The Orphan Principle

The Orphan Principle

My mom is pretty candid with her opinions about my books. After she read The Fish Fox Boys she was really supportive. And then in that special way that mothers do, she hemmed a little bit and hawed the following: “… NOT A WHOLE LOT OF MOTHERS IN THE BOOK.”

And I shrugged and said, “Well, obviously.”

But it’s partially untrue as there are matronly characters present in my quaint little novelette– Franny, who takes her name from my IRL Grandmother to whom the piece is dedicated (OH STOP IT, ME! TOO CUTE! SHUCKS!) and of course the Mother Bearoon (the nuclear mutated conglomeration of a bear and a raccoon and aptly named to boot).

But there’s a trope in fiction, primarily in YA oriented genres, that the primary children in most stories are orphans. Harry Potter is the first example that leaps to mind. In thrillers, you have Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. Because this isn’t relegated to literature alone, Zelda: Ocarina of Time follows suit. Batman AND Superman. And Spiderman, now that I think about it. Fuck me, most super heroes, actually. Each character from the addictive goddamn shonen anime series One Piece? Orphans. Little orphan Annie, the Chronicles of Narnia, hell, even Game of Thrones by the end of the Red Wedding (too soon?). Oh yeah, and Luke fuckin’ Skywalker.

It’s an ongoing trope that seemingly verges on self-parody and there’s been discussion as to why the hell this storytelling format exists and why it’s so pervasive in children’s entertainment. There’s a Lithub article by Liz Moore called “Why Do We Write About Orphans So Much” that I found poking around this concept. Moore’s got some pretty good insight on why it matters in a character-driven sense:

…the pain of the orphan occupies a place of precedence among all other types of pain, feels instinctively true, and makes writing about orphans tempting for a novelist.

It’s hard to argue with that logic. After all, Harry “Big Slytherin” Potter (and you thought there wouldn’t be any dick jokes in a post that started with a charming story about my mother, shame on you) has to confront his parent’s death various times through his journey and his acceptance into a famial structure at Hogwarts and at the Weasleys completes his character’s needs. Skywalker’s shit gets all fucked up when he finds out that his dad’s the biggest bastard of all time, Batman flashes back to a fuckin’ rose or some pearls or whatever every time he pours a bowl of cereal in the morning and… you get it.

But I think there’s a more practical explanation (and I might even go as far as to say that all of that Freudian family psychology might have been found in writing exploration after the fact). In the recent episode of The Self Publishing Show, James Blatch offers that it might be a children’s power fantasy of being able to handle adult responsibilities, which is probably true, but Hutchinson lays down the neccessary pragmatism of the trope:

Get rid of the parents in chapter one. Find a way to get the parents out of it so the children can’t just get mum and dad to sort everything out. And then put them in a difficult situation. It’s the same thing writing any genre or any age group, you put your character in a difficult situation and you remove any kind of support for them. It’s exactly the same for children’s books, your characters just happen to be children, so you need to get the parents out of the way so they don’t fix everything.

To make these kind of stories work structurally, they need to start out from a place where traditional family consequences and safety nets are absent. I call it the Orphan Principle. Ron Weasely has a family and you know what? His magic power is that he’s NICE. Without the cursed orphan Godhead as his best friend and main character, the books would be called Ron Weasley: A Bumbling Academic of Little Consequence Who’s Good at Wizard’s Chess Which is Actually Just Kind of Chess, Fuck’s Sake. Batman would be called A Rich and Entitled Twerp Who Should Stop Doing Ninja Shit Outside and Do His Homework, Fuck’s Sake. If Superman came down with his whole family intact, his dad would be Superman who would take care of all the bullshit and he would be like that egg-sucking Superboy who wore a leather jacket despite obviously not being punk (Obviously the Invincibles is great and works in the subversion of the trope). 

Does this mean in order to write a story that you need to kill off the parents every time? Of course not. You just need to get them out of the way. Steven Spielberg accomplishes this in his latchkey kids classic, The Goonies, by having working-class parents simply go to work. Or they’re moving or something. It doesn’t matter, the movie’s not about them, it’s about the kids and they are fo-sho out of the way the entire film.

A better example might be how Stranger Things handles things. The writers cleverly split the Adults and Children protagonists into two parties (three, including the teens) with their own interesting plotlines. The adults are alive and kicking and holding down the B Plot, while the dork children helm the A Plot. The teenagers carry the C Plot, which is mostly about kissing or something gross like that (I wanna say that girl, uh, B…Bart… Banana went missing?). All plotlines intertwine by the season’s end and it never feels forced or hokey. The children characters get all of the adventurous independence that comes from their absent parents and the adults characters carry the emotional weight to a satisfying conclusion. And I guess the teenagers, also with absent parents who are involved with the scary shit, are like, “Hey, you ever hear about this sex thing? Ha! Wouldn’t it be crazy if sex was like, I don’t know, like just a funny thing we– huh? Barbara who?”

Point being it’s not always necessary to orphan your kids to establish a starting point of conflict– but it is damned convenient. What is necessary, parents or no, is that those characters are free from support so that they may overcome the conflicts they encounter.

 

If you’d like to read a YA book featuring orphans that ISN’T a bummer, The Fish Boys: Part One is a great place to start. It’s a post-nuclear fairytale following the adventures ore_cover_smallf three idiot-savant inventors as they traverse the wasteland and it is available to purchase in paperback and Kindle here.

 

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Fetal Alchemy Syndrome [Short Story Sample]

Below is the first couple pages of a horror short story that I wrote earlier this year. If you’re interested in reading the rest of it, or perhaps listening to an audio version, please visit patreon.com/PierreManchot where you can purchase the piece for as little as $1.  Thanks!

