I concluded my essay on Aspects of a Novel, published to paid subscribers a couple of months ago, with a diagram modeling the two journeys a character must face in a story. On the one hand is the outer journey, that is, those things dealing with plot, external conflicts and the physical challenges characters must overcome in order to achieve whatever it is they want. This want makes up the second, inner journey. It’s the thing characters long for or need in the story.
Normally, my On Writing essays are behind a pay-wall, but I’m not happy with the infrequency of publishing new chapters of The Dead Lion so I thought it would be a good time to talk about these two journeys and at the same time bring everyone back up to speed on what has transpired so far in the story. If anyone feels inspired afterwards to upgrade to a paid subscription, well thank you. Here’s a free 30 day trial to test it out.
If you’re not interested in any of this extra stuff, no worries. Just click the button below to be taken straight to the next chapter in the series.
Also, I've not dropped just one but a total of four new chapters. Feel free to share any notes you might have on them or thoughts on the essay below. Any and all suggestions, comments, and feedback is very much welcome! For easier (to me) reading, download a full pdf of our chapters up to this point by clicking the button below.
First, before we get into the particulars, let’s talk briefly about the setup, which provides a glimpse into who the characters are and the kind of lives they’ve living:
Since the novel began with Edith, let’s start with her situation:
––Edith is juggling her role as a teacher and single mother living in her father’s home on the family farm. The opening funeral shows she has lost someone very close to her and what follows indicates her days are plagued with worry—the orchard, her father, her own as well as John David’s welfare. What you might not yet understand is that her worldview has been shaped by the loss of her mother and the ensuing belief that she alone is responsible for the happiness of others (maybe her controlling nature points to this). She has learned to do everything on her own by mimicking her dead mother’s resilience, courage and grace and fears letting that legacy down.
That feels like a lot, I know, and maybe I’m asking you to read more into the book than what I’ve actually shown so far, but that’s novel writing. The hardest part is trying to figure out what to leave in and what to leave out in hopes of not swinging too far either way. Anyway, I hope her start is as engaging, if not more, than John David’s:
––Of all the grim journeys a soldier must face, none may be more daunting and unpredictable than returning home from war, where death and violence coalesce in the cohesive, intimate bonds shared with his fellow soldiers. If accompanied by great personal loss, the tension, anxiety and uncertainty of survival never give way completely to normalcy. Anger, alienation, and feelings of helplessness remain.
This is the emotional terrain enveloping John David as he rages against the sudden death of his pregnant wife and at the same time the paralyzing loss of unity, shared fate and purpose he found in the war and proposes (I hope) the major dramatic question of whether or not he will be able to let go of his anger, accept his wife’s death, and move on with his life.
Concluding the setup, I should add that everything in the novel is told in third person dramatic point of view with the exception of short excerpts featuring personal, documentary-styled, interviews—think: The Office, Modern Family, conducted (you may have guessed) by a journalist doing a film documentary on stress-related illness. I like these and the reason I like them is that the dialogue they provide helps shape, add to and exacerbate John David’s state of being and the crisis in him unfolding.
THE OUTER JOURNEY
On our handy diagram, we’re still in the throws of Act One. The Setup is stage 1 of the Outer Journey. Here, our heroes are not trying to change their lives yet. They're just cruising along, with John David wishing he could disappear, and Edith wanting to fulfill her role as a matriarch and save her family, the orchard, and John David. What’s needed is something to move them in a different direction. For Edith, it’s the banks and the threat of her father selling the farm, as well as having lost complete touch with her brother. For him, it means loosing his request for a discharge, so that he can do follow his grief in whatever direction it leads.
So far we’ve seen him:
- Get rid of all his belongings and move into a hotel
- Short change therapy and refuse the counseling that might help him
- React with anger and sudden outbursts
- Which causes him to loose the one talisman his wife left him, little dog
John David is trapped, in fact, in a cycle of fear, rage, exhaustion and depression that will only get worse if he doesn’t get him. It may get worse (hint, hint) anyway.
Edith’s situation is different, but just as all-encompassing:
- She’s struggling with her father and his bullheadedness
- Her grief-stricken brother is 100% ghosting her
- The farm is about to fall out of her family’s hands because of money
- And she feels she is the only one who can fix any of it
THE INNER JOURNEY
We all know our true selves are not made of only what is happening in the present but shaped by things in the past, which begs a few pertinent questions:
What is the one thing our protagonist long for or need in the story? This we’ve already answered: John David wants to disappear and Edith wants to be in charge and save both John David and the family farm.
What is a past wound or hurt that is a current unhealed source of pain? In John David’s case, this might not be obvious, but had he simply left the Army—why so many war time deployments?—Catherine and his child might still be alive. Edith’s wound, which she would not even call a wound, was becoming pregnant at seventeen, and taken the opportunity to venture out on her own. Adding to this is the absence of her own mother.
How has this wound shaped the character’s worldview? Great question. John David feels he is to blame for Catherine’s death and because of his guilt is unworthy of happiness. Edith, alone, is responsible for the happiness of those closest to her, a role her mother had once assumed.
What are the stakes if that character experiences some version of that wound and pain again? John David is clearly not in any state of being to have others rely upon him. The stakes he faces by letting go of his anger, allow grief to run its course, the people he cares most about will end up getting hurt on account of him, re-affirming his feeling of worthlessness. Edith is afraid of losing everything. She tries very hard to mimic her late mother’s resilience, courage and grace. She is her mother’s legacy and failing in her appointed role as the family matriarch is not an option. Letting them down is her greatest fear. What’s at stake for her is that she may lose both, proving that she is an incapable mother.
There are more questions on the inner journey I could go into here, but I feel this is a good place to stop as it’s provided you a bit of a rundown of where we are in the novel. The turning point, sometimes called an activating incident, has happened for both John David and Edith, and while I could go into more about Harlan Rook and his world, I feel the best thing to do at this point is to continue with the novel and see if and where what happens next will bring about a better, or worse, situation for John David and Edith.
Thanks for reading. If you have any questions or are scratching her head in confusion by this summary, please let me know. If you aren't a paid subscriber to The Revelate use the button below to unlock 30 days of free access to the full archive, including more of On Writing, as well as This is a Mistake, our monthly catch-all of the trials, errors and revelations of an American expat moving abroad to Sicily, Italy.
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