What is Subtext?

Subtext, in writing, refers to the treasure that lies buried below the surface of a story — its inner meaning. If the “text” is concerned with surface detail — that which can be seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted, the “subtext” carries that which is implied, hinted at, or intuited through depth, subtlety, and resonance. Subtext, in the wider sense of the word, operates across different categories such as genre, symbolism, setting, character, vocation, and dialogue, since all are able to transmit hidden or interior meaning. In this post, we shall be focusing on subtext in dialogue.

Saying One Thing and Meaning Several

In dialogue, subtext arises whenever a character lies, hides something, seduces, plots, is merely polite, or is simply unaware of the deeper implications of what is being said. The common denominator is that additional information is presented in a subtle way. Inevitably, subtext acts as a kind of foreshadowing, awaiting for that aha-moment to reveal its true meaning (usually, around a turning point). In Basic Instinct, crime writer Catherine Trumell (Sharon Stone) is interrogated by detectives about the murder of Johnny Boz, a retired rock-star. Her subtext, which targets Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), bristles with veiled threats and sexual innuendo:

NICK: What’s your new book about?
CATHERINE: A Detective. He falls for the wrong woman.

The implication is that her new book is about her and Nick.

NICK: What happens to him?
CATHERINE: She kills him.

This contains a veiled threat and a warning, but also a lure in its hint of a possible sexual liaison (“He falls for the wrong woman”). Later in the interrogation:

NICK: You like playing games, don’t you?
CATHERINE: I have a degree in psych. It goes with the turf. Games are fun.

Catherine not only invites Nick to engage in a-cat-and-mouse game over who killed Johnny Boz, she also engages in a kind of foreplay prior to having sex. Because the audience, like Nick, is aware of the deeper meaning in this (Catherine is already a suspect), the dialogue serves to foreshadow the pay-off in which Catherine, after having made love to Nick, reaches for the murder weapon beneath her bed, only to hesitate and make love to him again, instead. The suggestion is that Nick too will be killed when she’s had her fill of him.


Subtext in dialogue occurs when characters hide something, lie, seduce, plot, are merely being polite, or are unaware of the deeper meaning of what is being said. Its function is to create depth and resonance in the story, as well as to serve foreshadowing.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, leave a comment and let’s get chatting on the subject.


Foreshadowing, in story-telling, is a technique used for creating mood, supporting plot, and deepening character. Robert McKee defines it as the purposeful arrangement of early events intended to prepare us for later ones. The use of foreshadowing is not just limited to events, actions, or dialogue, however. Every decision a writer makes regarding setting and genre also plays a role in setting up the context for conflict — the essence of story-telling — and is, therefore, a part of foreshadowing.

How the Inciting Incident Foreshadows the Obligatory Scene

Foreshadowing creates anticipation, either directly or indirectly, through character predictions, warnings, and new information, and, through setting. Shakespeare, for example, uses inclement weather, and bizarre occurrences (such as horses eating each other — Macbeth: Act 2, Scene 4), to ramp up anxiety and foreboding in his plays. While foreshadowing takes many forms, perhaps its most important function is to heighten the sense of impending crisis to be played out in the obligatory scene — the climactic moment in which the protagonist confronts and answers the chief dramatic question of the story: will the primary goal be achieved, despite setbacks and opposition? In the example below, we look at foreshadowing with specific reference to a story’s overall dramatic question.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

In Eternal Sunshine, Joel Barish (Jim Carey) learns that his ex-girlfriend, Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), has had her memory of their failed relationship erased through a new scientific process performed by Lucana Inc. Devastated, Joel decides to follow suit. While undergoing the procedure, however, he realises that he’s made a mistake. He attempts to hide memories of their relationship inside other more obscure ones, in order to preserve them, but ultimately fails. The story is an interwoven catalogue of Joel’s memories, wishes, fears, and influences stemming from the Lucana procedure, ending where it began — with Joel and Clementine running into each other again, as if by accident, destined to try again.

