How I Approach Complex Action Scenes

In a recent edition of Writers Supporting Writers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0VZVOXs9QU), we were discussing a process proposed by a script writer. Overall, our group doesn’t believe in any flat formulae for writing, but there were some merits in the proposal that I could relate to in my own (non-script) writing experience. Specifically, I have a process I will resort to when confronted with a complex action scene, or any scene where I feel a passage isn’t capturing the physical flow of the characters.

Often, when I reach a point where I have multiple characters interacting and moving through a specific location, I will just plow through. However, there are times where I will either be very disappointed with the final product, or I will reach an impasse as I become mired in complexity. When I reach such moments, the first thing I will do is step back and shift into a more visual approach.

Set Your Stage

Step one is to set the stage. I picture the basic elements of the location as best I can in my mind. If I had the ability to draw or rapidly prototype a layout on a PC, I would. The key, at this initial point, is to get a feel for the full space along with the placement of major objects within it. I don’t know. Is this a mental diorama? Whatever, it’s my theater stage. Next step is to place the characters at their starting points. I should point out that this is a broad stroke step. Could there be other characters and/or objects than the primary ones. Sure, but let’s leave them for the retakes and on-the-spot refinements.

Create Your Basic Scenes Based on Points of View

Okay, so our stage is set. Next, we need to create the action scene which will take us from the initial state to the end-goal state – say for example, only two characters who are tied to a post are left with the Ark of the Covenant once again closed. For this task, I’m fortunate to be a very visual thinker. I can play parts of the scene in my mind as if I’m watching a movie; but I’m still going to need to knit those scenes together. So I will focus on the actions from one character’s point of view, then another, and another and so on. I do this until I reach the end state and I know where all of the major players (who have not melted) are, jotting notes and making scribbles along the way so I don’t forget what I envisioned for each.

Now comes the tough part. How do I take these separate threads of sequences and weave them into a single narrative? I struggled with this early on in my writing. Sometimes I’d stumble on a reasonable outcome. However, while the final product may have been better than an earlier draft, it was still clumsy, often unnecessarily descriptive and wordy. What to do? I have an unknown friend to thank, because ages ago someone made a suggestion to me while we were discussing a completely separate topic. It had to ruminate for a while and then resurface long after the suggester had vanished from memory (sorry, unknown person!). The discussion had focused on the difficulty artists encounter in crafting comic books.

Get Out of the Box

Now for those of you who have them, I ask you to temporarily (preferably permanently) place aside your biases regarding comic books. Remember at the heart of it, you have two (at minimum) creatives – a writer and an artist – attempting to tell a visual story within the confines of a physically limited, dialogue-based, episodic format that needs to appeal to the widest range of ages possible. It’s a feat, that when pulled off properly, I am in awe of. Imagine for a moment you are the artist. The writer tells you the scene: Hero A and Hero B are fighting nine thugs in an alley. The writer generally describes the scene and informs you to leverage as many of the physical elements with parkour-based movements. The writer will also provides you with the dialogue as it currently stands. Your job is to translate this information into a set of individual panels which will need to elicit a sense of movement and pacing while fluidly switching focus between Hero A and B as their dialog shifts – preferably all within one page. All of this and you haven’t even factored in your own artistic style and perspectives yet. But this is what they do.

So off I went and purchased a few comic books that had the same characters I enjoyed as a child, but now viewing them from a creative perspective. I didn’t care about the plot. I focused on the scenes involving complex interactions. Sure, there are a number of visual tricks one can employ with panels, but as I stepped back, I could envision how they approached the problem at hand. I’m certain this is how a director’s mind works at the most basic level, but it was quite a useful learning experience for me as a writer of short-stories and novels. I could see how the key points of action were front and center in each panel and how the dialog provided a mechanism, when needed, to move perspective.

Connect the Dots into One Timeline

Returning to my set of threads, I am now able to pick a point on one, connect to a point further along on another and so on until I have a very clear little movie scene in my mind. Yes, many details end up deleted, but that’s a good thing. Remember, you’re trying to take complexity and distill it down to a single simple narrative. Keep those threads handy though, we still have a couple of steps to go, but the more difficult steps are done.

Now, We Can Go Back to Writing

At this point, I have a single visual flow of the scene. Next step, I write it. I have less to describe and less to worry about. Things are happening off-screen, but not the essential, single timeline elements. Once written, I read it through and focus on pacing. Is it still too dense? (Hopefully not) Does it dwell on one moment by zipping past others? I can assure you, with practice you’ll eventually find your first cut lacking these issues. Perhaps, it may be a bit staccato or lacking some punch, but you’re a writer – you’re back in your home element and you have a number of options at hand. You can relook at sections of threads you cut and maybe add one quick back and forth. But most likely, you’ll be looking to fill out your stage elements with additional props. Maybe a falling bowl of petunias can add just the right amount of levity for a comedic scene. Also, the reverse is true. Now that you know the entire mini-movie, you can eliminate anything that doesn’t move the story along and keep the pacing fresh and taut.

