True story

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Truth is relative. Truth isn’t about facts so much as believability. Something can be objectively factual, but if I do not believe it, it is not true (to me).

And while this position can complicate social interactions and any discussion of politics, its corollary is vital to creativity:

Something can be objectively fictional, but if I believe it, it is true (to me).

I stumbled across this concept years ago, while studying improvisation at Second City.

I entered the school thinking I was there to be funny, but rapidly learned that despite the appellation “improvisational comedy”, the discipline is more about being fully engaged with the other performers and your environment rather than being funny.

Despite the lack of props, despite the lack of costumes, despite being confined to a stage, improv is about truth. If it isn’t, if the audience doesn’t believe you, then your performance is ineffective.

Without truth, the audience will not engage emotionally, they will not invest in the characters, and at best, the performance becomes an intellectual exercise. At worst, it becomes boring.

The same is true for writing.

As part of my everyday life, but particularly as a screenwriting instructor, screenplay competition reader and story analyst/coach for So, What’s Your Story?, I digest a lot of stories that cover every medium and genre. In analyzing these stories, teasing out what works and looking for ways to improve what isn’t working, I find that most of my feedback ultimately drills down to the truth of the story.

All good stories are true stories, but not all true stories are good.

Who are these characters? What do they want? What do they need? Why are they acting that way?

The world can be completely fantastical; it doesn’t have to look or function like any place I have experienced. The characters don’t have to be human or even corporeal.

But both must have a truth that I, as a reader or audience member, can believe in, something I can connect to.

Except with possibly the most Art House of work—where the thwarting of inherent truth is often the whole point—the world must have consistent laws by which it functions, even if those laws are completely alien to my real-world experience.

And, although I may not agree with a character’s motivations and reactions, I must on some level understand them and recognize them as true and consistent for the character and the world in which that character exists.

From my perspective, this is reason why Arrival works, and Valerian doesn’t.

Yes, there were plotting challenges in Arrival, its mixed timelines presentation often confusing things (and yet, ironically, that was the overall point of the story), but the characters made sense, their actions were believable, their world consistent if only in hindsight.

In contrast, the world of Valerian seemed to shift as required by the plot, a deus ex machina around every corner. And most of the characters seemed to suffer from erratic multiple personality disorder (respect to those challenged by the actual disorder) that invalidated each motivation and reaction as soon as it happened.

For me, Arrival had an inherent and universal truth, whereas Valerian was little more than artifice, an intellectual exercise in which I chose not to participate.

Consider your favourite stories from whatever medium—the page-turner novels, the lean-forward movies.

What pulled you into the story? What kept you enthralled? What made you forget there was a world outside?

Perhaps it was good writing. Maybe, an excellent plot. Possibly, interesting characters.

Whatever the intellectual rationale, you believed. If only for a brief period, the story was true (to you).

As difficult as it sounds, that is your target in writing. And because of your proximity to the story, it will be a challenge. But truth is the difference-maker.

Our writing is only as good as the truth we tell.

Best of luck.

 

Arrival: Screenplay (pdf) by Eric Heisserer

Valerian & the City of a Thousand Planets: Screenplay by Luc Besson

 

Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

Lead on, Macduff – Connecting characters

Something wicked

Many years ago, I struck upon the idea of Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a solo performance, where each of the secondary characters were not real people but rather manifestations of the Thane’s own psyche. The entire story, as I envisioned it, was one long inner monologue by a very confused man, struggling to rationalize his beliefs with his desires.

King Duncan represented the old way of doing things; slow, methodical, political.

Macduff represented the idealized warrior; righteous, proud, skilled, noble.

Lady Macbeth represented unbridled ambition; envious, avaricious, clawing, unfettered.

Banquo represented compromise; willing, hopeful, forward-looking.

The Witches represented chaos; confusing, enigmatic, truthful.

Beyond conversation with addled classmates and my bemused English teacher, however, this concept never really became more than a memory that I recount today. (Shakespeare himself had been dead for a few years and could not be reached for comment.)

But the idea has stuck with me ever since, and I have come to see its merits as a tool or approach to characters in many works I have written in the intervening years.

