Christmas Carol: A Short Story - Part XXV
I recently received some feedback from my friend, the secret elf who's been reading the story, and he had some very interesting things to say. Among the praise and kudos (he says he is really enjoying the story so far), were some very sharp points on narrative devices that seem to have promise, but did not really work very well.
The key argument was a question on what role does the Snowflake Gardens and its magical properties have in the story? Originally, as in the game, the Snowflake Gardens was a mere literary device to give Carol access to the magical snowflakes, which in turn will serve as her defensive weapon. This would advance the plot forward, and lead directly towards the big splashy climax.
However, the Snowflake Gardens turned out to be much more than that. As described in the story, it is now the heart of the Ice Cube Caverns themselves; and its magic, which manifest as snowflakes glowing with pure ethereal light, gives life to the mountain. There was some sort of build up to this moment, and when Carol found herself in this magical place, it was described with utmost superlatives.
Not only that, but Carol noticed how the mountain was alive and made a solemn promise to protect it.
It's all charming and very touching, except for one thing: What exactly is Carol protecting the mountain from?
You see, when she tries to grab a magical snowflake, it crumbled into magical dust, which she could use to make magical snowballs to hurl at her enemies. Then the snowflake immediately regenerated and came back to life as beautiful and radiant (and presumably, as magical) as before.
This lack of environmental, moral, spiritual, or personal cost, essentially turned the magical snowballs into a super-weapon. Moreover, if Carol could make these snowballs whenever she liked with absolutely no penalty to her, the mountain, the snowflakes, nor the planet -- heck, not even her enemies get truly harmed, just stunned temporarily -- then she is now essentially a super-hero with unlimited powers.
Even in the game, once you use up a magical snowflake, it does not regenerate -- except under some very specific crisis circumstances: when you're on your last life, there aren't any left, and you've died at least once during the level, the game would give you one extra chance of surviving by granting you what we called during development the "Pity Flake." Magical snowflakes are critical to completing a level successfully, but they are very much a limited resource, and are therefore not to be used lightly. The instruction manual even tells you so.
In the story, however, the magical snowballs are now purely a deus ex machina which must be used on every occasion, because not doing so would be very stupid since it carries no effort, no cost, no restraint, and no consequences whatsoever except to benefit Carol.
Carol doesn't need to hide herself from her enemies, there is no more tension or suspense because we know she is always safe as long as she has magical snowballs, and she can always go back and scrounge up some more magical dust to make some more. There goes the climax of the story.
This reminds me of something that master of suspense and mystery Alfred Hitchcock once said in an interview. When asked, why didn't the protagonist just called the police and avoid having to confront the stalker, he responded quite succinctly:
Because calling the police would be boring.
In other words, what sort of movie would it be if as soon as the stalker gets into the house, the victim called the police and let them resolve the entire episode neatly within the next 10 minutes? A very short and not very interesting one, indeed.
Now, if your movie is structured in such a way that the victim could always call the police at any time but simply didn't, then your story is just as stupid, and you will distract your audience who will rightfully be yelling at the screen, "just call the damn cops already, you dolt!" The audience will then collectively roll their eyes and walk out.
So, no, you don't leave it to the victim. You have the stalker cut the phone line, or there's a blackout, or the phone is in the kitchen, but the victim is hiding upstairs in her bedroom -- or any of a million ways in which the victim is prevented from calling the police without having to retort to the very stupid trope of just forgetting to do so.
Ok, so Hitchcock said that calling the police would be boring. So what? Well, I think in my case, the magical snowflakes are the same deus ex machina as the police would be in one of his movies: using them for everything would make for a very boring ending, just hurling snowballs left and right while Carol completes her mission. And just like in that hypothetical stalker movie, making Carol forget to make magical snowballs, or limit herself in some other artificial way, would feel very, very stupid -- and Carol is not stupid; she's Santa's most resourceful elf.
What then? Well, the solution turned out to be quite simple in theory, but much harder in actual practice: Making magical snowballs must have some cost; the snowflakes must not regenerate automatically; and if indeed the mountain is alive with the brilliant magic of the snowflakes, then it must necessarily lose some of its luster when Carol so thoughtlessly and selfishly consumes them.
Carol could then notice the damage she caused -- she's in distress and needs the weapons in a hurry, so she is forgiven for doing so under duress, but now she feels a tinge of regret because of her actions. Her promise to "protect the mountain" is now a promise to never do it again, in order to let the mountain maintain its magical life, and hopefully recover someday. It is also a promise that the three magical snowballs she already created are to be used in just the most dire of emergencies, or not at all. This magic is powerful -- but limited -- and does not belong to her. She took it from the mountain at some cost to it, and she shall henceforth treat it with utmost respect.
Easy peacy, no? Well, not quite. That took some heave re-writing of various parts stretched across three chapters in order to make that work, but I think I finally got it.
I'll have to re-read it a few times more over the next coming days just to see if it flows well with the rest, but I think the story is much stronger now.
In a way, it's a pity because I had to necessarily change some parts which I actually liked very much as originally written. It's as if you had your suspense thriller victim use her skills as an old-school radio operator in order to jury-rig a makeshift contraption to telegraph an S.O.S. to the police for help. You like that particular plot point, and the script and dialogue sounds phenomenal -- until you realize that calling the police would just end your story prematurely and kill all further beats of suspense. So you purposely and rightfully cut it out for the betterment of the overall plot, but with a tinge of regret at having lost some other cool part.
Anyway, it's done now; crisis averted. Phew!
Now, back to work.