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned, I don’t do this often – mostly when I’m stuck or tired of cat wrangling my thoughts. There have been times, however, when I employed this technique in an otherwise simple scene. In our video discussion, I brought to mind a short story I had written which had started with a mildly animated scene: a couple were splitting up and having a final discussion which was relatively civilized yet somewhat acrimonious. The two were moving through the rooms of the apartment as the person leaving was collecting the last of her things. On the first write I felt it was significantly lacking in flow and tempo, and that left some of the more humorous dialogue feeling flat. They went from room to room talking until it ended with the apartment door closing. So, I decided to map it out as an action scene. Suddenly, furniture and objects were there to navigate around or manipulate if I needed to. The best part, as the writer, was the last moment as they stood at the open doorway. She made a last check of the items in her bag, offered up some positive words, then left – closing the door behind her. But here was the sweet thing. Now, I had him standing right there, in my mind’s eye, with the room’s entire layout – never described but present if needed – and I had him perform one simple action: he reached up and locked the deadbolt. That moment defined, for me, exactly what was in his mind and changed the tone and actions I had initially planned for him. She was done – that was obviously written – but he was just as done. See, know your stage.

I excavated a short story…

I wrote this around 40 years ago and decided to spruce it up (solely to refresh a few dated references) and post it here for you.

This one goes out to all the people who are the victims of easy gift giving – you know, when the people you know latch on to one thing you like and make that the sole scope of every gift you receive. This happened to me in my early twenties after I made an off-hand remark about liking penguins. Took four years to squash the penguin-themed gift giving.

The Collection

Helen’s friend Sandy squinted as she studied the details of a tiny porcelain duck. This miniature was one of a set of sixteen different animals Helen had purchased from a website which touted them as a limited edition set, each one a faithful reproduction of a handcrafted original. She received one animal every other month at the low price of only $24.95 plus shipping and handling, so that after nearly three years Helen’s set was finally complete. The last one, a Shetland pony, had just arrived and Helen had deemed it time to unveil the collection to her other twelve year-old buddies: Sandy, Lisa, and Robin.

“Helen,” Lisa said breathlessly, breaking the awe-filled silence, “these are so great. In fact, they’re greater than great.”

“They’re, like, totally great,” added Robin definitively.

“Hey, I didn’t know you liked ducks,” Sandy said, finally ending her fixation on the ceramic replica of a Mallard.

“Oh, ducks are okay, I guess,” Helen answered, not quite sure what to say.

Lisa cut in. “Helen, how ever did you keep these a secret?”

“Yeah,” added Robin, “how long has this been going on?”

“Actually, I think a duck collection would be rather cool,” threw in Sandy.

Helen didn’t know exactly how to respond to this last comment. I wish she’d drop the stupid ducks. Doesn’t she realize this is about the whole collection? What’s her problem? Well sorry, everything just can’t be about Sandy, Sandy, Sandy, she thought, and took the easy way out by ignoring both Sandy and her non-sequiturs. Answering her two other friends, she said “Almost three years, and there were a gazillion times that I wanted to burst out and tell you.”

And so, as weeks passed, Helen continued to garner many “oohs” and “ahs” from her sundry acquaintances over her figurines. Enough, in fact, that she soon lost interest in the miniatures. When her thirteenth birthday arrived she did pretty well, receiving most of the items she hoped for. There was, however, one awkward moment when she opened Sandy’s gift, revealing it to be a large ceramic duck.

During the moment’s hesitation as Helen groped for a reaction, Sandy jumped in, “It’s a duck… To go with your other duck.” Immediately, Helen remembered her collection of miniatures and suddenly this gift seemed to make sense. Unlike her figurines, this one was rather cheap-looking. Its design was cartoonish, with big rolling eyes, a bright orange beak, and a body colored in what could only be called ‘plastic yellow’. This thing was not only five times the size of her other miniatures, but it also sported a blue and white sailor’s cap. Looking up at all the people at her party, with their smile-frozen faces, Helen felt trapped by convention and responded in an appropriately graceful manner, “Oh, thanks so much Sandy! I’m sure it’ll look great with the other pieces.” She leaned forward to give Sandy a peck on the cheek, but as she sunk back into her chair, her eyes caught the hideous yellow thing once more. Ugh, I’m going to have to keep that thing on my shelf in case Sandy ever drops over, she realized. Before she moved on to the next present, she placed the duck back into its white box and closed the cover.

When Christmas arrived, Helen was rather surprised to find a plush toy duck, with a bright red bow tied around its neck, sitting amongst her gifts.

“Don’t you think it’s just the most adorable thing,” said her mother, who seemed to come from nowhere. When her daughter didn’t respond immediately, she continued. “You do like ducks, don’t you? I mean, I saw the two you have on your shelf.”

Helen thought about this for a moment. Do I like ducks? Well, I don’t hate them, but then I’m not particularly fond about them. She was about to relay these thoughts but noticed how happy her mother seemed. Well, she means well, and it is Christmas. I should be content with what I get no matter what it is, she reasoned.

“Of course I like it mother. It’s adorable.”

By the end of the next year she surveyed her new collection among the old. There was the original hand crafted duck, the yellow atrocity that Sandy gave her, a rubber ducky – the new atrocity – the plush Christmas duck, a plastic Daffy Duck, a plush Donald Duck, and a monstrous cookie jar duck.

