Tale as Old as Time

Tale as Old as Time

I haven’t seen the remake of Beauty and the Beast. Not for any moralistic reasons (although if there was one, it’d be that it’s not gay enough) but because movies are expensive until they settle into the more financially accessible venues of second-run theaters.

But I will say that Beauty and the Beast is my favorite non-The Great Mouse Detective animated film Disney has produced. While The Little Mermaid has perhaps the most perfectly paced story of the 90’s Disney Renaissance (because I guess we just throw that word now like rice at a wedding), it was Beauty that fully captured a full spectrum of perspectives– think how many songs are actually sung by Belle? Or the Beast? The animated film is fully fleshed out emotionally by outsiders examining the simple love plot at the heart of the story.

That’s the immediate reason why I’d say Beauty is superior to a lot of other Disney films, but there’s some folkloric magic inside that movie that isn’t so apparent– and it’s an element that connects it to Disney’s earlier ventures of animating established fairy tales:

Beauty and the Beast is Blue Beard.

For all you cultureless heathens out there, Blue Beard is the fairy tale of a young woman who marries a count or whatever. He’s a rich dude with a blue beard who’s had many wives over the years, all of whom have disappeared under rather dubious circumstances.

Fun fact: while blue beards existed in the way-way back, red flags did not.

Anywhatsit, this gal is given everything she desires– nice clothes, good food, bitchin’ jewelry, radical skateboarding half-pipes, you name it– with the one exception that she couldn’t enter this one door. After some filler, you better know that she opens that door. Inside is all of the dismembered corpses of Blue Beard’s former spouses. Blue Beard catches her in the act and draws his sword, about to slice his young wife into skirt steak– but oh! She protests! And depending on the version either her brother or some strapping young knight hears her screaming and comes along and stabs Blue Beard until he’s nothing but pudding. It’s a happy, gruesome ending.

The Disney version is arguably a little different.

The basic buildings blocks are all still there though: a pretty, possibly naïve, young girl is imprisoned in a castle (I’m not even going to make the grim comparison with marriage here), she’s given every comfort personified furniture can give her (“Be… our… GUEST…”), but she’s forbidden to enter a particular room (and when she does, Big Bad Beastie Boy flies into a rage. Just not a decapitation-happy one).

The deviations from the fairy tale are actually pretty clever: the forbidden room doesn’t contain a bunch of corpses, but a wilting magical rose symbolic of Beast Bro’s incapability to love. And there’s some overlap there with the rudimentary tale– a room full of dead wives sends a pretty direct message that Blue Beard has the wrong idea of what it’s like to commit. But the greater idea is that this is about control– both Blue Beard and Beasty Bitty Boom Boom are angry because a woman went against their wishes. The former reacts violently, whereas the latter learns how to let go– ultimately letting Belle leave the castle.

Aww.

The shining knight in armor also turns out to be a huge piece of douche-gristle who assumes the maiden needs saving and attempts to kill the monster despite the lady’s protestations. It’s just a great piece of contextual fairy tale irony. Gaston dies a fairly gruesome death (for a kid’s movie) while the monster gets the girl. That’d be like if Grendel killed Beowulf and hooked up with a Scandinavian princess on Beowulf’s grave.

It’s also a good study of how to take basic storytelling principles and turn them on their head. Fairytales have rules to them– they had to, because they were a spoken tradition sang drunkenly at parties. Rules are a lot easier to remember than details (which you can just make up on the spot) and Beauty‘s an excellent example of changing around a few details to better suit the story for a modern audience, while keeping the primary code intact.

And you might be saying, “The Little Mermaid was a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale and they changed a lot of stuff!”

To which I would say, “While that is true, Anderson was more of a Victorian-aged author of short-stories that resembled fairy tales, but didn’t have quite the spoken traditionalism behind his work– which isn’t a bad thing. He did what Disney did. I would also like to mention that Anderson’s The Little Mermaid culminates in the mermaid committing suicide and, while that’s totally metal for a story about fish-women, there wasn’t any room for Anderson’s knack for sadism during Bush’s America. Now please leave, Straw Man, I’m sure you have to go startle some birds off a cornfield.”

Beauty and the Beast is just a solid example of spinning an old story in a way that’s easily digestible. It’s able to sublimate Blue Beard‘s more gruesome details with romantic flourishes such that it becomes something almost unrecognizable from it’s predecessor. And that’s essentially the goal of writing fiction, isn’t it? Finding opportunities for novelty in a story that’s been told a million times over? In that way, despite being a story about some hot nerd nursing a burning loin for a bear-demon, Beauty and the Beast succeeds creatively.