Fetal Alchemy Syndrome

by Pierre Manchot

Paris, 1856

A letter from Benoît Marquis to Hugo Undeig

Translated by Brenda Undeig, University of Kansas, 1979

I know now that heaven cannot help me. Man cannot help me. I’ve created something beyond both and I fear that its rapacious hunger will not only end my own life but potentially all of France and perhaps even the world in its entirety. I write this as a confession, in part. I am aware that this screed in no way absolves me of the sin I’ve brought into this world. Forgiveness is not an option for me. I only hope that you, once a dear friend of mine all those many years ago, might understand the gravity of my actions and, if fate can shine more benevolently upon you than it has myself, you might destroy the culmination of my foolish ambitions.

You won’t find my name preserved in history anywhere but this document. My success in the collegiate arena of ideas has been marred by my lifelong fascination with the alchemic arts. Despite holding the title of Professor at Grenoble in the sciences of chemistry and physics, my own word capsized my career after my second year. I had written a sequence of articles during my fledging academic stay at university praising the works of such alchemists as Jean Haville, the German Herst Groundlewerg, and the American George Prowell. That was enough to diminish my works in the honorable sciences right there, but it appears that I could not help myself and submitted two published articles on the theories of the ancient Egyptian Tiem Lazara who was able to conjure unearthly metals out of nothing but sand, water, and primitive electrical conduits. My professorial duties were revoked and my academic record expunged. With the knowledge that my pursuits would lead to what it has, I hold no blame for the institutions themselves.

Yet, wounded by the fragility of the central-thinking university system, I pursued the forbidden sciences with an even more fervent vigor. I furthered my understanding of the metallurgic arts and became familiar with hematology, what that I could. When my mother died, I was drawn back to Paris and, after the good woman was buried, I proceeded to pervert her apartment into a laboratory of my own design. I have little faith that a God, benevolent or otherwise, would welcome her to heaven— and it would only serve as a cruel jape to have my mother bear witness to the fruit borne from my evil obsession. I only hope that she passed into some eternal dream, blind to the mockery that obsession had made of her own home.

Where my mother’s duvet once sat, a table now stands, now covered with vials containing metals, acids, bases, and more— the duvet was still there, only perched on its arm, leaning uselessly against a wall. There are texts, ranging from the scientific to the religious, spread out half-read throughout the floorspace. The kitchen rarely produced a meal as I was more interested in boiling lead and mercury and notating the properties. I had converted what was once a charming flat into an alchemic prison. I couldn’t see that, no, not yet, my friend.

You might be considering that what I am telling you might be the exaggerations of a man locked in a room of malodorous fumes and foul humors, a man who might have lapsed into the loathe madness of milliners and brim shapers. I respond to your supposition without contempt, for I wish that it were so! I have sought treatment for nerves and exhaustion after desperately convincing myself that my mind had been made feeble from exposure to my craft’s metals. I desired nothing less than to assume all that I had seen was simply a waking dream or some grand deceit designed by some malicious fever or poison rooted inside my brain. The fledgling science of the mind could give me no answers and, lest I be subject to the horrors of the sanitarium, I withheld the more colorful details of this evil experience. Physicians, while slightly more competent, were no more able to provide me relief. Alas, the memory of blood and destruction always returned and I knew that it could not be false.

[To finish this story, please visit patreon.com/PierreManchot where you will be able to pay for the full piece.]

 

Saving Humanity – Game of Thrones Speculation

Saving Humanity – Game of Thrones Speculation

Let’s do something fun. You like Game of Thrones, I like Game of Thrones. I wanna get some thoughts down on what I think the overall theme of the series is– and get some projections on how the whole thing’s gonna shake out for certain characters. But be warned: I’m gonna spoil shit. It’s gonna spoil up in here worse than a sack of rotten eggs. I’m gonna spoil harder than your fuckwit nephew whose videogame collection’s resale value is equivalent to a mortgage downpayment on a house in the Sylvan area of Portland metro.

The first two episodes of the eighth season have been light on advancing the plot, choosing instead to focus on the relationships between the thus surviving characters. It’s a good choice, I feel, to have them all be together before the shit storm hits the fan. In the “bottle episode” of A Knight of Seven Kingdoms, everyone gets on the same page as to what’s at stake: Humanity.

But on a more subtextual level, that’s been the overarching theme of each individual character, hasn’t it? Whether it’s the HBO series or A Song of Ice and Fire, the personal journeys of our favorite Westerossi stick to a format of losing/having lost humanity followed by the struggle to reclaim it. It pairs well with the macro narrative of fighting a legion of the undead.

Let’s focus on one undead guy first.

Beric Dondarrion gets slept on as a tragic hero. He’s been revived by Thoros 19 times by the Hound’s count and he’s said (more explicatively in Storm of Swords) that he’s lost more of who he once was every time he’s been revived. If memory, as Brann and Sam see it, is the defining feature of what it means to be human, Dondarrion has been long dead, despite his Lazarussian return to form. He’s lost himself and he’s lost the friend who could bring him back. The only thing he seems to regret is that he wasn’t able to dole out justice for Arya when they last met. Beric Dondarrion is the ace up the show’s sleeve, as his book counterpart fell dead one last time as he gave the kiss of life to Cathryn Stark’s corpse, giving rise to Lady Stoneheart. Since that’s been nixed from the show, Beric serves as the proverbial extra life to one very lucky player in the game. A lot of people are going to die in the next episode, including Beric. But he’s going to die by bestowing the kiss of life to someone who justly deserves it. The question is who?

My first impulse was to think that, given how Sandor Clegane and Beric have become something close to war buddies that he might revive the Hound. There’s some poeticism to that choice in giving the gift of living fire to the man who despises fire most. And there’s something in the way that he’s proud of telling Arya “I fought for you, didn’t I?” Because Sandor’s character arc was about letting the murderous dog in himself die so that he could become human. No longer the pet of a sociopath, Sandor has certainly proved himself worthy of resuscitation. But that theory fucks up the path that I think the showrunners have in mind for him, so I’ll just say that Sandor “The badass formerly known as the Hound” Clegane survives the White Walkers.