Over the next eight years, Helen’s family relocated three times. The first two were a direct result of her father’s mid-life crisis, as he changed careers twice in one year. Along the way, Helen made new friends and lost track of old ones, yet her duck collection steadily increased. There were three from Timmy, her first crush, five from Pam her best

friend in high school, and the yearly contributions from family members. She had amassed so many in college that her dorm room was nicknamed “The Duck Pond”. In all these years she never bought one, she never asked for one, and she never really wanted one. She had, though, allowed herself to be brainwashed into believing she liked them. Indeed, they even helped her land a man she had her eye on for the entire semester.

One sunny afternoon the dark-eyed Robert, who sent shivers down Helen’s back every time he read his poetry, offered to walk her back to her dorm. When he entered the room, he was amazed not just in the shear number of ducks, but in the variety of materials. There were plush ducks, ceramic ducks, stone ducks, plastic ducks, rubber ducks, wooden ducks, pictures of ducks, news items about ducks, headlines with the word ‘duck’, paintings of duck, tiles with ducks and duck portraits made of tiles, wind-up ducks, books about ducks, a copy of Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck”, cartoons and comics with ducks, a movie poster for “Howard the Duck”, and ties, blouses, sheets, pillowcases, blankets, and towels emblazoned with ducks.

“Man,” he said as he eyed the collection, ” you really love ducks don’t you?”

She suddenly felt like a geek in front of the eternally cool Robert.  Damn! He must think you’re some maladjusted woman who never grew up. Better be nonchalant. “Actually, I couldn’t possibly care less about them,” she said as she ran a finger down the spine of her copy of Leaves of Grass.

“You mean, you have all these ducks and you don’t even like them.”

“No,” and here she took a leap and hoped it wouldn’t sound too pretentious, “it’s a personal statement about counter-culture – being lost in the sameness of everything. I’m sorry if that sounds weird.”

“Don’t apologize. I think that’s really inspired.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, impressively so. Like, what can an original mind offer in a world of commercialism; and a disdain for the trappings of modern man’s desire to aggregate things of little or no value.”

She semi-faked shock and blurted out “Oh my god! That’s exactly the statement I wanted to make and no one ever got it… Until now.”

They stared into each others eyes as he reached out for her hand.

The man she eventually married was Paul Garret. She loved Paul enough to overlook – or failing that, suppress – many of his “little character flaws”. He seemed to have a roving eye, but she attributed that to the last minute panic of losing bachelorhood. He also had the irritating habit of buying her nothing but duck gifts. Assuming, as did everyone but her old flame Robert, she liked ducks. So, on their first substantial date, he gave her a duck pendant. Ever after, he bought duck “things” in remembrance of that moment. At the beginning, despite the ensuing ducks, she considered them very romantic gestures.

But it wasn’t as if Helen consistently stifled her feelings about the ducks to others, it was just that she learned early on that the effort would be in vain. Once, she explicitly told her then closest friend Rachel that she was getting quite sick of them, that she never wanted to see another again. Helen practically begged Rachel not to get her an object d’uck for her birthday. Unfortunately, Rachel passed Helen’s behavior off as modesty – just an act to keep Rachel from buying her a birthday gift. Helen even ventured to tell her fiancé Paul, but he dismissed her statement with a wave of his hand, saying, “Nonsense. Anyone, who had as large a collection of ducks as you, must like them.”

Internal frustration grew with each passing year. One of her darkest memories was of her bridal shower. Despite the hours she spent picking and registering just the right patterns, family and friends heeded not. With minds of their own, the majority managed to dig up plates, linens, silverware and even appliances adorned with the Anatidaen creatures. The crowning achievement was a set of Waterford crystal goblets, each with a hand etched escutcheon sporting a Mallard drake rampant. She began to cry, but the sentiment was taken for its opposite. It was rare thing for Helen to bring negative emotions to the surface. Perhaps it was because of the mixed feelings she felt, trying not to hurt those who meant well; or perhaps it was a sense of guilt – she felt partly responsible for letting it get so out of hand. Whatever the reason, it was one of only two times that she showed any emotion on the subject. The other time came on her day of great realization, or as Paul later referred to it, “The day my ex went freaking nuts”.

This fermentation of her hidden, inner duck angst had reached a frothy peak coinciding with her discovery of Paul’s affair. That evening, after confronting him with her accusations, they began an all-out screaming match, each hurling angry recriminations at the other. There were all the usual tirades: “You were never there for me”, “You act like I don’t exist” “You never loved me”, and so on. But the moment of her schism from reality, the moment of blinding revelation, descended when Helen demanded Paul tell her the other woman’s name.

“What difference does it make who she is?” he snapped at her.

“It make all the difference! I want to know,” she shot back.

“All right, all right, her name’s Christine Merganser. See. Big deal. You don’t know her. It changes nothing!”

Actually, it changed everything. For as any good birder or duck collector knows, a merganser is a species of duck. Suddenly, Helen’s mind lost coherence. All of her thoughts, all the words she had yet to say to Paul, shattered. Her mind filled with jumbled, random flashes of images of ducks. She careened back through time and all the doormat frustration of her life rose within her with a bitterness that blinded her with tears.

“I HATE THEM!” she screamed, piercingly holding the last word long enough for the final ‘m’ to be nearly lost in pronunciation. I HATE THEM ALL!” she screamed again and began to wail in a classic banshee fashion violently pulling at her hair.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

Paul backed away towards the front door as his instinctual survival mechanism switched and locked into the on position.