Could be gayer, though.

 

S-Town and Tangential Storytelling

S-Town and Tangential Storytelling

Spoiler alert for the podcast S-Town. I ruin it.

So if you party like I do then you’ve already binged the entirety of NPR’s S-Town podcast on a Saturday night while sharing a fifth of cheap Scotch with your best friend, a crayon drawing of a sad woman on a napkin.

Anyway.

S-Town is a fantastic journey revolving around the troubled redneck genius John B. McClemore– and during those revolutions, a layer from the small town in rural Alabama is shaved off and inspected thoroughly, revealing that every inch of this place has John’s DNA somehow embedded into it, even well after his suicide. It’s a mind-blowing piece of investigative, empathetic journalism.

And there’s a popular theory that John himself “authored” the narrative of this story from the very beginning and there’s a lot of tempting evidence that this is the case. Too many metaphors make too much sense. You have the “null set” of the maze which not only summarizes John’s philosophy on his own life (there’s no solution and yet you’re trapped in an experience of convoluted twists and turns and frustrations) but also that of his thoughts on climate change (no solution to the biggest problems that plague us)– the pessimism is almost redundant. There’s never any solution, just problems, of which John bitches about constantly. Brian Reed even suspects that John had set up the “null-set” on purpose early on in the series. And that carries an implicative weight to the other puzzles John has proposed: namely, the murder that wasn’t a murder and his hidden stashes of gold that might not actually be buried. Problems without solutions. Wild goose chases. Geese chases? Never mind.

There are other metaphors, of course. One of the most striking is how John gilds a dime to give to Brian using potassium cyanide. He ingests the same chemical later to kill himself. The beautifully grim metaphor, if there is one, is that John was symbolically turned to gold on the inside. (Sidebar: it could very well be that this is the metaphorical gold that John has sent Travis to look for– not material wealth, but the appreciation of their friendship once he’s departed. But that rings a little too smug and cold, even for John. It sounds too much like every high-schooler’s threat “you’ll miss me when I’m gone.”) The gold metaphor comes full circle when it’s revealed that John’s other preferred gilding practices likely incurred gradually detrimental brain damage similar to the Mad Hatter’s disease.

So did John just use Brian Reed to enact a dramatic suicide note? My take? Not really. You’d have to discount the tireless work Brian and his team did to find this extremely personal narrative, slogging through hundreds of hours of audio. S-Town is a testament to how important editing is– how essential scene selection can be for an emotional payoff. John was a man who rambled, rambled coherently maybe, but shot off from one subject to the next until it inevitably spiraled into climate change and the doom of his shit town, Woodstock.

John also thought in metaphorical concepts. He’s a clock-fixer-upper, it makes sense that he could create complicated stories with people acting like the cogs that turn against each other… but again I feel like that’s a disservice to the amount of work put into this thing and the narrative constraint they put upon it. S-Town could have been many things, if based on John’s metaphors alone. But everyone involved in production was smart about it and they made it into a journalistic novel not unlike Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

And I salute them for a storytelling strategy that often goes unappreciated– that of constant deviation and tangential leaps. I think, because John was who he was, this was almost inevitable. Well, that and the fact that the first story (the non-murder) would have rang kind of flat if not for Reed’s post-mortem investigation into the intrigues of Woodstock.

If you think about it, the narrative goes from hanging out with John (noting his pierced nipples), to the murder investigation, to the suicide, to the familial troubles of John’s family which branches off into two distinct parallel perspectives (Travis and Rita, the former of which is now searching for gold, the latter of which tried to get those nipple rings as a keepsake from the coroner), both of which leading towards contacting the lawyer and town clerk (Faye), which opens a lot of questions which leads towards John’s perhaps most intimate friend and the explanation of the “flagellation” ritual of piercing his nipples repeatedly.  It could be that I’m bad at summarizing things, but I think I got the basic story down.

I’m using the nipple ring motif because it’s something that first appears as a random, almost unnecessary detail that keeps returning as a slightly more relevant (even contentious) detail before the symbolic weight of the piercings are finally revealed. It’s also the perfect example of a little quirk that binds two disparate narratives together. Of all the legal conflicts between Travis and Rita, it’s the nipple rings that apparently affect both on a solely emotional level. And for Travis, the explanation brought us back to John’s workshop, practicing their “Church” service, one of the last images we have of John in S-Town‘s narrative. It initially came off as thematically forced to thread the story along before Reed and his team finally let the last Tetris block fall into place.