Foreshadowing and the Dramatic Question

The inciting incident, in which Joel learns that Clementine has had him erased from her memory, asks the question: how will Joel deal with the news? Prior to the story’s mid-point, Joel’s answer is to try and forget Clementine ever existed. This provides the dramatic context for the first half of the movie, allowing the scenes to rally around it. But this early version of the dramatic question also foreshadows the overarching question, which is answered only in the obligatory scene: will Joel and Clementine manage to get together again? Joel’s realisation, at the mid-point, that memories are precious, provides the context for the second half of the story. Seen in this light, foreshadowing is the pilot that keeps the story on track, endowing events with a sense of inevitability and truthfulness. In Eternal Sunshine, the suggestion is that love is transcendent — greater than the pain rooted in individual memories.

In Summary

Foreshadowing prepares us for the story climax and resolution. It takes its lead from the inciting incident and culminates in the obligatory scene. Used skillfully, foreshadowing helps to give cohesion and context to your stories by asking and answering the main dramatic question.

If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting on the subject.

The Second Turning Point in Your Story

In Making A Good Script Great, story consultant, Linda Seger, reminds us that in any screenplay comprising of three acts, the first act deals with the set-up of the story, the second with its development, and the third with its climax and resolution. Each act, therefore, has a different focus — a different job to do. This “chunking” of material into sections, is of course, not limited just to screenplays. Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle suggested that all stories comprise of three main sections – a beginning, middle, and end. This, in many ways, is the structural essence of any story. Much of the wisdom on structure by the so called manual writers such as Seger, can therefore be applied, with some modification, across a variety of writing platforms – the novel, the stage-play, and of course, the screenplay.

Turning Points as moments of Transition

The transition from one act to another is via an elevated action, or event, commonly referred to as a turning point, which usually involves the protagonist. Because the second act tends to be twice as long as the first or third acts, the former requires additional underpinning – the mid-point. In an earlier blog, I suggested that the first turning point represents the moment in which the story truly gets underway. The mid-point, by contrast, represents the protagonist’s “moment of grace”, a moment of insight in which he or she weighs up progress towards the goal against inner and outer resources. The second (and final) turning point occurs when the protagonist confronts another major obstacle, marshals all remaining assets, and pushes forward towards the goal in a do-or-die confrontation with the antagonist. As with the inciting incident and the first turning point, the relationship between the first and second turning points is one of magnitude and direction (see earlier blogs). During the first turning point, the protagonist identifies the goal and embarks on the journey to achieve it. But the task is not easy. Obstacles and problems abound. Some are unsolvable. The second turning point, therefore, readjusts the initial direction, refocuses the goal, and, in the light of new information, strengthens the protagonist’s resolve.

In the film Unforgiven, William Munny (Clint Eastwood), a ruthless killer in his youth, is a down-and-out pig farmer who can hardly shoot straight or stay on a saddle anymore. Because of his past reputation, he is approached by a young gun calling himself The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) to assist in killing two men for cutting up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey. Munny, in turn, solicits the help of his old friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), and together with The Schofield Kid, they set off to do the deed. Accepting the Kid’s offer is the first turning point. Ned’s decision to pull out of the deal is the mid-point because it offers Munny the opportunity to cancel the job at hand (which he refuses to do). The murder of Ned is the second turning point – Munny now has no choice but to take revenge on those who killed his friend. His goal, therefore, goes from killing the two men he was hired for, to killing everyone who participated in the death of Ned. Not even the saloon keeper, who allowed Ned’s body to be displayed outside his establishment, is spared. This precisely illustrates how the story goal can be refocused in the light of new information.

One Last Turn before the Climax

As with the first turning point, the second turning point achieves the following:

1. It spins the action in a new direction.
2. It revisits the central question of the story.
3. It elevates the stakes.
4. It sets up the next (and final) act.
5. It speeds up the action in the last act by tightening the protagonist’s goal around the looming confrontation with the antagonist.
6. It injects new information about the existing problem.
7. It leads directly to the story’s climax.

In Summary

The function of the second turning point is to inflect and refocus the story goal (initiated by the first turning point). Additionally it increases the stakes, pace, and tension, and leads directly to the final confrontation with the antagonist in the story’s climactic scene.

The Inciting Incident and the First Turning Point: what are they?