“This,” Helen spit her words out. She dropped a clump of hair in favor of the nearest, heaviest ceramic duck and hurtled it in his direction. “It has everything to do with you – everything to do with her – everything to do with everything. To hell with you both!”

She began to lash out, smashing and hurling every item of the duck collection that was in her path, punctuating each act of destruction with a statement of her consuming fury.

“I wish I never see another god-damned duck again for as long as I live!”

(splintering crash – a glass duck)

“I never, ever got anything I ever wanted!”

(bouncing thuds – a wooden duck)

“Only what people like you wanted me to have!”

(shattering smash – a ceramic duck)

“And now it’s all gone and wasted. A life wasted!”

(squeakysqueaky – a rubber duck)

She fell to her knees and sobbed heavily – sentences being emitted between heavy intakes of air. “Right now, I could kill Christine Merganser. I could kill you. I could kill the person who introduced you to me. I could kill the person who -“

And then fell a silence made ghastly by the cacophony which had preceded it. Helen put one hand up to cover her mouth and made no further movement.

Taking her sudden silence and frozen body as an opportunity, Paul darted from the house. He considered making some parting remark, but fear got the better part of him and he fled. Let the lawyers take it from here, he thought.

Cassandra Kellogg nee Robinson woke up late one morning. Her husband Luke had taken the day off allowing the two to sleep in. They both headed downstairs in slippers and robes, bleary-eyed, feeling more tired than if they had arisen at their usual time. Luke stretched in the doorway of the house as Cassandra headed down the walk to retrieve the morning paper.

She stopped dead in her tracks as her eyes became fixated on something grisly and gruesome. At first it could only be identified as a bloody mass, but then the details of feathers and a bill helped her identify it as an eviscerated, mangled duck. Before she could call Luke, a piercing cry grabbed her attention. A wild-eyed, disheveled, unrecognizable Helen staggered from behind the hedges. Wearing a muddy, torn bathrobe embroidered with the cutest little ducks, the ungainly mess of a human being brandished a bloodied knife and began to charge straight for Cassandra. As the deranged stranger sprinted across the lawn her foot caught in the loop of a garden hose, causing her to fall and her knife to fly out and skid across the driveway, finally rested somewhere under the Kellogg’s BMW. Luke sprang, leaping across the lawn and pinned down the would-be assailant. “Honey, I’ve got a good hold on her,” he yelled to Cassandra, “go in and call the police – quickly!”

Later that evening, Cassandra had the thrill of watching herself on television, being questioned by a reporter. The assailant had no identification on her, so police had yet to come up with a motive.

“…And you’re certain, , Mrs. Kellogg ” the reporter was saying, “that you have no idea who this mad person is?”

“Well it’s hard to say. But with her dirty clothes and wild hair, we figured it must be a homeless person.”

“You must have been extremely frightened Mrs. Kellogg when -“

“Oh,” she interrupted him, “please, call me Sandy – everyone else does.”

December: The Other Tenth Month

Note: I wrote this way back in 1993. Remember, this is in the days before common use of the internet and the nascent web browser Mosaic, had just been introduced to the world. This was the time of library research and encyclopedias. A discussion on Twitter compelled me to see if I still had it around so voilà…)

So I’m sitting in front of my laptop on a dreary December day and I’m thinking, Why not write something? In classic Ray Bradbury fashion, I look around the room for a subject and my eyes are drawn to the calendar. A glaring red 25 alerts me that Christmas is on its way. I could pen a holiday remembrance, but one thing the world does not need is another Christmas story. Yes, I know, we all agree nothing brings out the joy of the holiday season quite like tales of dysfunctional families, but how to avoid the cliché of Christmas? 

Then it hit me: Why not write about December itself?  I already know that the Latin root deca means 10, and that it was originally the tenth month. From early grammar school memories, I recall that the Roman emperor Augustus wedged two extra months in the middle: one in honor of Julius Caesar (July) and one for himself (August) forever damning September, October, November, and December to misnomer hell. And that’s when it hit me: what in the heck was the calendar like before he added two whole months? July and August make up 62 days of the year and that’s a hefty chunk of days to just plop into a year without causing a few ripples. Perhaps the 10 original months were 36 days long, making for a 360-day calendar. I also vaguely remember the ancients having some problem with the year being too short, so 360 seemed likely. Was that why they divided up a circle into 360 degrees?  So I did a little research and low and behold, the ancients were possessed of a degree of intelligence on par with contemporary humans. Meaning: complete idiots. 

I don’t make this accusation lightly, I never have. Allow me to take you on an historical journey courtesy of the World Book Encyclopedia. It seems that most of the difficulty – and let me clarify, not idiocy, that will come later – started with the Babylonians who kept a lunar calendar based on the cycles of the moon (hence, month). The moon is big, it is obvious, and it repeats a cycle of phases with astonishing accuracy. Every 29 and a quarter days the moon is right back where it started. Basing their calendar on the moon, the Babylonians had 12 months of alternating 29/30-day intervals. Already the seeds of the modern day calendar were sown with its somewhat alternating month lengths. Apparently, the Babylonians and their neighbors were content with this 354-day lunar calendar until they began to notice snow in the middle of the summer. They never considered that the cycle of the moon hadn’t the tiniest connection with the length of an actual year (strictly a personal matter between Earth and Sun, and the Moon should just learn to mind her own business). Their solution: Let’s have the priests randomly, that’s right randomly, add a month 3 times over an 8-year period (huh???). According to World Book, this wreaked havoc on the population, and rightly so. Farmers were never sure exactly when to plant, when to harvest, and when to slaughter a first born. Conversations around the well (ancient water cooler) may have started with “Gee, do you think we’ll have a random month this week?” 

