Planning Your Escape

Planning Your Escape

You ask any number of readers (or gamers, or cinephiles, etc) why they read and I’ll bet you a shiny Sacagawea dollar that the number one answer is going to be “being teleported to another world.” (Popcorn flicks – “to turn my brain off for a while”; video games – “veg out and kill shit”; Netflix – “Chillll.”) Some call this “escapism.” I’m not here to judge the value of escapism, because I already know from personal experience that it’s practically necessary for the survival of my sanity. But looking at escapism from the creative perspective and the work that goes into it, there’s a few things I’ve noticed.

In writing circles, there’s a dumb phrase floating around called “World Building,” in which the writer conceptualizes the setting that their story is going to take place.

I’m pretty sure it’s a trap.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to understand the world you’re trying to  convey to the audience. Understanding spacial relationships within the story is important, too. Fleshing out characters, even minor ones, crucial. But I feel that writers often get stuck in this development phase and it’s tempting to stay there.

Consider HP Lovecraft, often considered the premiere cosmic-horror author, and to do this, consider all of HP Lovecraft’s annoying goddamn fans (BYE, NERDS! Don’t let the red X button hit you on the ass on your way out!). Lovecraftian nerds love to piece together an overarching mythology to Lovecraft’s work, because that’s what human beings do– we organize, label, and critique things. But if you start writing a comprehensive universe first, you’re essentially working backwards. My take is that HP built outwards (very elaborately) to satisfy the needs of the stories he was working on. From the Cthulhu Mythos wiki:

The view that there was no rigid structure is reinforced by S. T. Joshi, who stated “Lovecraft’s imaginary cosmogony was never a static system but rather a sort of aesthetic construct that remained ever adaptable to its creator’s developing personality and altering interests… [T]here was never a rigid system that might be posthumously appropriated… [T]he essence of the mythos lies not in a pantheon of imaginary deities nor in a cobwebby collection of forgotten tomes, but rather in a certain convincing cosmic attitude.”

Something to take from this is the likelihood that intricate, pre-fabricated (in the writer’s notebook) worlds can inhibit creativity. Think about it. If you built a world that featured, I don’t know, a fountain of banana flavored pudding, you’re very likely to move the direction towards that useless fountain instead of where the story needs to go. You’re going to feel obliged to show off your pudding fountain; if you didn’t, you would feel as if you’d wasted your time world building. That’s how you write yourself into a corner. Which is how lazy and contrived plot contrivances (eg- deus ex machina solutions) occur. Keeping things open allows for opportunities, forces the writer to make choices, and to arrive at something unexpected– you know, also known as “the joy of writing.” To offer another example, you can figure out exactly when Venture Bros turned shitty– and it’s at the precise moment that the comedic vehicle of the cartoon was exchanged in favor of in-depth story extrapolation. Compare that with Metalacolypse, which always brings its story to the brink of explanation and then blatantly disregards it. Metalacolypse stayed fresh because it stuck with its comedic guns, favored character over plot, and didn’t get stuck up its own ass.

Another take: Much like character sketching, developing values and rule is more important than the details (although the details should imply the values and yada yada yada). HP Lovecraft is not consistent with his “cosmogony”. He is consistent in his themes and paradigms (“the universe is an uncaring, mechanical place,” “true horror cannot be understood by human minds” etc). To offer another example, the Harry Potter universe isn’t the most consistent– except in its subversion of the ordinary (“This boot is a teleportation device!” “There’s a piece o’ soul in this snake!” “School is fun and zany!”) and its overarching themes (“Love is magic, PEOPLE.” “Racism is bad!”) which makes the series charming and feel cohesive.

A third take: Much of the Lovecraftian universe was organized and expanded on by other writers. The current expansion of the Harry Potter universe feels like an unnecessary shill. The expanded Star Wars universe (with the fine exception of KotOR) is an exercise of human futility. Seems weak to me. Don’t write fan fiction for your own story. Don’t write fan fiction. Write your story.

 

And I know what you’re thinking: Tolkien did it. Sure, Tolkien did it, but there’s some caveats to that argument. I haven’t read the Simarillion (fight me, why doncha), but I know that Tolkien included only a mere fraction of his notes in The Lord of The Rings (showing immense creative restraint to convey only enough as was necessary), and that he baked in his Roman Catholic values into the grain of the narrative which guided the story through its paces, instead of offering some kind of railcar tour of a bunch of stuff in Middle Earth. It’s also important to recognize that Tolkien was a philogist— he studied classical languages, literature and their historical context– and a large part of what Tolkien was doing was combining a lot of epic poetry and European mythology into a series more easily digestible by his modern audience.

There’s been a lot of fantasy churned out since Tolkien and a lot of it only goes so far as to mimic his work. But if you study the epic poems Tolkien sourced as influences (well hello, fellow English majors. How come you all look so sad all the time?), you need to remember that they are representing the world as it was– Beowulf was a modern narrative upon its original telling. So was The Green Knight. The world described in those poems is the world that they lived in with the addition of other worldly forces at play. After Tolkien we fetishized his aesthetic as the ultimate expression of fantasy– which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so much as it has become a tad stale as it may no longer reflect the world we live in.