The art of tangential storytelling is that if you take enough left turns, you’ll eventually end up where you started, but, like all stories, you’ll have gained perspective. By the end of S-Town we’ve gained the perspectives of many people who’ve interacted with John, but in a sad way, once the series is over, we’re back to a world where John doesn’t exist and are forced to ask the question, am I the better for knowing this man? S-Town (or Woodstock), too, like the gloomy protagonist always insists, is more or less the same town it always was, minus an eccentric that many of the townsfolk preferred not to know. Are they the better for having this series released?

The latter is the kind of question I can’t answer definitively. I think exploitation was avoided as much as it could’ve been. Not that it might matter to the people of Woodstock. “Fuck it,” is the motto for telling everything upfront, after all. In that, I feel, there is some elemental truth of honesty. The tattoo artist is upfront about his racism and Reed, while hiding the fact that he’s married to a black woman and is Jewish, accepts that and moves on to other topics of discussion. He does it without necessarily demonizing the guy. That was a lateral move of empathy, uncomfortable though it may have been, on Reed’s part to keep on digging for the story– and he found it (summarily: John would get a tattoo every time the shop was in the red to give them enough business to get ’em back to black). Effectively Reed piloted a narrative into a crash-landing in shark-infested waters and made the story about the sharks and where they swim. But they’re not as scary as you’ve come to believe. That’s the kind of opportunity that this kind of story mechanic allows for.

The structure of tangential storytelling is more intuitive than you might think. After all, the recipe for the second act of a hardboiled detective novel or police procedural TV show is rooted in the act of interviewing people. This is what translates so elegantly to the podcast format of S-Town– Reed acts as detective running down leads on his deceased friend and picking up common threads between seemingly unrelated perspectives. We see those interactions recorded as they happen and we love it. It’s why you’ll remember scenes from All the President’s Men if not the actual newspaper article that broke Watergate. Just like John’s riddle of where he left his gold, it’s the journey that’s more important than the outcome.

Which might be trite but nonetheless true.

I suppose it’s because that journey uses every tangent as a discursive opportunity to explore an element of John’s life or otherwise his impact of the people he left behind– and their lives in S-Town. To bring up my favorite book on earth,  The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño employs the extreme method of using 52 narrators to account for the actions and whereabouts of two scummy poets over the course of several years. The plot of the novel is entirely implicative, obscured by the dozens of stories people tell, not only about the poets, but about their own secrets, troubles, impulses, mental illnesses, historical fascinations and racial biases. It tells of the evasive duo, but not without letting in the reader about their own life. Likewise, John B. McClemore is sort of a magnet thrown into a mine. He’s always at the center of things, but everything/one that sticks to him is also fascinating.

Which nullifies the “null-set” paradigm of reading S-Town. At least on a cynical level– I doubt that John’s dream of a suicide note would include intimate details about his rhinoceros-skinned nipples. It includes everybody he’s known, and while he’s had his own time to devise his time on earth, it’s the people that he’s interacted with that get to spin his legend. And everyone’s got a different outlook on the guy. He’s been many things. But there are common threads of kindness, pettiness, embarrassment, cowardice, success and failure…

And through these many lenses we get the character of John from the outside looking inward.

 

Object Permanence and Logical Sequencing

Object Permanence and Logical Sequencing

Once upon a time my super happy, super pregnant Intro to Creative Writing Fiction teacher had a baby fall out of her and had to take some time off. We finished off the year with a super sardonic, grim-faced teaching fellow named Jen.

Jen brought something to our attention that I’d never considered before. You know the phenomena of how once you learn a new word, you can’t help but notice it everywhere? Or like how I always see the ghost of Mary Tyler Moore trying to untie a knot in a yo-yo in the corner of my eyes? Everywhere I fucking go? The point is this concept is a universal plague.

It’s the lack of object permanence in writing.

Simple concept, right? It’s one of the first “skills” you come to learn as a pathetic little baby through the repetitive game of peek-a-boo. During that period of development, one comes to understand that a person or thing still exists despite the object being out of view. It’s a thing we take for granted until we have to create a written narrative that guides a reader as smoothly as possible through a sequence of events.

I’m talking about how a character will, say, fill a glass of water from the faucet early in a scene and then, shortly after, punches somebody in the face without ever mentioning the water again. Did the character drink it? Did he put the glass down? Or did he punch someone in the face with the glass of water in his hand? Another example: “Kelly lit her pipe. Kelly took a bite of cereal.” Did she eat the cereal with the pipe in her mouth? Stop laughing in the back, this is serious. If she did, how? These are the kinds of questions you don’t want your reader to be asking.

So just go ahead and answer the questions before they’re questions, dig?