The Egyptians came along and – blessed with an exceptionally regular annual flooding of the Nile River – were able to construct a reasonably accurate calendar. They noticed the Nile flooded right after the early morning appearance of the bright star Sirius, which, as a side note, is best visible at night during December. Sirius is also known as the Dog Star, and its early morning visibility occurs in deep summer, hence “the dog days of summer”. And here I always thought it had something to do with the quality of the humid air having the aroma of wet dogs. Go figure. Anyway, this gave the Egyptians a calendar of 12 months, 30 days each and 5 extra “fun” days at the end of the year. So, you might be thinking, we’re getting close – 365 days and 12 months – right? Wrong. You have yet to factor in the Romans and one of the most idiotic calendars I can imagine. 

The first putative ruler of Rome, Romulus, instituted the Roman calendar: 10 months of varying lengths totaling up to 304 days. The first question you may well ask is 304? followed by, “What did they do with the missing 61 days?” I know I did. Pity. We were so close and now along comes this abomination. According to World Book, and I quote, “It seems they ignored the remaining 60 days, which fell in the middle of winter.” (It also seems the good people at World Book Encyclopedia ignored 1 day themselves). Ignored 61 days? Can you imagine that? Depending on the time of year, a simple “see ya next week” could have profound implications. And these are the people who went on to conquer the Western world. I now have little doubt that Romulus was indeed raised by wolves. Even more interesting, using names of gods from their religion they personalized the first four months (Martius, Aprilis, Maius, and Junius) then – ignoring a pantheon of their other gods – they gave up and simply counted off the rest: Quintilis (5), Sextilis (6), September (7), October (8), November (9), December (10 – Tada!).  

In 452 BC, along comes the emperor Numa. Numa decided it would be nice to have a calendar with a passing connection to reality. So, he creates two extra months (January and February – based on god’s names) 30 days each, to fill in the empty sixty-day vacancy. So far so good, but we’ve got to go three steps back now. Numa then decides to create yet another month, Mercidinus, which will have 22 or 23 days and be wedged in between February 23 and 24 every other year. (Huh??? – again) That’s right. I find it hard enough now to remember what day it is, no less whether or not there’s going to be a month of arbitrary days inserted smack dab into the middle of a month.  

This continues until 46 BC when Julius Caesar just got plain fed up with the whole thing. He asked his astronomer Sosigenes to fix the calendar. First, Sosigenes decrees that the calendar must be based on the solar year and not the cycles of the moon. That’s right, go by the sun – the big bright thing that’s always there. For those of you keeping track, it’s taken civilization only some 5000 grossly uneven, irregular years to figure that one out, with the probable exception of the Stonehenge creators. Maybe that’s why other people wiped them out. People seem adverse to things like facts and reality. To continue, Sosigenes then divides the year into 12 months of 30 and 31 days mostly alternating, except for February which would have 29 days, and 30 every fourth (leap) year. This finally puts us back to a 365 day year. Now here’s the best part. After over 300 years of ignoring some 61 days, and an additional 400 years of Mercidinus mid-month interruptions, the Romans call this year – the consistent, solar-accurate one created by Sosigenes and Julius – The Year Of Confusion. This is the God’s honest truth.  The month Quintilis was renamed Julius Caesar’s his honor, as mentioned, and later Sextilis renamed Augustus after his successor. Augustus, being vain, didn’t want his month to be smaller, so he stole a day from February and added it to his own.

To end this tale, this calendar worked until 1582 when Pope Gregory noticed that the year was about 10 days off. He discretely dropped ten days that year so that October 5 became October 15, and then decreed century years would only be leap years if divisible by 400 (1700, 1800, 1900: no – 2000: yes). This slight change has kept the calendar so accurate that the current year is only off by 26 seconds since the time of Gregory. And that, good people, is the story of why our twelfth month has the tenth name. 

Family Photo

Family photo. Me and some cousins

I love this photograph. Of all the family photos I have, this sunlight-bleached reproduction – well into the process of a blotchy chemical aging – is my favorite. The subject of this image is nothing special: a group photo of myself and some of my cousins taken at a wedding reception. I’m guessing late 80s, early 90s. I’m sure many of you have quite a number of photographs that could be placed into the same category bucket. I’m also reasonably certain at least one or two of said cousins pictured within are scanning it, assessing the clothes they wore or the way the camera caught their faces. That, plus a healthy dose of wistfulness, as I should point out that not all of those pictured are still with us.

But allow me to return to why I treasure this among so many others. It should come as no logical surprise the key elements – as is so often the case with items of personal worth – rest upon this image being a physical embodiment of general concepts I value deeply.