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,

Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,

Raze out the written troubles of the brain

And with some sweet oblivious antidote

Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff

Which weighs upon the heart?

Macbeth, V, iii, 40

So often, when reading stories written by others—I struggle to do this with my own work, to which I am too close—I find characters that seem to float into and out of the story. They enter, perform a function in the story, and then exit, leaving almost no impression. They are simply mechanisms to move the story forward.

Now, I am not talking about the nameless, faceless characters that populate the background of pretty much every story; the extras or day-laborers of the film industry. Even if they have an action or offer the odd line, I see those characters very much on par with props.

I’m talking about the somewhat larger characters who may be central to a scene, interacting regularly and with purpose with one or more of the main characters to raise a dramatic question, but seeming to be otherwise disconnected from the rest of the story.

I ask myself (and sometimes the storyteller):

If you eliminated this character from your story and gave his or her actions/functions to another character, would your story suffer?

If the answer is no, then the character should probably be eliminated.

But sometimes the answer is yes; exactly why, however, is not always clear.

This is where I go back to my Macbeth concept.

Much as the antagonist of any story is a reflection of the protagonist, I believe there are opportunities to solidify these more nebulous characters by asking what they represent to the protagonist.

Are they alter-egos to some aspect of the protagonist’s personality, needs or wants? And if not, can they be?

I am a firm believer that we invite into our lives people who serve a purpose, who help us rationalize our places in the universe, who either soften the blow of being stuck in a mire we hate or inspire us to become more than we are. We may never be conscious of what their purposes are, but we are somehow drawn to these people and they to us.

Understand your associates and you will understand yourself.

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Our lives are a web of connections, but are we the spider or the fly?

As gods of the stories we create, we have introduced specific characters into those stories for a reason, and I suspect it goes well beyond functional plot points. Rather, I feel it speaks to the nature of the protagonist or one of the other central characters.

At the very least, it is an avenue to explore when you find a character that just seems to float through your story, a character that could easily be eliminated, but for some reason, you want to keep.

Your starting point may be in figuring out what they represent to the protagonist. In the process, you may just develop a deeper understanding of your central character(s).

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To learn more about improving your story telling, as well as opportunities for story coaching and story analysis, visit:

So, What’s Your Story? (web site)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

 

Why story coaching?

Coaching

No matter where you are in your writing career, your work can almost always be helped by feedback from fresh eyes that do not have a vested interest in the work itself.

Story analysis can help you see challenges in your story that might be invisible to you, whether through inherent biases or because you see the story clearer in your head than it has been recorded on the page.

Story analysis can also help you see opportunities in your work that you overlooked, if only because you are too close to it. Your priority for that early draft, in all likelihood, was simply to get things out of your head and onto the page, and we all walk with the fear of wandering down so many blind alleys that we never come out of the other end, wherever that end may be.

 

So fine, story analysis is helpful. But what the hell is story coaching?

Almost by definition, story analysis happens AFTER you have completed a draft (or several). It comes AFTER you have wandered the desert of creative confusion. It comes AFTER you have bled your creative juices onto the page and have become smitten with your creation.

And in some very unfortunate cases, it never comes at all, because the storyteller never completed the project, whether due to fear of failure, a sense of being intractably lost, or simply because Life intervened to distract from the task at hand.

This is where story coaching can help.

Story coaching is about a work-in-progress, whether a screenplay, a novel, the writer him or herself…whatever the storyteller needs most.

Hurdles

As with life coaching, business coaching or athletics coaching, story coaching is about providing guidance to the storyteller on a regular basis, whether simply as a second set of eyes to critique the work or as a mentor who uses the work-in-progress as a framework within which to help the storyteller develop as an artist.

Story coaching is also about commitment and accountability for the storyteller.

By hiring a story coach, the writer has made his or her creative art a priority in life. Why else spend the money?

And working with the storyteller, the story coach establishes expectations and deliverables, whether that is new story ideas, number of newly written pages, rewrites. These are the foundations of creative habits that can be difficult to develop and entrench in solitude because the creative process is so personal and fraught with self-doubt and self-recrimination.

 

But I can get this from a writing course or a writers’ group.

Yes, this is true…to an extent.