It seems trite to conclude that the way to combat stale universe development is to “just look outside for inspiration! That’s what the poets of the middle ages did!” But it still has to be said. So remember:

  • Aesthetics are important, but not absolute. Like the way you can change your shirt if you spill nacho cheese on it.
  • It’s about a convincing atmosphere…
  • …which is often rooted in reality and then somehow subverted
  • Stay consistent in values
  • Heavy exposition drags. There’s no goddamn reason I need to know “that it rains sometimes on Klthgbak Mountain, a place our heroes will never visit, but will often think of, as Tostito Mojito’s mother was born on Klthgbak Mountain while it was raining.” You like that? I just made that up. Quit being part of the problem.
  • The Devil is in the Details but just this one time, the Devil is not your friend.
  • I bet you HBO calls me tomorrow hoping to develop Mountain Thinkers starring Christian Bale as Tostito Mojito’s mom because THE WORLD IS BROKEN.

 

 

Conflict is the Grandmother of All Invention

Conflict is the Grandmother of All Invention

A huge, horkin’ lump of fictive writing is critical problem solving. People don’t like to hear that.

Conflict is the basis of all storytelling. Without conflict, there’s no drama, no expression of character that isn’t simply expository. Right? If a book was just character exposition, it’d be a really dense psychoanalytical essay. Those are called character notes.

Which means you have to create a problem and then resolve that problem. I think this is where a lot of writers get stuck. I do, and somewhat frequently.

So what I’m trying to remember in any given scene I’m writing is that [Character] is in situation [A] and needs to get to situation [B]. How can I make that dynamic?

In my day to day life, I drive from home to work and nothing really happens other than some expected traffic and a few jackass drivers recklessly changing lanes. I wouldn’t relate this to my co-workers in a story (maybe just a, “Ugh, traffic was terrible,” exclamation, because I’m Cathy. Apparently.), because I’m still in situation [A]. Nothing’s really changed. I still go to work, and despite that being a different location from Home, it’s still the same as it ever was and not really a story to tell or even remember.

Essentially, the value hasn’t changed. Shawn Coyne, from the excellent Story Grid Podcast, speaks often about valence shifts. A beginning value has to turn by the scene’s end–from a positive to a negative, a negative to a positive, a negative to a double negative, etc.

Those shifts in value are inextricably linked to conflict. The broader story has the ultimate conflict, right? I’m gonna use Zelda here as an example, again, because that’s the way I’m drawn. Link can’t just find the Triforce in some bushes in Kokori forest. He’s gotta burn through the dungeons first, each one upping the ante in difficulty level, before the final showdown with Ganon. And even though Ocarina of Time ends shortly after it begins, you understand that something has changed.

Despite being unreligious, we can go biblical, if you like. We’ve heard that Job is faithful to his God, but we don’t know Job is faithful until a series of conflicts utterly destroy his life, but his willful servitude to God remains the same. Likewise, there isn’t so much written about the actual paradise of Eden, as there is Original Sin. Perhaps it’s more human to focus on the conflict of a serpent offering a divergent path than it is to ruminate on how awesome everything is/was. Extra sidenote: Milton’s Paradise Lost is far more interesting than Paradise Regained, and even the most studious English major would be hard pressed to remember the Paradiso part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, whereas everyone has a working familiarity with the Inferno. (Because metal.) And maybe that has to do with how placid Heaven is. It’s a story that you can’t tell and don’t really remember. But the journey there will always be more memorable, to borrow from the wisdom Facebook Macros.

In a lot of ways, it’s the tiny moments between great shifts and upheavals of story that conflict can be the most profound. Maybe I would (and have) related stories of commuting to work where I spilled coffee on my crotch and nearly ran into traffic. And there’s the brilliant Louis CK sketch about picking out groceries and not being able to pay for it, where financial circumstance stands in the way of the goal and Louis walks away with the awkward realization of preliminary necessities such as money. I bring this up because the most dreaded part of actually writing is usually the “maintenance scenes” that bring the plot into focus. And I myself dread these scenes, because they aren’t fun.

Why aren’t they? I have a feeling that if the I as the writer am not engaged in writing a scene, then the reader won’t be either. Throwing a ball a couple feet ahead of where you stand ad nauseum isn’t a sport and it isn’t much fun to watch. (It’s actually kind of disconcerting. Delilah.)

To solve this the South Park creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone installed a policy in their writing room about using “but and therefore” statements in their outlines instead of “and then,” ensuring that the comedic and plot beats from the first act NECESSITATED the beats from the second act to respond to the first and also present a new situation, organically leading to the third act which results in an earned payoff.

And I feel the lesson there is that by investing into the questions and problems you have written in the first paragraph of a scene, a logic will present itself– so long as you are actively putting your story over the fire of conflict.

See what boils to the top.