The first element is that of family. Specifically, the uncommonly good fortune of being a member of an extended family driven by love and joy. This is my father’s side of the family. My mother’s side, sadly, would paint a portrait vibrant with strokes of coldness, greed, abuse, and dishonesty. Fortunately, all contact was lost with them some forty years ago. But the benefit of that wide disparity is that it allowed me to understand, from a young age, the breadth of variance that can occur from one family to another. In a nutshell, when you have something good, recognize it, savor it, treasure it.

So this is my family, and let me assure you, had every cousin been present in this photograph, the primary difference would only be in the number of faces it contains. It’s by no means a perfect family – such does not exist – but it’s a family that delights in the positives rather than dwell on the negatives. They have built a place in my heart for each and every one of them, along with their children and grandchildren. And I can’t stress that enough: they have built. They expended the effort to create the bonds we have. Yes, it takes some work every-so-often.

But let’s move on to the single most valuable element of this photograph. One thing I am not fond of, nearly to the point of despising, is the posed photograph. Well, let me qualify that. If you’re a striking model posing in an indecipherable ad for a fragrance, I love it – despite the herd of llamas running through billowing curtains in the background. Capturing a specific visual image is the purpose of posing.

It’s the family/friends group posed photos that irk me. It feels like every meaningful element – joy, love, warmth – that makes the group what it is, has been stripped away by the photographer commanding, “Okay, don’t move. Now everyone say ‘cheese’.” That’s not what you see here. It’s how it started, but it’s not what you see. Chaos crashed ashore on the left side and is flowing outward to the right. So powerful is this wave, that it warranted, not one, but two horns placed upon the heads of some involved. The polished veneer of a posed photo is being stripped away by the reality underneath – the real life.
Those are always my favorite photos, the snapshots of the true moment. Sure, in those true moments we may not look our best; the lighting or angles may be poor, or perhaps the emotion on display is sheer boredom (I have one of those); but they are slices of reality on display. And that’s why I love this photograph. It is a moment of truth, a representation of what I treasure.

That and because I’m the youngest and look damn good in it.

Discovering a Personality

As you may have noticed, I’m not much of a blogger. However, I’ve begun writing a new book – mainly as a distraction from losing two WIPs and trying to reconstruct them (long story I don’t want to go into).

For a while, I’ve been toying with the concept of recasting one of the Greek myths as a comedy. One problem I’ve been having, is trying to frame the core personality of the main character. Most of the secondary characters haven’t been a problem, but the MC – stuck. Usually, my stories start with some conceptualization of a set of characters interacting in a scene. Then I continue to flesh the scene out until I feel I have a strong sense of the personalities. Next step is to find them a high-level plot and setting that suits them (I usually have a few of those knocking around in my head). That’s just how it works for me.

But in this case, I’m working from established material. Figuring out the correct set of personality attributes that will fit the MC and make the story compelling (and/or humorous) can be difficult. So, I resorted to a technique I created a long while back. I take the problematic character, or characters if needed, out of the story and plunk them down into a basic setting which is almost all dialog. Example settings are: buying something in a shop, on a date at a restaurant, in a job interview, explaining a work of art to a friend, etc. I then ‘pants’ the conversation as freely as I can, ignoring spelling, grammar, etc.

It usually takes me only a page before I’m able to stop and speculate on personality attributes. If not, I’ll continue the conversation or, if the thread peters out, start a new scenario. The idea is to listen to your character and look for personality flags.

So here’s my real-life example from what I’m working on right now. Let’s just label my MC as P. I’m trying to figure out P as a child for now. Later I may, or may not, need to do the exercise again with him as an adult. At this point, I start with a basic unfinished statement:

P, as a child, is…

Then I launch the script. In this case, I chose “buying something”. Here’s what I typed freely, warts and all (C is the store clerk):

P: How much is this action figure from Giant Robot Battle?
C: 18.99
P: That’s a lot.
C: That’s the price.
P: I mean, it’s not even the main character.
C: They’re all 18.99. Doesn’t matter which.
P: Did you see the movie?
C: Nope. You gonna buy that or not?
P: I’m thinking it over. Let me ask you. Who do you think would win in a fight? This guy, Mechoman, or Godzilla?
C: Godzilla. So, make up your mind yet?
P: I’m trying to. Why Godzilla?
C: Because he’s Godzilla and I don’t know the other guy. 18.99.
P: It’s a big investment.
C: It’s not an investment, it’s a toy.
P: Well for me it is. I mean, I can buy other things that might keep me interested longer. Do you think they’ll make a sequel?
C: To Godzilla?
P: No. To Giant Robot Battle.
C: I wouldn’t know. Here. Kid. Let me help you with this. Do any of your friends have one of these?
P: Nnnnooo.
C: What would they think if they saw you with this? Would they think you were cool?
P: I dunno. It’s a new movie. I hafta wait until they see it.
C: Then you’re ahead of the curve. You can be the trendsetter.

That’s all I needed. I’ve done this before, so I was picking stuff up in the back of my mind regarding his mindset. I then wrote:

Analysis: thoughtful, difficult, prone to over-analyzing, and self-conscious.

Put them together and you have:

P as a child is thoughtful, difficult, prone to over-analyzing, and self-conscious.

