Consequences of the cut
Cutting the last scene was not without costs to the story. For the longest time, after removing this scene, something about what remained bothered me. I had trouble placing what was wrong.
The story went through editorial revisions and beta reads, none of which revealed what was bothering me. This process did convince me to add two scenes. The first was scene with the “paintball” fight in the noir city, which was intended to mix some action and worldbuilding in while revealing more of Kai’s personality. The second was the flashback scene where Kai and Melhi meet on the “neutral zone” battlefield, intended to introduce Melhi as more of a present threat in the story.
Something was still bothering me, even after these additions. It took me time to figure out exactly what it was, and I was able to pinpoint it in the weeks leading up to the story’s publication. (Which was good, as it allowed me to make some last-minute changes. I’m still not sure if they fixed the problem, but we were satisfied with them.)
The problem is this: removing the final scene hugely undermined Sophie as a character.
The deleted scene provides for us two complete characters. We have Kai, who wants to retreat into his fantasy world and live there without ever being forced to think about the falsehood he’s living. He wants just enough artificial challenge to sate him, but doesn’t want to explore life outside of the perfect world prepared for him.
As a contrast, we have Sophie, who refuses to live in the perfect world provided for her—and is so upset by it that she insists on trying to open the eyes of others in a violently destructive way. She tries to ruin their States, forcing them to confront the flaws in the system.
Neither is an ideal character. Sophie is bold, but reckless. Determined, but cruel. Kai is heroic, but hides deep insecurities. He is kindly, but also willfully ignorant. Even obstinately so. Each of their admirable attributes brings out the flaws in the other.
This works until the ending, with its reversal, which yanks the rug out from underneath the reader. Sophie’s death and the revelation that Kai has been played works narratively because it accomplishes what I like to term the “two-fold heist.” These are scenes that not only trick the character, but also trick the reader into feeling exactly what the character does. Not just through sympathy, but through personal experience.
Let’s see if I can explain it directly. The goal of this scene is to show Kai acting heroically, then undermine that by showing that his heroism was manipulated. Hopefully (and not every scene works on every reader) at the same time, the reader feels cheated in having enjoyed a thrilling action sequence, only to find out that it was without merit or consequences.
Usually, by the way, making readers feel things like this is kind of a bad idea. I feel it works in this sequence, however, and am actually rather proud of how it all plays out—character emotions, action, and theme all working together to reinforce a central concept.
Unfortunately, this twist also does something troubling. With the twist, instead of being a self-motivated person bent on changing the mind of someone trapped by the establishment, Sophie becomes a pawn without agency, a robot used only to further Kai’s development.
Realizing this left me with a difficult conundrum in the story. If we have an inkling that Sophie is Melhi too early, then the entire second half of the plot doesn’t work. But if we never know her as Melhi, then we’re left with an empty shell of a character, a direct contradiction to the person I’d planned for her to be.
Now, superficially, I suppose it didn’t matter if Melhi/Sophi was a real character. As I said in the first annotation, the core of the story is about Kai being manipulated by forces outside his control.
However, when a twist undermines character, I feel I’m in dangerous territory—straying into gimmicks instead of doing what I think makes lasting, powerful stories. The ultimate goal of this story is not in the twist, but in leading the reader on a more complex emotional journey. One of showing Kai being willing to accept change and look outward. His transformation is earned by his interaction with someone wildly different from himself, but also complex and fascinating. Making her shallow undermines the story deeply, as it then undermines his final journey.
There’s also the sexism problem. Now, talking about sexism in storytelling opens a huge can of worms, but I think we have to dig into it here. You see, a certain sexism dominates Kai’s world. Sophie herself points it out on several occasions. Life has taught him that everyone, particularly women, only exist to further his own goals. He’s a kind man, don’t get me wrong. But he’s also deeply rooted in a system that has taught him to think about things in a very sexist way. If the story reinforces this by leaving Sophie as a robot—with less inherent will than even the Machineborn programs that surround Kai—then we’ve got a story that is not only insulting, it fails even as it seems to be successful.
Maybe I’m overthinking this. I do have a tendency to do that. Either way, hopefully you now understand what I viewed as the problem with the story—and I probably described this at too great a length. As it stands, the annotation is probably going to be two-thirds talking about the problem, with only a fraction of that spent on the fix.
I will say that I debated long on what that fix should be. Did I put the epilogue back in, despite having determined that it broke the narrative flow? Was there another way to hint to the reader that there was more going on with Melhi than they assumed?
I dove into trying to give foreshadowing that “Melhi” was hiding something. I reworked the dialogue in the scene where Kai and Melhi meet in person, and I overemphasized that Melhi was hiding her true nature from him by meeting via a puppet. (Also foreshadowing that future puppets we meet might actually be Melhi herself.) I dropped several hints that Melhi was female, then changed the ending to have Wode outright say it.
In the end, I was forced to confront the challenge that this story might not be able to go both ways. I could choose one of two things. I could either have the ending be telegraphed and ruined, while Sophie was left as a visibly strong character. Or I could have the ending work, while leaving Sophie as more of a mystery, hopefully picked up on by readers as they finished or thought about the story.
The version we went with has Sophie being hinted as deeper, while preserving the ending. Even still, I’m not sure if Perfect State works better with or without the deleted scene. To be perfectly honest, I think the best way for it to work is actually for people to read the story first, think about it, then discover the deleted scene after they want to know more about what was going on.
Even as I was releasing the story, I became confident that this was the proper “fix.” To offer the story, then to give the coda in the form of Sophie’s viewpoint later on. It’s the sort of thing that is much more viable in the era of ebooks and the internet.
Either way, feel free to drop me a line and let me know what you think. Does it work better with or without the deleted scene? Do you like having read the story, then discovered this later? Am I way overthinking what is (to most of you) just a lighthearted post-cyberpunk story with giant robots?
Regardless, as always, thanks for reading.