The first significant incident in any story (from a structural point of view), is the initial disturbance that sets everything in motion. In his book, Story, Robert McKee reminds us that this disturbance, usually referred to as the inciting incident (in relation to the main plot of your story), is an event that upsets the balance in the protagonist’s world. In seeking to restore the balance, he (or she) is forced to respond to the challenge, creating a domino effect, which culminates in the story’s first major turning point.

Magnitude and Direction

While the inciting incident and the first turning point are distinct entities, there exists a strong relationship between them — one of direction and magnitude, mediated by the injection of new information. The inciting incident is a result of the protagonist’s response to an outer (or inner) event, but the respose is either misdirected, or not strong enough to solve the problem or grasp the opportunity at hand. Indeed, the forces that have caused the disturbance, now regather to confront the protagonist more powerfully than before. In the light of additional information, this causes the protagonist to rethink the old goal, or to seek a new one. In this way, the story moves from lower to higher stakes to the first major turning point, the mid-point, the second turning point, and finally, on to the climax and resolution (the subjects of future blogs).

In The Matrix, for example, the inciting incident occurs when Neo meets Trinity in the club. Trinity surprises Neo by pinpointing the foremost question in his mind: what is the Matrix? This question is answered when Morpheus asks Neo to choose between the blue and red pills – essentially to choose between continuing to live a life of illusion or waking up to the truth in “the desert of the real”. Neo, of course, chooses the red pill. This choice/action bundle constitutes the first major turning point and leads directly to the end of the first act: Neo’s connection to the Matrix is broken and his body and mind are jettisoned into the real world. The question raised by the inciting incident – what is the Matrix – now becomes, how does Neo defeat the agent Smith and machines? These questions frame the dramatic context of future events and help to keep the story on track.

In Summary

The relationship between the inciting incident and the first tuning point is one of magnitude and direction. The inciting incident introduces the initial disturbance and asks an early version of the dramatic question, while the first turning point increases the stakes and reframes the question in the light of new information – a question answered only at the story’s climax and resolution. Mastering the use of these two important structural entities will help you launch your stories and keep them on track.

In Defense of Story-Structure

Some time back, I conducted a series of workshops on story-telling in Sydney and Brisbane, attended by aspiring writers — a cross-section of folks whose age ranged from late teens to late forties. Some were new to writing. Others had been writing for a while. During the introduction to the Brisbane classes, I mentioned that I’d be spending some time talking about story structure — that without a deep understanding of the functional and structural aspects of a story, one’s writing would be the poorer. This seems to have touched a nerve because someone in the audience objected to this statement. What about the intangible creativity, the ineffable inspiration that comes from the muse? What about the poetry? How can all this talk of turning points, inciting incidents, and mid-points, lead to good writing? Surely great writing comes from wisdom, empathy, and observation?

The simple answer is: of course it does. Certainly, without these qualities all the tinkering and fidgeting with structure is shallow, much like music is shallow without the emotional depth which grants it resonance. But if narrative content, guided by the sorts of qualities mentioned above, provides the raw material, structure provides the shape and the means of delivery. The point is surely that the muse and structure are not mutually exclusive.

As a young writer starting out at Elmo De Witt Films in South Africa in the ’90’s, I remember feeling uncomfortable at Elmo’s suggestion that I read Vladimir Propp, Joseph Campbell, Lagos Egri, and Syd Field on story structure. Surely, Elmo couldn’t have been implying that someone who had spent every free moment since childhood either writing stories or dreaming about them, and had graduated from the London International Film School with distinctions in writing and editing, needed to improve his writing skills? Surely my stories sprung perfectly formed from my brain, like lithe and nimble ninjas, ready to conquer the world? Wouldn’t all this left brain activity merely stifle the magical outpouring of an unfettered and spontaneous mind?

Such, at any rate, was the tenor of my argument against Elmo’s suggestion. Happily, it was an argument I lost thanks to the experienced director’s gentle persistence. Truthfully, I was lucky to have kept my job. Sadly, Elmo passed away in March this year, but his quiet wisdom lives on through the many South African actors, writers, and directors he helped to foster. I see now that my motives had sprung not only from a poor understanding of the many layers enfolded into the craft of writing, but from a deep-seated fear that if there was so much I hadn’t thought about, so much still to learn, I’d be better off denying its validity all together. Yet, if there was ever a definitive moment in which I become a writer, that must have been it.