Writing classes can be invaluable, depending on the composition of your classmates and the skill of your instructor.

With a roomful of students, however, it can be difficult for the instructor to provide truly focused guidance to an individual student. More typically, the student is presented with a spectrum of general direction, all of which can be valuable but only some of which may be germane to a given work-in-progress.

Writers’ groups can also be a wonderful resource, again depending on the composition of the group. That composition and the individual writer’s position within the skill hierarchy, however, are critical.

Most writers’ groups are comprised of peers with relatively equal experience, and so may not be able to provide the more advanced analysis and mentorship that an individual wants or needs. And if an individual is the most advanced or skilled within a given writers’ group, he or she may find little opportunity for improvement.

[NOTE: I firmly believe that you will always find something in the feedback of any group of readers. The question is more whether it is worth the effort you put into the group.]

Sports

Although it is not impossible, you are very unlikely to ever become a professional football or hockey player by spending any amount of time playing flag football or pond hockey with friends. Why would we expect storytelling to be any different?

 

How do I know a story coach is right for me?

You don’t. Well, you don’t until you start a conversation with him or her.

 

Oh, hey! Is the story coach going to try to tell me what stories to tell?

Absolutely not.

The story coach is here to understand what story you want to tell or help you understand it better yourself, and then help you tell it in the most effective manner.

You are the Creator. The story coach is not.

 

If you want to learn more about Story Coaching, feel free to reach out to me (no obligation) at:

So, What’s Your Story? (web site)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

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On the page

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Frenzied creativity can keep you from getting all of your thoughts down

One challenge of being creative is that our minds often work much faster than the rest of our bodies can. Ideas can come at such a rate, our enthusiasm for a topic or story can be so intense, that we can find ourselves tripping over our words or leaving out things like nouns and verbs.

When I was much younger, I would see this challenge play out on my typewriter.

My thoughts were so frenzied and my fingers so quick that I would physically overwhelm the ability of the typewriter hammers to rise at the key stroke, strike the ribbon against the paper, and fall back into place before the next key stroke catapulted the next letter. Time and again, I would sigh in frustration as I would stop to manually separate the two letter arms that had become entangled.

But even in the absence of mechanical typing, such enthusiasm can result in conceptual clogging, where thoughts that cross your mind fail to find a home on the page.

Although this happens more in fiction than nonfiction writing, I have read examples in both situations where a writer has failed to include important information about their characters, the plot or even the settings of events. Because we see everything in our heads, because our thoughts move so quickly, we may not realize that we have failed to put this on the page.

When I write a line of dialogue for a character, for example, I hear the character’s voice in my head and I know his or her emotional state, so I hear the intonation that reflects that state.

On a good day, the same information is relayed in the words the character speaks and/or in the actions the character performs while saying those words. (On a really good day, the words spoken and the actions taken don’t exactly align, revealing subtext.)

As often as not, however, I threw down the first dialogue that came into my head or described a relatively generic action to get to the really cool moment a couple of pages from now.

Again, I heard the intonation. I know how the character is feeling. So, in my head, nothing is missing. Everything a reader needs to understand what is happening is found in the black letters that stripe the white screen or page.

 

Am I reading what you’re writing?

Your reader is not in your head, however. She doesn’t necessarily know how the character feels or where the story is going.

She will likely fill in those blanks with her best guess based on what she’s already read, and she might be right.

But if she’s not, if her assumptions are wrong, the moment of realization might be quite jarring, and she may have to drop back to re-read one or more passages to catch up to you.

NOTE: These moments are particularly noticeable if you have someone or a group do a cold-read of your work. The minute a reader starts the line “wrong”, you see (or hear) the potential train wreck ahead.

Any success you had in engrossing your reader and revealing your creative genius dissipates, and has to be newly won in the subsequent pages.

As the reader, if I need – or even just want – to know something to help me understand a character, relationship or scene, make sure I do. Make sure the idea or concept is on the page.

You ultimately cannot control what goes on inside the head of any reader, whether their personal perspectives or attitudes or what kind of day they’re having, but you can do as much as you can to get your idea, your story across with as few filters as possible.

