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Ultimate Bot Tournament #4: Afterword

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You don't want to read this until you've read the full transcript of UBT #4. Just trust me on this one.

Conceiving the Murder Mystery Plot

I started thinking about UBT #4 very soon after UBT #3 ended. I knew, from even before UBT #3 ended, that if I tried to repeat that success, I would fail. The story of Ricardo and Brianna worked because it was unexpected (to myself as much as anybody), and I had mined all the comic ideas and surprise cameos and nuggets of RinkWorks culture that I could think of. If I tried to do another story like that one, I'd lack both the novelty and the best jokes. But I loved the experience so much, and I wanted to think of something I could do that would tap into my joy of storytelling in the same way but otherwise be a very different kind of thing.

I had the idea of a murder mystery as far back as October 2007. I could model it after Agatha Christie's wonderful story, And Then There Were None, wherein ten characters are stranded on an island and murdered, one by one. (For those who liked the UBT #4 story, I highly recommend either reading the Christie novel, or checking out the wonderful 1945 film version by the same name. Other film versions exist under the name Ten Little Indians, one good, a few bad, all inferior.) HotOrNotBot characters would audition for the roles, players would vote on who would die next, and the task of pulling all that into a cohesive improvised story would be my job.

I can't tell you how intimidating it was. I had just enough confidence in myself to know I could do it, and just little enough that I couldn't possibly see how. I tried to think up characters and scenarios I might use, but nothing stuck in my head. Inspiration, as it is said, visits during, not before, the creative process. I think the one and only idea I had in advance is that two people would come to the island and be secretly working together to do something. The idea was exactly as vague as that -- I just couldn't get any further with it. Which is just as well, since the story was supposed to be improvised, and this was still months ahead of time. But not being able to think up any possibilities ahead of time made the challenge all the scarier.

But I couldn't let go of the idea, and so when it became time for UBT #4, which I had been eagerly awaiting all that time, I committed myself to it. I cautioned people not to expect a repeat of UBT #3, that it wasn't going to be as good, that it was going to be different, and so on. As it turned out, I wound up loving UBT #4 even more, for reasons I'll get into later.

Assembling the Characters

The first session was easy, as the only preparation I needed was to assemble a bunch of characters that would be auditioned and prepare to make wisecracks with them. At the end of the evening, I'd pick "five or six" characters from the top and bottom of the results to be the male characters in the story. I was still saying "five or six" even after the male auditions were over. Six males and six females would have given me more to work with. I was less likely to have to discard an idea because I didn't have a character for it. On the other hand, five of each would leave me with three characters alive for the final chapter, which felt about right. But for some reason I was thinking I'd be more comfortable with more breathing room. Ultimately, though, I realized that I had to come up with identities and personalities and motives for every character I used, and a better story would result if I could condense my plot ideas (not that I particularly had any at this point) into fewer characters.

But who would these characters be? I suspected at the outset that people would be apt to choose the most interesting character portraits. People that were doing weird things or had weird expressions or outrageous personalities. With this in mind, I avoided putting into contention many HotOrNotBot images that were funny but would have made terrible characters. I didn't want characters doing specific things, or posed in specific ways. A screaming woman aiming a gun sounds like it would have had potential in a murder mystery, but what can you do with a screaming woman with a gun? Just one thing: have her screaming as she aims a gun. I could have worked around one or two characters like that, but a whole batch would have been a nightmare.

So I greatly preferred nice generic portraits that allowed me to infuse my own personality ideas into them. And for the most part, that's what I got. The two characters I wasn't happy about having were Tyler and Camille. I couldn't imagine what I could do with a guy holding an apple and a woman falling over on the beach. They weren't as bad as some that I could have been stuck with, but they were limiting all the same. And as the story turned out, these two characters did indeed wind up being caricatures rather than characters. But I got to use Tyler's apple, and I managed to give Camille an element of depth, so it all worked out in the end. Erasing the beach background from Camille's picture helped me out a lot.

Tyler's apple, by the way, got used the way I would have used the guy with the giant scissors, if he had been chosen. I was thinking, while the auditions were underway, that if the scissors guy got picked, I could have a murder where someone is stabbed with a pair of scissors, and the scissors guy doesn't have his scissors anymore. That's essentially how Tyler and his apple played out.

Chapter 1: Introducing Cody and Jay

The first real challenge, which absolutely overwhelmed me, was introducing ten characters all at once with some kind of comprehensible narrative, when not even I knew who the characters were yet. How could I commit myself to a set of personalities and relationships when I had no idea what I'd be doing with any of them?

My solution of breaking up the arrival of the characters only made sense. So, right after the male auditions were finished, I started working on the story for the first chapter, which would introduce two of the male characters immediately after the female auditions. If I established them as characters straight away, there would be less narrative work to do next time.

Cody and Jay were the winner and loser, respectively, of the male auditions. I started writing for them. I hadn't even decided who the other male characters would be, but I began formulating the first chapter all the same.

I had two primary goals for the first chapter. The most important goal was to introduce the island itself. I couldn't possibly have had ten unknown characters wandering around an unknown island and established a sense of geography. But if a couple characters showed up and go exploring, or better yet if one character got shown around by another, I could give people the lay of the land and introduce two of the characters.

My second goal was to erase the creepy lecher image I had given Jay during the auditions. It was funny at the time, but it was a joke that had exhausted itself before the story even started. So I worked extra hard to turn Jay completely around and give him a more respectable, even noble personality. Reinvented in that way, he'd be perfect for the servant who would conduct the tour of the island. I still had no idea what he was doing there, but that didn't matter. That was a problem for later.

I also didn't know what Cody was doing there. I contrived an unlikely explanation for why this teenager had just shown up alone to an island he'd never been to. I was aware at the time that I was committing myself to working a "Mr. Spilk" into the story somehow, but I was thinking that Cody's interpretation of the letter was legitimate, and the only mystery would be in figuring out why Cody had been lured there in the first place. I'm glad I was able to rework all that, because Cody's story about why he went to the island was not good at all.

Anyway, it should come as no surprise to anyone that within the month or so previous I watched all four Karate Kid movies. As soon as I figured out that Mr. Miyagi was who I wanted Jay to be, the whole relationship between the two of them clicked into place, and I went with it. I made Jay Nepalese, just because that seemed interesting to me, and I did some research into Nepalese names, picking one that sounded good and meant something I could use later. So I looked for a name that had something to do with life or death and found "Mrityunjay," meaning "one who defeats death." I didn't know how I'd use it yet. If Jay wound up surviving the story, I could reveal the meaning of his name and look prescient for predicting his survival way back in the beginning. Or, I could use it in a tender death scene -- either Jay's or Cody's -- wherein Jay bemoans the uselessness of his name, unable as he is to save either himself or Cody from death.

As things worked out, I was too good at reinventing Jay into a noble character. Everybody loved him. And as things wore on, that became a problem for me, because I soon discovered there wasn't anything more I could do with the character. Ultimately, that's why he and all the other characters, both those voted dead and those I killed myself, died. The characters die when their stories end. There's really no other way to do it. For Jay to have survived, he'd have had to linger around in the background, not really doing much of anything but continue to say wise things. That's not where the drama was. More on Jay later.

As for Cody, I was shaping him up as a hero of sorts. I figured he'd hook up with one of the female characters (whoever they were) and play a major role in solving the crime. I couldn't resist making him 15 years old, just for the sheer malicious glee of watching the howls of agony from his very vocal fans. We now know he was older than that, but at the time I was sincere about his age. (Frankly, the only reason I ultimately made him 18 was to elicit another big response, but I'm getting ahead of myself.)

As for the island, I picked out a bunch of different locations that looked like they had potential and ran with them. I got the prettiest outdoor views and most luxurious indoor views I could find that suited my purpose. Although I never used the dining room, breakfast room, or secret passage in the first chapter, I had those images picked out already. The breakfast room, honestly, I only used because I was looking for a good formal dining room, found that first, and liked it.

The cliff was an obvious setting, as there's a lot you can do with a cliff in a murder mystery. Even if I didn't do anything with the cliff, just having it there would ratchet up the tension. But of course I knew somebody was going to have to take a dive off it sooner or later.

That didn't, however, occur in the way I thought it would. One of my early ideas for a murder was somebody mistakenly murdering the wrong person. In the evening, somebody would say he's going to go up to the cliff. He goes. Meanwhile, character #2 has private business with character #1 and sneaks up to the cliff to talk about it. They talk about it. Character #1 leaves. Character #3 shows up, mistakes #2 for #1 in the dark, and pushes him over the cliff.

This scenario would have lent itself to some wonderful sleuthing. "Why was #2 killed?" would have led people down all the wrong deductive paths. #1 would be the obvious and incorrect suspect, as everybody knew he was up at the cliff at the time. Then, provided #1 got voted dead while #3 was still around, the solution would simply have been that #3 corrected his mistake. But I never managed to find myself in a place where the story could fit these mechanics.

Voting For Victim #1

The slate was nearly clean for the first voting round. Only Cody and Jay had been introduced as characters, and that gave them both a leg up. Otherwise, it was looks alone that people voted on. The slate was clean on my side of things, too. I didn't yet know who any of these people were. I didn't even know their names.

It was pretty obvious, though, that the first victim would be one of the characters that would become Ramona and Genevieve. Jay would have been on the chopping block too, except that I'd already made him a likeable character. So when Genevieve became the first to go, I was not surprised. But I was a little surprised about where the other votes went.

Genevieve4asterismW, Crystal109, LaZorra, Nyperold
Tyler310Kan, Randy, TalkingDog
Buck2DemanusFlint, Eric
Cody2iwpg, Kysle

Cody5asterismW, Crystal109, DemanusFlint, Kalimeris, TalkingDog
Camille2Kysle, Nyperold
Jay210Kan, LaZorra
Julie2iwpg, Randy

Right away, I spotted a trend that would persist through the first three rounds of voting. With very few exceptions -- just one, in this case -- people voted for a member of the same sex to die. With a lot more exceptions, the converse was true of the "save" voting. I worried that this would mean that one sex or the other would die out. Genevieve being the first victim meant that, in the following round, the girls would be distributing their votes across a smaller number of characters, while the guys would still be voting for all five guys. If a second female character kicked it the next time, all of the women would be doomed.

Fortunately, that didn't happen. Tyler was next, evening the scales, and the trend eventually broke down anyway, as the pictures evolved into characters.

Chapter 2: Introducing Hayley and Ramona

Chapter 1 closed with the helicopter pilot saying, "You two ok back there?" At the time I wrote the line, I didn't even know who these characters might be, let alone who they were, as I hadn't decided on the female characters yet. But I knew I would be following up in some way on my early idea about a couple of characters secretly working together.

There was another factor at play. I needed a couple characters who actually knew each other prior to arriving on the island. I quickly realized that setting a murder mystery on an island with strangers was going to be very difficult. Motives for murder are much easier to contrive between people with long histories together. Two guys jealous over a woman. A disinherited son. Blackmail. Revenge. Etc, etc. I couldn't use any of these motives if all ten characters were total strangers. But it was more than that. Without any past relationships between the characters, there was a lot less potential for a story even without the murders.

So I knew I had to try to bring in some characters with histories with each other, and I knew I wanted at least one pair of characters that knew each other but didn't let on. I also knew I wanted a couple characters that weren't supposed to be on the island, although at that point I didn't know what I would make of that. I just wanted to create some potential for the story by working in all these different kinds of ideas and agendas.

Finally I concluded that the people in the helicopter were one character who was in trouble and another character who was coming along to help out. At first, I figured it would be a man and a woman. I considered different kinds of male/female pairings, but none of them worked. If they were in a romance together, what fun would it be for everybody to know that ahead of time? If they weren't, nevertheless they knew each other and nobody (in the story or reading the story) would be terribly surprised to discover the secret romance. Maybe they should be brother and sister, then? Nah, without proof of their siblinghood, people would be expecting the twist that they're not brother and sister after all -- and whether they were right or wrong, it was uninteresting either way. None of these ideas seemed to have any dramatic potential to them. But once I settled on the idea of sisters, it blossomed in my head. And who were the two sisters? At that point it was obvious I had to pick the two most opposite female characters, just because I could.

That relationship came alive for me so wonderfully. My train of thought continued: If one of them was in trouble, which one would it be? Ramona, obviously, and not only is she in trouble, she's not taking it seriously. Hayley, prim and well-adjusted, would. But she doesn't exactly look strong or deceptive, so how much would she be able to help?

This was about as far as I had thought it through. I didn't know what trouble Ramona was in. I didn't know why Hayley was posing as Katie, or why the jig would be up if the ruse was discovered. All I cared about was that it made an interesting scene and was something I could work with later.

I also didn't know Ramona would survive more than a couple more sessions on the island. Ramona's character early on is the classic murder victim. She's abrasive and unlikeable, insults everybody, and generally creates an atmosphere where anybody could have a motive to kill her. I figured a character with her appearance would be an obvious target, and so I set her up to be an early victim. Hayley (whom, I admit, I hoped would survive to the end) would then attempt to solve the murder of her sister.

So Hayley and Ramona show up on the island. At this point I needed to do something with Cody, having set his character up earlier, and why did I bother to talk about his shyness around girls if it wasn't to follow that up when the girls actually arrived? So I figured Jay should encourage Cody to talk to one of them, and obviously he had to chase after the wrong one.