Jorah Mormont lost his humanity when he got involved in the slave trade– one of the “strange things men do for the women they love.” He lost his honor when he refused to take the black. This cost him a further penalty– his sword, Longclaw, which he had the decency to return to his father before absconding to Essos. Longclaw is given to Jon Snow, instead, by Jeor Mormont. More on that in a minute. In Essos, Jorah earned some of himself back (and his citizenship) by spying on/ aiding noted abolitionist Daenerys Stormborn. He once again lost his humanity when infected by greyscale and was brought back from the brink of death by Sam Tarly. Sam gifts his family’s Valerian steel sword to Jorah as a familial payment to Jeor– a moment that had your guy on the brink of tears, folks. You’ll remember Sam held Jeor Mormont in his hands as he died, “Tell Jorah. Forgive him. My son. Please.” (Storm of Swords, pg. a billion). The moment encapsulates Jorah’s full forgiveness– he’s been forgiven by the state of Westeros, by Daenerys, by medicine, and finally by his own house, receiving the steel that was his birthright. Jorah has finally regained all that he lost. Jeor Mormont also told Sam something in the HBO series: “Sam Tarly, I forbid you to die.” Which leads me to believe that Jorah is going to sacrifice himself for the sake of Sam Tarly, the unsung best friend to the house of bears.

Theon lost his humanity after he betrayed the Starks and was then captured by Ramsey Bolton. He lost his dick, too. Torture and psychological manipulation burned his identity down to Reek. But after being reduced to nothing, Theon climbed out of the well of depersonalisation and grasped for his humanity when he and Sansa suicide dove from the walls of the Flayed Man’s Winterfell. When he ultimately chooses fighting for the Starks over staying safe with Yara on the Iron Islands, Sansa’s tears are very well earned as they embrace. It’s also kind of nice that the two get to have a quasi-romantic dinner together and it’s kinda cool how scissoring exists in Westeros, just saying. But he’s probably going to die in Winterfell, which makes the most narrative sense, protecting the crippled boy he took advantage over to feel big. Theon’ll die in Winterfell, his true home, but he’ll die Theon, not Reek, and full of valor. This will break Yara’s heart.

Tormund’s great. He’s the fuckin’ best. He’s horny as shit, a strident feminist, and an ardent believer in giant titty milk. My bet’s that he’ll live through the White Walkers, for no other reason than there hasn’t been a Wildling in King’s Landing yet. And he’d make a great impression.

There’s a huge preoccupation with hands amongst the Lannister boys. Twyin served as the hand twice. So has Tyrion. Jaime, of course, lost his right hand. While Tyrion has always been seen as “half” a person, Jaime learns wisdom by losing his natural talent through an act of valor. The brothers exchange places, Tyrion, whose intellect is only matched by a few, is thrown on the battlefield where he actually kind of kicks ass. Jaime, on the other… hand (oh, the slapping upon my knee), learns to think and behave more and more rationally, instead of impulsively (although, one of those impulses saved Kings Landing from a horrible death by Wild Fire). Jaime, of course, ended the first episode with an impulsive shove of a child out a window to protect his sister’s virtue and social standing. Where one brother errs, another corrects– it was Tyrion who devised a way for Brann to ride a horse, the designs of which were put to use in making his wheelchair. Now that they’ve both leveled out, so to speak, it’s hard to say who’ll die in the next episode. I imagine it’s Tyrion, as Jaime always knew that he’d die with his sister. But not before Tyrion rides a dragon.

Speaking of hands, the irony that Davos, who’s right hand had been shortened to the mid-knuckle by Stannis (for justice) was given the honor of Hand to the King also rings ironic. He’s incapable of fighting, but always has a brusque sense of honor. He’s the most human and honorable character in the entire series and I hope, though he never lost his way, he survives. Fuck shit piss don’t kill Davos. He’ll be fine. In the show, he’s become the Drowned God and he’ll likely team up with Yara to fight Euron. ONION KNIGHT vs THE KRAKEN.

Brienne beat Loras Tyrell. Brienne beat a bound Kingslayer. Brienne beat the Hound. She killed Stannis. She’s been King’s Guard to Renly Baratheon and personal security detail to Cathryn and Sansa Stark. She had the shining moment of becoming the titular Knight of Seven Kingdoms when she was officially knighted by Jaime. In the world of Thrones, women are seen as subhuman. The Wildlings know better (even if their marriage proposals are iffy), but here comes a woman warrior, stronger than anyone this side of the Mountain, and has always either suffered humiliation by faux-suitors or disrespect by the patriarchal institutions of valor. To achieve the same level of “humanity” as her male counterparts, she has to kick the fucking Hound off a fucking mountain. It’s a great moment when she finally receives the knighthood and well celebrated. My take is that she’ll survive the White Walkers and make it back to King’s Landing. Further take: She kills Cersei after Cersei kills Jaime (via Bronn?). Cersei’s teenage frog woman fortune did say that she’ll be replaced by someone more beautiful than her. Cersei’s paranoia led her to believe that she’d be replaced as queen, hence her jealousy of Sansa, hence her domestic terrorism to wipe out Margery Tyrell and the hold she had on her remaining, only wholesome son… Whereas I think Cersei’s been replaced in Jaime’s heart by “the Beauty of Tarth.” Cersei’s only allowed to die when she sees Jaime choose the comfort of Brienne over hers.

Podrick’s fuckin’ chowder.

Varys is known as the spider. With his dongle ripped off and burned, it’s hard to see him fight for the Lord of Light. But that being said, Varys knows too much, probably including that Jon Snow was a Targaryan. This will be his undoing. Spiders get squished.