Ground the scene in action. Have the character take a sip– or, have him deliberately not take a sip of water, before clearly stating that the glass goes back on the table, or smashes to the ground or whatever. It doesn’t matter just as long as you’re telling the reader what’s happening with the inventory you’ve introduced on the page. This creates a wide variety of opportunities to do a bit of characterization because it forces you– and the reader– to understand why the character made a choice and what values are inherent in that choice. Is Kelly the kind of slob who’s figured out a way to eat cereal while smoking a pipe? Is Beef McSweat the kind of guy who puts his glass down before throwing ‘bows? Or does he smash it on the floor?

It’s also part of logically sequencing a scene so as to build tension and demonstrate a rising conflict. If you were to study the amazing opening scene of Inglourious Basterds, you’ll notice that meticulous attention is paid to the objects on set. In the linked scene above, it’s primarily LaPadite’s pipe and Landa’s glass of milk that get the primary focus. You’ll notice how when the characters handle those items, it speaks to their values– LaPadite nervously chews on the pipe while Landa joyfully sips his milk while discussing social Darwinistic metaphors. Even how LaPadite passes the glass of milk slowly over to Landa suggests that he is hesitant to give Landa what he wants, but he will.

And that kind of descriptive, implicit action is only effective when attention is paid to the treatment of those objects– there isn’t a single shot in which LaPadite’s pipe is out of place. You see him put the pipe in his mouth. It doesn’t go back on the table or out of his mouth without you seeing him remove his pipe. You don’t see him light the match, but you do hear the sound design of a match being lit before it cuts to him lighting his pipe. Likewise, you don’t see Landa shift in his chair at first, but you do hear the noise his chair makes. This level of detail is why movies have script supervisors: consistency, context and logic that seamlessly flows through dozens of shots and probably hundreds of takes.

When you don’t have that kind of anal retentive attention to detail, you’ll find that objects will disappear out of characters’ hands like electrons dipping in and out of existence like in the Heisenberg Principle. Even if it’s on a subconscious level, this’ll force the reader out of the story. I see a lot of lists of actions that are not correlated to each other, divided by dialogue. And making it a linear sequence is too simple: choose a single object and a single action responding to that object. There will be a reaction.

Paying close attention to this will also show you what’s unnecessary through sheer tyranny of effort. Did your character really need to hold a dodge ball at that moment in time? No? Can you make it fit? No? Ditch it. A lot of writers will fill in blank space with what they just did/ are doing/ will do/ shit they like. Some of the time it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. How many times have you written a character smoking a cigarette because that’s what you would do? Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t. But make sure if a habit hasn’t been established, make it a big deal by paying attention to where the butt goes after it’s spent.

The zealous approach to object permanence in writing is to ground the surroundings to such a fine detail that it becomes boring minutiae. That isn’t what I’m suggesting you do. Writing a paragraph about folding laundry, followed by another paragraph on washing dishes, followed by another paragraph on alphabetizing the sections of the newspapers before dropping them into the recycling bin is a waste of studious talent. (Unless, I guess, you’re doing something like Murakami.)

Point is, you’re not supposed to notice the movements of the object in hand at first– which only happens if you complete the interaction with said object. We might know on an instinctual level what LaPadite passing the milk across the table means when we see it, but not on an intellectual level until after the scene and whole movie is over. You’re supposed to take it for granted– which is why it’s so easy to overlook the absence of object consistency in the editing passes.

So before you become a lice-ridden, self-conscious creature, here are some situations when you don’t really need to keep follow-through in mind, while still maintaining consistency: when you are summarily describing events (“Dude ate breakfast. Dude left for work.” We don’t need to see him eat breakfast in a play by play.); if it’s habitual (“Dude lit the 21st cigarette of the day.” We assume he does something with the butts.); if actions are actually implied between the action and context (“Dude cracked a beer and talked my ear off for twenty minutes about steel beams and grays stealing his skin. Dude cracked another beer…” It’s implied that he finished the first one.)

It might sound like a cynical perspective to say that all human beings are materialistic– but we’d be simple monkeys without the tools we learned to make in way-way-back. We attach meaning to the things we hold through the actions we make with them. A hammer hammers nails. It only makes sense that a hammer needs to be in the hands of a carpenter while he’s a-nailing, instead of his lunch pail.

Unless you’re being ironic.

 

Big Bang: Action and Reaction

Big Bang: Action and Reaction

My brother recently posted a link to the wiki page of Reflexivity, which is a pretty fascinating social concept if you want to get into it. In short:

Reflexivity refers to circular relationships between cause and effect. A reflexive relationship is bidirectional with both the cause and the effect affecting one another in a relationship in which neither can be assigned as causes or effects.

