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The Best Beginnings

Beginnings are crucial in stories. They don’t just convey information; they prepare us for what’s going to be important in the tale that follows. Stories are best when they focus on characters, so it follows that the best beginnings focus on them too. Some people think a story needs to start off in high gear and get right to the plot, but I disagree. A plot is nothing without well-defined and rounded characters. The best beginnings introduce us to them and get us to be their friend before anything serious can happen.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at one of my favourite opening sequences of all time…

Raiders of The Lost Ark

It’s 1936 and we’re deep in the South American jungle. A small band of ragged men cut their way through the overgrowth as strange bird calls and animal noises echo all around them. Leading the way is a mysterious figure in a distinctive fedora. The others look nervous, even frightened. A poisoned dart indicates the nearby presence of hostile tribesmen; the guy in the hat is barely phased and walks on.

He stops by a river to examine the torn fragments of a map. Behind him one of his companions silently takes out a gun. Before we can even blink, the man lunges out with a bullwhip and sends the gun into the water. The would-be traitor flees into the jungle and this mysterious hero finally steps out of the shadows to reveal a face covered in stubble, lined with strength and cleverness and guile. It’s the face of a perfect action star. This is Indiana Jones.

Now there are only two of them. Jones and his remaining companion enter a cave, from which we’re told nobody has ever come out alive. Their torches barely make a dent in the darkness. The hero calmly brushes poisonous tarantulas off his friend’s back. He cleverly spots a trap of giant spikes and another of deadly projectiles. Does nothing scare him? Does nothing get past him? He’s an unstoppable badass.

The Idol

And finally they reach their goal: an ancient statue of solid gold, a treasure worth millions. Indiana Jones carefully examines the pedestal it sits on. Knowing the weight triggers a dead man’s switch for another lethal trap, he’s come prepared with a sandbag. So he’s tough, good-looking, and he’s got brains. He pours out a measure of sand to get it accurate. Then the moment of truth — gently now, easy does it — there. The pedestal doesn’t move and he has what he came for. He allows himself a well-earned smile.

Which is when Raiders of The Lost Ark becomes a classic.

As the hero turns away, we learn that the sandbag was too heavy after all. The cavern starts to crumble and rocks are falling. Subtle ingenuity is tossed aside in favour of plain running. When they come to a chasm, his companion swings across first. “Throw me the idol, I throw you the whip,” he says, and this supposedly perfect action star does the most perfectly stupid thing imaginable: he trusts the guy. Sure enough, he’s forced to jump and struggles with a vine to pull himself to safety. He barely makes it through a closing stone door, though he does manage to recover the idol that his not-so-lucky companion dropped. Panic, floundering, and “uh oh” expressions all play across Jones’ face this whole time, but he’s not out of the woods yet. His last lucky escape is just managing to dodge the Famous Rolling Boulder.

Finally emerging into daylight again, he only runs into more trouble. The tribesmen are waiting, all pointing their spears at him, led by his old rival Dr. Rene Belloq. “Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away,” he gloats and Indiana Jones is forced to hand over the precious idol. Then we find out he doesn’t speak the native language; another thing he can’t do well. Beaten down and his tough guy image thoroughly stripped away, about the only thing Jones can do is run. He barely gets on his getaway plane to safety. And then the coup de grâce: “There’s a big snake in the plane!…I hate snakes!”

The pilot adds insult to injury: “Aw, c’mon, show a little backbone willya?”

Snake

The genius of this opening sequence is not that it provides excitement, suspense, and thrills (though it does that quite well); it’s that virtually nothing in the sequence actually matters to the main plot of the movie. It exists solely to introduce us to Indiana Jones himself. This goes against every bit of perceived wisdom in film writing. Screenwriting classes and books teach you to start the plot with the opening frame. Raiders of The Lost Ark doesn’t begin its story until almost 15 minutes in.

Then there’s how it seamlessly pulls the rug out from under us. We fully expect Indiana Jones to be the sort of idealized action hero that the genre demands, who never gets anything wrong and isn’t afraid of anything. And for awhile we’re tricked into believing that’s what he is. Then the switch is pulled, everything goes south, and we discover that our ideal hero is all too human.