You don’t necessarily have to do this with Draft One – anything you can do to ride the wave of enthusiasm and get Draft One completed takes priority.

But as you transition to Draft Two, Four or Eleven, look for opportunities to be clearer in your intent for your characters and your story.

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Aiming for clarity

How many ways could a given line or sentence be read?

Unless you’re purposefully pulling for subtext Nirvana, try to reduce that number, if for no other reason than the number in your head is probably three to five times lower than what it actually is.

Sometimes, clarity comes in the perfectly chosen word.

“Cameron put his glass down.”

“Cameron slammed his glass down.”

“Cameron let his glass drop.”

“The glass slipped from Cameron’s hand.”

Sometimes, clarity comes with more information/words.

“Cameron put his glass down.”

“Cameron gingerly nestled the glass into its condensation ring.”

“Avoiding a fist of broken glass, Cameron lowered his drink to the table.”

Yes, you run the risk of over-writing, and it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of writing travelogues rather than setting descriptions in early drafts.

I would argue, however, that it is better to cut back something over-written than omit vital information.

And yes, for genres such as thriller or horror, you may want to avoid providing too much information for fear of ruining the suspense.

I’ll talk more about genre another time, but in the interim will suggest that while you may wish to mislead your reader, you never want to lie to them, even by omission.

Once the final reveal is made, the reader should be able to go back and see all the connecting dots. Simply leaving out an important point is a cheat, from my perspective, especially if it prevents someone from making connections.

Misdirect, fine. Leave things open to interpretation, certainly. But never lie.

 

Seeing what’s not there

So, how do you know what you’ve inadvertently left off the page?

Time away helps.

Once that initial energy has dissipated, put the work away for a while. Clear your head by working on something else, and only then come back to it and see if it reads like you wrote it.

Alternatively, as suggested above, have someone (or some-many) read it aloud to you while you sit completely silent – not easy. You will hear every clunk and every reinterpretation of your intent.

And sometimes, you simply cannot see it, which is where people like me come in: experienced story analysts who know the standard or common issues that arise and can not only identify where they occur in your work, but also offer insights or possible fixes.

This is feedback at a higher level than editing – although many of us instinctively edit – and the best story analysts help you find your way of telling your story, not theirs.

Because the story analyst didn’t write your story, they’ll see the gaps or holes much faster and more clearly than you will, and will help you fill those gaps, ensuring that you have left it all on the page.

 

So, What’s Your Story is a story analysis service designed to help anyone tell their story better, whether fiction or nonfiction, long or short, written or verbal. Even if you’re just looking for a quick sense of how well you’ve told your story, we should talk.

NeoHuman podcast, starring me

Willis NeoHuman

My friend Agah Bahari is interested in everything, which is one of the things that I love about him.

Not that long ago, he decided to indulge his interests by starting something he calls the NeoHuman podcast (which matches nicely with his NeoHuman blog), inviting many of the interesting people he knows to discuss pretty much anything that comes up.

Well, seems he ran out of interesting people and so he invited me to participate…and we talked about anything: biotechnology, pharma, global healthcare, designer babies, creativity, writing, screenwriting, 9/11, marketing, and the novel he and I are writing about his life.

But my favourite part is the question he asks all his guest, which is roughly:

If you met an intelligent alien life-form, what would you describe as the greatest human accomplishment and as the worst human accomplishment?

Never boring, my friend Agah.

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(Photo stolen with love from Kelly Brienz Showker)

Call me disappointed – Review of In the Heart of the Sea

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Bluntly, In the Heart of the Sea was such a disappointing movie that I can’t even come up with a metaphor about a man driven mad by a desire for revenge against a ghostly leviathan. And that statement is made all the sadder by director Ron Howard’s attempt to do just that with almost every character in the movie.

For the under-informed, In the Heart of the Sea is the story of the writing of the novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville. It is also the story of the story that led to the writing of the novel Moby Dick. In short, the film occurs in two timelines that unto themselves cannot disguise the fact that neither plot line is satisfying.

Adding to this sense of disappointment is the fact that my friends and I saw the movie in 3-D IMAX, neither of which was needed to tell this narrative, which is surprising given the majestic concept of a whale attacking ships in the open ocean.