It made me reflect on why a lot of my earlier writing was stagnant and I boiled it down to the fact that the story itself  wouldn’t move. Characters would respond to their own agendas, instead of each other’s. Or worse, they wouldn’t do anything at all, just idly soaking up the setting I’d provided until something dramatic happened to them. The story would muddle into itself, pooling into an incomprehensible, too-clever-for-its-own-good gooey mess.

The thing I always try to remind myself is to root the story in action. Simple motto, sure, but it’s a surprisingly non-instinctual one for those of us who shoved our brains into the English major– you spend more time figuring out what something means instead of why it works.

By bringing everything down to the world of action, the story becomes clearer because it doesn’t get bogged down in descriptive language or exposition– you can always fill in the stylistic flourishes later. It also forces the writer to respond to each action with a reaction from another character in play– or the setting itself (man punches wall, light fixture falls on his head)– and then forces the instigator to respond to the situation they’ve created.

Which provides an excellent opportunity for characterization. Actions, after all, speak louder than words, even if they’re subtle. Compare “Mr. Beemouth looked dismissive…” with “Mr. Beemouth cleaned his ear with his pinky finger and examined it while Ms. Rawwwwwk spoke.”

Some famous schmuck said a long time ago that the hardest part of writing fiction is making the character leave the room. That’s a question of motivation which is a tricky thing to figure out in the drafting stages. Thinking in terms of action makes that problem a little easier to solve. What are they responding to? Personally, I’m a fan of pro-active characters, idiot savants, who create the problem themselves and complicate it by attempting to solve it (see: Fish Fox Boys) or characters like Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, who complicate the story by aggressively hammering themselves into it and then catching what shakes loose in the chaos (see: Muddy Sunset).

To bring up a modern filmic example of muddied and clear action sequences, look no further than the final fight scenes of The Avengers and Captain America: Civil War. In The Avengers, the scene becomes confusing the moment the army of alien invaders come on stage. The action becomes hard to track– the plane takes a hit from a passing enemy and has to crash land, Iron man shoots a bunch of missiles and a bunch of the aliens explode, and then does more of the same, yada yada yada… it’s hard to describe, in part because of modern shooting and editing practices, but I feel it’s because the actual cause and effect of the battle becomes obscured in its vainglorious attempt to overwhelm the audience (which isn’t to say that large-scale battle scenes are worthless– Kurosawa figured out how to lineate the sequences such that a scene could be personal while still pulling off gigantic fight scenes).

You compare that to the final fight scene in Civil War? Shiiiieeeet. Every blow is accounted for. There’s more emotional weight to it and while part of that is the viewer’s internal conflict watching two beloved characters beat the Christ out of each other, that weight is telegraphed by pure, violent action– with almost no atmosphere or dialogue. It’s just action met with reaction, stripped down the the bare essentials. And it tells a better story, I think, because it follows a logical sequence.

Novelty: Jazz and Chess

Novelty: Jazz and Chess

“_____ is like chess” is the laziest simile there is in the English language. Supposedly, everything is like chess, right? Relationships, raising dogs, building roads, checkers, sex, and building Gundam models. The message is that something requires strategy. Like chess.

Writing is like chess for a different, less contrived reason. Radiolab did an episode a while back about the possible moves in chess. Since the 1600’s chess moves and positions have been recorded culminating into a huuuuge Russian library of games. There are hundreds of thousands of moves. It went online and expanded further. They describe it as a galaxy of possibilities. As a result, chess became an exercise of rote moves and countermoves– essentially prescribing the entire game before it starts. But as the episode points out, as certain games progress, the number of games a move has appeared gets smaller and smaller until a move occurs that has never occurred in history. They call it the Novelty and it’s supposed to be very exciting.

I bring this up because the question of originality comes up a lot in writing. When a piece of work is called “cliché” or “hackneyed” or “trite,” it’s usually a sign of laziness of the writer, right? After all, they just took the concept of X and dumped it into Y.

And maybe that’s unfair. It’s a disappointing experience, sure, but all work is derivative. I’m not defending plagiarism, which is a problem which should be dealt with by means of shovel-punching, but I’m saying once an idea works, the only way to go forward is to try deviations of that idea a million times over.

The Story Grid Podcast got into this a little bit when they discussed how every pitch in the 90s was basically “It’s Die Hard… wait for it… INSIDE OF A WHALE. WhhhhaaaaOOOOAAAAA!!!” It’s how memes work. You make a joke and then you drag it through every possible version until someone makes the best one and then wins some short-lived validation.