But, strangely, instead of being disappointed we’ve found ourselves completely sympathetic to him. Idealized heroes are all well and good, but they don’t necessarily make the most endearing characters. They’re above the audience, too perfect and too pure to ever be relatable. Indiana Jones isn’t like those other guys. As adventurous as his life gets he’s always down to earth. He’s got a great sense of humour, he’s loyal to his friends, but more importantly he sometimes falls flat on his face. After all, the entire 12-minute sequence is dedicated to showing how he fails to get what we wants. Which of course makes his later victories all the sweeter.

It just goes to show you that at the end of the day you can have a killer plot, clever dialogue, and all the adrenaline in the world…but none of it matters if you can’t get anyone to like your main characters. Get us on their side and we’ll stick with them through anything.

The Other Blog

I have another blog.

No, this is not a confession of infidelity to The Scriptorium. This isn’t the reason I haven’t posted on here in awhile. There’s just another blog I have that I’m trying to figure out what to do with.

It’s called The Spirit’s Breath. It was started with the purpose of blogging my thoughts and reflections as I read through the Bible in a year. While I finished the Bible, I never finished the blog. It sort of withered away as other writing commitments (like The Scriptorium) took hold. But it’s still there and still has my insights on it. Now I’m just trying to figure out what to do with it.

Preaching and studying the Bible is gradually taking root in my life. It’s become something I do on a regular basis. And I think The Spirit’s Breath has a role to play in that. I just don’t know what.

Don’t suppose anyone has any suggestions?

Many DimensionsMy discovery of Charles Williams’ work continues, with his second novel Many Dimensions.

The Stone of Solomon — said by legend to have been set into the Israelite king’s crown, inscribed with the Tetragrammaton, and possessing the power to transport a person through space — surfaces in modern London. Experimentation reveals its ability to copy itself perfectly and infinitely (into what are called Types), and the frightening metaphysics of time travel are delved into. But when chance makes apparent that the Stone and its Types can heal the sick, it becomes impossible to keep them a secret — and everybody wants one.

Although it deals again with the central premise of an ancient mythical object, much like his first book, Many Dimensions treats things in a very different way, especially when it comes to the characters. War In Heaven featured clear-cut heroes and villains with clear agendas. But while in this story we are given to sympathize with particular people, it’s hard to assign straight definitions of good and evil. And in a strange twist for a Christian novel our sympathies are with a couple of agnostics.

It seems to be less about who is good and who is evil, but about what relationship they have to the Stone. There are those who try and control the Stone: whether by using it to do their will (for healing or for other wonders), or by trying to gain power through it (commercially and materially), or by trying to suppress it altogether. And there are those who instead choose to submit their wills and desires totally to the Stone.

The Stone is a fictional invention by Williams. Though there are many legends of King Solomon (the book uses his Arabic name Suleiman), a stone like the one described in the book doesn’t seem to be one of them. It is said to be made from the First Matter, the original stuff of God’s creative act in forming the universe, and so it is able to shape and remake the universe. But it also becomes many things to many people, who see in it either salvation or ambition or danger. It takes on many dimensions.

There are many things in this book I didn’t quite understand, such as the role that the recurring theme of justice is meant to play in the story and how that’s meant to relate to the Stone. It can make for a dense and mystifying first read, but I suspect the second time through will be more illuminating.

War In HeavenMany have heard of C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia and other books. Just as many have heard of J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of Middle-earth. But few have heard of Charles Williams, a friend to both and member of the literary group known as the Inklings. Williams wrote in what seems to be his own unique genre; T.S. Eliot called them “supernatural thrillers”. In his fiction, it isn’t that the spiritual realm breaks into the ordinary world, but rather that they are revealed to be one and the same. I decided to finally read Charles Williams and what I’ve found in his first novel makes me tentatively declare him my latest literary hero.

War In Heaven begins like a classic British detective novel, with a murder mystery in a London publisher’s office. But this is only the prelude to the accidental discovery that an old communion chalice in a small country church is in fact the Holy Grail itself. When the Archdeacon of the church stumbles on this evidence he finds himself the target of a Satanist practicing black magic, who wants to use the Grail as a force to enslave and destroy.