Gendry’s a dead man. He’s the last Baratheon. It was never that he lacked humanity, quite the opposite. He’s fun, he’s sexy, he’s a devout acolyte of the Smith–he’s a hell of a blacksmith. But narratively speaking, he’s already been back to King’s Landing. And he and Arya have already consummated their pre-adolescent feelings towards each other in what has to be, somehow, the most uncomfortable sex scene in Game of Thrones’s 8 season run. Which, unfortunately for him, no longer makes him the last Baratheon. Remember that the friendship between the Starks and the Baratheons kept Westeros together? That promise lives on within Arya now, as squicky as it feels. And Gendry will go out, hammer in hand, no doubt.

There’s also no doubt that the character most unfairly accosted with the concept of death is Arya Stark. After the Hound kills the baker boy, she witnesses her father’s death, kills a boy her age, then she’s carted off with criminals, only to witness the murder of her friends, atrocities from the hands of the Tickler and the Mountain. The Men without Banners (‘sup, Beric. Thoros.) find her, from which she’s taken and reluctantly fathered by the Hound. After notching a few more kills, she denies the Hound the gift of mercy and flees on a ship to Braavos and becomes an acolyte for the Faceless Men. She learns to worship death, the many faced god, and in the process loses her own sense of humanity and identity. She clings to it by measures of extreme compartmentalization, vowing to return to herself when the time is right. Still, by the time Arya rejoins her family in Winterfell, she’s afraid to show who she’s become to her siblings, fearing that they’d be horrified at what she’s become. It’s not so much the killing; it’s that she shirked off the Stark name to become anyone. (Sidenote: that the word stark is used to describe contrast and Arya might be the greyest, despite her time in the House of Black and White… oooh). Arya has become the accustomed to death. In Knight of The Seven Kingdoms, Gendry tells her that the White Walkers are simply death. She’s lowkey giddy to see this face of death. And she will. My take: Arya will be killed in the next episode. Beric Donndarrion, who not only owes an oath of service to Ned Stark, will succumb to Sandor Clegane’s pleas to give her the kiss of life. He’ll do it. And once Arya is revived, she’ll know the true face of The Stranger and what death really means and her allegiances thenceforth will probably align with that of the living for goodsies. Especially when she understands what Beric Dondarrion, the Coolest of His Name, did for her.

Sansa’s whole arc begins with an earnest trust that the songs of knighthood and virtue are true. She is cruelly denied that reality, over, and over again. It’s less that she’s robbed of humanity– although she’s passed around as a political chip more than once– and more that her faith in humanity has been rendered bankrupt. Everyone that she looked to for help eventually burned her. Which is why it’s satisfying to see her as the hard-eyed Lady of Winterfell that she’s become. A few things. First, the adage “there must always be a Stark in Winterfell” falls on her shoulders. Jon’s officially a Targaryen (and officially a Stark, but hey) and Arya contains multitudes. Second, she will believe in those songs once again. Whereas she once naively trusted that knights are always righteous, she’s since learned that war is a grisly, horrific affair… which is why it’s right to honor those who’ve acted virtuously despite their brutal nature. Again, if memory is mankind’s only tie to humanity, then how you wish to remember the dead becomes all the more valuable. Theon, I imagine, will get a verse, but the one she’ll sing for is the Hound.

Sandor Clegane, before he kidnapped Arya for his charge, rescued Sansa from Joffrey’s brutality, killed her would-be-rapists, and offered sympathy from humiliation when she was stripped in court. He was a wretch, a broken-man, and under the thumb of a sociopath, but even then he acted in virtue, despite his murderous tendencies and grotesque world-view, and hatred for knights. Jumping into the endgame, my take is that Sandor Clegane will become the quintessential knight that the songs spoke of. During the “Trial By Seven” Cersei will feint the Mountain in battle only to turn towards Sansa. Sandor Clegane will save her, suffering mortal wounds. Sansa will finally sing him the song that Sandor bragged about during the Battle of Blackwater and Arya will finally make good on the gift of mercy. “You remember where the heart is.”

Daenerys entered the ring as a token to the Dothraki and currently sits as Queen. Jon Snow was born a bastard, and rose through the ranks of the Night’s Watch to Commander, then King of the North(!!!), and then lover to his sexy aunt. While both have slogged through inhumane existences, they now are aware that they both have claim to the Iron Throne. Who gets it? My answer? Neither. They both bite it. In a plume of blue flame. Snow’s sworn to the Night’s Watch and it’s ultimate goal– to fend off the Night King. Daenerys’s values lean towards freeing people from oppressive regime. She might indulge some fascism before she gets there (prolly kill Varys) but should they make it through the next two episodes, I’m certain that neither Targaryan will sit on the throne. I imagine that Daenerys will lose Drogon and die mid embrace with Jon “Aegon-Whatever-TheFuck” Snow, leaving Rhaegal untamed, and Viserion, a puppet of the Knight King and the Targaryan line finally put to incestuous rest.

Brann’s lost more humanity than maybe anyone else, having accepted the charge the old gods. He doesn’t hate anyone, as he tells Jaime, the man responsible for crippling him. His powers of green sight allow him to replay history like a DVD with commentary– his commentary has been known to fuck with his dad, Hodor, and perhaps the Mad King Aegon himself. But he’s also a talented warg— someone who can control beasts. And Hodor. The Knight King is going to kill Brann, while Brann has warged into Rhaegal, encapsulating his soul into the dragon. Brann’s humanity is long gone– his story is about attaining something greater.

Which brings us to the Night King. I misspoke when I said than Brann had lost the most humanity– the Night King was once a man who was changed by the Children of the Forest with an obsidian dagger and some of that sweet blood magic that keeps the Weirwoods crying. While he commands an undead army of Wights, the Night King and his turned White Walkers remember where they come from and want to make it theirs. Their play is no different from any family dispute we’ve seen in Westeros– they’ve just been planning it longer. But short of creating the Endless Night, what the Night King really craves is a return to his human form, so that he can die. I expect Mellisandre, now that Thoros is gone, will do the honors there.

