many bug bites and very thirsty. I have not eaten in many days so my hunger does not trouble me as much as my thirst. I know I must find water.

"Walking toward village I stumble over something lying in road… something soft and yet firm. I think it is shirt and pants stuffed with straw and made into scarecrow or maybe only bundle of clothes tied up way some travelers do. I wonder why did someone leave their bundle of clothes here? Were they in hurry? But then I understand this is no bundle of clothes. This is no scarecrow. This is fallen body lying there. In light of moon I see pool of black under this body. I think they have fallen into mud puddle… it is not mud though. It is blood that look black in moonlight.

"Even though I know better I cannot help but think: why has this person fallen asleep here? What strange place to sleep. But my mind is not working right. This sight is too heinous to my eyes. In all my years I have never seen dead body lying on ground like this. I want to say wake up! Get up! Run! It is dark now and you may escape. This is no place for you. But I know this person will not hear my voice… this person will never hear another voice.

"It is young woman who lay there in front of me too still… I see her long hair tumbled out from under scarf she has worn on head. I see her smooth skin gray in moonlight. I see dead eyes staring at nothing. I understand this woman to be my age, maybe a little older. I wonder what terrible thing she has done to be shot and left here for wild animals to gnaw.

"I hear strange sound in still of night… crackling sound like wet wood in campfire. This sound come from village. I see pink glow in sky like sun is coming up but I know this cannot be. Night has only just fallen. It is then I see flames creeping into air like vicious red flowers devouring that on which they grow. Smoke drifts over field. Strange smells are carried in it… like cooking meat… but not like any meat I have cooked. I am nauseated by this odor. I realize now that whole village is in flames… and this smell is not meat… it is something far more appalling.

"Why does no one put out this terrible fire? I wonder to myself. Answer to this question lies at my feet. There is no one left alive. They burn with their homes. Though I hope to find water in village I know I cannot go that way now. So I reverse my path watching and listening for soldiers. I know what will happen if they find me… they will mistake me for citizen of village. I will receive same treatment they receive.

"I wonder what these people have done to be murdered and left laying in fields like unwanted trash… to have their town burned... to be burned in their homes. As I walk away into night I think this is not only town I will find like this… I understand these soldiers are cruel as this beast they follow. I know now there are monsters in world. I walk many hours until I find bridge over creek. I am so thirsty! Going under bridge I drink deeply. Water tastes of sand but it is cold and good.

"Day is coming. I wonder what sight sunlight will bring… I feel afraid to go further so I stay under bridge. I wonder what I am to do in this world. I have nothing. I have nowhere to go. If water in creek were deeper I think how I might drown myself… but it is small trickle. This is low point in my life. I feel weak and useless. I have no energy to go on yet my body will not lie down to die. I curse God. I curse Gypsies who forsake me. I close eyes… darkness take me down.

"I am standing outside big house rising out of ground like enormous tree trunk. I am looking into windows. All lights on, I know it to be warm inside. But outside is very cold. I am alone with wind and snow whirling around. I see many people inside big house laughing and eating and drinking. I am so hungry I no longer feel its pangs.

"As I stand looking into warm windows wondering why I am left outside sounds come to my ears… I wonder what can make such noise. I understand I hear this sound in other dreams. It is then I know this for dream… before that moment I think I am awake. I spread arms so breeze may take me away from this place. I rise above dead trees and smoking cities to see blue water far in distance… this is where sound emanates. I understand this to be my home… I understand my purpose. But I know when I wake I will forget this.

"And yet I struggle to awaken… before I can forget. I have somewhere to go… I have purpose. And though I dream this many years ago I still remember what that purpose is that I have. This is why I am here. This is why I did not die in that terrible place… that hell on earth. When your dark hour comes, you must remember this too.

"I would rather you live long happy life, Justine… this is my fondest wish for you. But we all live short lives surrounded by sorrows we can do nothing about. Remember this. Smile while you may… cry when you must… and always do what is better. Is nothing else in life that makes any difference."