My intention here isn’t to suggest that my personal journey is more meaningful than any other’s. Clearly, it isn’t. And certainly, there have been many writers who wrote superlative works without ever mentioning inciting incidents, turning-points, and mid-points. But even those great merchants of spontaneity and intuition, the great Romantics — Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, and Wordsworth — used verse, rhyme, and rhythm to give form to their poems. Besides, truly great writers are children of the gods with an indelible instinct for such things. I’m a lesser mortal. In an age of evolving social, technological, and scientific complexity, reflected in the equally complex stories we tell, I can ill-afford to ignore the rich vein of literature on the subject of story-structure. That’s my journey. Perhaps it’s yours too.

Where’s the Mid-Point in your Story?

In story-telling, as in so many things, the mid-point is a special moment in a journey – the moment in which one considers what has gone before and what is to follow. It is a moment of evaluation and of reflection. Have things gone according to plan? Do I continue on this path, turn back, or veer off in a different direction? Are my body and spirit up to meeting the challenges that lie ahead?

In my classes on screenwriting, I devote quite a bit of time to this structural gem. I’m in good company. Screenwriting gurus such as Syd Field, Robert Mackee, Michael Hague, Linda Seger, and Stanley D. Williams, likewise emphasize the importance of the mid-point within the overall story structure. Williams, in his book, The Moral Premise, refers to it as “the moment of grace”, the point in which the protagonist is given the opportunity to accept or reject an underlying truth about herself, and, therefore, to gain insight about her current predicament. Since action flows from a character’s psychological, spiritual, and emotional motivation, the mid-point lays the foundation for structuring the protagonist’s future actions, based on this moment of illumination.

Although the mid-point is one of many structural devices at our disposal (the inciting incident, the first and second turning points, and the climax, are others), I consider it especially important since it not only allows for the integration of the first and second parts of the outer journey, but also ties in the inner journey to the outer journey more tightly than would otherwise have been possible. I shall be discussing each separate strand in more detail in future blogs, but for the moment we are reminded that the inner journey describes a character’s beliefs, intentions and motivations — who the character is — while the outer journey describes action the character initiates in order to reach her goal, precisely because of who she is. In this sense, the outer journey is a metaphor for the inner one — the invisible life made visible.

The use of the mid-point in Braveheart

In the film Braveheart, for example, William Wallace, played by Mel Gibson, goes from a man who is willing to compromise liberty in order to raise a family and be allowed to farm in peace, to a man who embraces the challenge of winning Scotland’s freedom by leading his nation to war. The transforming event is arguably the moment in which Wallace is knighted. In accepting the knighthood (outer journey) Wallace reaffirms the traits of courage, self-sacrifice, and virtue (inner journey) that go with the role that was always inherent in him. The bestowing of the knighthood, which occurs half-way through the film, forms a link between the old and the new Wallace, and provides the dramatic context for the story in general.

Structuring the mid-point

In structuring your mid-point, begin by asking the following questions:

1. What does the protagonist not know about herself and her predicament before the “moment of grace”?
2. What incident/obstacle best allows for the moment of illumination to burst through?
3. Does the protagonist use this new insight to initiate new action that essentially differs from previous action?
4. Or, does the protagonist reject the moment — as in Tragedy?
5. Is the end of the story an inevitable consequence of actions flowing from the moment of illumination?

In Summary

A well constructed mid-point aligns your protagonist’s transformational arc to a significant outer event. As an inner journey mechanism, it is the moment in which the protagonist allows herself to grasp or let slip the opportunity for self-illumination. As a manifestation of the outer journey, it finds expression in a bold and significant act, which differs essentially from anything that has gone before. A masterful use of the mid-point in your stories will greatly improve the way your characters act and grow as they strive to achieve their goals. Enjoy the journey!

Five Ways to Increase Tension and Anticipation through Dialogue

Scarab, The Level, and how to harness the power of anticipation in dialogue.

As promised, here are some essential techniques for creating anticipation in your stories, culled from classes I teach on screenwriting. Although there are many more techniques for achieving this, I discuss five that I use over and over again in my own work, and in my novels such as Scarab and The Level: 1. Questions that are left hanging or are only partially answered. 2. Reputation that causes interest. 3. Countdown.  4. Warnings. and 5. Hope of possible escape out of a bad situation.