I expect that it’ll be a long night– not an endless one. Any many characters dead by the end of it. And I can’t judge how the events at King’s Landing will go down specifically. But how I see the whole thing wrapping up is a member from each house in the great hall before the Iron Throne: Sansa Stark, Arya (carrying the last Baratheon), Lyanna Mormont, Brienne of Tarth, Tormund, Jaime Lannister, and Brann the Targaryran dragon, Rhaegal,to burn the throne to the fucking ground– it took dragon fire to forge the throne, it’ll take dragon fire to melt it down.

And wouldn’t it be cute if Hot Pie married Arya or whatever? HOT PIE IS OFF LIMITS FOR KILLING, HEAR ME?

I just released my Fantasy-Dystopian trilogy of the Fish Fox Boys as a complete volume. Get the paperback or Kindle version here.

Game Theory (of Throne-Building)

Game Theory (of Throne-Building)

Now, you might be saying, “Buddy, two Thrones posts back to back? Wouldn’t it make more SEO sense to wait until the final season starts, instead of blowing your wad all up front?”

To which I reply, “Listen, buttnards, why don’t you keep your beak in your own pot of yogurt, you fuckin’ dumb door-holding fuckin’ oaf.”

…Because last time we talked about why Game of Thrones was so popular. We had a good time (we did. that is non-negotiable), although I didn’t talk about the actual series itself with any real depth. So what makes A Song of Ice and Fire so fuckin’ good when there are a bajillion similar fantasy novels shoveled out on the daily?

Make way for this post, everybody, get your your weird-ass-eerily-accurate-cosplaying persona on and let’s DIG… into our pockets and bring out our dodecal-sided die. That’s right, nerds, we’re gonna go into table-top RPGs and how they’ve shaped your favorite pervert-murder-dragon show on television.

There have been several unsung table-tops prior to Dungeons and Dragons but D&D is the one that stuck after its release in 1974– and much like its philosophical cousin, The Ouija Board, it ran a chill through the hardcore Christian, anti-satanist set. You know what D&D is. You’re hip.

As a goddamn king of nerds, it should come as no surprise that George RR Martin was (and apparently still is) an enthusiast. Apparently, several authors felt that Dungeons and Dragons served as a smelly basement boot camp for writing fiction. In the article previously linked, Ball University Assistant Professor Jennifer Grouling explains:

“D&D is completely in the imagination and the rules are flexible — you don’t have the same limitations” of fiction, or even of a programmed video game, she said. A novel is ultimately a finished thing, written, edited and published, its story set in stone. In D&D, the plot is always fluid; anything can happen.

I want you to pin that notion of story-fluidity behind your ear for a minute or two while we go into the fact that Martin himself ran a long, long campaign of a table-top RPG called Super World in the 80s. Beginning to realize that playing games was not a financially sustainable means of existing, Martin and his gang of hooligan-author friends did what anyone would do– they rewrote the rules of the game in such a way that their campaigns could be transcribed into novels and thereby published. It’s called Wild Cards and the whole story behind its origin is summed up pretty neatly here. Apparently, there’s a TV show in the works, offering hope to all us schlubby punks making art for our friends’ sake.

During this time, Martin went back and forth between trying to jumpstart a serious fiction career and writing for TV.  Suddenly, and forgive me if I’m wrong, he writes a scene he remembered from a dream he had. That’d be the Starks finding the Direwolves, the seed that’d become Ice and Fire. 

I say seed intentionally, because Martin sees himself as a gardener of stories. In his words:

I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.

I’ll tell ya, architect and gardner are way better names than what the writing community at large has claimed to distinguish themselves as: plotters (which is self-explanatory) and pantsers (ugh, because one writes at the seat of their pants). It’s essentially the difference between folk who chart out every scene ahead of time and those who explore the words they’re writing while writing. Most authors are a mix of both. And I think it’s important to demystify Martin as some evil curmudgeon whose hiding the blueprints to your favorite dragon-murder-porno and instead see him as a person and an author who’s working on a project that means a lot to him.

It’s not that he doesn’t outline either, but it’s more accurate to say that he strategizes. Apparently an early outline married Tyrion and Arya together and Jaime became king after simply murdering everyone else (kind of like a evil run in a Bethesda game). But that would’ve robbed the story of Tyrion’s integrity of his sudden chastity with Sansa and Jaime’s turn from selfish, impetuous murder machine to self-reflective, all-around good amputee guy (*cough* excludingtheweirdrapeofhissisteronhisson’scorpse *cough*). That’s where the fluidity of viewing an epic fantasy from a bird’s eye view becomes advantageous–  you can see missteps before you make them and then correct course.

It’s why I think Martin views his own work as a table-top RPG that he’s playing with himself (and his audience). It’s documented that he’s a creative type who enjoys transferring table-top antics to words. It’s also documented that he writes an average of 350 words a day. But he has a lot, I’m speculating, a lot of notes and spends a lot, I’m speculating again, a lot of time strategizing.

Several authors I’ve come into contact with, fantasy or otherwise, have a bible of character and world information. It’s full of details. It’ll tell you that x character has brown eyes and z forest is deciduous and Lady HatchetVagina got her moniker ironically. And no doubt Martin has one as well– in fact he writes that shit into his books. Fuckin’ Ned Detective runs through the Baratheon Genealogy to find the golden-haired discrepancy that gets his goddamn clock ticked. There’s a whole chapter (maybe more? Clash of Kings is so big) where Jaime just pages through the White Book, describing all of the feats the White Cloak knights accomplished (some of which is narratively-super important, some not). Martin has definitely put the work in here. But understand, the work built upon itself while it was being written. World building expands. The fog of war dissipates as one moves in a direction. Things change as we look at them. 