I almost wrote myself into an inconsistency here. At the end of chapter 1, Cody says he'll accompany Jay to the helicopter, and when the helicopter lands, Cody is nowhere to be seen. Jay's mortifying line, saying Cody was shy and hid in the bushes, was a hit...and a total accident. That was really just me covering up an inconsistency that had creeped into the story.

And then something happened that I totally wasn't prepared for. Cody's popularity, seemingly unstoppable in chapter 1, practically disappeared. Somebody called him a wet blanket. Why? I have no idea whatsoever. Previously, his shyness was endearing. Here, he overcomes his shyness, talks to a girl, and is unhappy that she is cruel to him. He overcomes additional inhibitions to stand up for himself. In my own estimation, Cody handles himself admirably here, with the exception of chasing after Ramona in the first place, but hey. Why that resulted in the (temporary, in turned out) abandonment of his admirers is beyond me.

In part, I was relieved that the screaming Cody fandom was lightening up, because I would have found that difficult to play against over the long haul. But I was also disappointed and wondering what the heck I'd done wrong, because I was trying, at that point, to maintain his charm. (Later, his charm got restored on its own and was subsequently unfazed by the revelation that Cody is actually a reprehensible person, which was ten times as perplexing. Girls are weird.)

On Ramona's side of things, I was continuing to set her up as the classic murder mystery victim, but I couldn't resist making her a little more interesting and complicated than that by having her doing everything she can to save him from falling off the cliff. Plus, hey, funny scene.

Chapter 2: Introducing Matt, Camille, Tyler, and Genevieve

Meanwhile, I had a secret relationship to set up. Once I had Hayley and Ramona figured out, it made sense to me that Hayley had a secret relationship with someone else who was coming to the island uninvited. This was Matt, of course, travelling separately to preserve the ruse. Although I didn't know the details of why they were pretending not to know each other, it wasn't a stretch to go from Ramona knowing she's in trouble and being watched to having someone else secretly watching out for her. A private detective, probably. A private detective would do that sort of thing, and he'd know how, too.

So now I had the beginnings of five out of the ten characters. Now the question was, who were the other five? Right away, I knew I couldn't introduce Hayley, Ramona, Matt, and five additional characters in one chapter. So I came up with the idea that one of the characters would be a doctor summoned to the island after the first killing. Who would my doctor be?

Not Genevieve, because by this time I already knew she was the first victim. I pretty much knew it would be either her or Ramona. Had Ramona won the first election, she and Genevieve would have swapped roles (though not necessarily personalities).

Julie? Maybe, but an idea for her was already formulating in my head. That left Tyler, Camille, and Buck. I might have considered Tyler more if I hadn't already more or less decided that the apple would be the first murder weapon. That left Camille or Buck, both of which were just as unlikely doctors as anybody else. I wondered if actually Matt would be the doctor and somebody else Hayley's love interest, but no one else could play Matt's role, either. Besides, that trenchcoat just screams private detective or spy or something like that.

So I needed Matt, Genevieve, and Tyler in the next helicopter ride, plus either Camille or Buck. Ultimately I decided to make Buck the doctor for just one reason: it made the boy/girl split in the helicopter even. The even split made conversational dynamic more interesting. Camille could be a shameless flirt, and Genevieve could scoff at the obviousness of her behavior. (None of the men would do that, whether or not they fell for her flirting.) The men could play off each other, and/or off either of the women, whatever way suited the personalities brewing in my mind.

It worked, but I lost something by kicking Buck out of that particular helicopter ride that I never got back. I wanted to make use of how the picture shows him lying back against a pile of hay. I thought it would be a funny joke for somebody, probably Camille, to ask him why he carried around a whole bunch of hay with him everywhere. He'd say something about how he's not comfortable unless he's lying back against a bundle of hay under the stars, or some such, and throughout his stay on the island, he'd constantly be lying down on his hay, wherever he went.

I still could have used that conversation somewhere, but now that I was introducing him after the first killing, there were fewer natural opportunities for casual "getting to know you" dialogue. So I never really got the chance. I almost did it when Camille and Buck are talking by the pool, but the issue was pacing. It was important, at that point, to keep the plot moving forward. The closest I ever got to talking about the hay was when Jay complains about how it got in the pool.

So back to the helicopter ride with Matt, Camille, Tyler, and Genevieve. The scenes inside the helicopter had to establish all four as characters. Or, well, at least three. Since I knew Genevieve was going to be the first victim, I didn't bother spending too much time with her. I knew that her story, whatever it was, would be revealed mostly in hindsight, during the investigation of her murder. But I had to establish Camille and Tyler, and I had to establish Matt's cover, so it could be unmasked at the end of the chapter. That was a lot to do, and ultimately I wound up with two caricatures rather than characters. But this was a natural consequence of the portraits themselves. As I said before, I wasn't keen on having to use Tyler and Camille at all, because I didn't feel like I was free to imbue them with my own character ideas.

But that was ok. Some of the characters had to be early victims. The early victims couldn't have stories that were as involved as those of the ultimate survivors. I suspected that I would sort of be able to channel the course of the victim voting by making some characters more complicated than others. If Tyler and Camille were simplistic, they'd be killed off early, and that was fine by me, because I was going to run out of apple and falling over jokes eventually.

A lot of the helicopter conversation was improvised on the spot. The first three chapters all had some portions that I prepared earlier that day, and other sections that I wrote as it played. This worked best during bot games; while everyone else was playing a round, I'd be composing the next two or three lines of the story, to appear when the round ended. The name "Tyler Wyler" was one of the things I invented on the spot. I had decided on his first name beforehand, but his last name just came to me as I was typing out the line.

The Backstory Comes Together

Still, I was troubled for an explanation about why all these characters were together and why they would be murdered. I knew I had to do something different from what And Then There Were None did. I won't spoil that story here, but I consider it to be pretty much the perfect execution of its premise. The details of other mysteries fade in my mind, but I've never forgotten And Then There Were None. It's just so wickedly clever and yet perfectly logical. If you were going to do what the killer in that story does, you'd do it that way.

That left me with a problem. How could I write a story with the same basic premise that wasn't a remake of that story? If you're familiar with both, you'll see that I used some of the same ideas and changed the dynamics around, and I had other ideas of my own. But it was a constant fight not to follow And Then There Were None too closely.

One of the earliest ideas I had was that there would be different killers with different motives. This, I felt, was actually pretty much essential, because I was not in total control of which characters were going to die and when. What if I concocted an elaborate murder plot, and the murderer was voted dead? I either had to switch to a contingency plan, wherein the murderer was someone else after all, or have an additional murderer on the island, possibly one who was killing for entirely different reasons.

What I discovered in the course of things was that I just couldn't come up with as flexible a plot as I thought I might. The further I went, the more locked in I became to the story forming in my head. Ultimately, that led to the necessity of me completely throwing out the vote for chapter 6 and not holding any further votes.

Moreover, I had such a hard time figuring out even one reason why the characters would all be lured to this place that I couldn't possibly imagine an unrelated motive for why strangers would kill each other.

On the upside, I discovered that the voting was perhaps less unpredictable than I thought it might be. Again, I was pretty sure Tyler and Camille would be early victims, and after I introduced Buck as a similarly shallow caricature, I thought it likely he would die early as well.

In any case, the only reason I could think of for why somebody would want to kill a bunch of strangers was if the strangers were all involved in something together without realizing it. Maybe the killer had a child that was killed in some kind of accident, and people that somehow unknowingly brought that accident about were lured to the island so they could be killed. Maybe one guy was negligent, one guy fell asleep on duty, one did this, one did that, etc, and all that culminated in an accidental death. But that sounded like a complicated story to tell, and I didn't know that I could piece together something quite that elaborate anyway. In any case, this was the backstory, not the main story. I didn't want to have a backstory that would require a lot of narrative attention.

So the heist idea came to me. I set it at a racetrack in honor of Stanley Kubrick's wonderful heist thriller The Killing. Racetracks are more interesting than banks anyhow. Let's say all these characters were brought together as a gang, but for their own mutual protection none of them knew the identities of any of the others.

That was perfect. It provided a motive, and more to the point it provided a thread of discovery that the characters could follow to get to the root of the murder mystery.

I decided I had to set that up early, and in any case Cody needed something to do besides stutter at girls. So I had Cody recognize Camille when they are first introduced. My plan was to let that plot thread hang until Camille was killed off. Then I could have the Cody/Camille scene early in the next chapter and kill her at the end of it. By setting that conversation in the same chapter where she dies, I would ensure that the added layer of complexity to Camille's character wouldn't subsequently save her from being killed off. And it didn't really matter when all that happened. I would simply wait until Camille's number was up, then tell her story. A number of plot ideas were flexible this way. For instance, although I still didn't know what Jay's story was, I knew it would have to be told early on in his last chapter -- assuming he died at all, of course.

Meanwhile, I was figuring out that Julie was going to be the killer, or at least one of the killers. By delaying her arrival to the island until after at least the first murder, I could establish a nice bit of misdirection.

On an unrelated note, reader comments during chapter 2 made me realize I had stumbled into a fairy tale motif. Cody is saved from the cliff by climbing Ramona's hair. Genevieve is killed when she eats an apple. I considered extending the motif and having future murders conform to fairy tales (Agatha Christie's A Pocket Full of Rye is shaped around the "Sing a Song of Sixpence" nursery rhyme), either by happenstance or by the deliberate will of the killer. But the idea didn't seem to lead anywhere interesting.

Voting For Victim #2

For the second round, I figured the next victim would be Tyler or Camille. This was the way I wanted it. All the other characters seemed to be going somewhere, but these two were pretty static, and people seemed to recognize that. Sure enough, the votes confirmed my theory.

Tyler610Kan, Kysle, LaZorra, Sam, TalkingDog, whitehelm
Camille5asterismW, Gahalyn, iwpg, Maryam, NessaChan
Buck3DemanusFlint, Eric, Zup
Jay2Nyperold, Randy

Jay6asterismW, DemanusFlint, Gahalyn, Kysle, LaZorra, whitehelm
Hayley310Kan, Nyperold, Randy
Cody2Crystal109, TalkingDog
Matt2Maryam, NessaChan
Tyler2Eric, Kalimeris

The way I voted banked on my theory that it would be either Tyler or Camille. I would have been fine either way, but I preferred to take Tyler out first, because if Camille died, I'd have to set the Cody/Camille conversation at the beginning of chapter 3. I thought that was a little too soon to start revealing the backstory. So I cast my votes to swing the pendulum more toward Tyler. My votes didn't make the difference, though. My save vote for Camille was the only one, and although I broke the tie for the victim voting, I'd have used my own preference to break the tie anyhow.

This time there were just two exceptions to the "vote the same sex dead" pattern.

Chapter 3: Introducing Buck

When I wrote the scene between Matt and Hayley at the end of chapter 2, wherein they say how the arrival of the doctor will make their work more difficult, my thought at that point would be that the doctor would confirm that Genevieve was murdered, and thereafter everybody would be on their guard and suspicious of each other. That would, naturally, make it more difficult for Matt and Hayley to gather information by subterfuge.

It wasn't until I sat down to plan chapter 3 that I realized it would be more interesting if Buck did not rule the death a murder. One, it would make Matt and Hayley (who knew otherwise) and also the readers of the story suspicious of him, and suspicion yields tension. Two, it would keep the atmosphere on the island calm, freeing up the characters to split up and move around. This meant Buck had to be in on it, of course, but he was impossible to turn into a convincing doctor anyway, so it was not the least bit far-fetched that he was somebody's accomplice.

I can't remember how early on I decided the doctor would be bad, though. I had to do something with him, since, genuinely arriving to the island late, he couldn't have committed the first murder. So he had to be an early victim and/or bad. If bad, he could be an accomplice to Genevieve's murder, or maybe he had an independent grudge of his own. I always did have it in the back of my mind that there would be a death that was unrelated to the work of the main killer. The basic idea would be that mysterious deaths start occurring, and that provides one character with an opportunity to kill another and make it look like just another killing in the series.

But by this time I was seeing that the story wasn't going to shape up that way, and so Buck had to be somebody that Julie hired to show up and keep everybody at ease about the first death. I also figure that Julie had it in the back of her mind to use him as a scapegoat if she ever needed one.

Chapter 3: Introducing Julie

I debated whether or not to introduce Julie at the end of chapter 3 or wait one more chapter for her to show up. But after seeing the results of the voting that killed Tyler, it was obvious to me that Camille would be next. Camille was the perfect candidate for me to kill in the locked room, and for that I needed Julie on the island ahead of time.

I was never more nervous about people guessing one of the story's secrets than the possibility that Julie was never in the helicopter. I was so afraid somebody would make a remark about that, and once one person did, everybody would be thinking about it. I thought more about the editing of Julie's arrival than probably anything else in the first two thirds of the story. I thought about what exact words she should say, how many frames should show her arriving, the timing between each frame, whether or not to have her arrival between bot games or during, and so on.

I considered showing a shot of the helicopter beforehand, then cutting to her on the beach (with the idea that the helicopter was really carrying Mr. Small and still on its way). That felt like cheating to me and confusing besides.