On The Level

In my previous novel, Scarab, I tapped into the prevailing mystery associated with the Sphinx of Giza in order to create an overall sense of anticipation and intrigue in the story. In my forthcoming novel, The Level, I create anticipation and anxiety by focusing on the ability of dialogue to increase tension.

In The Level, the protagonist, Sam Code, wakes up in a pitch-black room strapped to a chair. He can’t remember who he is or how he got here. A woman dressed in a black burka approaches him carrying a paraffin lamp and warns him that he needs to get out of his current predicament before the power comes back on. She also tells him that he has to get off the island where he is being held, before dawn, or he’ll be killed. The dialogue between them is cryptic, full of suspense, and keeps us guessing as to how it will all end. Here’s an excerpt from the second chapter:

“I can’t come with you. You do understand that?” she said.

“Why not?” Sam asked, somewhat taken aback.

She hesitated. “I’m sorry Sam. I can’t answer that question. But I can tell you there’s a generator that’ll start up in ten minutes. The power and lights will come on. You can’t be in this chair when that happens.”

“Just tell me what the hell’s going on!”

“What you need to know right now is that the power will stay on for an hour. You must find your way out of this facility before the lights go out again. There are many doors to many rooms. Many dead ends. And there are a lot of people with terrifying skills who’ll be looking for you. If they find you they will kill you. But if you manage to escape, head North. You’ll come to a small harbor about a day’s walk from here. There’ll be a boat. Get on it and leave this island. What happens after that depends on you.”

“Why? Why would anyone want to kill me? What’s so special about me?” Sam sounded more anxious than ever.

“The truth is that you are very special Sam,” she said. “You just don’t realize it yet.”

“Then explain it to me,” he pleaded.

Ashanti hesitated yet again, as if weighing up the reasons for keeping the information from him against the consequences to herself for telling him.
“You have something they want,” she said at last.

“What?” Sam pressed her.

“A key.”

“A key to what?”

“A key to a very special door.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You will.” Ashanti leant over and kissed him on the cheek.

Creating Anticipation through Dialogue

Here’s how each technique works:

1. Questions that are left hanging or are only partially answered: Almost everything that Sam asks Ashanti is only partially answered or sidetracked: “I can’t answer that question”, or, “You have something they want”. This causes Sam to exclaim, “I don’t understand”. Unanswered questions create a sense of intrigue and anxiety in the reader. We, like Sam, want answers to these questions, and so we keep reading in an effort to find them.

2. Reputation that causes interest: “And there are a lot of people with terrifying skills who will be looking for you.” This causes us to worry about Sam and wonder about the sorts of skills his hunters possess.

3. Countdown: “But I can tell you there’s a generator that’ll start up in ten minutes. The power and lights will come on. You can’t be in this chair when it does.” This sets up a time limit during which something has to happen. Although we don’t know the details, we believe Sam to be in imminent danger.

4. Warnings: “If they find you they will kill you”. We are left in no doubt as to the outcome, and because we like Sam, we worry about him and keep turning the pages to see if he’ll survive.

5. Hope of possible escape from a bad situation: “But if you manage to escape, head North. You’ll come to a small harbor about a day’s walk from here. There’ll be a boat. Get on it and leave this island.” The search for the answer to this question drives the entire story. Will Sam manage to get to the boat and escape from the island or will he be found and be killed?

In Conclusion

These, then, are five simple but powerful techniques for injecting anticipation into your dialogue, changing otherwise static scenes into exciting page turners. If you’ve enjoyed this article, and have any questions or requests that you wish to be covered in a future blog, please leave a comment by clicking on the “comment” text at the end of this or any other entry, and let’s get chatting!

The Craft of Dialogue

In this series of articles I’ll be exploring some essential writing techniques that I’ve garnered over the years. Some, have migrated over from screenwriting, but they are applicable, with a little modification, to the novel or short story.

Today’s topic is how to add resonance and depth to your story through metaphor in dialogue.