The way it still strikes relevant is the fact that the dude spent his fantasy life in the company of other human-beings. If you’ll permit me a stark (heh) deviation to Roberto Bolaño and his (arguably) worst book,  Third Reich. It’s still, ugh, the best fiction out there. At least philosophically. The best I can try to explain what the book is about: a man goes on vacation to a Spanish beach, stays after his vacation (long after his girlfriend leaves), plays a table-top game of WWII, becomes obsessed with a local vagabond, the vagabond beats him at the game, dude fears that the guy is going to kill him and then the vagabond doesn’t kill him. While I’m fairly sure it’s a coded message to express Bolańo’s bisexuality, the novel maintains a descriptive handle on the game’s movements throughout (tediously so), while the main character wraps himself in isolation and paranoia with the exception of his homeless friend. It’s essentially a story about strategizing alone which is ultimately futile. War– like books, games, and art– requires engagement. In isolation the narrator, a German, forgets his own values and plays the Axis. The homeless guy, who is crazy but ultimately virtuous, plays the Allies and, despite being an amateur at the game, wins. This decimates and ultimately liberates the narrator.

From that deviation, I’ll take away two things. The first, as suggested above, is that Martin strategizes in response to other people. He understands the expectations and he knows how to subvert them almost perfectly (read: the definition of irony) which is what makes him such a bastard sometimes. The game he’s playing is against us and to quote Grouling again, “anything can happen,” in a game where “the rules are flexible.”

The second thing I’ll take away is the notion of values. One of my first posts on this site was about how you could use D&D to determine a character for your novel and it would be 10 times more believable than jotting down notes on a profile. Values override details every single time. Because details should serve to express value.

The character of the Hound (the best character! Fuck you! HooooyooooUUUUND!) maintains a certain value set throughout the books and show even though our first introduction to him is his ironic and cynical slaughtering of a young boy (the Han shot first of GoT). But his values become clear, slowly, as Martin is keen to show and not tell us. Lil Clegane’s main value is that he, in nearly every other happenstance, protects children (which makes his boy-slaughtering that much more of a sin). Later we find out why. Still, he protects the Child King Joffrey, then saves Sansa, before becoming Arya’s drunk and chicken-filled father-replacement. He’s a murderer who hates knights, doesn’t go out of his way to hurt women (equivalent to Westeros feminism, I guess?), and keeps the kiddies safe (save the one).

That’s why for three quarters of A Feast For Crows you’re heartbroken to learn that The Hound is raping and killing women and looting towns in the salt pans. Your expectations combat your understanding of the man you’ve begrudgingly come to respect and admire. The “oh-shit” moment happens in a turn of dialogue between Brienne and some old religious fucker who explains that it was Rorge, the noseless douche that kept harassing Arya “with a stick”, that had donned the Hound helm and used that brand recognition to pillage with his brigands. The godly man explains that the Hound died while a man who 100% resembles Sandor Clegane digs graves in the background. In the show, Sandor assists the building of a temple. In both cases it’s assumed that the death of The Hound is a symbolic path to reach forgiveness and atone for his sins through labor (the dorkier among you will nod and solemnly agree that this is the work of the Smith). Through the humiliation of physical work, The Hound transforms into Sandor Clegane, culminating in the scene in the televised series where Sandor attempts to properly bury the farmers that he himself had doomed to death by robbing them a few seasons earlier. He doesn’t seem unquieted by his past, but he continues to make a good effort to support those around him who are trying to make things better.

Just. Like. A dog.

That might be one of the most satisfying character arcs ever written and it works because the characters values remained the same but it required a few hundred pages and six seasons to finally realize them.

I don’t think I’m blowing any minds by saying that Ice and Fire is one big table-top experience. The intro to GoT literally resembles a game-map, complete with ticky-tacky toy-like renderings of the regions involved (wiiiiiith a game-chip circling the construction of Old Town). But it works effectively once transcribed to a literary experience because games have rules and players have values. 

That sentence alone explains the bulk of conflict in the series. Each house has a motto which serves as a rule. They also have repeated sayings which express values.

The Lannister motto is “Hear Me Roar,” while their repeated saying is “A Lannister always pay their debts.” Martin throws us another saying said about the Lannisters: “Lannisters lie.” Tyrion and Tywin play the game by the value of paying off debts to obtain loyalty and assure their own safety/regard. Cersei and Jaime (initially) play the game by the second value of deceit. But they all show their ferocity when push comes to shove and we see what happens when one value clashes against another. [insert “twang” foley]

The Boltons’ motto/rule is “Our Knives Are Sharp,” while their saying/value is “A naked man has few secrets; a flayed man none.” Roose plays by the rule, which is more in line with shady treaties and backstabbing, while Ramsey plays by the value of demonstrating cruelty. Playing by the rule changes the political landscape, while the value ultimately sinks the Bolton house into the grave.

And yes, you have the ever-memed Stark motto of “Winter is Coming,” and the saying “A Stark must always be in Winterfell.” Eddard died because he violated both. By heading south to deal with the politics of King’s Landing, he (albeit reluctantly) forsook his charge as steward of the northern defense against the wights/wildlings and brought Arya and Sansa along with him, leaving Robb alone to the Bolton’s manipulations and Bran, still comatose and crippled, to be strong-armed out of control of the municipality by Theon. The saying and value “There must always be a Stark in Winterfell” is a regional one, essentially saying that without a sense of nobility present, the north will fall to the cruelty of the likes of those fuckface Boltons or taken advantage of by the likes of those goddamn pirate Greyjoys. Currently, HBO-wise, it’s Jon Snow and Sansa upholding the motto and verse of the Starks, hence their survival.