Despite optimizing all the elements of her arrival to the best of my ability to dissuade suspicion, I still feared that somebody would figure it out. So ultimately I concocted the sound system and set things up so that, while all the characters were busy in the basement, the helicopter could be heard arriving. If not for that, I wouldn't have bothered having the sound system at all. Buck could have done his part in Camille's murder simply by firing an actual gun in the air.

I breathed an absolutely tremendous sigh of relief when I got past the critical moments of Julie's arrival. And I definitely knew I had to get past those critical moments. I couldn't end the chapter with her arrival and have that be it. I had to end the chapter with a moment that would command people's attention somewhere else.

The idea about Mr. Spilk was very last minute. I figured it would be an interesting clue for the characters to follow up on if Julie claimed to have been sent for by a Mr. Spilk. And that would have been it. I was thinking Mr. Spilk was just going to be a fake name. Then I thought hey -- what if one of the characters already on the island was named Spilk? It would be a trippy moment, and also in keeping with the killer's standard operating procedure of dropping all kinds of false clues (using Tyler's apple to kill Genevieve, for example) to cloud the situation.

So who should it be? It couldn't be anybody Cody had mentioned the name to already, which ruled out Jay, but he had a last name already anyway. So did Tyler. It wouldn't have been interesting if it had been Buck, who was already a point of suspicion. It had to be Matt. I went back to the first two chapters and was immensely relieved to see that Matt had never been present when the name Spilk had been mentioned. Hooray!

So Matt became Matt Spilk, and I ran the chapter, and the very instant after the chapter was over I realized, um, duh, Cody asked Hayley about Mr. Spilk, and Hayley would have most definitely recognized the name of her own boyfriend.

I really thought I'd screwed up the whole story at that point. I couldn't get over how I had been so careful about making sure it was ok, mulling it over since that afternoon, and then having it hit me the very instant after that part of the story actually played.

I guess it makes sense that Hayley lied about recognizing the name. It took a while for me to think about it and come to that conclusion. Hayley was, after all, pretending not to know Matt, and Matt had never told anybody on the island his last name. Still, I should have liked to have knowingly made her lie to Cody, as then I could have written it in a better way. But I guess I made it work anyhow. I covered for it by having a subsequent conversation between Hayley and Matt wherein the matter is mentioned, and my story was intact again.

Chapter 3: Who Dies?

It was totally unplanned, but I loved how neatly Camille gets set up to be killed in the chapter where it's actually Tyler that dies. All I was trying to do was split all the characters up, so that any of them could have snuck up to the cliff. But once Matt says he'll be right back, and Camille says she'll be waiting for him, people started saying "DEAD!" and I realized just how neatly I had unknowingly set up Camille to die. I really wasn't trying to misdirect anybody there; it was just one of those happy accidents.

Voting For Victim #3

The previous vote gave this one away. Camille was clearly on the chopping block, and I (deliberately) hadn't done anything to change her character since. Surely she'd win the next vote easily. But the "save" vote was the biggest voting surprise of the tournament.

Camille8asterismW, Crystal109, Gahalyn, LaZorra, Maryam, NessaChan, Sam, whitehelm
Buck3Eric, Nyperold, Zup
Matt2iwpg, Kysle

Ramona6conty, Eric, iwpg, Kysle, Randy, Sam
Jay4Gahalyn, LaZorra, NessaChan, whitehelm
Cody3Crystal109, Nyperold, TalkingDog
Matt210Kan, Kalimeris

I even voted for Ramona myself, figuring her the next most vulnerable after Camille. Perhaps that's what the others who voted for her thought too. Compounding the surprise was that, the previous round, nobody voted to save Ramona at all. At this point I got a little afraid that Ramona was getting too popular and sought to remedy that in the next chapter.

Chapter 4: The Game Speech

It was a mild risk leaving my killer open to getting murdered before she's ever introduced and then again after she's only briefly appeared on the island. I considered it a mild risk, because I figured people would at least want to see what she was all about before voting her dead, especially since she's attractive. Plus, I could tell that certain other heads would be drawing a lot of votes.

But for chapter 4, she would be present the entire time and as vulnerable as anybody. And it was not at all obvious who was next in line after Camille. So I knew that despite all I had to do in this chapter (primarily setting up and executing the biggest mystery set piece of the story, the locked room mystery), I had to do something to keep Julie in the story. The question was, what?

I actually started this line of reasoning a chapter ahead of time, because I saw this moment coming. Julie was probably safe until she arrived, but then she had to measure up as an interesting character or be the next one out. The trouble was, I didn't know anything else about who she was other than "the killer."

For some reason I got to thinking about monologues. Monologues do wonders for characters in, say, Quentin Tarantino films. (On the other side of the genre spectrum, note Meryl Streep's monologue on the cycle of fashion in The Devil Wears Prada.) If I gave Julie a really memorable monologue, maybe that would keep her around for a chapter or two. So the question became, what should she talk about?

They say to write what you know. What do I know about? Movies? I talk about them enough already, and my love for movies is not shared by most of my audience. Computers? Too nerdy and esoteric. Games? Ah ha!

Reading the story, you'd think the killer's motive led to the monologue, but in fact it was the other way around. I simply thought a monologue about games would be something I could write and make interesting. So I thought about games, and I came up with some philosophic thoughts about gameplaying in our culture and why we do it and what it is about how human beings are wired that makes us play them. The thoughts in that monologue just came together in my head so wonderfully. It's the kind of thing I like to muse on, but I'd honestly not thought any of that through before. I'm not even sure that it's true that humans are the only adult animals that engage in purely recreational gameplay, but it was fascinating and convincing enough as an observation that I used it without researching further.

I had pretty much the entire monologue charted out in my head, and only then -- only then -- realized that this was the true motive of the killings. Julie wasn't just interested in games as a hobby separate from grand theft and murder. It was the whole reason she did anything at all. She was playing a game with the racetrack by knocking it over with a bunch of losers, and she was playing another game by killing them all off in such a needlessly elaborate manner.

Lots of times authors talk about getting to know their characters, rather than shaping them according to an unyielding purpose. There is a lot of truth to that. Maybe I designated Julie the killer, but she told me why.

I almost blew it, though. My hope for the monologue was that it would come off as a smart, genuinely interesting line of thought, that readers would be as enthralled with the subject as I am, and perhaps that was largely so. But at some point, DemanusFlint said, "Geez, she sounds like a great time," and Eric said, "GO WRITE IN YOUR LIVEJOURNAL, CRYBABY. 'I can't take competition!' BOO HOO MISSY." And suddenly I got scared she was coming off in exactly the wrong way. Her attitude and tone of voice were clear in my head, but obviously that wasn't the attitude and tone of voice DemanusFlint and Eric were hearing. I realized that her monologue could be quite easily construed as a longwinded complaint, when in fact she was supposed to be brimming with enthusiasm. Cool and collected, yes, but alive and passionate.

I had to salvage what I could, and so I stopped the script that was playing out the monologue, written earlier that day, and injected a clarifying line on the spot: "I just find games fascinating. I love to play them, learn about them, you name it." It was a clumsy line but the best I could do on the spot. I rewrote it for the transcript (possibly the only time I rewrote a line after it played in the chat room) as follows: "I just find games fascinating. I love to play them, learn about them, and most of all to think about why I do."

Whether or not the addition of that line made the difference, I don't know, but the problem never came up again.

Chapter 4: Cody and Camille

As I said before, the scene with Cody and Camille was always going to happen in Camille's last chapter. If I had set it earlier, it might have inspired some interest in saving Camille. After all, from the perspective of the reader, this scene might make it look like I was going to go somewhere interesting with her as a character. The reality was that I had nowhere to go. This scene was simply a way for me to start unfolding the backstory with some oblique hints, and, additionally, give Cody something to do and Camille an extra layer of complexity.

It also gave me two lines I'm proud of and another line I'm not. The two I'm proud of appeared right next to each other: "I'm not as dumb as I act, and you're not as dumb as you look. Maybe I figured out having more brains doesn't mean having more fun." In terms of meaning, they're dense lines; alone, they tell you everything there is to know about Camille. In terms of rhythm, they have a snappy parallel quality that I like to attempt in my writing but often don't quite pull off. These lines, especially the second, just kind of sprang out of my head, fully formed.

The line I'm not proud of was nevertheless also wonderful for the character. "I got a man and a drink and a pool waiting for me, and they beat morals any day." The line is too strong -- in a funny, memorable, snappy way, it conveys an idea I find reprehensible. But it fits the character to a tee.

The secret to Camille is that, yes, she's smarter than she acts, but she's still not that smart. She's not what she appears, and yet she is exactly what she appears. She purposely acts dumb so as to better chase questionable pleasures...because she's dumb enough that she can't see more to life than chasing questionable pleasures.

As for Cody, I was still approaching him as basically a good guy. If I had known where Cody was going when I wrote this scene, I would have written his moral guilt over his involvement with Piper Downs differently. I would still have had him unaware of, and in disapproval of, the deaths of the guards during the heist. But I wouldn't have had him quite so morally troubled about his involvement in the theft.

Ultimately, this was another instance of a character telling me who he was. I thought Cody was good. But writing him that way just didn't feel quite right. It didn't make sense that he came to the island the way he said he did. It didn't make sense that he'd accept the job of sneaking a bag past security at a racetrack and not realize in advance just how illegal and wrong that was. It took me another couple chapters before I finally realized that all this time, Cody was screaming at me that he was not the nice, shy boy I had made him out to be. My regrets to Cody's adoring fans, but, in all seriousness, he charted his own course.

Chapter 4: The Locked Room Murder

I knew early on that I wanted a locked room murder of some kind. It's a staple of the genre, explored time and time again during the heyday of pulp mystery stories by such authors as John Dickson Carr (the master of the locked room subgenre), Gaston Leroux, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh, among others. I knew I'd have to work a locked room murder in before the story even started. What I didn't quite know was how.

I didn't sweat the ingenuity of the method of exit from the locked room. A simple secret passage served my needs well enough. (Recall that I picked out the picture of the secret passage before writing chapter 1.) But I didn't really know who would be in it, or whether the secret passage would be used to sneak in or out.

Still before the story even started, I decided I'd like to use the secret passage for two separate murders. In the first, a character is locked her room (as the idea formulated, I was thinking it would be a female character, but that could easily have changed), and she commits a murder outside of it by sneaking out the secret passage and then back in. Nobody saw her leave the room, and the only known way out was into the hall, where she would have been seen. So she's got an alibi. I considered even going a step further than that, by having the character talking through the closed door to somebody else out in the hall. The character in the hall would be an especially talkative sort, and while he or she was carrying on, the murderer inside would slip down the secret passage, kill somebody in the room at the other end, then back up to continue the conversation. It would have been fun to play out that conversation from the hall, then again from inside during a flashback.

Then the next murder would be someone sneaking into her room via the secret passage, killing her, and leaving the same way. The locked room murder would be a primary point of investigation. Once the secret passage was discovered, not only would the means of her murder become apparent, but the first murder would be solved, as it would become clear somehow that she had snuck out of the room to commit it. That still left the question of who killed her in the first place. That would have been someone who found the secret passage earlier, realized she was the murderer, and instead of bringing it to everyone else's attention, snuck up and killed her.

Like the mistaken identity episode on the cliff, I had a framework for a mystery that ultimately didn't fit the characters I had to work with.

So I reworked my little locked room plot into the way it actually appears in the story. People hear shots, bust the door down, and find someone dead. I'm not sure where the idea for Julie's alibi came from, but I fell in love with the idea when I had it. I knew I needed an illusion somewhere that would alter the assumed moment of Camille's death. Then the killer could have an alibi.

It wasn't as perfect a plot as I was hoping, although it played out just fine. I was concentrating so much on contriving an alibi for Julie that I neglected giving Buck one. Why did Julie go through all the trouble of killing Camille herself and contriving an alibi if Buck could have just gone up and killed her himself? For the plan to be truly strong, Buck would need an alibi as well. I sort of patched this up afterward by having Ramona spot Buck in the woods on the other side of the house from the secret passage. But that still put Buck under suspicion. Of course, I needed Buck to be under suspicion by that point, but ideally Julie's plan should have tried to give Buck an alibi. The way it played out, she was leaving herself open to a betrayal. After all, if Buck had named her on the beach, the jig would have been up for her.

But I suppose I get away with saying that Julie knew Buck well enough to know he was too stubborn and/or dumb to betray her. Given what we know of Julie, it's not that far-fetched that she could read him that well. She's a scholar of psychology and human behavior, and on top of that she has obviously spent a lot of time getting to know everyone very very well. After all, she had Matt spying on Ramona and Hayley for nigh on a year before pulling the Piper Downs job together. Not that I knew that at this point in the story.

So, to get back on track, I would have a locked room murder and a secret passage. Question: how does Julie ensure that the correct character has the room with the secret passage? I suppose I could have just said that her plan was to kill whoever got that room in that way. But that would have been boring, and I was stuck on the idea that Julie would be more in control of things than that. If she could contrive a way for the intended victim to be in the right room at the right time, that would be better. How to do that?

What if it was her own room, and someone else was using it? I really liked this idea, because not only did it provide Julie with a way to arrange events to her liking, it also provided a bit of misdirection about the true motive of the killing. Obviously if Julie arranged for Camille to be in her room at that time, they would be suspicious of her (all the more reason to establish an alibi for her for that particular murder), but if I could make it look to readers like perhaps Julie was the intended target, I might get my audience speculating down the wrong train of thought. Moreover, in terms of Julie's plan within the story, it would make sense for her to set herself up as an intended victim.