Even the actors couldn’t manage enough dimensions to be considered flat, let alone 3-D. Somehow, stalwarts like Brendan Gleeson, Ben Winshaw and Thor…I mean Chris Hemsworth…failed to bring life to this bilge water. Hell, even the great white sperm whale was unable to add excitement to this movie.

Moby Thor

If you want the experience I think Ron Howard was targeting, watch Apollo 13 and every time Tom Hanks appears on screen, imagine him in a cape with a Viking helmet. You’ll have a much more enjoyable experience.

As one of my friends suggested, it was as though Howard was going through a checklist of clichés.

Man vs. inner demons  √

Man vs. the elements  √

Man vs. society/class system  √

Man vs. nature/whale  √

Man vs. himself/his past  √

Unfortunately, Howard missed the most important one:

Man vs. coherent story with a point to make  X

Having read the novel Moby Dick and watched two film versions—Gregory Peck is a God—this version actually did damage to the franchise. It somehow took an exciting tale and examination of the destructive demons that possess us all, and turned it into a melodramatic soulless mess.

The only real positive that I can offer this film was that for all the time spent watching nothing happen, I never reached the bum-squirming phase where I positively itched to flee the theatre.

This was a Hollywood gimme, and yet somewhow they managed to blow it.

 

Other reviews:

Danny F. Santos (coming)

Less than a whale of a tale (Toronto Star)

It’s Man vs Leviathan (New York Times)

Chris Hemsworth Anchors a Whale of a Tale (Forbes)

Brain of a thousand voices

Hairy

Do you become the characters you write as you write them?

Please understand, I’m not asking if you’re writing a serial killer, do you go out and take a few lives in the neighbourhood simply to get in the right frame of mind (or at least, I’m not asking you to admit it here). Rather, do you inhabit the thoughts and moods of your characters as you type/write?

I’ve often wondered what it would look like if I video recorded me writing my screenplays or novels. Do my body language and facial features reflect the inner turmoil of my characters? I know my typing does.

If I am writing people who are angry, my poor keyboard takes an absolute pounding as I act out all of the aggression that’s flowing through my characters’ actions and words. Likewise, if I am creating a scene that starts slowly and then builds to a crescendo, I find the mood of the scene is reflected in the tarantella of my fingers across the keys.

I have also noted some physical cues. The more tense a scene, the more my jaws hurt from all that clenching. My libido shifts in a love scene (sorry if that is TMI). A smile lights my face in humourous scenes. And I have actually achieved tears in particularly emotional scenes.

For the moment, I will assume that I am just emotionally in tune with my characters, but I cannot yet rule out a slow nervous breakdown.

Thus, I would love to hear other writers’ experiences in this area.

Clean

NaNoWriMo words than I expected

81K

This year, I participated in my second NaNoWriMo (national novel writing month) competition, although the word competition is a bit of a misnomer but love-fest sounds a bit Sixties.

The last time, about three years ago, I got about a week into it before the realities of life interfered and everything stalled. This year was different.

While the realities of life have generally been pretty easy on me, I did have two solid weeks of distractions in the middle of November (yay, paying distractions) and still managed to reach the goal of 50,000 words by my birthday near the middle of the month (and while on the road).

Unfortunately, because I have never met a 50,000-word story that couldn’t actually be 200,000 words, I am not yet at the end of my story or my novel and so continued to type actively for most of the rest of the month to finish the competition/love-fest/creative circle-jerk just shy of 81,000 words.

I want to pat myself on the back for getting this far (and eventually, I will) but the problem is that having gotten this far, I want to reach the end of the novel, and so on December 1st, 2014, I begin what can best be described as Mo’NaNoWriMo.

And if I’m still not finished by New Year’s Eve, then I shall welcome in the New Year singing:

MoNaNo, MoNaNo, MoNaNo!

Thanks to all of my friends who have been so supportive throughout this process…especially those of you who have no idea what I am doing or why.

Let all y’all know how it goes!

Thera cover

 

Synopsis

At the height of its power, the Minoan civilization ruled the Mediterranean Sea, establishing trading colonies throughout the region and venturing into the dangerous waters of the Atlantic. But unknown to its rulers and priests, the Earth itself was planning an end to the empire; an end that centered on the tiny colony of Thera, the present-day island of Santorini.