Better example: Cowboy Bebop. Jazz, noir, western, and sci-fi were all established genres before 1998. That gem had the audacity to combine all of those elements into something no one had ever scene before. And guess what? Four years later, that recipe was copied and repackaged as Firefly.  Those two television programs are undeniably their own thing, despite sharing the same DNA.

There’s a whole website dedicated to cataloguing the conceits that occur repeatedly in pop culture. And yet, new content, even if it mimics previous works, can bring us new experiences.

It’s almost impossible not to make a written piece your own thing, even if you’re “painting by numbers.” David Wong had a quote on this that I couldn’t find, so here’s a similar one about how the personality of a writer inevitably bleeds into the work:

You can’t write fiction that’s not at least a little bit biographical, since you’re writing it from inside your own head and filtering everything through your own experiences. Even if you aren’t directly recreating scenes from your own childhood or whatever, you’re still writing about your own anxieties and hopes and it’s all filtered through your own view of the world.

And that’s a great thing. In a world of an ever expanding ocean of literature with the rise of self-publishing, it’s heartening to recognize that each book, if written in earnest, has at the very least personal value in the pages. That novelty is something that can still be attained despite the flood of content. I once read a book by an indie author and it was laughably terrible– but I have to give the writer credit that I had never read a hardboiled detective novel in which the main character sings karaoke and gets laid instead of solving the crime.

The way that originality seems to work is by slogging through tropes and clichés and turning them on their heads when you see the opportunity– it has been explained to me by very smart people that this technique is why Shakespeare was somewhat popular in his own time. And there’s a lesson there: you play off the expectations of the reader/audience with the cliché and then subvert the cliché, creating a pleasurable irony.

That’s how jazz itself works, right? If you’re familiar with the complexities of musical theory, you can improvise on top of it.

It might sound like I’m justifying dubious writing practices, but remember this: books are organized by genre and sold by keywords and metadata. Inevitably, you’re going to have to study the obligations of that genre and the various recognizable tropes within basic storytelling. And then you’re going to contribute your own variation.

Because we don’t stand on the shoulders of giants. It’s more like a Yertle the Turtle situation.

 

Enterprises of Great Pith and Moment, Fear and Loathing

Enterprises of Great Pith and Moment, Fear and Loathing

Disappointment alert: there’s not anything here about Hunter S. Thompson.

“Brevity is the soul of wit,” says Polonius, an ironically longwinded gasbag in Hamlet. But he’s got a point. Clever turns of phrase are measured in their pithiness. A lot can be crammed in a single sentence. The infamous “To be, or not to be” phrase that appears in Hamlet has staying power because in five simple words the audience is asked a probing, disturbing question: Is existence better than nonexistence?

Last time we discussed implicit stories by maintaining control of narrative information. This time, let’s get into the implicit stories told by individual lines.

For there to be a story weighted to a phrase, there needs to an implied question– which in turn implies an underlining conflict. You know who understands this very well? Advertisers. Sometimes they give you the answer to the question first, like a slimy Alex Trebek. Then you figure out the question and complete the story on a subconscious level:

Just Do It.

The question in your head is something like “will I or won’t I?” with the underlying conflict being a testament of courage. It becomes “Am I brave enough to do it?” And then this shoe tells you to go for it.

I’m Loving It.

The presupposed question is “DO YOU LIKE THIS HAMBURGER, HUMAN?” And you love it.

Some advertisers just give you the question and have you answer it. But they do it in a shitty way. It’s not, “What would you do for a Klondike bar?” its “What would YOU do for a Klondike bar,” asking you to plumb your depths and find the most appealing depraved act you could possibly stomach for a freezer-candy. “What’s in YOUR wallet.” Etc.

It’s effective marketing because it puts you into the story. Moving on.

The phrase “I do,” summons an entire scene specific to your own history of witnessing weddings, even if you’ve never been to one. The phrase “I didn’t” should probably conjure up a specific memory of shifting the blame to someone else when you broke that vase as a kid. Point is, the less information you provide, the more the reader fills in.

Now. There’s the urban legend of Hemingway’s six word novel. Supposedly (*cough*falsely*cough*), Ernest penned the following in exchange for zeroing out his bar tab:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

The implicit story is clear: that The Beatles got the idea to smoke pot from Bob Dy–haha, just kidding, a baby’s dead and an impoverished parent is reduced to selling the shoes. It’s tragic and concise. It tells a complete story. It’s not a novel.

The distinction of a novel is defined somewhat arbitrarily by word count– Starting around ~40,000 – ~50,000 words. I supposed you would call the baby shoe thing flash fiction. I’m not really going to argue whether or not flash fiction has merit– we’ve already gone into the power of short, implicit phrases– but I do want this to come around to long-form story telling, because the baby shoe “novel” feels kind of cheap and exploitive of the reader’s emotions.