This murder was the most satisfying for me to put together and play out. I was mildly fearful that somebody would figure out one or another element of the murder, but it felt solid to me. It worked out nicely, and it was a blast writing so many scenes that I knew were significant beyond what was obvious at that point.

Chapter 4: Ramona

Ramona posed a problem for me. All this time, I was thinking I needed her to be a victim, and at this point I was still thinking that. When I introduced her, I thought sure that her cruelty to poor little Cody would make her unpopular. When it didn't seem to, I ratcheted up her vicious streak in the next chapter, where she gives Tyler an unrelenting tongue-lashing. Well that just made her popular! So I realized I couldn't keep that up. I had to tone her down, and then hopefully she'd get killed off.

At this point, though, I was thinking I needed her to be safe for at least one more chapter. Buck was the one I hoped would kick it next, because I had absolutely nothing more for that character to do, and although my early plan of having multiple unrelated murder plots wasn't panning out, I needed to at least have one non-Julie murder to jumble things up a bit. What if it were Ramona? It fit. She was obviously a cruel character, unconcerned with breaking the law, and on the road to a bad end. What if she kills somebody?

But the only motive I could think of for her killing somebody was if, after Tyler's death, she felt guilty about her last words to him, and she sought to take revenge by killing Buck, who, between his diagnosis of Genevieve and the unconvincing story of his whereabouts when Camille was shot, was obviously working with the killer somehow. So maybe Ramona goes out and kills him, and, the chapter after that, something causes her to have to confess, and she dies later on in that chapter?

Actually these ideas started forming a chapter or two earlier, but now I was at the point where it needed to happen if it was going to happen at all. That meant Buck had to die soon, preferably next, and Ramona had to follow shortly thereafter. To get the voters to go along with that, I had to write chapter 4 so that Buck remained uninteresting and Ramona stopped doing what had made her popular.

Fortunately, this was right in line with where Ramona's story had to go. She had to go up to her room and sulk off-screen. I might have left her there the whole time, except that Ramona dying before Buck would have ruined the plan. So I let her have her next scene here in chapter 4, rather than waiting for chapter 5. This, of course, would be a scene in which she cries and confides in Hayley her guilt and anguish. This also gave me a wonderful opportunity to keep Hayley's character strong, because I was also fearful for Hayley. Hayley had to survive at least long enough for her to deal with her sister's death, and I was still hoping she'd make it to the end.

So I took extra care writing that scene, and it was the writing of that scene, I think, that shaped the rest of the narrative. I said before that the relationship between Hayley and Ramona just sprang to life when I wrote their first helicopter scene. It was wonderful for me, but it only partially formed. It only got me to this point. During the writing of their emotional scene together in chapter 4, their relationship came to life again, and I saw where they were going. It continued to develop, the last pieces falling into place in chapter 6, but it was writing this scene that I started to realize that maybe I didn't want to kill Ramona off after all.

Partly this was because the scene was difficult to write, and I had to really think about the characters to get it right. I mean, what do I know about sisters? I'm a guy, and my only sibling is a brother. Moreover, my brother and I aren't total opposites like Hayley and Ramona. So to get inside their heads, I had to try to think like a woman generally and these characters specifically. Ramona's world is being shaken, and she's realizing her verbal cruelty to people is wrong. But other than being nice to Hayley when she's able to, verbal aggression is all she knows. It made sense to me that under her extreme emotional duress of the moment, she'd begin the conversation by lashing out at Hayley.

Hayley, however, would immediately see Ramona's screaming for what it was -- not something she meant, just a release of distress in the only way she knew how. Hayley would know to weather the storm, hug her but say nothing to challenge Ramona's words, and after Ramona's aggressive front broke down, Hayley would then be a listener and an encourager, not a criticizer or a corrector. A man would have handled the situation much differently, even a man as sympathetic and understanding as Hayley. But it was important to me for Hayley to speak with a woman's voice, and whether I succeeded or failed, I'm immensely proud of how that scene turned out. I just hope it came across in words as I pictured it in my head. This was one moment in the story where I felt grievously crippled by the dialogue-only format. A few narrative words to describe tones of voice, facial expressions, and body language might have gone a long way. But I had to do it all with dialogue. The only scene I found harder to write in that format was the closing scene in chapter 9, after Julie has fallen off the cliff and Ramona reports Matt's death.

Anyway, after this scene, I figured Ramona was safe for another round, and I was hoping people would realize that although Hayley was passive in the scene, she was passive in a very active way, if that makes sense.

Who Killed Buck?

It wasn't long before writing this scene that I realized it would not be Ramona who killed Buck but Hayley. It was an idea that sat well with me in so many ways. In terms of Hayley's character, it would be exactly the self-sacrificial kind of thing Hayley would do to protect her sister -- both from being killed, and from having to kill the killer herself. In terms of Ramona's character, it allowed her a start on the path to redemption. Yes, Hayley would kill Buck, but Ramona would try to take the blame for it. Hayley would never allow it, of course, but Ramona's attempt to do so would show her finally stepping up and being responsible and giving back to her sister what she had theretofore only taken. In terms of plot, of course, it allowed me an extra twist when Hayley sets the record straight.

I still wasn't sure when that scene would take place, though. I was still stuck on the idea that Ramona had to die. Perhaps after Ramona died, Hayley would decide that even though her sister is dead, her conscience can't permit her to take the blame. So Hayley confesses her murder of Buck to somebody that's left on the island at point and then that person would listen with grave attention and ultimately decide that the authorities need not be informed. So Hayley gets to confess her crime, yet be off the hook for it.

Jay would have been the ideal person for Hayley to confess to. He's a good guy, and he doesn't have a personal interest in what happens to Hayley, so his judgment would be objective. I could have made it work with Matt (Matt was still a goodguy at this point), but Matt had a personal interest in Hayley's welfare, and if he had chosen to cover up Buck's murder, it wouldn't have been convincing as the right thing to do.

Nobody else seemed to fit. Cody wasn't enough of an authoritative figure for it to feel right having Hayley entrust judgment of her actions to him.

So Jay was the best choice, but that would mean he'd have to survive a pretty long time, and what was I going to do with him until then?

Ultimately I had to invent a brand new character to hear Hayley's confession -- an exceptionally unorthodox story structure, but I wound up being very proud of the chapter with Miles, for reasons that will be explained in due course.

Chapter 4: Mr. Small

My backstory had a problem. Who owned this island? It wasn't Julie, and it wasn't Jay. I didn't want to have the owner of the island hanging around in the back of people's minds much longer, because it was an empty line of speculation. So I had to come up with an owner. Who should own the island? The answer was pretty obvious. And of course he had to have a name like Mr. Small. It's a terribly obvious joke, but he's a terribly obvious kind of guy.

The thing was, he really had no part in the story, so he had to blow up. That meant the poor helicopter pilot had to bite it, too. Alas.

Note that the helicopter is heard when Ramona is just saying she knows what to do. She's already thinking about confronting Buck at gunpoint.

Voting For Victim #4

I was incredibly afraid about how this vote would turn out. At this point, I had certain characters I needed to stay alive. Hayley and Matt were my heroes, and Julie was my killer. But I saw all three as vulnerable, since Ramona, Cody, and Jay seemed to be secure. My best bet would be if Buck was the next to go, and I thought that a reasonable possibility. But look at all those votes for Camille in the previous round! Six women voted for her, and those votes were probably going to be distributed across the remaining female characters. But I didn't want to lose any of the women at this point. The most expendable to me, Ramona, still needed to outlast Buck.

At this point, I came to terms with the possibility that I might have to go against the vote if it went wrong. The future of the story was solidifying in my head. I had committed myself to too much. So I warned people that I might have to ignore the voting if it went too wrong. By "too wrong," I meant any of the women. All of the guys were expendable at this point in the story, even Matt, but I couldn't afford to lose any of the women yet. As luck would have it, not only did the voting turn out all right, it turned out the way I preferred it.

Buck4asterismW, Goosey, NessaChan, Nyperold
Cody2Eric, iwpg
Hayley2Kysle, Maryam
Jay2Kalimeris, Randy
Matt210Kan, LaZorra
Ramona2DemanusFlint, whitehelm

Jay710Kan, iwpg, Kysle, LaZorra, Maryam, NessaChan, whitehelm
Cody4asterismW, Goosey, Kalimeris, TalkingDog
Ramona2Eric, Nyperold

Strangely, Buck won the vote despite none of Eric, DemanusFlint, or Zup -- all of whom had voted for him faithfully before -- voting for him this time. What seemed to save me was the sudden breakdown of the "kill the same sex" pattern. In hindsight, I guess this was the point where the characters really started growing on people, and care for them started overriding the fact of their sexes. But who knows?

Chapter 5: The False Start

It is documented within the transcript for chapter 4 how the parachuting Nazi polar bears came about. I started chapter 5 with a false start as well, simply because the idea came to me.

I loved the opportunity to invent and use the word "spanghewn." The word "spanghew," as seen in the Fun Words page of the Fun With Words feature, is arguably the strangest of all English words. It is a verb meaning, "to cause [a frog or toad] to fly up into the air." Certainly, therefore, it makes sense that "spanghewn" would be an adjective describing a frog or toad that has been caused to fly up into the air.

Chapter 5: Jay

I had a problem that could be ignored no longer: the continued popularity of Jay. I still had nowhere to go with that character. He had no personal conflict of his own going on. With the abandonment of Cody's girl problem, he didn't really have anything to do on the island. I had nothing for him, and if he stuck around much longer, it would only complicate the narrative of the events to come. He particularly would have been in the way at the end, when the tensions between the characters really start to ratchet up. Jay, being calm, wise, and uninvested in any of the other characters, would have been terrible in that kind of position. It's impossible to imagine Jay in that Mexican standoff and maintain any real suspense.

I had another problem with Jay, that being the birthday party I had set up way back in the first chapter. His birthday was around the corner, and my idea for it wasn't going to work. I had an idea of Jay waking up early in the morning, stumbling downstairs alone in the dark, and walking around. He hears a noise, asks if somebody is there, and wanders from room to room without turning on any of the lights -- as characters in thrillers are wont to do -- and then the lights flick on and everybody jumps out and yells "SURPRISE!" and look, Cody has prepared a birthday cake.

It's not a wonderful scene, but it might have worked a couple chapters earlier. By this point in the story, though, three people had been murdered, and it didn't make any kind of sense to me that all these characters would suddenly become festive and celebratory.

So I needed to handle Jay's birthday in some other way. Maybe Cody does something special for him on his own. But nothing I thought of worked. We were simply too deep into the murder mystery to become sidetracked with a birthday party. But what if, I thought, Jay dies before he ever makes it to his birthday? Right away, Jay's deathbed scene formed in my mind, and I knew that that was really the only way I could follow through on Jay's birthday in a way that would make dramatic sense.

So, despite being the ideal confidant for Hayley, Jay had to die. And it was becoming obvious he was never going to die by the hands of my readers. Moreover, I realized that, at the rate of one death per chapter, I was going to be entering the final chapter with one too many characters. I still didn't know exactly how I was going to end everything, but I now knew that I wanted to get down to two characters holding each other at gunpoint. If I got there at the end of the next-to-last chapter, that would be a great cliffhanger to lead into the end.

So partly because the character hit a dead end, and partly because I needed to adjust the population of the island, Jay had to bite the dust as well. Possibly you could call this cheating on my part -- that if I were going to kill a second character, it shouldn't have been the winner of the "save" vote. But I plead innocence on a technicality. The voting was for the next murder victim, not the next death.

Having decided to kill off Jay, I then could no longer postpone inventing his backstory. What was he doing on the island and why? Where did this guy come from, and why was he hired for the job? Why did he come to America in the first place? I didn't know the answers to any of those questions. I mulled it over and came up with something. It's a little sketchy, I think, but it gets the job done.

I hadn't, by the way, decided if Jay's great granddaughter had actually been kidnapped, or if Julie merely delivered a threat to do so. Ultimately I decided that Jay's great granddaughter could not actually have been kidnapped, because if she had, Julie would have killed her.

Jay's death scene choked me up as I was writing it and again when I ran it for myself in a private room to gauge the timing. For the only time, I asked people not to crack jokes during the scene, because one wrong line of humor would have shattered what I thought was a pretty good emotional beat. It's not so much Jay's passing alone that hits home, it's the idea that Cody had only just met this man, a guy who in just a couple days was more of a father to him than his real father, and now he was losing him. Jay got in one last lesson: so what if he doesn't live the extra hour to his 100th birthday? When it's time, it's time.

Of course, I only introduced the idea that Cody was at odds with his father right in this very scene. When I wrote it, I didn't know where I was going with that. Cody hadn't told me yet. But it made sense that that would be part of the reason Cody took to Jay so readily.