I could go on, but I’m getting interrupted by this sound in the air… Do you hear that? That’s the sound of my virginity re-crystalizing. I learned what fuckin’ GURPS was for a free article on the internet. And I even held myself back from applying stats to characters (Tyrion: INT-8, STR-3; Jaime: INT-3, STR-9 then 2; Robb: INT-5, Str-8; Arya: INT-6, STLTH-9; Sam: INT-7, STR-1, STLTH-0, MGC-0, VIT-0; Melisdandre: MGC-9, TT-10; The Mountain: 10 everything except PSN RSTNC) because there’s a goddamn table top for Game of Thrones now. Cracked.com (before they sold to Scripps and Facebook leveraged the value of video content, essentially fucking up earning projections for every website you used to enjoy) made a video satirizing the likelihood of GoT making the tabletop circuit, leading to madness, betrayal and insanity.

I’m not mad about the RGP (I’LL GET DOWN OFF THIS LEDGE WHEN I GODDAMN FEEL LIKE IT), if it means ushering in another generation of innovative storytellers, but it strikes me as redundant. Martin’s JOB right now is to tell you how the game goes. You can pull a Third Reich and test your own values to try to make it go differently, but what’s the point when you could change the rules and write your own  damn thing?

Again, I’ll quote Grouling: “the plot is always fluid; anything can happen.”

The closest thing Manchot has to a fantasy epic at this time is a genre-bending comedy between Science Fiction and Fantasy featuring a trio of siblings bumbling through a happy-go-lucky nuclear wasteland. It’s called The Fish Fox Boys and you can start reading it here. ffb2_small

Engineering Suspense

Engineering Suspense

I’m coming to terms with the fact that much of my fiction work has one foot planted in the thriller genre. The defining ingredient of a thriller is its suspense which has me thinking whether we could isolate and examine that which makes a scene, and the overarching plot itself, suspenseful. I’m hopeful.

Here’s what Hitchcock has to say on the subject:

“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

The most functional example of Suspense I can think of is the “Bad Dates” scene in Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. A bad man who hangs out with bad monkeys poisons a bowl of dates before a little Belushi-child brings the dates to the table where Jones and Sallah are discussing boring-ass archaeologist bullshit. The audience knows that the dates are poisoned and feels a sense of dread as Jones carries the fruit around, pausing to reflect on the information dump Sallah is delivering. Jones pops the date in the air, the audience shits, Sallah sees the dead monkey (a traumatizing experience for every 90’s child) and catches the fruit before it hits Jones’s mouth. Bad Dates. It ends on a grim joke. This scene works to hide the exposition necessary for the plot– a kind of misdirection that engages the viewer while also cramming heavy plot points down their throats. Indiana Jones should be a boring movie (it’s about an archaeologist goofing off with Bible antiques for chrissakes) but it cleverly engages the audience with high-stakes suspense at every twist.

It’s all about information control. That scene wouldn’t have worked without showing the bad man adding the poison. Without it, there’s just a dead monkey and an asshole Sallah obstructing a tasty snack. But it also doesn’t work without a scene roughly ten minutes earlier when Indiana Jones offers Marion the fruit and tells her, “Hey babe, it’s dates, you eat ’em, what is you stupid?” By controlling that information and doling it out at the right time, the audience has been forced to ask the question, “What’s going to happen with those dates, bruh?”

Timing the information is key and where you position this information is going to force the audience to ask different questions. Let’s talk about Tarantino, as he has a flair for torquing suspense during long passages of dialogue.

The opening scene of Inglorious Basterds is a perfect example. You know it’s unsettling because of the historical subtext (uh, Nazis) and because of the direct subject matter of the conversation (Casual anti-semitism and the bureaucratic banality of  the Holocaust). You understand that there’s a power dynamic at play here, and certain elements are played comedically (the size of the pipes, par examplé), but essentially it’s just a friendly conversation between a German officer and a French farmer, the former asking the latter about his neighbors. And then the camera pans below the floorboards and the audience now understands what’s at stake and the tension skyrockets. Were you nervous when the Nazi’s arrived? Of course. But you weren’t afraid about the outcome of the conversation until the camera informed you that you had a reason to feel that way– and then the conversation continues and dangles the outcome on a taut wire.

Here’s a failure in suspense: The stadium scene of The Dark Knight Rises. The audience is told, via exposition, that Bane is laying explosive-laden concrete around Gotham and after some kid sings the national anthem, Bane detonates the lot and we cut around to the mayor dying, the stadium exploding, the tunnel exploding, and bridges collapsing. For so much destruction, the scene plays out fucking languid. We just learned that shit was about about to blow up and there was no countdown. It’s functional, I guess, to move the plot forward, but the destruction showed onscreen wasn’t necessarily in the viewer’s mind as a stake in the villain’s scheme. The audience was relatively uninformed and the result is a diminished legacy to what could have been a perfect Batman trilogy. It’s strange to think that this movie came from Christopher Nolan, given that his bread and butter is creating thrilling, unexpected filmic narratives, perhaps quintessentially achieved in Memento, which keeps asking the audience “How did we get here?” through a disciplined control of information sequencing through a believable, if not convenient, perspective.

So let’s talk about how perspective impacts the release of information to create suspense.

The revelation in Silence of the Lambs is Buffalo Bill is making lady suits. The audience probably understands this before Clarice does, but only after a slow drip of clues allows the viewer to stitch it together for themselves. The way information is controlled in that narrative makes the viewer hink on the question “What the fuck?” while Clarice asks “Why the fuck?” and fills in the plot for us. Onward, the viewer is always ahead of Clarice. We know that Jame Gumb is the killer. She gets wise (because of moths and shit) and then the movie puts the audience further ahead by assuming the night-envisioned perspective of Gumb watching her stumble through the dark. Suspense is achieved by making us understand that the hero is vulnerable. However, in Lector’s escape plotline, the viewer is given only the information that Lector is alone with two unconscious guards and the film suddenly follows the perspectives of the police officers attempting to find and subdue him. We know nearly as little as they do and, although our hairs are up, we’re still trying to piece together the how? The reveal is a faceless corpse springing into an elevator car and we go, “Ohhhh fuuuuuu–” while our brains catch up to speed with everything we’ve been shown, even before Lector sits up to pull the skin from his face.