While this may sound like the makings of a Dan Brown potboiler, what Williams actually does is use the plot elements of a thriller to propel forward a story told with all the spiritual fervour of a mystic visionary. Yet it also avoids many of the stereotypical trappings of the battle between good and evil; God, Satan, nor any of their angels or demons appear as characters directly. Instead Williams poetically illustrates the sensations of the supernatural rather than resort to the traditional language of the Christian faith — which makes that language all the more meaningful when it is brought out in the final chapter: a climactic church service where the idea of heaven meeting earth goes beyond a metaphor.

But make no mistake, Williams is devout. Though the Grail is nothing more than a Christianized pagan legend, the novel imbues it with Christ’s genuine divine power; and the servant of a very real Devil is trying to get his hands on it. It makes for a rare plunge into the depths of a God-inspired spiritual imagination. If all you know of Christian fantasy is a wardrobe and lamppost (and that will always be one of my favourites), you should really consider widening your horizons with Charles Williams.

At the beginning of the month I promised this blog would not be neglected. It’s the end of the month and I notice I haven’t kept my promise. Would it help at all if I told you that writing itself has definitely not been neglected? Some exciting ideas are hopping around in the creative centres of my brain that have so far been very determined to break out onto paper. The unfortunate side effect is that I haven’t been blogging very much. But keep an eye open for a book review next week…and that note is a perfect segue into this edition of Link Lasso, which is all about reading.

The reading lifestyle, like any other, comes with its own set of difficulties. Be understanding and open-minded when interacting with a reader. Maybe you could give reading a try and see how you like it; as with so many things, there’s an app for that.

Speaking of interesting ways to read, have you ever tried it with a microscope? Or perhaps you’re one of those silly people that finds Shakespeare boring. Well, now you’re free to rewrite his most famous play any way you choose.

But however you approach it, you should really try reading. Some advocate especially that it should happen outside the realm of social media and the Internet. And if you’re a person of faith, you might find that “promiscuous reading” is an important and necessary part of searching for God’s own Truth.

Now you might be thinking, “Reading sounds at least a little bit fun, but I hate how it cuts me off from real people, and real conversations, and real relationships. Reading is too solitary for me.” It might be a bit maudlin to try and persuade you with an inspirational quote, but here’s a thought from the novel War In Heaven by Charles Williams:

“An hour’s conversation between two ardent minds with a common devotion to a neglected poet is a miraculous road to intimacy.”

Marvellous Adventure-Cover Photo

I returned from the holidays with still no idea what we were going to do about the periodical. We’ve limped along in the hopes that the Author would somehow get in touch — or better yet, send a manuscript. I spent much of December being not very hopeful about January. So you can imagine what I felt when I noticed a strange bottle on my desk, with no label and a very tight cork. Through the brown glass I could see paper rolled up and stuffed inside. I managed to pull off the cork after a lengthy struggle and then came the question of how to get at the message inside. This accomplished, I spread out on my desk a few sheets of foolscap covered in a scrawl that could only belong to one writer I know of. The scrawl contained the following message.

***

I do not know how much time I have here, before they find me.

When you last heard from me, I’d arrived in Aurora City at the request of a note signed only with the sigil of the Whitehawk Legion. I was given no further directions and decided to find a hotel. No sooner had I done so than the agent who had previously met with me came to the door. He told me we were going somewhere and I didn’t argue.

He drove the plain black car while I sat in the passenger seat, the tension winding up inside me like a spring. Questions about what was going on proved fruitless; when he answered at all it was in monosyllables. So I set myself to looking out the window at the city. I had studied maps both old and new of Aurora City, but had never seen it with my own eyes. I was disappointed to discover it was just like any other big city: all lights and noise and busyness, even at this hour of the night.

For another twenty minutes we drove on through the streets, until I realized we were on a road heading out into the suburbs. A further twenty minutes and the city streets had been replaced by a highway. “What’s out here?” I asked. But questions were still fruitless. We drove on for ages more, the headlights cutting a short swath of yellow brightness through the gloom.