Chapter 5: Buck

A lot of chapter 5 is grinding through the tedious conference of characters as they try to sort out what's happening. It's like the bookkeeping of storytelling. You've got the good scenes, the dramatic highs, and then you've got all the grunt work of connecting them together. Ideally these connections are done as quickly as possible. Sometimes you can skip them entirely, but sometimes they're essential to set the stage. You don't want the audience asking all kinds of basic questions that the characters are not. It was important, now that they all knew for sure that a murderer was running around loose, that characters question each other, make suggestions for how to stay safe, and so on. This stuff was tedious to write, in part because I was still working with seven characters. After this chapter, I'd be at five, and that was a whole lot more manageable.

One fun bit, though, was writing the seemingly innocuous bit of conversation between Hayley and Ramona. I knew I had to set up Ramona's killing of Buck, and so I wrote the conversation they have in their room that night. The last line is Ramona saying, "I'm sorry." I knew where that was going, of course. I briefly considered setting up Hayley's injury toward the end of the chapter, but there wasn't room for it. So I had to talk about that in the next.

One thing I wanted to do as a joke was to have Buck hanged. By now I had established the motif of turning the character portraits sideways when they're dead. But turning Buck sideways would have had him standing up with his head slumped down -- exactly as if he were hanging from a rope. But hanging didn't fit the story as well as shooting did, and I had to forego the joke.

The Rest of the Story Comes Together

At this point, the map of the future was set firmly enough that I was locked into a course. I had committed myself to Hayley murdering Buck, Ramona confessing to it, and Hayley revealing the truth later on. Cody was now clearly an unsavory character, his heart-to-heart with Matt in chapter 5 revealing his true character. (It also gave me an opportunity to change his age again, just for fun.) Julie was still the mastermind. I was still going to end the next-to-last chapter with a showdown between two of the characters, almost certainly Hayley and somebody else. I knew there would be a faked death somewhere along the line, because, hey, it just made sense.

I also knew, though looking back I don't know why I was so sure, that Julie would be unmasked in advance of the finale and shot to death by somebody, most likely Matt. I'm not immediately sure why I held onto that idea so strongly, because I committed to it well before I knew it would be a faked death and that anybody besides Buck was on her team. Probably this was the scene I dreamed up as a contingency plan if Julie, my main killer, was voted dead before the end. I didn't know what would happen after that, but remember that I intended to have multiple murderers from the start, murderers who were not necessarily working together or killing for the same reasons.

Even after that plan fell by the wayside, the confession and execution of Julie took hold, and I knew that would have to be what happened to her. One convenience of that idea was that I could get the big Talking Killer speech out of the way before the end. I wouldn't have to clutter up the final chapter with a long, complicated parade of revelations. Much better to break the "one unsolved killing per chapter" pattern earlier and leave the end free to do other things.

But it was around this point that I had to decide how the Julie scene was going to fit into the story and where the story would go from there. Since I couldn't see how an unrelated murder plot could follow Julie's, the only solution was that someone had to be working with her. And if that someone was working with her, and I was going to have a faked death somewhere along the line anyway, why wouldn't it be Julie's death that was faked, with the assistance of her accomplice?

So I decided Julie had a plan for what to do in the event someone found her out. (Notice, in chapter 7, that Matt -- who had previously driven the investigation into Cody -- takes a more passive role, only assisting in Hayley's investigation after it becomes clear she's going to figure it all out. In fact, in a key moment, I even threw in a couple of wordless shots of Matt and Julie, as if they caught each other's eyes and wordlessly acknowledged that the contingency plan was about to go into effect.)

But at this point I hadn't decided that Matt was the accomplice. I wondered who it would be. It couldn't be Hayley or Ramona. That relationship was still the best part of the story, as far as I was concerned, and throwing in a betrayal would have undermined it, besides not making a whole lot of sense anyhow. So it had to be Cody or Matt. I gave serious thought to it being Cody. Now that he was no longer the model citizen he started out being, it wasn't a stretch that he might be working with Julie all along.

But making Cody the accomplice had two big problems. The one that bothered me most was that a showdown between Hayley and Cody would be devoid of any personal overtones. They'd just met. They had no special bond. They had no investment in each other. So that was no good. Even so, though, making Cody the accomplice would have undone the relationship between Cody and Jay that I believed was sincere. I couldn't turn around now and make it all some kind of weird sham. It just wouldn't have made any sense.

So Matt had to be a badguy, and I had to come up with some kind of story about why he spent all that time with Hayley. A showdown between the two would be every bit the emotional climax that I was looking for.

The rest, that Hayley and Ramona would fake a death of their own to trap Matt into giving himself away, was no great epiphany. It just seemed sort of apparent to me, like a picture coming into focus. By this point I had decided Ramona needed to survive the story, but she wouldn't be involved in the showdown at the end. What other possibility was there?

I loved how it all fit together for me. Not only did it hit the emotional notes and throw some cool twists at the audience, it made Hayley wonderfully smart and strong and clever -- no longer the more passive character she had been up until now. Clearly Hayley had emerged as my main character, and it's a fundamental rule of storytelling that the main character needs to be an active character. He or she simply cannot just let things happen but take an active role in shaping the course of events.

Voting For Victim #5

So now I had the rest of the story, and the only question was what order everything should happen in. When I announced the voting for the next victim, I was thinking that, although the plan was very inflexible at this point, I still had options.

I really didn't. I just hadn't thought things through yet. I was thinking, for instance, that the faked Ramona death could be next, followed by the unmasking of Julie, followed by Cody, followed by the Hayley-Matt showdown. But it didn't make sense to fake Ramona's death before the unmasking of Julie. I was also thinking Julie could be next, then Cody and Ramona in either order. But no, that would unmask Julie too soon and leave me spinning my wheels for an extra chapter before the climactic showdown.

So I pretty much had to kill Cody next. But I had already opened the voting, and here's what happened with it:

Julie4asterismW, Kysle, Randy, whitehelm
Ramona3Maryam, TalkingDog, Zup
Hayley2Kalimeris, Nyperold
Matt2iwpg, SirDude

Cody6asterismW, Kalimeris, Kysle, Randy, SirDude, TalkingDog
Julie3Maryam, Sam, Zup
Ramona2Nyperold, whitehelm

Could it have gone worse? Cody's only kill vote was mine, and he won the save vote in any case. I had no choice. I had to throw the voting out and forge onward.

It almost wasn't as bad as this. When I checked the voting results, Cody only had 4 save votes (and two characters had 3), and Julie only had 3 kill votes. If I could finagle it so Cody had one more kill vote and one fewer save vote, ties at the top of both lists would cancel each other out, and I would be free to choose from any of the characters with 2 kill votes. I think if I had made both WhizKid and WhizGirl vote, I could have swung it.

Instead, I logged into RinkChat and said outright that I was going to have to throw out the votes. Maryam and TalkingDog offered to change their votes, and I agreed -- but I couldn't tell them how I needed to change them. Additionally, SirDude, who had not voted, was on at the time, and I persuaded him to vote. After all that, I checked the tallies again, and then it was truly hopeless.

So I had to throw the voting results out, and I knew it would be pointless to hold any more votes, because the order of the remaining deaths were set in stone.

Chapter 6: Matt's Nighttime Rendezvous

Randy said he was expecting Cody and Matt to have a showdown fight all along. But I only realized it was coming when I sat down to write this chapter. My general plan was to crank through the backstory and kill off Cody. Only after I sat down to start writing did I realize that the logical assumption in Cody's mind was that Matt killed both Buck and Jay -- and that Matt, posing as a goodguy, would pretend to assume the same about Cody.

There's a weak story link here that nobody seemed to pick up on. Why does Matt sneak into Julie's room and plant the camera? It makes sense that he might do that as a goodguy, but as Julie's accomplice, what purpose does the camera serve? The recording of Julie sleeping through the night was only useful because somebody happened to sneak out and kill Buck. But nobody knew Ramona was going to sneak out that night. Neither Julie nor Matt could know that an alibi would prove useful.

The story never provides a satisfactory explanation. I think I have one that retroactively makes sense. The answer is that Matt didn't sneak out to plant the camera at all. Rather, he simply snuck into her room to confer with her secretly about their plans. As for the camera, it had been there all along, set up in advance so that Julie could be provided with an alibi whenever necessary.

Chapter 6: Cody

Jay's death was the saddest of the story, but Cody's was the most tragic. Not because he didn't have it coming! In all honesty, it was genuinely unsettling that Cody's ravenous fans continued to love him after he was revealed to be an unrepentant killer. I realize that everybody understands Cody is a fictional character of my own imagination, and I realize, too, that it's perfectly harmless to enjoy fictional characters however one pleases. Nevertheless, I can't help but be reminded of women who knowingly get involved with bad men, either ignoring the bad side just because they see a good side, and/or thinking that they can change bad men into good men. This happens all the time, it never ever ever works out, and it's the women who pay the price. Grave musings, when we're talking about an improvised murder mystery? Certainly, and I'm aware of the huge difference in scale. Still.

Anyway, the reason I say Cody's death is the most tragic is because redemption just might have been around the corner for him. Although I don't buy for one minute Cody's excuses that his abusive father made him what he is -- both nature and nurture can create weaknesses of character, but we're all personally responsible for our actions regardless -- nevertheless, he was never taught how to be a man. Fathers are role models, whether they're good ones or bad ones. Cody hated his father but, because his father was all he knew about what a man should be, he wound up becoming just like him. He was angry with the world. He considered himself entitled to whatever he wanted to take. Cody goes a step further -- he kills his father. But he denies he's a killer. Ok, full disclosure: the first time he insisted he wasn't a killer, I thought that was the truth. But like I say, some characters are created, while other characters are merely revealed. Cody revealed himself as a killer to me, but he doesn't consider himself to be one. I imagine his denial and defensiveness stems from guilt. He knew he did something very wrong, and he doesn't want to face that, so he marginalized that act in his own mind and gave himself excuses about extenuating circumstances.

And along comes Jay, a total stranger, who assumes a fatherly role. Cody assumes his 15-year-old persona partly out of habit, partly because he isn't quite sure what his blackmail letter is getting him into, and he plays things cautiously. But it doesn't take him long to realize that Jay is a genuine and gentle soul. Jay teaches Cody a lot in a few minutes, most of all the simple demonstration of fatherly love. Throughout the rest of the story, Cody wrestles with the bitterness he's held onto his whole life and a newfound respect for another individual. Jay's behavior gets his mind working. If they had been permitted each other's company for a couple years, I could easily see Cody turning away from his old life and rebuilding it from scratch.

But once Jay dies, that door closes. Jay's influence hasn't had enough time to take root. If anything, the ray of hope entering Cody's life only to leave it again makes him all the more bitter. He decides not to change his behavior or apologize for it, and that ultimately seals his fate. Like everyone else on the island (except Jay, whose time had come naturally), he would pay for his past misdeeds with his life. (It's no accident that the two survivors of the island consist of the only innocent character and the only penitent character. Admittedly, the pilot and Mr. Small were blameless in the context of the story, but, as they're peripheral characters, they don't count.)

Of course, it's a bit of a vicious circle. Cody was bad, so he had to die, but the reverse is also true. I didn't have a place for Cody in the climactic finale, so he had to die, so he had to be bad. Yes, Cody told me who he was, but as a consequence of where the story had to go. Having Cody be not just a thief but a murderer was a fairly last-minute revelation. I was initially just going to have him show his true colors as an unapologetically vindictive thief -- but it didn't feel strong enough or convincing enough, and in trying to solve that problem, I realized Cody must have killed his father. As a wonderful side effect of that, it provided me with a way to correct the manner in which Cody is lured to the island. That same letter, which reads so innocently to anyone not in the know, reads like the perfect blackmail letter to Cody himself.

As to the manner of Cody's death, I thought it would be fun to make use of the old mystery cliche where somebody solves the mystery and is immediately killed thereafter. Cody seemed like the perfect choice for that, since he's smart enough to put some clues together and he had to die anyway.

I also wanted to use the great, great mystery cliche about the lights being shut off suddenly and somebody being shot or stabbed in the dark. This is a particular staple of old B-movies. Mystery movie series like Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, The Saint, The Falcon, Mr. Wong, and many others used this simple device so much you could set your watch to it. More upscale entertainment used it, too. Agatha Christie used it in A Murder Is Announced, where one of the key threads of investigation was how the lights got shut off in the first place.

So I had to use that idea as well, especially since I had already made darkened versions of the locations for night scenes. Note, though, that it doesn't quite make sense, because it's daytime (well, dusk, let's say) when Cody's murder happens. There should have been enough light coming in the windows to illuminate the room. But I couldn't set it at night! If I used darkened interiors, you wouldn't be able to see when the lights were shut off. If I used lit interiors, you'd see sunshine coming in the windows. So the scene had to be set in the daytime, and I had to fudge the light levels.

Chapter 6: The Backstory Revealed

In retrospect, this is probably not as interesting a chapter as it is when you read it the first time. Filling in all the details of the backstory -- what Piper Downs was all about, why everybody came to the island, what Hayley and Matt were up to, who Katie really was, and so on -- gives the impression of answering more questions than it really does. For me, already aware of all these answers by this point, it felt like sort of an uninteresting chapter. I liked the other stuff in it, but so much of the chapter is all about grinding through the backstory, which ultimately didn't interest me that much -- especially with the big revelations right around the corner.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I realized people were responding well to it. In retrospect, I guess it's because the story was starting to pay off as well as continue to build. No longer was the story just cranking through one unexplained murder after another. From this chapter on, the story was getting a lot more done than just incrementing the body count.