In film, as in the novel, dialogue provides a plethora of opportunities for hooking the reader into the story early, developing character, and developing plot. One of the ways to deepen the reading experience, to create a sense of resonance in your writing, is through the use of metaphor. Metaphors may appear in several forms – as visual, olfactory, and auditory objects. In this blog we shall be touching on their use in dialogue.

Make Metaphors Unobtrusive

The first thing to say is that a metaphor shouldn’t draw attention to itself as a literary device, since that would snap your reader out of the immersive experience you are trying to create. What it should do, other than embellish character, is quietly seed or explain some previous and/or future moment in your story. This could take the form of foreshadowing the “reveal” — the moment in which some previously unexplained or hidden motive or event is shown for what it truly is. Structuring reveals is an indispensable part of creating momentum in your stories, but that is the subject of a future blog.

Allow Metaphors to Stitch your Story Together

The cardinal rule in writing is, as we’ve often heard,  “show, don’t tell.” I would rephrase this to read: in showing, rather than telling, it is preferable to reveal the hidden truth in your story in a measured and purposeful way — in the case of dialogue, through a series of related but widely interspersed metaphors. Dialogue is a prime candidate for metaphor since, metaphor, by its very nature, carries more meaning than ordinary language. Additionally, metaphor in dialogue is less obtrusive than in a descriptive block, since it can fly under the radar as part of a character’s speech idiom. Metaphors, once fully unpacked by the reader or audience, act as invisible threads, stitching your characters and story together into a seamless whole.

Metaphors in Chinatown

There is a wonderful bit of dialogue in Chinatown between Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) in which Gittes notices a black spot in the green part of Evelyn’s eye, prompting her to remark, “Oh, that…it’s a flaw in the iris…”. This admission of a flaw, of course, is about much more than the structure of her iris. Like a fracture in a beautiful diamond, Evelyn’s secret is not visible at first glance. The idea of a flawed diamond with its added capacity for diverting light fits snugly into the idea of flawed moral and physical perception. It points to how easy it is to miss the truth even when it is in plain sight; how easy it is to camouflage from one’s self, and others, a shameful secret in one’s life.

Yet, the “flaw” as a metaphor for imperfection or sin, which may lie at the heart of the beautiful and the rich, also points at the heart of the plot. In Chinatown, it finds expression in one of the greatest lines in movie history, when Evelyn admits to Gittes that Katherine is both her sister and her daughter. This is something that we have failed to spot, just as Gittes failed to see that the gardener’s remark to him earlier — “Bad for glass” — was not referring to the broken eyeglasses at the bottom of the pond at the Mulwray home, but to the fact that saltwater is bad for the lawn. Had Jake allowed for the Chinese tendency (a linguistic flaw?) to pronounce “l” for “r” — “glass” instead of “grass” — he might have understood that Hollis Mulwray, Noah Cross’ former partner, had been drowned in this very pond, at the bequest of Cross, and his body dumped near a storm-drain pipe to make it look like an accident. It is only when the characters and the audience come to see the truth for what it really is (Gittes “seeing” that Noah Cross has instigated the murder and that he has fathered Katherine by sleeping with his own daughter, Evelyn), that the story can reach its dark and somber conclusion: that the rich and powerful are forever hidden from the law’s ability to bring them to justice.

In Summary

Strategically placed metaphors add depth and resonance to your story, yet should never draw attention to themselves as literary devices. In Chinatown, the failure to see the truth is hinted at through metaphorical objects such as cracked eyeglasses, a flawed iris, as well as in dialogue – in Evelyn’s mentioning of the flaw in her eye, and in Gittes mistaking “grass” for “glass”. As metaphors, they seed and explain actions and events as part of a well-structured reveal. Used well, metaphors enrich character and help stitch the various parts of a story into a seamless whole.

In my next blog, I will be discussing the many ways in which dialogue can help to build anticipation and tension.

See you then!

Why Stephen Hawking is not the only reason I write science fiction

This is a blog writ­ten by a writer, but it isn’t aimed only at writ­ers. It is aimed at those who have cher­ished dreams, felt awe at the achieve­ments of oth­ers, yet never got around to doing any­thing about it them­selves: Too many respon­si­bil­i­ties. Never enough time. Too much self-doubt. Sounds famil­iar? It should. This blog, then, is really about you and me and the inspi­ra­tion which makes any achieve­ment pos­si­ble.

