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.