Still, I felt like this chapter was a lot of grunt work and bookkeeping. Where I was really eager to be was in the very next chapter, which would solve every mystery and take people by extra surprise because the solution would be coming two installments sooner than anybody could have expected.

Chapter 6: Ramona's Flashback

My favorite part of chapter 6 was Ramona's flashback. This was one scene where I had to be very forward-thinking, just as I had to be in chapter 5 to set it up. Ramona's nighttime apology to Hayley gets replayed, but the scene continues, and now we know what she was apologizing for -- clocking Hayley on the noggin! (It had to be a clock, but it didn't even occur to me to make sure it showed the correct time, which it didn't. I was completely thrown when the image was displayed in chat and someone mentioned what time it said.)

Anyway, we now know that this flashback doesn't quite indicate what really happened with Buck. But it does not lie. The flashback is 100% accurate and lies only by omission. It was a fun writing challenge to set that up, so that it doesn't look like I'm omitting part of the story. Of course, Ramona, in telling the story, would have been careful that way too.

In this flashback, we see just how stupid Buck is. We also see how I nearly screwed up but was able to recover in the end. Ramona fires a gun, and the shots are not heard up at the hotel. But Matt was (allegedly, and at the time truthfully) down at the beach when Camille was killed -- but heard the shots and came running. That lead to the following snippet of conversation immediately afterward:

asterismW: No one heard that?
10Kan: asterism: It's a small island, but it's not that small.
Sam: That's probably a storyteller's error. In my imagination, the beach is far enough away that they might not be heard.
asterismW: Ah.
asterismW: Matt heard the last gunshots from the beach...
10Kan: Hmm, you're right.
10Kan: *clue*
Sam: Oh yeah!
Sam: Ok, I totally screwed that up.
Sam: Let's pretend there's a silencer on that gun.

But when I thought more about it, I realized I didn't want a silencer on that gun, and 10Kan was absolutely right -- this was a clue. So, when I edited the transcript, I removed this conversation and let the sequence stand without my admission of error. Good thing Matt was a badguy, or I wouldn't have gotten away with it.

I enjoyed writing Hayley's moment of protest just prior to Ramona telling the story. It had to be written in such a way as to obscure the fact that Hayley was the real killer. But that wasn't interesting to me so much as Ramona's side of the conversation. I really have no idea what gave me the idea that their mother was the reason the two sisters turned out so differently. I just got to thinking about why they turned out so differently, and I realized it had to be a broken home.

I wrote before how this relationship came to life for me first in their helicopter ride and more so when Ramona is anguished over her treatment of Tyler. Here, the final piece fell into place, and suddenly their relationship with each other as sisters made complete and total sense. Hayley was always praised and loved, and Ramona was ignored. That's why Ramona wore her hair that way and took on shady jobs and hung out with people like Katie. She was trying to prove herself, to assert her independence, to make her mark upon the world in a way that could not be ignored or denied. It was a cry for the attention she never got at home.

Briefly, I wondered why Ramona loved her sister. Wouldn't she resent her? But one moment's consideration of what I already knew of Hayley, I realized, no, Ramona didn't resent her because Hayley took no pleasure in the favor she curried from her mother. Instead, Hayley sought to compensate by looking out for Ramona, protecting her wherever, whenever, and however she could. Ramona recognized that and continued to love her sister even when she had lost the respect and concern she might have had for anybody else in the world. Perhaps she even saw Hayley as a surrogate mother and only after her experiences on the island (starting here, with her confession of Buck's murder, but especially after witnessing Hayley's devastation at Matt's betrayal) started to return that protective love and treat her like a sister on equal terms.

This train of thought made Hayley and Ramona two of the most fascinating (to me) characters that I've ever written about. And truly this was a case of the characters teaching me who they were, rather than me actively creating them. The thoughts in the preceding paragraph only came to me as I was writing chapter 6, but the evidence of that relationship were already in place. It's evident in their very first scene, way back in chapter 2. And it fueled their story right up to the very end.

And ultimately, to put it humorously but entirely truthfully, it saved their lives. This relationship became the heart of the story, and that made it important to see it through to the end. By comparison, Hayley's romance with Matt was downright insubstantial -- much more easily broken.

Chapter 7: Julie Unmasked

This was my Talking Killer chapter. This was the moment where the hero and the killer face off, and instead of one shooting the other dead, the killer helpfully explains every detail of the evil scheme. There was a line I intended to give Julie all along but, when I got to actually writing the scene, couldn't slip into the flow of conversation. I was going to have Julie talk about how, to compensate for being outnumbered in the game she was playing, she got to know the rules. One of the rules would be that if anybody correctly guessed what she was up to, she would have to answer their questions truthfully. Thus, when Hayley solves the murders, Julie was obligated to answer her questions.

It's the sort of detail that sounded good ahead of time but proved unnecessary in the moment. The chapter is about Hayley assuming control of the situation and of Julie, and with that in mind it simply makes sense that Julie cooperates. No further explanation is needed.

I mentioned before how chapter 6 has Matt as the active character, while this one had to have Hayley running the show. Chapter 6 was about Matt looking like a hero while subtly steering suspicion away from Julie and onto other targets. He knew Cody killed his father, of course, and perhaps the previous night he and Julie decided that it was time to expose that fact and try to pin the island murders on him.

But now Cody is dead, and Matt is going to play things cool at this point. Hayley suddenly finds herself in an extremely distressing position. The killer must now be her sister, her boyfriend, or a stranger with iron-clad alibis for all but one of the murders. Time for Hayley to shine. And time, too, for Julie to shine. To escalate the tensions between the characters and keep people guessing, I had to have Julie put up a convincing defense. Hayley would have the gun, and so, to equalize the weight of power between them and crank up the tension, Julie would have to be the dominant personality.

And indeed, although Hayley has the gun, Julie is in control. In that conversation, Julie makes persuasive arguments why Hayley shouldn't trust Matt or Ramona, why Ramona shouldn't trust Matt, and why Matt shouldn't trust Ramona -- all while being aware of her ally in Hayley's camp. Julie's power is so dominant that even when she loses, by Hayley thinking her way through all the ruses, she still wins. Julie simply reverts to her faked death plan, which enables her to roam the island freely, while her spy in Hayley's camp remains undetected.

In writing Julie's scenes, though, I was conscious that if Julie's arguments were too persuasive, and if she looked too much in control, people would suspect her. In fact, that's just how it worked out -- a couple people commented that Julie must be playing everybody. But I did what I could to fend that off by having Julie remain respectful of Hayley's independence of thought. She states her case but not in a way that directly confronts what her boyfriend and sister have to say. And when Hayley makes her decision, Julie accepts it. Despite that some people guessed her guilt (with how much conviction, I do not know), I think this was the right way to play the scene.

Again, Julie wins by losing. Hayley has figured almost everything out, and she'd still have been defeated except that she figured out the last piece and devised a plan for how to handle it. Reflecting on the story now, I am inordinately pleased with the battle of wits between Hayley and Julie. I think both characters come out looking pretty ingenious, and I love them for it. (In very different ways, of course.)

I gave a lot of thought to the order in which questions are answered. There was a lot of information to convey all at once, and if I did it in the wrong order, one answer would spoil another before I got to it. Pacing was important as well. Reveal answers too quickly, and it becomes confusing. Reveal them too slowly, and people figure it out ahead of you.

I decided the discovery of the secret passage would be least revealing and should therefore come first. It gives away how Camille was killed and provides a logical but non-obvious way of deducing who killed her. Of course I had to have a flashback in there to spell out what Julie did. I could have gotten the point across without it, but there is something compelling about flashbacks in murder mysteries. There is more impact being shown what happened, rather than simply being told. I suppose that's why so many mystery movies use flashbacks to explain themselves.

There is one gaping hole in Julie's plan, by the way, and nobody ever called me on it. How did Julie plan to get off the island? I really have no idea. If she and Matt had waited for someone to miss the helicopter pilot and go investigating, they'd be found alone on an island with a lot of dead bodies and been brought to justice. Later, Matt even suggests leaving Hayley alive on the island, where she'd be the only survivor and therefore presumed the killer. But how would Julie and Matt be able to escape and leave Hayley behind? I really have no idea.

Chapter 8: The Calm Before the Storm

It all could have ended after chapter 7. There could have been an epilogue, describing how they got off the island, and Ramona got her life together, and Matt proposed again and got a better answer out of Hayley. There really aren't any unanswered questions at this point, nor any promised character development yet to be fulfilled. This is one of the few chapters that doesn't end on a cliffhanger, and I quite liked that. Because, in a way, the lack of a cliffhanger is a cliffhanger itself -- everybody knew there would be two more installments coming. So what was I possibly going to do with them? I was quite pleased at the reaction to this.

We all know now, of course, what story I had left to tell. The question for me became how to divide it between the two remaining installments. The obvious breaking point, the moment when Hayley and Matt each conclude the other must be the killer and face off, was the one I went with, and as it worked out, that seemed to be the best cliffhanger of the story. (I particularly enjoyed, with every sadistic bone in my body, LaZorra's cry of anguish at the appearance of the "End of Chapter" notice.)

But I considered other endings for chapter 8. End the chapter immediately after the discovery of Ramona's body? Good, but not as good. After the reveal of Matt as the badguy and Hayley helpless at gunpoint? Maybe, but I felt that if I revealed Matt as the badguy and gave people time to think about the ramifications of that, they'd guess that Julie wasn't really dead. How about after the reveal that Julie is still alive? Same problem: undoing a death (revealing the lie of the X's in the eyes, no less!) set the stage for other deaths to be undone as well, and Ramona's reappearance would not be so surprising.

So my first thought was the right one, that the story should end with the standoff. That meant the majority of chapter 8 would be pretty relaxed stuff. I thought this was a minor problem at first, but in the end I enjoyed the chance to calm everybody down for a while and crank through some character scenes without the murder plot getting in my way.

Chapter 8: Hayley

A lot of Hayley's dialogue in chapter 8 is interesting to reread with the knowledge of the ending in mind. Foremost is the scene with Matt, where she expresses her horror at Matt's execution of Julie. But she executed Buck just as mercilessly! So what's she talking about?

She's not being hypocritical. In my mind, Hayley suffered a grievous psychological wound from her execution of Buck. She's too practical to blame herself. It was him or her sister. But cold logic does little to avert a crisis of conscience. I think that throughout chapter 7 and 8, the severity of what she did dawns on her, and she comes face to face with the discovery that she was capable of it. The critical moment comes when she witnesses Matt execute Julie right in front of her eyes. In that moment, she is able to observe what she did the previous night -- and she doesn't like what she sees. She tells Matt, "The look in your eyes when you pulled that trigger...." and really she's wondering if that's what she looked like in that moment. She says, "It frightened me. For a moment, I...I just didn't know who you were." She is really wondering who she herself is.

All this necessitated the precise events on the cliff in the following chapter. There had to be a moment, I realized, where Hayley could kill Julie and could be excused for doing so, but she chooses not to. Though it might mean her life, she would act to save Julie and not to kill her. More on that later.

I stress that my message is not that, under the circumstances, Hayley was wrong to kill Buck or would have been wrong to drop Julie off the cliff. I would like to think that, if a stranger were attacking someone I love and I saw no other way to protect that person, I would kill without compunction or regret. I hope I never have to be put in that situation. But I'm sure that if I were, and I did, there would be a moral reckoning afterward, and the emotional sense I made of the situation might not line up with the logical sense. In Hayley's case, honestly, I think she should have dropped Julie. The woman was actively in the process of trying to kill her and her sister. But I admire Hayley for saving her.

Anyway, I had to be careful about how I wrote Hayley's chapter 8 dialogue with Matt and also with Ramona. People thought at first that Ramona was lying about killing Buck, but by this time I think I had convinced people it was the truth. I had to remain true to the real story without giving away any hints. (I was pleased when Hayley finally does confess, and people seemed to think she was lying.)

Chapter 8: Faking Ramona's Death

Despite how laid back this chapter was, I had an awful lot of logistics to get through, and I didn't know how I'd get through some of them until the last minute. One, I had to have the characters alone with each other at various times, but I couldn't set up an ideal opportunity for Matt and Julie to strike, or it wouldn't make any sense that they didn't take it. So I set conversation between Matt and Hayley near the house, where Ramona presumably wouldn't be far away, and otherwise I had Hayley and Ramona together as much as possible.

The business of the gun was problematic. It was filled with blanks, and Matt had to replace the blanks with real bullets, but before Hayley and Ramona got hold of the gun and put the blanks back in. I had to do all this while not giving away that anything funny was going on with the gun at all.

The solution I finally stumbled upon was having Matt with the gun, which would retroactively be understood as when he replaced the bullets, and Hayley getting it from of him but not directly manipulating it herself. I'm still not sure this was the best solution, but I enjoyed the speculation it triggered, since it made both Matt and Hayley look like they might be up to something (which of course they were) but not what.

In leading up to the discovery of Ramona's body, my concern was to make the characters look equally innocent. Should they find the body together? (No, because then I'd have to set up a previous opportunity where either of them could have slipped away and killed her -- too much narrative grunt work.) Should Hayley find it first, second, or roughly the same time? No matter how I played it out in my mind, Hayley looked substantially more innocent than Matt. Hayley and Ramona had an established relationship, as played out in scenes alone together. To believe Hayley killed Ramona, one would have to reconcile Hayley's behavior in all those other scenes. Matt, however, never had a single scene alone with Ramona.