For a while, I con­sid­ered mak­ing Stephen Hawk­ing the main focus of this sub­ject. After all, my novel, Scarab, draws its moti­va­tion from quan­tum physics, an area that Stephen Hawk­ing has writ­ten exten­sively about. In many ways, Hawk­ing per­son­i­fies the best in all of us — for­mi­da­ble courage in the face of debil­i­tat­ing ill­ness, high-octane bril­liance, and an insa­tiable sense of humor. His work on astron­omy and black holes is a source of inspi­ra­tion to sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers every­where. Surely, the great­est mind since Ein­stein would offer the best back­drop to any rumi­na­tion about sci­ence, art, and the imag­i­na­tion? Per­haps. But it would not be com­pletely hon­est. There is another man, not as bril­liant, nor as famous, who inspires me even more. That man is my father.

As a small boy grow­ing up in Athens, I loved sto­ries – Twenty Thou­sand Leagues Under the Sea, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Moby Dick, Alice in Won­der­land, The Time Machine. My par­ents would take turns recount­ing these tales to me from mem­ory, since we had no easy access to books. We were des­per­ately poor. I’m told that we had fled Egypt years pre­vi­ously with only the clothes on our backs — in my case, a nappy, since I was barely a year old at the time. Greece, then, as now, was in the midst of a sus­tained eco­nomic cri­sis. My father was a skilled fitter-and-turner, and often worked three dif­fer­ent jobs a day to make ends meet, yet, he barely man­aged to put enough food on the table. There was cer­tainly no extra money for books. But that did not stop me from mak­ing up my own sto­ries.

My favorite topic was outer space. Russia’s Yuri Gagarin had been the first man to orbit the earth a few years pre­vi­ously, and that left a last­ing impres­sion on every­one. In response, Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy announced that Amer­ica would land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and got busy get­ting it done. Maybe it was because the space pro­gram kept our chins up by forc­ing our gaze sky­wards; maybe it was because it touched the inef­fa­ble in us; what­ever rea­son, we couldn’t not stop talk­ing about it. We talked about it at the gro­cery store, the bus stop, the church, and at school; and, of course, we talked about it around our Spar­tan din­ner table. What keeps the moon up, I wanted to know. What lies beyond the edge of the uni­verse, my mother would ask and dunk another ladle of hot lentil soup into my bowl. And my father would glance up at the ceil­ing and laugh in awe of it all.

He had a small lathe and some old tools in one of the rooms of our small house that he used to make shafts and pis­tons for clients for a bit of extra money. One day he decided that he’d make amends for my lack of books. He mounted some rods left over from past jobs into his lathe and, like a magi­cian, pro­ceeded to turn them into mag­nif­i­cent toy rock­ets. He painted them red, yel­low, sil­ver and blue with old paint he had mixed him­self, left them to dry, and then sur­prised me with them the fol­low­ing day. It was the best gift any­one had ever given me, then, or since, and some­thing I have never for­got­ten. I picked them up in awe and won­der and took to rac­ing through our tiny house and even tinier gar­den with a rocket in each hand, try­ing not to bump into things, but really, I was trans­vers­ing the stars.

Recently, my father turned 82. He now lives in South Africa with my mother. I live in Aus­tralia. My sis­ter, born ten years after me, lives an hour’s drive from them. Father still runs his own busi­ness and still works with lathes and tools, although the lathe is now called a CNC machine and the tools are best and lat­est of their kind. A man of small stature and lit­tle for­mal edu­ca­tion, he ban­ished self-doubt, made the time, found the inspi­ra­tion, and relent­lessly set about achiev­ing every goal he ever set his mind to. How can I do any less?

Decid­ing to take the Indie route to pub­lish­ing, dar­ing to imag­ine a time when our hobby is our full time job is daunt­ing. Some­times the fuel runs low and inspi­ra­tion wanes. But as I amble towards my key­board to begin work­ing on my next novel since Scarab, I can’t help think­ing about my father, Gagarin, J.F.K., Hawk­ing, and those red, yel­low, sil­ver, and blue toy rock­ets that started it all. And this fills me with a quiet confidence.