So, flash fiction is fun and also kind of bullshit. I like Twitter. I also get bored reading Twitter. You know why pop music is grating? It’s just a bunch of hooks jammed together. A meal is not a bunch of appetizers. A bone without meat on it is only good for making broth–I’M GETTING OFF MESSAGE.

Listen.

“To be, or not to be,” is fantastic in its divine simplicity. But despite how you might remember it, there’s more to the soliloquy, which not only further explores the merits of suicide and keepin’ on keepin’ on (as the bard puts it) but it also turns to the question of action. Is it better to act, or be idle? Hamlet kills Polonius a few scenes later, answering his question. (“Dead for a ducat.” Killing is easy, cheap.)

We remember the short, key phrases as a mental shortcut to the story. But they’d be worthless without the rest of the poetry in Hamlet. Imagine how disappointing the play would be if it was simply a guy yelling a single line per scene. It’d be two minutes long and while surely a greater story is implied, it’d be insubstantial garbage, no better than corporate advertising.

Don’t get me wrong, I want you to write the densest, most meaningful, most pregnantest lines possible. Give me pause or give me death! It’s just easy to forsake substance for style. And without substance, there’s no new challenge to the reader.

I’m still figuring this out. But I’ve noticed that there’s a methodical application of where to put your darlings for maximum effect:

  1. The hook for the scene (“To be, or not to be…)
  2. When accompanying an action (“Dead for a ducat…”)
  3. When closing a scene, or when a character exits (“To a nunnery, go”)

That last one’s got some stank on it.

Effectively, these encapsulate the idea and concept of the “meat” while also relaying questions for the audience to fill in (is life worth living; is death meaningful; is that not some cold-ass shit to say to your fiancé?).

Or you could give up and write poetry.

Black Box: The Art of Restraint

Black Box: The Art of Restraint

There’s a concept in illustration called artistic restraint– at least, that’s what I call it. It’s knowing when to stop adding texture and detail before you over-complicate the image and make it harder for the eye to engage with it. The idea is that the viewer will fill in the missing pieces subconsciously. The full image is implied by the artist’s “incomplete” rendering.

This applies to fiction and I’m not talking about brevity, either. I’m talking about the pacing of information, because in a lot of ways, the best examples are those that are technically “overly-complete,” in its exposition, while burying the lead– the grander narrative, so to speak– under layers of storytelling .

The classic example of this is Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” wherein a couple has an intense conversation without ever directly acknowledging the subject of debate. One of my professors once told me that this story was a failure, in that no one understood what the story was actually about until Hemingway gave it away in an interview. I kind of agree to an extent (anyone who tells you what that story is about was 99% likely to have been told themselves. It’s not exactly evident in the writing.) but I also appreciate that all readers understand that something bigger is going on in this little exchange.

Easier discussed examples are found in the horror genre. I’ve mentioned before that H.P. Lovecraft loves to obfuscate the true horrors of his stories with psychosis, doubt, and scientific reasoning, while only allowing a mere, vague glimpse of the monster before the story ends. His contemporaries, such as John Carpenter, do likewise– you never see what the Thing actually looks like, just the perversion of its replicated host. The doubt and conflict is born out of the fact that anybody could be the Thing.

A modern novel that understands informational control well is Bird Box by Josh Malerman. The premise is this: there are “somethings” floating around outside and if you see one of them, you go insane and kill yourself and those around you. The entire book is therefor written, essentially, blind whenever the characters are not inside of a boarded up house– which also creates a sense of blindness to the outside world, despite the sensory details of a home. The amount of information as to what the hell is happening is minimal, and experienced minimally. As such, there’s a pervading sense of paranoia and claustrophobia throughout the entire book, expressed through these sensory limitations. Also, the climax contains one of the most appalling things that has ever entered my brain.

It Follows takes this concept and makes it one of its primary themes. The horror is only experienced by the protagonist as they’re the only person who can see the monster in pursuit. Furthermore, it’s relevant only to their life, taking on the image of someone they know personally. Essentially, the cursed person’s experience of the horror is filled in by their own subconscious– generally with the broad strokes of Freudian of sexual formation (Jay first sees an elderly naked woman, possibly her grandmother; Greg sees his own mom in a night gown; Hugh claims to see a girl in a yellow dress). The horror experienced is a black box that no other character can access. What’s excellent about It Follows is that it spends just as much time with its secondary characters, usually slasher-fodder, and actually develops them into a unit of friends concerned about the protagonist undergoing a difficult time that they don’t understand– because they don’t have the information that the protagonist has. As much as you sympathize with the main character’s isolation, because you’ve been there, you also empathize with the others’, because you’ve been there today.