Finally I realized that the way to equalize the scales would be to tell the story from Matt's point of view. The point of view you use to tell a story inherently suggests honesty about the character, because it puts the reader in that person's shoes. So instead of trying to get Hayley to discover the body and Matt show up later, the scene should stay with Matt. We hear, but do not see, Hayley's discovery of Ramona -- that naturally leads to speculation about whether what we heard was what we thought we heard or not -- and watch Matt run to see what's wrong.

The reality, of course, is that Matt is a bad guy but truly didn't kill Ramona. It therefore made sense to try to make clear his innocence of Ramona's death as much as possible.

Why did I hang Ramona, instead of shooting or stabbing her? Probably just because I still had the hanging idea in my head from when I was going to hang Buck. But it worked out, because hanging isn't something characters in pulp mysteries come back from. You can be shot and stabbed and knocked out but still have enough life to stumble to your feet and rescue or attack the hero in the final moments. But hanging, while it can be faked, isn't something you can recover from.

I'm proud of how the crosscutting at the end turned out. This was part of the logistical challenge I had in setting up Ramona's fake death. Both characters had to race for guns, but where should the guns be? I never set up the island geography to have circular paths in it. If there were more than one way from the beach to the house, for example, they could each take a different path. But there's really only one way to get from one place to another, which meant that the characters had to run in the same direction, which would be confusing. Tossing Matt's gun into the woods allowed the overlap to be minimal. Since they're already near the house, Hayley could beat him to the door, and Matt could diverge from there to the gun in the woods. To cover for Hayley having more scenery to walk through to get to her gun, I had Matt not quite able to find his at first, which made sense anyway, since it was just thrown into the woods at random.

Though the standoff takes place by the pool, I still think of it as taking place in the path in the woods, because that's where I imagined it ever since I knew it would happen.

The Last Session: Structuring the Rest of the Story

In stark contrast to chapter 8, there was a lot to do for the last session. I realized I had four basic sections to grind through, and that lent itself beautifully to that night's bots. Three bots permitted four story sections -- one at the beginning, two between bot games, and one at the end. I haven't said much about format yet, but format was always in the back of my mind, to the point where I rearranged or rescheduled a couple of bot games to fit the story better. Some bot games, for instance, allow storytelling to occur between rounds (e.g., most of the voting games), while others do not (e.g., most of the speed games).

On the other side of things, sometimes I had story to tell during bot games, and sometimes I didn't. Some portions of the story could be told during bot games, while others required full breaks. I couldn't deliver huge monologues during bot games, and nor could I tell complex or fast-paced sections of the story. The best pieces to tell during games, two or three lines at a time, were the slower, simpler scenes that didn't have a lot of important emotional notes: Cody chatting to Jay about the island, Camille flirting with people, and so on. There was less and less of that as the story went on, and nothing at all in the final installment that could work when people were distracted by a game.

Chapter 9: Revelations

But like I say, the final installment broke up neatly into four segments with nice cliffhangers to carry from one to the next. Of course I had to end the first with Julie shooting Hayley. But I was fearful about that, because I figured, ok, without showing Hayley bloodied and X'ed and sideways, nobody's going to think Hayley was actually shot. So my problem was how to close off the obvious lines of speculation (e.g., Julie shot Matt instead -- the line "Time to die, Hayley," hopefully cut that one off) without giving the game away. But I figured if people had time to think after that moment, they could deduce what Hayley and Ramona were up to. Ultimately I decided that the best way to handle that was to plunge into a bot game right after that scene ended and distract people's attention.

I agonized over the pacing of the next part more than probably any other. Again, tell the story too fast, and the revelations don't have time to register. Tell it too slowly, and people figure it out. So I had to reveal that the gun had blanks in it and let that register before moving on to Hayley's "I totally conned you" dialogue, and then let that register before having Ramona appear.

Ramona, by the way, was so much fun to write for. Even after she stopped being verbally cruel all the time, I could still give her all kinds of crazy wisecracks. The "fiber in your diet" one was probably too corny, but I just enjoyed writing for her too much not to take full advantage of the opportunity to give her whatever fun lines I could think of.

I also had a lot of narrative work to do here without screwing up my pacing. I had to do some of it in the heat of the moment, like when Julie says to Matt that he was supposed to replace the blanks with real bullets, and Matt saying he did. And Julie and Matt each realizing that the other did not, in fact, kill Ramona. But I pushed what I could to the quieter scene in the basement later. Then I could take my time and let the characters explain what happened while also working through the emotional ramifications. It's a little information heavy, but I think the underlying emotional context -- Hayley trying to understand why her boyfriend has betrayed her like this -- provides the required momentum to drive the story through the scene.

Chapter 9: Catfight on the Cliffs

I couldn't simply whisk Julie and Matt off to jail, though. How anticlimactic would that have been? They both had to die. It's some kind of rule in stories like this.

Might as well just have Julie get Matt out of the way. Matt's just the henchman. I liked the idea of Julie killing him, because ultimately they both die by their own actions. Matt dies because he didn't shoot Hayley. Julie dies, if you think about it, because she didn't let Matt live. It's hard to imagine that, with the element of surprise on their side, Julie and Matt together couldn't have overpowered Hayley and Ramona. But Julie chose to go it alone, and that was her mistake.

So she had to sneak out onto the cliff, the natural setting for a climactic battle, and find Hayley alone, because going up against both sisters at the same time wouldn't have been smart. Right away, I had a potential plothole. Why would she go after Hayley with a knife if she could readily get her hands on a gun? That's the only reason I had her check the secret passage and not find any guns. Realistically, I don't know why Hayley and Ramona would have bothered to move the guns. They obviously weren't anticipating that their prisoners might escape.

So yeah, knife fight on the cliff. This was the last part of the story I wrote. I actually wrote the epilogue and the credits before this part. Partly because the only idea I had for the fight was the Batman sequence, and I knew it had to be more involved than that. But once I got into the actual writing, the rest of the scene became clear to me. Hayley needed to have that moment of choosing not to kill Julie. I had to write that part carefully, because I couldn't afford to make Hayley look stupid rather than noble. Hayley would save Julie, but I had to make it clear she didn't trust a word of Julie's desperate promises. This is why Hayley is openly scornful of what Julie has to say.

And then I had to reverse the situation -- put Hayley at Julie's mercy -- so that Ramona could come back and save the day. The game Julie says she'll play, cutting off Hayley's fingers until she loses her grip, is terribly gruesome but deliciously evil. I thought of it basically in the moment of writing it, just as a way to let Julie gloat for a few moments before Ramona saved the day.

Chapter 9: A Moment of Grief

Let me backtrack for a moment. It was important to do justice to Hayley and the terrible betrayal she had just experienced. I had the scene with her and Matt, which cranked through some answers, but I had to get Hayley out of Matt's presence and show her breaking down and trying to cope. I worried that this would make Hayley look weak, and that's why I have her self-conscious about her crying and quick to affirm that she will stop mourning when she's off the island. But she had to have that moment. You just can't be with someone that long, experience a betrayal like that, and not be utterly devastated.

Furthermore, this provided Ramona with an opportunity to start supporting her sister, so it really worked out nicely for me. It was one of those things that served all characters so well, you might admire me for setting it up so beautifully, but of course the reality is that I did not set it up at all. I just got very lucky that the pieces fell into place.

Perhaps it was an error, though, to play the scene after we learn that Julie has escaped and is on her way to finish them off. It increased the tension of the scene, yes, but perhaps the tension distracted from the emotional weight of Hayley's breakdown. It might have been better to follow Hayley out of the basement, up to the cliff, show her crying with Ramona, and then return to chronicle Julie's escape. Then cut back to the cliff and run the dialogue about Ramona fixing dinner.

Chapter 9: Closing the Chapter

So Julie splatters at the bottom of the cliff, and the chapter closes with both sisters collapsed on the ground, panting heavily, and Ramona delivering the news of Matt's death. This brief scene was more trouble to get right than any other, and I don't think I truly got it. I really needed more than just dialogue to make it work, and I considered reverting to normal prose description for it. I just didn't think dialogue was the way to end the scene.

The scene in my mind is probably impossible to get through with only dialogue. Hayley is breathing very heavily, on the ground but maybe propping herself up by one or both hands. She's concentrating on catching her breath and doesn't really have the energy to do more than that.

Ramona is also winded but not as much, and her attention is on her sister. "Matt's dead," she says, and watches Hayley to see how she'll take that. Hayley doesn't respond at first. She's still breathing heavily. She looks up, meets Ramona's eyes, and through no obvious physical gesture, acknowledges the news. Hayley holds Ramona's gaze a moment longer, then looks down and says, "I'm gonna take a nap," between breaths. She lowers herself to the ground. She closes her eyes, and her breathing gradually returns to normal. "Right here," she says, and in moments is asleep.

That's what happened there. I tried so many different ways to get that across in dialogue and asterisked actions, but none of it worked. Finally I had to settle on less narration instead of more, and try to get by on lengthy timing and wordless reaction shots. It still wasn't what was in my head -- what I had written needed proper prose or a movie to convey.

End of chapter 9. I figured people might be temporarily fooled into thinking that meant it was the end of the story, but I didn't do that on purpose. I just didn't think it made any sense to stuff the epilogue off the island into the same chapter. So I ended the chapter. I was amused but worried when people started exclaiming, "THAT'S the end??" Amused, because of course it wasn't. Worried, because I wasn't entirely certain that my real ending was any more satisfying. It was, thankfully, but I could have ended it after chapter 9 without any obviously missing pieces. And as much trouble as I had with the ending of chapter 9, I had nearly as much ending chapter 10. I had no way to get a huge, celebratory ending to this story. Hayley's heart had been crushed, and on top of that there had to be a reckoning for Buck's murder. Heavy stuff. There's really no way to jump from that to a hilarious, triumphant, feel-good epilogue, like what the UBT #3 story had. This was not that kind of story.

Chapter 10: Miles

Introducing a major character in the last chapter breaks every rule of storytelling there is. Well, ok, maybe it really only breaks one rule: don't introduce a major character in the last chapter.

The scene worked, but it shouldn't have. I brought in the character of Miles for one reason only -- I needed someone for Hayley to tell the story of Buck's murder to. I only knew I'd need an additional character for this once I knew what would happen to all the island characters. The best I could do to set him up was to have Matt refer to his old partner back in chapter 6. So at least when we suddenly meet Miles, he's not totally coming out of the blue.

The trick to this was how to keep it as short as possible and still establish the character, his relationship to Hayley (both past and present), and wrap up the story. I thought a lot about this scene before I ever got to writing it. Mentally, I noted all the points their conversation would have to hit. Lines stuck in my head like "You know how I feel about you" and others that told a lot in just a few words. The puzzle was figuring out a natural flow of conversation that could house them. Lines like that were important, because I didn't want to get bogged down in an explicit history of their relationship, but I still needed to get the general idea across. They've been friends for a long time, but they'd never been together. Miles carries a torch for her. The feeling isn't quite mutual, but Hayley treasures him as a uniquely special friend, and that's an arrangement that works for both of them.

It wasn't until actually writing the scene, though, that I realized that it would be better if Miles and Hayley had known each other all their lives. Perhaps Hayley even met Matt through Miles. The lifelong friendship would be the best way to establish Miles as an ideal confidant. As such, however, my original plan -- that Hayley's confidant would decide for himself that she was justified and let the matter drop -- wouldn't work. As someone with a personal interest in Hayley, Miles wouldn't be able to make that judgment honestly. On top of that, Ramona survived the story! So to protect Hayley would have meant getting Ramona in trouble for something she didn't do. Hayley would never allow that.

So Miles would have to arrest Hayley. To keep him sympathetic, he'd have to be extremely resistant to do it, and she'd have to be the one to make him.

There were a few little tricks I used to preserve the surprise of Buck's true killer for as long as possible. I figured if I just had Hayley jump right into the flashback without a confession first, people would guess where it was going. So I had Hayley confess first but then have Miles immediately chime in with an idea that was perfectly in character -- that Hayley was lying. Then we see the flashback, and then Miles realizes it's the truth after all. I was thrilled to see that this actually worked. When Hayley confessed, people exclaimed "Nooooooooooo!" At first I thought they were dismayed that Hayley had actually done it until Maryam said, "Hey, maybe she really did," and Crystal109 said, "Yeah, maybe."

So I finished writing the flashback, and it was a terrific amount of fun to write more lines for Buck. My favorite line was "That dangly bit? That's called the trig--" which I thought would get some Girl Power cheers, but I guess that wasn't the mood of the scene.

When the flashback closes, finally all the mysteries of the island have been revealed, and the only question now is what happens to the characters at this point.

Miles arrests Hayley. I was thinking I'd have to give him a line of dialogue explaining that her shooting of Buck could not truly be considered self-defense, as he was not at that point attacking her (and in fact was unarmed and at her mercy). But the line didn't seem to fit.

They drive off in the car. And then...I just didn't have the slightest idea where to go from there. I knew I'd be telling the last little bit with title cards, like you see at the end of movies sometimes, but how could I possibly end the scene with Miles? I must have rewritten the last few lines half a dozen times, trying one direction, realizing it didn't go anywhere, and starting over. I just couldn't find that perfect note to fade out on.