Now I have something to work with. I might change or add traits, but I have a foundation. In fact, I may opt to make self-conscious a trait which he will need to come to terms with and/or leverage it for comedy. That’s all part of the fun of writing. Will I continue this WIP? I have no idea. It’s still a fresh thought and I need to see how far it will take me.

A little gift for the holidays


Hi and Happy Holidays. Some of you may or may not know that I had polished the characters of Mephistopheles and JR over the years with little vignettes written solely for the enjoyment of my friends. I recently came across one of them. It’s just a scene with little rhyme or reason outside of illustrating the standard behaviors of these two.

There is a mention of a third, off-screen character, Oak (Oakley Tree – his parents are to blame for that one). JR’s best friend, Oak is nearly as adept as JR is for getting into trouble, albeit mostly by accident.

Anyway, this is for fans of JR and Meph, I hope you enjoy it.
-R

———


With his ears still ringing, JR tore into the entrance way of the mansion then veered left towards the dining room so fast his feet nearly slipped out from under him. When he reached the dining room he pulled up short, removed his World War II US army helmet, held it to his chest, then let out a slow whistle as he surveyed the scene of devastation before him. The magnificent 16-foot long mahogany dining table that had dominated the room was shattered into a strewn pile of broken planks, table legs, and copious amounts of splintered wooden shards; with ground-zero being the twisted wreckage of an antique iron and crystal chandelier resting where the table center used to exist. The mooring of the chandelier was replaced by a significant hole in the ceiling around which a mixture of plaster dust and smoke swirled. The rest of the surface of the ceiling was chaotically tossed about the room in the form of huge chunks of plaster.

On the far end of the room, at the former head of the former table, Mephistopheles sat motionless – an icy stare transfixed onto JR. At about chest height of his body, which was liberally covered with plaster powder, a raised empty fork was held horizontally in his right hand. Amidst the rubble of the table at Mephistopheles’ feet, was a shattered dessert plate under a partially mangled wedge of pumpkin pie. The front end of the slice was preserved enough to clearly exhibit a missing triangular piece that, at one point, must have rested on the now-suspended fork. This, JR judged, is why you don’t use fine china for daily use. He would have relayed that point to Mephistopheles, but some instinct, probably the survival one, prevented him from doing so.

JR carefully entered the room, gingerly stepping over debris while moving closer to the seated figure of impending doom. If Meph wasn’t here I might have been able to come up with a plausible excuse – well maybe not so plausible – but he witnessed the whole thing, so this is gonna be tricky. He was at a loss for words, but that never stopped him before and it wasn’t going to now.

“Huh, a teensy bit more of damage than I expected. I, um, was hoping you wouldn’t notice. Maybe I should just go get the vacuum and tidy up a bit.”

Mephistopheles began to rouse from his petrified state, at first trying to find a place on the non-existent table to put down his fork. It moved left and right a few times, and for a moment it looked as if he would place it on the arm of his chair, but with a sudden flick of his hand the fork flew out lodging into the wall on his right. He then shifted in his chair into a more comfortable position. He brushed some crumbs of debris from his pants as if it would make a difference. As always, when dealing with the fallout of JR-centric destruction, he began to speak with carefully measured and disturbingly calm, words.

“As I see it, or at least saw it from my vantage point through that now-shattered window, you maneuvered a tank into the courtyard, positioning it so that the turret was aimed at the house. Next, you fired a mortar round which – and here I just have to assume for the moment – obliterated the bedroom directly above us, precipitating the demise of a significant portion of my dining room. So far, correct?”

“Yes. Will that be all?”

“Hardly. But before I commence to cross-examine you, is there any other emergency that I should be aware of? Maybe the house is on fire? Perhaps, sections are about to cave in atop my head?”

“Oh, no, it’s all done with. I think we’re good from here on. You’ve got nothing to worry about.”

“I should be so lucky. To continue – from personal experience, I know asking you ‘why’ is never worth the effort, but I can’t help myself. I’m curious by nature. Why, then, did you fire a tank upon my person and my otherwise pleasant mid-afternoon snack?”

“Oh that,” JR dismissed as if it was an obvious and almost irrelevant fact, “Oak and I were playing and the Frisbee got stuck on the roof; so, I needed to use something to knock it down. You know if you don’t mind me saying, it’s really quite funny when you think about how stuff doesn’t always turn out the way you think it will. You really need to have a sense of humor.”

“Oh, I have a sense of it alright,” he snapped back and then proceeded, “So you used a tank…”

“Yes.”

“… to remove a Frisbee…”

“Yah.”

“… from the roof.”

“Yup.”

“Again, merely because I am keen to know, what, pray-tell, was Oakley’s opinion of your Frisbee solution?”

“Well he thought it was a bit over the top at first.”

“Really? Who’d have thought common sense could exist in such close proximity to you.”

“He thought a rifle could have done the trick and, after some discussion, we figured a bazooka could be the fallback plan…”

“And there it goes.”

“…but we know how you disapprove of firearms, so my options were limited.”

“And that’s all you have to say about it?”

“Yep. No. Wait. Umm, oh yeah, Oak told me that if you caught us I should say I’m sorry. So… I’m sorry.”

“At least I got a heart-felt apology,” Mephistopheles said dryly. “You do know what happens now, don’t you?”

“I’ve got some really good ideas, but I figure you’re not going to like any of them.”