I was close to falling asleep when we turned into a smaller road and I could see the dim outline of some large building just ahead. As we pulled up to a wall with an iron gate, the beams of light fell on a plaque that read

HOLLYFIELD HOUSE

All fatigue melted away to be replaced by nothing short of excitement. Emily Monroe’s own childhood home, which she later restored and lived in again. The agent retrieved two flashlights and handed me one. The darkness was absolute except for the stars overhead—the moon was a thin sliver and helped not at all. My unusual guide opened the iron gate and we made our way on foot up the drive. The house loomed above, at the top of a small hill. The click of our shoes on the stone steps was a resounding din in the heavy silence.

It wasn’t until the door of the house opened that I realized I had been holding my breath. Reminding myself to both inhale and exhale, I stepped for the first time into a place with a direct connection to Emily Monroe.

“We don’t have much time,” said the agent and he took me to what had been a sitting room. But it was full of boxes and inside the boxes were papers and files and notebooks. “You’ll need these,” he continued. “Now I’m afraid I can’t give you anything more than tonight with them, so you’d better get studying.” I didn’t protest, just took out my research journal and began to take notes on everything I read.

And what a hoard of wealth it was! Virtually everything I examined answered some question or mystery I had been left with after exhausting the records in the Agency’s library. Holes in my understanding were filled in only a handful of hours.

The entire time I sat with the documents, the agent took up a post at the window which looked out onto the front drive. He peered intently through it as if keeping watch, only allowing me a single candle for light so that he could still see out. Absorbed as I was in my research I soon forgot about him and took little notice.

Until a noise came from deep inside the house. As if someone forced something open.

The agent was at my side in a heartbeat and blew out the candle. Thick blackness smothered us. He whispered straight into my ear. “They’ve come in from the back of the house. Didn’t bring a gun?”

“No,” I whispered back.

“Too bad. Stay absolutely quiet.”

I obeyed. Soon there were footsteps and I thought I could make out some quiet whispering. Then footsteps grew louder, and then I saw through the open door of the sitting room a beam from a flashlight shine down the hallway. The beam narrowed. The footsteps loudened. A shadowy figure stepped into the doorway. Then the beam fell on us.

There was a sharp pop and a flash of light like a camera taking a picture, and the stranger fell to the ground.

The agent, without my hearing or knowing, had taken out his gun and put a silencer on it. Waiting a moment to see if there was any instant reaction from the others that must have been searching the house, we went to the front door and gingerly but quickly ducked outside.

I was terrified during that escape, running faster than ever to the car outside the gate. I have since had moments to surpass it.

The agent explained that there were people who did not want the story of Emily Monroe published, for obscure and complicated reasons, and they were determined to stop my work at all costs. “But what about the documents in the house?” I asked. “We can’t let them fall into their hands.”

“They already know everything you just learned. This isn’t about gaining information, it’s about containing it.”

So these enemies were not after the documents. They were after me.

We went on the run instantly. I insisted on collecting some things from the hotel; pieces of research which meant I could continue working even on the move. That made it worth the risk, though we were fortunate to make it out alive. It meant the last story I sent to you was able to be written.

Two days ago the agent who became my bodyguard was killed in the bathroom of a movie theatre. But I have made it to a safe place—safe at least for the moment. And when I think of the work I’ve left unfinished I wonder if my enemies haven’t succeeded. It’s a horrible cliffhanger to leave on.

But hope is not lost yet. There’s still a chance of defying them. It will take a little time, though, and it will need to be more dramatic than just finishing the story of the Battle of the St. Julian Mission. It will mean bringing these chronicles of Emily Monroe to a wider audience.

I have plans. I have schemes. All I need from you is patience.

You will hear from me again.

—The Author

***

The Author says he has plans. My staff and I are having meetings. We don’t know yet what the future of Marvellous Adventure will be, but you can bet that you’ll find out as soon as we do.

Stay tuned!

Neglect

Writing is supposed to be what I do instead of surfing the internet for hours.

Writing is supposed to be what I make myself take a break from.

Writing is supposed to be what I decide to do when I’m bored.

Writing is supposed to happen a lot more than this.

Writing has been neglected. I constantly check Facebook instead of opening the notebooks. I handle the mouse more than my pen — or my keyboard even. And writing has been neglected. A certain occasional publication has been neglected. This blog has been neglected.

That is going to change.

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