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Building a Character Web

Every story has a hero... the main character who helps you discover the true potential of the tale you are telling. At the same time, though, the hero of your story isn't the only character that matters, at least he/she shouldn't be. The hero should be constructed as part of a network of characters, all inter-meshing with one another.

In comparing each character to your hero, you begin by defining them. This can be done in four ways... within the context of the story, by opposition to one another, the overlying archetype of each character, and by an underlying theme in the story itself. Every character should work toward advancing the goal of the story, or the premise. Each character has a part to play, otherwise they don't belong in the story. You'd be well advised to get rid of them.

The most important character in a story is the hero, the one who has found themselves in a predicament that drives the action. All other characters represent either an opposition to the hero, or an alliance... and sometimes, a combination of both. The hero makes a decision to go after a great desire but has a weakness that prevents them from achieving their goal.

An opponent blocks the hero from their desires, but more, they also desire the same goal as the hero. This forces the hero and the opponent to come into direct contact. The opponent doesn't necessarily have to be evil... in fact, the opponent might be a more moral person than the hero, even a friend or a lover. The opponent is just on the other side, that's all.

The hero might also have allies in a story... characters who help the hero move toward their desire and also help the reader to know the values and feelings of the hero. The ally may also have the same goal as the hero but sometimes they have their own goals and desires.

More layered stories make use of a combination of opponents and allies, such as a fake ally who is really an opponent in disguise. This character pretends to be the hero's friend but really has an agenda all their own. However, by acting as a friend to the hero, the fake ally often ends up inadvertently helping the hero achieve their desire.

Some stories make use of two or more main characters... a love story, for example, defines both characters equally... a person only becomes an authentic individual by entering into a relationship with another person on an equal footing. Still, even in love stories, one of the characters drives the desire line and so becomes the most powerful character in your story.

Another type of story with two main characters is a buddy story. These stories are more unequal but allow the author to examine the hero through the buddy, who is a sort of a mirror image of the hero. The buddy is both the opponent and the ally to the hero. One of the most intriguing parts of a buddy story is the conflict between the friends.

Each character in a story should be representative of a specific archetype, or psychological profile. This allows the author to create unique and authentic characters by comparing them to all the other characters in the story. This is done primarily through the theme, or the proper way to act, expressed in each of the characters.

Some questions to ask yourself: have you clarified the hero's goal in the story, and does it run the entire length? Have you detailed the opponents in ways that express the same desire as the hero?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

What is your story about?

When I tell people that I am a writer, one of the first things they ask is: what is your story about? And I believe it is essential for me to answer that question in one sentence. First of all, if I cannot express what I'm writing about, then what am I doing writing about it? And second, it is far more important to know what I'm writing about than how I go about writing it.

What the story is about, or the premise, involves knowing the moment the story begins, some idea about the main characters, as well as a clue to the outcome of the story. It is essential to begin with a good premise for all the rest of the story builds on it. If the premise fails, then nothing will help the story.

Knowing what the story is about and boiling that knowledge down to a single sentence means we are starting out with almost nothing to go on. This allows us as writers to explore what works and what doesn't work and yet we are guided by that one idea. This idea should be something that may change our lives... that way, no matter what else happens, when we are done writing we've changed our lives.

So, you say... Dan, how do I know what's going to change my life? Ray Bradbury's little book called Zen and the Art of Writing has some very good pointers to this very question. He suggests writing down a wish list of what we would like to see in a movie or in a book... what we are interested in... passionately interested in... what entertains us. We might think of oddball characters, unique plot twists, themes and genres that attract us.

The next step is to make a list of premise lines... every story we have ever thought of telling boiled down to a single sentence. Once we have both lists in front of us, we can look for similarities, patterns concerning what we love... our vision as a writer. Of course, this exercise will not guarantee that we write a story that will change our lives... nothing will do that. But by doing the exercises of learning what we are passionate about we come to know ourselves a little better and to give ourselves a chance to write something truly original and unique.

People are naturally curious and for writers, that's a good thing. Make use of it... and next time someone asks you: what is your story about? Be ready with a good answer!