The story Thera bears witness to this cataclysmic end through the eyes of a young Mycenaean boy Patroclus, taken from his simple village on the coast of Greece as unwilling tribute and slave into the Minoan court. Patroclus quickly learns the machinations that hold the Minoan world together, but just as he recognizes his opportunity for escape, his world is threatened by Nessa, his Minoan Master’s daughter who sees something special in him.

The clash of cultures takes second stage, however, as the world itself begins to change shape. Only Patroclus seems to be aware of the scale of the omens, adding urgency to his survival plans and conflict over how to deal with Nessa.

See also: Thera–Describing the end of a world

Thera – Describing the end of a world

Thera cover

To further stimulate progress on my NaNoWriMo project, I offer the opening to the novel Thera.

It is an idea that has been mulling around the back of my brain for more than a decade and I am so excited to finally get it out on paper (well, laptop screen).

Enjoy.

The stones barely moved as Patroclus’ sandals flew across their surface down the side of the mountain toward the sea. Every now and again, the root of a scrub bush or jagged edge of exposed slate would grasp for his ankle, seeking to do him harm, but Patroclus had travelled these paths too often to be felled so easily.

His earliest memories were of him escorting his father up the cliffs that bordered his home town, moving their small herd of goats to better grazing above the wave-ravaged shores. Now, at the ancient age of 15, the task was his alone, leaving his father to drag his younger brother Iolus out on their fishing boat.

For Patroclus, the slight of being relegated to goat sitter had been too much. Long had he wailed that anyone could herd these beasts up the trail. They’d done if for so long, he doubted not that they would do it instinctively if left to their own devices.

He should be at his father’s side, he moaned, using the strength of his sinewed back and arms to help draw the traps they set each day for lobster and crab, octopus and squid.

But wail as he might, he was a dutiful son and when his father insisted about the goats, Patroclus accepted the verdict, no matter how reluctantly.

If he could take some solace in his lot, it was that his daily banishment afforded him a spectacular view of his universe, the world unfolding itself before him like a vividly coloured ever-shifting map.

About a kilometer from his home, the grazing grounds his grandfather had discovered decades ago rose 400 meters above the mighty sea that defined one side of his village. The jewel had been discovered quite by accident when his grandfather went in search of an errant ram, and it remained their sole domain as it was too steep for any of the other farmers to willingly take.

Thus, the family goats grew large and contented on the virgin grazing, the trek ensuring that the succulent foliage became delicious muscle and not simply fat to be lost over roasting fires.

The constant trek did not just keep the herd in shape, however. Patroclus too had developed into a firmly shaped boy, well ahead of his age-mates in muscle tone and vigor. And in the few hours of relaxation, he had used that tone to achieve victory in several athletic games held in the region.

But even as his body developed in his trips too and from the mountain valley, so too did his mind grow rapidly in the many lonely hours spend listening to the steady chew of his cloven charges.

As his eyes took in the perpetual movement of the waves and clouds, he discerned patterns and periodicities that spoke of a larger fabric. And as the wild animals became accustomed to his docile presence, they allowed him to bear witness to their secret rites and rituals.

But more importantly, the cliff faces overlooking the sea hinted at a bigger world beyond his home. He would watch as ships would slowly rise from the waters in one area only to disappear beneath them again elsewhere, and yet at no point appearing to have foundered, crews toiling as though no emergency had taken place.

He also bore witness from his aerie to the town that sprawled beneath his feet, all but invisible from the ground; a loose congregation of buildings and fields that took geometric form when seen from aloft. And on the clearest days, he could follow the footpaths that spidered out from his town, connecting it to larger towns that tore holes in the distant forest canopy or filled crevices between mountains.

It was this universal certainty, however, that had him coursing down the mountainside, his footfalls oblivious to the sting of jagged stones, his horned minions long forgotten, left to fend for themselves.

Instead, his mind was filled with questions about the large fleet of ships that was escorting the town’s fishing vessels back to harbour, including the low-slung boat of his father.