When I finally did, Hayley asking Miles to look after Ramona, I didn't recognize that I had found it. I kept trying to think how the conversation would progress from that point. It didn't. And finally -- thankfully -- I realized that all I needed to do was have Hayley smile. If she smiled, then I'd have my fade-out moment. She smiles, because although she's facing a potentially lengthy prison sentence, her sister is finally going to be ok, and that's enough for her.

Throughout the story, the usually enthusiastic reception of my audience was wonderful to see. That's why doing things like this is rewarding for me, above and beyond the inherent joys of the writing process. No other single response to my story, not even the deafening LOLs throughout the credits, were more gratifying to me than the :'-) and the "....Wow" and the "*sigh* :-(" that followed the fade out on Hayley's smile. I really didn't think my ending would play in chat as well as it did in my head, but apparently I reached what I was aiming for...which was so much more, this time, than the straight comedy of UBT #3's story. (Not that I had any idea how deep it would go when I started it.) So thank you, readers, for paying such enthusiastic attention to my little game. Without a doubt, the last two UBT's have been the most enjoyable and satisfying RinkWorks projects I've done in a long time.

Chapter 10: Ramona's Hair

Once the bittersweet ending hit home, it was time to ease away and lighten up and get people laughing and cheering again. The credits were always going to do that. But before the credits rolled, I had those last title cards to write. What was going to happen to the characters? Ramona, of course, would have to have her new hairdo. I'm telling the absolute truth: I did not have the idea to do anything with Ramona's hairdo until I actually wrote the line where she says she would change it. It was purely a character moment. Ramona was turning away from her rebelliousness, and it seemed like admitting her hairdo was silly and planning to get rid of it would be a great way to illustrate the evolution of her character. But once the line was written, then I realized I needed to follow through. And then, of course, the joke that her hair would be even worse than before was blatantly obvious. I did a Google image search on terms like "crazy hair," found a bunch of pictures of ridiculous hairdos, and photoshopped bits of them in. What still showed of her original hair was turned purple. The two blonde braids were actually taken from the picture of Genevieve.

Chapter 10: Hayley's Trial

On a more serious note, I had to figure out what should happen to Hayley. As you know, she gets off. Buck's death is ruled a justifiable homicide. It was interesting to see how different people reacted to that. When I ran the chapter in the tournament session, everybody cheered. When I reran the last chapter for Kysle and Myrth the following day, the reaction was quite different. Kysle said, "No way that would happen." Myrth said, "Americans with their mandatory Happy Endings...."

To the latter comment, I certainly do not deny that American stories often force happy endings where they don't belong -- but I must also say that this is no worse than the European tendency to force sad endings where they don't belong. Stories should have the endings they should have -- not the endings that reinforce a particular worldview, be it optimistic or cynical.

In this case, I think the happy ending is justified. But right up until the last moment, I didn't think I could have one. From the point I realized Hayley killed Buck to the point I sat down to write the last title cards, I figured Hayley would have to go to prison for a minimum of five years -- which still would have been a very light sentence. I admit I wanted her sentence to be as light as possible -- it broke my heart to think of her in prison for long -- but I felt I had to decide upon a sentence that was realistic.

So I started doing some legal research. Obviously I'm no lawyer, and I wasn't going to burn hours on the job, but I looked into what, in the United States, a crime like Hayley's would get her.

It was not self-defense. I knew that going in. But I read up on self-defense anyway, in case any of the principles overlapped with her case. I found that in some states, a defendant claiming self-defense must prove that he made a reasonable attempt to avoid conflict before resorting to violence. The defendant must, in other words, attempt to retreat from the conflict. Though Hayley could not claim self-defense, surely the fact that she was trapped on an island with just one building and therefore unable to retreat from the conflict would help her case.

So I read up on "justifiable homicide." This is, I learned, a very controversial defense. Different states and countries have different rules about what constitutes justifiable homicide, and usually there is no clear, defining line between justifiable and unjustifiable homicides. The most clear cut cases weren't helpful to me. A judge, for example, is excused from guilt when pronouncing a death sentence. A soldier at war is justified in killing an enemy, unless the enemy has surrendered. And so on.

In crimes of passion, one might claim a defense of "provocation." You can say you were provoked, and you killed in the heat of the moment. Certainly Buck was provoking Hayley, with all his insults and threats against her and her sister. But words alone usually are not sufficient to count as provocation in the legal sense. The threat of violence...maybe. But even then -- a defense of provocation usually only reduces a charge of murder to voluntary manslaughter. It's probably not going to get someone completely off the hook.

So this still didn't tell me how Hayley would wind up, but at least it told me what the likely charge was going to be. That gave me a good starting point in my quest to discover her sentence.

I did some further research on United States laws concerning justifiable homicide. (The trick with United States law is that every state is different, but this was advantageous for me, as it provided a greater range of plausible outcomes.) A homicide might be considered justified if it is done to prevent the commission of a serious crime, like armed robbery, rape, or murder.

It might be considered justified. Now, in Hayley's case, would it? Well, the intent of the victim to commit such a crime has to be clear. Hayley's tape recording of Buck's gloating confession took care of that. Her inability to retreat from conflict was another point in her favor. But the fact that she could have simply tied Buck up was a strike against her. On the other hand, there is the fact that Buck wasn't the only killer and leaving him alive would not be sufficient to prevent future murders. Finally, what really favors Hayley's case is that the three prior murders proved Buck's threats were real, not just hot air, and at that point it was reasonable enough to assume that everybody had all been lured to the island in order to be murdered.

Under the circumstances, I could no longer envision a jury finding Hayley guilty. And so I felt, against my initial expectations, that the right ending was to let her off.

I was happy about that, because I didn't really want anything bad to happen to her. Over the course of the story, I had come to love her as a character, and putting her away would have been heartwrenching for me. (This is how alive fictional characters can become.) But as I say, I was fully prepared to lock her up.

What was important to me was that Hayley give herself up thinking that it could very well mean she'd go to jail for a long time. She didn't have to do the time, but she had to be willing to, for the welfare of her sister. That's why I never had Miles try to reassure Hayley that she had a chance of getting off with a light sentence, or none at all.

Hayley is almost too good to believe. She's smart, beautiful, and self-sacrificing beyond comprehension. Characters like this aren't normally that interesting, but what makes her interesting to me is how much she suffers for her virtues. The favor she curried from her mother brought her no satisfaction. Her protection of Ramona nearly lands her in jail. Her trust in Matt leads to a hard fall when he's found out. She spends so much time giving to others that she doesn't know how to take. I hate to think how Hayley would have fared if Ramona hadn't been there at the end to comfort her. She wouldn't have known how to get help for herself.

But the end offers hope that Hayley's constant self-sacrifice will change. Ramona won't be leaning on her so much in the future and will be doing a better job of returning support. And Miles is obviously a good guy that will be able to support her. Not that she is an especially needy individual, by any stretch of the imagination.

Hayley's Kids

I don't know where the idea came from, but once I realized it would be hilarious if Ricardo, Sven, and Ivy -- the three siblings from the UBT #3 story -- were Hayley's kids, I knew it was too good a joke to pass up. I thought if it before I thought of the blooper idea, too, and when I was still thinking Hayley was going to jail -- so I was all the more pleased by it for how it would pull readers out of the bittersweet ending and into a happier mood. It breaks my heart to think that Hayley and Miles end up like the characters in UBT #3, and I'm tempted to say that that was just a joke, that they don't really end up that way. The opportunity was just too good.

The only thing I couldn't remember is if I ever gave those UBT #3 characters first names. I was pretty sure I didn't, but I couldn't remember how they were credited at the end. The credits, of course, frequently reveal names never used before. So I checked, and fortunately they were only credited as "Mom von Steppenwergen" and "Dad von Steppenwergen." So I was all set to make them Hayley and Miles without creating any factual inconsistencies. I blithely ignored the change in the characters' personality and speech patterns. I wasn't about to have Hayley start saying "Landsakes!" just to set up the twist.

The Bloopers

TalkingDog gave me the idea for the bloopers. After the chapter where Julie gets shot, the ensuing conversation included this snippet:

Sam: Yeah, I actually have a lot to say about Cody and Jay in the eventual author's note I shall write when this is all over.
Eric: Is there going to be a director's commentary to the story?
Sam: Oh yeah.
TalkingDog: What about a blooper reel?
Eric: haha
NessaChan: deleted scenes?
LaZorra: LOL
LaZorra: TD: That would RULE.
TalkingDog: That was a joke for a sec there, but now I'm serious. A blooper reel would rock.
LaZorra: It would!

I was amused, but I didn't think publishing a bunch of bloopers after the fact would be worthwhile. But once I realized I could run them during the credits, I got all excited. The bloopers were the last things to be written -- earlier that same day. (I'd started writing the final session four days previously. It took me that long to write the story, do all the image editing work, assemble the credits, and so on.) It was a tremendous amount of fun. In particular, I loved the opportunity to write sympathetic lines for Julie.

There was one blooper I conceived ahead of time and completely forgot to write. It was another take on Cody's confession scene. The scene plays out properly, and the time comes for Cody to finally say "FOR KILLING MY FATHER!" -- but he just says "..." and then "I forgot my line."

The Credits

I had scrolling end credits for UBT #3, and for the most part I just copied what I had done before and made up new names. For the most part, there isn't much to say, but there are several in-jokes in the cast of characters.

Hayley's last name is never mentioned in the story, so I had to come up with a last name for her. While Hayley wasn't exactly named after Hayley Mills, the young British actress that appeared in a lot of Disney films from the 1960s like Pollyanna and The Parent Trap, I always liked Hayley Mills, and that's probably why I've always liked the name and probably why I thought of it for this story. I did an IMDb search for Hayley Mills and checked out the last names of characters she's played. In the 1968 film Twisted Nerve, she played a character named Susan Harper. Harper sounded good. I used it.

By the way, Hayley was almost called Genevieve. I actually can't remember if my original idea was to have her real name be Genevieve and her alias Katie, or her real name Katie and her alias Genevieve. I quickly discovered, however, just how difficult "Genevieve" is to type quickly, and so I relegated the name to the character that had been voted dead first. Improvising a story quickly was enough of a challenge without easily typoed names.

Jay, of course, was played by Pat Morita, who played Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid movies. Might as well acknowledge his inspiration. I went a step further and had Cody be played by Ralph Macchio, who was the kid in three of the four. There's a superficial resemblance, just as Julie Parris superficially resembles Sarah Michelle Gellar. But these are jokes only; I'd hate to think of these actors when I think of the characters. This was true of the UBT #3 credits, too. Matt, of course, doesn't resemble Herve Villechaize at all, but that's the joke.

Camille didn't have a last name in the story, either. In the credits, she's named Camille Gautier, which is a very roundabout reference to a great 1936 film called Camille, which starred Greta Garbo as a character named Marguerite Gautier. I had her be played by Gene Tierney, again for the superficial physical resemblance, though Camille was hardly the kind of role she tended to play. Tierney was great at smart, sultry femme fatales, not trashy airheads.

Genevieve's last name was a real reach. I checked IMDb for actresses who had played characters named Genevieve. There is not much of a selection, but I noticed that the French actress Simone Signoret (the first actress to win an Oscar for a performance in a foreign language film) played a character called Genevieve in a 1963 movie called Sweet and Sour. So Genevieve's last name became Signoret.

Miles von Steppenwergen was played by Robert Young, mostly because I couldn't think of a better idea. Again, there is a superficial physical resemblance, this time very superficial.

And Mr. Small? It's obvious, isn't it? "Bubba" is the only possible first name for him.

The Songs

At first, I was trying to figure out what other rap song I could set nonsense lyrics to. Can't Touch This? Gangsta's Paradise? I could have had fun with either, but I guess I just thought I had covered the territory adequately the first time.

When Cotton-Eyed Joe came to mind, it just seemed kind of natural to have more sensible lyrics that described the plot of the story, and I had a lot of fun with that.

The Chatter, a parody of The Gambler, by Kenny Rogers, was actually written in 2006, for RinkUnion VI in Colorado. I didn't wind up actually performing the song, but when I was scrounging for additional material for the UBT #4 credits, I remembered those lyrics and figured this would be a good place to use them.


I don't know why I didn't think to use a fake studio logo at the end of UBT #3. It seemed like an obvious idea this time, so I don't know why it never occurred to me the last time. But once the idea occurred, honestly, what other logo could I have possibly used?

Closing Remarks

I couldn't be happier with out the story turned out. Despite knowing full well that the experience of writing UBT #3 could not be recreated, somehow I wound up with a story that I think I enjoyed even more. It's very different, of course. UBT #4 is considerably darker and more dramatic, although I did try to work in what humor I could. (It got harder after Tyler and Camille, my comic relief characters, were voted out, but it was probably right to ease away from the humor at that point anyhow.)

Once again, I am reluctant to leave these characters behind, just because I came to love them so much. But what more is there to say about any of them?

The question now is, what can I possibly do for UBT #5 this summer? I think the answer is that I'd like to actually play a UBT again. And so I shall.

But I do have an idea -- a smaller idea, but an idea -- for something I think will be fun. Until then....

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