Information becomes currency in stories. Look at Silence of the Lambs and pay attention to what information does. The main storyline unfolds like a procedural tracking down Buffalo Bill until Hannibal Lector comes onto the scene. He understands that information is powerful. He delivers information about Jame Gumb to thread the narrative along for what? Information about Clarice Starling. Specifically, personal, traumatizing information about Clarice Starling’s childhood. Quid quo pro. It does something to a reader, having to face a character’s darkest memories. The reader, along with Clarice, has to access their own personal account of darkness and attach the weight of their own traumas to hers. But the character of Hannibal Lector does something even more insidious– he gets the reader to goddamn like him. You do what Crawford always warned Clarice about: you forget what he is. So when he finally bursts out of his cell via the grisliest means necessary, you’re suddenly stuck between cheering him on and personal betrayal accompanied with self-disgust.

It’s called a psychological thriller for a reason.

The thing that you carry away isn’t necessarily the way that the story ends, but how it affected you. Silence of the Lambs is effective because it’s main plot line is almost a red herring for the more subtle horror of Lector accessing Starling’s/your mind. Buffalo Bill is disturbing. Hannibal Lector is seductive. Silence does this by foiling Lector with Crawford, both manipulative men. The story controls its flow of information so carefully, that while you, along with Starling, are wary of Crawford who remains stoic, vague and unyielding of his intentions, you buy into Lector, who’s smart, polite and generous with his knowledge. It makes Starling, and you by extension, despite everything in her power to remain at the head of the curve, naive. 

The Black Mirror episodes, “Shut Up and Dance” and “White Bear” execute this perfectly by stringing along an increasingly cruel set of circumstances for the main character, encouraging our sympathy the entire time, before dropping the curtain and revealing who the main characters really are–a simple revelation that makes us question whether or not our sympathy was deserved. It puts the entire narrative we were just told into another light with a single line of information. That’s the power of limited perspective.

In the batshit crazy House of Leaves the information we are given is… a lot to take in. The worst but only way I can describe it: this is a book about a guy who’s writing about a book he found written by a different guy about a film a third guy made about his house that doesn’t make sense. And that’s just scratching the surface.  I think I’ve mentioned before that reading this book in public makes you look crazy– you have to turn it around to read all of the annotations, flipping through several pages, back and forth, as there are annotations to annotations, forcing you to reference the index in the back and you journey through the narrative only to find that it folds into itself endlessly. And then, if you’ve done the homework, solved the puzzles, educated yourself about architecture, documentary film-making, and cryptology… the real story emerges like a 3D painting.

And it happens weeks later after finishing the fucking thing. It’s a study in forming broad strokes via intricate design.

I know what you’re thinking: how does this relate to True Detective? Funny you should ask because I was just about to go there, you pidgeon-toed, gawking ratfink. Hardboiled noir fiction runs on the engine of gathering information about a crime or infidelity. Usually this is done with a progression of interviews, voyeurism, and clever deceits. Like all stories, it becomes complex and then it simplifies. Which you have in True Detective, expressed as a buddy cop procedural. Within that basic structure, you have the narrative device of flashbacks, contextual to the interviews of Cohle and Hart. It’s a simple thing to point out, but the fact that you see these guys as ruined, possibly insane old men makes you wonder what exactly the hell happened 18 years ago to warrant these changes.

 

True Detective also plays out as a horror story. There’s an encompassing feeling of dread threaded throughout the miniseries. But it’s only glanced at as reverberations in the “psychosphere,” mentioned by junkies, felt but never seen– the closest we come to seeing it is Cohle’s hallucination of the black star while he’s being choked out by Errol. Usually we see it in brief glimpses through Marty’s eyes– his daughter’s recreating a ritualistic murder scene with dolls, or the entropy of of a tasseled tiara stuck in a tree. Likewise, the protagonists never face the shadow society responsible for the historical murders in the area. They get Errol– which disappointed a lot of viewers but is thematically on point. Sticking with concrete leads brings them to a concrete, yet impotent conclusion and Cohle understands that the bigger, elusive (and allusive) culprits are still at large. Hart acknowledges their own limit of understanding by the consolation “We got our guy.” The story becomes complex in its information and then it simplifies, but the difference here is that there is still incomplete, complex, deliberately placed information that hasn’t been digested by the narrative, speaking of a much larger conspiracy that appears unconquerable.

All of this is to say that the most effective story you can tell is one that subtly asks the reader to tell themselves a story along with you. They’ll meet you halfway.