“First, at some point soon I’m certain; the local authorities are going to arrive to investigate. You are going to provide them with a reasonable excuse – and I cannot over-emphasize the term reason-able – as to why the tank I agreed to keep on my grounds for the township while it was being refurbished for a Veteran’s day celebration, was commandeered to remove a portion of this building. And, the word Frisbee had better not enter into that discussion. In fact, I’d rather you get that devious little pal of yours to come up with something. I’d swear he was born part lawyer anyway. Next, the two of you are going to spend the better part of the holiday season and beyond, working to restore all of this,” he waved one hand upward in a circle, “back to its original state. I’m going to hire contractors immediately, but make no mistake; they will have instruction to give you and Oak the worst jobs. Then, once everything is back to normal, we will discuss your punishment. Is all of that clear? Any questions?

“Yes,” JR said as he pointed to the ruined piece of pumpkin pie on the floor, “are you going to finish that?”

A Readers Group Guide

The Devil and the Wolf

  1. Consider the title of the book. What is the nature of the relationship between the two characters as the story progresses? What are the primary characteristics of each? What are the similarities and differences between the two?


  2. The author relies upon a handful of locations in this novel. The story opens in the wilds of Montana and then proceeds to a small town in Florida. Why might the author have chosen these locations? Do they have an effect on the narrative? Evaluate and discuss the author’s descriptions of Heaven and Hell.


  3. How is the theme of good and evil presented in this book? What is Mephistopheles’ view of good and evil? Where would you place him on the scale and why?


  4. In the chapter Judgment Day (pg. 364), what concepts are touched upon by the author in Jenna’s speech?


  5. In chapter one, Mephistopheles states, “No one gets to know what I know and what I’m thinking unless I say so, and even then, don’t be so sure.” What then, do you think are Mephistopheles’ motivations in this story and why?


  6. Consider the antagonists Eremiel and Nergal. What are their motivations and what might be at the root? How justified are their points of view? Do the motivations of any of the other characters stand out? If so, who and why?


  7. Compare Mephistopheles’ character to Lilith’s. In what ways are they similar and different? While considering the relationship between the two, Lucifer remarks to himself, “She understands him. Of all the beings in creation, this is the one she totally gets.” Although never fully expressed by the author, why might this be?


  8. Choose and discuss some of the relationships between the book’s characters; such as Sachiel and Cassius; Lilith and Lucifer; Jenna, Levi, Delia, and Rob; or Dale and Connie.


  9. Which characters do you feel most positive toward and why? Which do you feel most negative towards and why? Does your perception of any of the characters change over time? If so, which character(s) and how?

Some notes from JR…

JR’s guide to characters from The Devil and the Wolf

Hey folks! JR here. Thought I’d give you a brief summary of the main characters in the book. Let’s start off with the two most important:

Me, JR Wolfe – Smart, funny, clever, good-looking and a jack of all trades. Basically, everybody’s bestie and why not.

Mephistopheles – pronounced Mef-i-stof-eh-lees. Say it like, “let me check for fleas”. But, if you ever meet him, call him Meph – he hates that. He’s some devil guy that tells, long boring stories. Your basic killjoy.

Jenna (leader), Levi (skeptic), Delia (heart), Rob (id) – Meph calls them the Scooby Gang. I call them my Flamigos (Florida Amigos). By chance, they get pulled into the story and end up representing all of humanity.

Dale and Connie Carina – Your basic low-lifes. Two scheming people who are out for themselves. (True, some might say that last sentence could describe Meph and me, but we’re lovable. Well, I am.)

Sachiel, Cassius, Raphael and Gabriel (cameo appearance) – A bunch of angels who turn out to be pretty cool.

Eremiel – Another angel who turns out to be not cool. As it happens, he was right about Meph’s schemes and somehow that made him the bad guy. But that’s okay, because I think he wanted to dissect me or something. As I said, not cool.

Lilith, Lucifer, Belial, Nick – A bunch of Meph’s friends from Hell. That Lilith is a hoot.

Nergal – A ruthless power-hungry devil. I really, really didn’t like him.

There are other humans, angels, devils and demons, and I don’t want to dismiss them. They’re kind of like spices and herbs added to a dish, but you really don’t have to invest in them for the story’s sake.

Happy reading all. Hopefully seeing you again soon,

-JR

New Book(s) in the works…

Okay, probably not the best thing to do, while working on one book a couple of weeks ago, I took a little break and then started on another one. Lately, work (yes, the day job I shouldn’t quit) has been a bit over the top, so I haven’t had as much evening/weekend time free as I usually do. However, that should lighten up soon and I’ll get back to the two.

I’m not overly worried, if trying to write both at the same time becomes too much, I’ll just take the time to jot down as many notes as I can and put one on the back burner (maybe not the best spot to place a book though).

One story line follows a team of psychic investigators, who stumble across a very real and dangerous entity. The difficulty in this one, so far, is crafting the comedy, so I have to step back from it often.

The other story line had been a vague notion floating around in my mind for a number of years. It’s my version of the story of The Garden of Eden, and yes, it takes place in the same ‘universe’ of The Devil and the Wolf.

On both I’m only working through the first chapter right now, doing some dialog exercises to get a better feel for the characters and tinkering with a subplot or two.

So that’s what’s what lately.