And I think it’s in perspective that we find how to measure the release of information to keep our audience enraptured, and to figure out what kinds of dilemmas are suitable for the story you’re trying to keep, well, suspended. The Raiders example couldn’t work without an omniscient camera. Silence of the Lambs wouldn’t work without limited perspective. Proper tool for the proper job.

It’s generally understood that this level of tension is harder to accomplish in writing than it is in film. What an insert shot on an object or an actor’s expression can accomplish can easily set up a certain expectation to prime the viewer’s attention. That being said, written narrative has more access to the reader’s direct psychology than film and that can be exploited to create similar, if not greater, experiences of suspension.

The question of Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest moves from “Can the Continental Op persuade an entire town’s kingpins to murder each other?” to “Did the Continental Op become so tainted from his involvement with murderers that he murdered Dinah Brand with an ice-pick when he blacked out from gin and laudanum?” That question drives the third act of the novel, after the initial goal was seemingly achieved. The reader, who has no doubt come to like the main character’s wiles, has to wrestle with this unknown, internal quantity. What’s more, the reader knows as little as the Continental Op, narrating his experience. Information control within perspective.

Starting your third act with the main character’s hand around an icepick stuck into a gamblin’ woman’s tit is one way of injecting suspense into a story (editorial: it’s a pretty cool one). There are others.

First person is particularly a hard nut to crack with this– you only have the character’s point of view to play with, making the “bomb beneath the floorboards” harder to establish. But you also have a tool that objective POV’s do not– a breadth of interiority. Take it for granted that the character’s reactions to certain stimuli will generally bleed into the reader’s mind. Now make the character obliviously acknowledge something obviously dangerous. Or began stacking idiosyncrasies from the character’s perspective to make a person or object dubious. Have the character run gut-checks. Make the reader ask the question, “Why is this the focus?” before revealing the payoff.

A favorite device of mine is to employ several first person narratives. Where one experience is incomplete, another fills in the gaps and gives the other narrative a more pronounced sense of danger and vice versa. It is not unlike a game of tennis.

With Third Person Omniscient, you can establish anything you want in any sequential order which, unfortunately, does not make this job easier. The trick, again, is to control the amount of information. If you place a scene which follows a man planting a bomb in a post-office box and in the next scene it explodes, then just like The Dark Knight Rises, you’ve squandered your moment. However, if you wrote the same sequence of events from a removed perspective, where all you saw was a man who deposited a package into the box and looked over his shoulders before he walked away, well, then we’re watching the mailbox now, aren’t we? Remove it further. Let’s say a hotdog vendor with a hearing-aid can’t get a certain beeping out of head. He complains all day. Our hero buys a hotdog, says something dismissive to the man’s complaint and walks away– only to witness an explosion a dozen yards away, and he’s covered in letters and postcards.

To instill suspense, one must make the audience understand danger. To make that understood, one must inform the audience of that danger one way, or another. When and how you do that is up to you but you do need to realize the questions you are proposing to your audience. If they’re asking “What is happening?” then you’re either a surrealist, a lazy surrealist, or a lazy writer. If they’re asking “Why is this happening?” you can rest more assuredly that you’ve provided enough information to have them ask, “What’s going to happen next?”

For more suspense in your life, why not read Burn Card for FREE by signing up for my mailing list? It’s a high adrenaline race through a ruined Las Vegas as a resistance fighter attempts to save the Presidential elect from certain death.burncard_small

Spatial Symbolism: The House

Spatial Symbolism: The House

Because I have friends and friends talk sometimes, it came to be that a friend and I were talking about laundromats. I like laundromats. I like the soothing, repetitive noises of clothing soup getting sloshed around in a centrifuge and the rhythmic metallic clinking of “poor ovens.”

A theory as to why we love laundromats so much comes from Shawn Coyne’s analysis of Silence of the Lambs (mentioned several times in the Story Grid podcast),  wherein he points out a scene right before Starling decides to go investigate the first victim’s house. The scene is simple and quiet. Starling does some laundry. Coyne’s point is that this is a “return to the womb” so that Starling can be reborn into her decision to defy her orders. Specifically, he points out that the rhythm of the machines and the sloshing of the water resembles a mother’s heartbeat and the rushing noise of amniotic fluid that we, as babies, attach to as sensory reminders of the safety we felt while in utero. It works as a solid symbol.

I tried to recreate a similar scenario in The Least of 99 Evils with a scene where the main character, Riley, takes a shower and changes clothes before adopting the most pivotal role in the novel. I was trying to suggest to the reader’s subconscious that a baptism of sorts had occurred. That changes have registered.  I think it works, but we have a much more sinister association with bathrooms that I had previously thought.

There’s this episode of Cracked.com’s “Looking the Part,” that examines what makes the bathroom so harrowing in pop culture and media (shower death scenes are plentiful after the quintessential Psycho, Vincent dies while leaving the bathroom in Pulp Fiction, that guy in the first season of The Sopranos gets shot in the tub, The Dude in The Big Lebowski is attacked while getting far-out in his bathtub, that scene in the X-Files when that leach falls out of that dude, medicine cabinet mirror jump scares… etc). Their suggestion is that because grooming habits have become a solitary activity for human beings since the middle ages, the bathroom is the one place where someone is the most vulnerable and that naturally creates an opportunity for a thrilling scene that will directly register with an audiences’ familiarity of being totally alone.

So I got to thinking that maybe there other broad symbols we associate with the anatomy of a house and by identifying what symbols we associate with what rooms, a writer could benefit from accurately setting certain scenes in these spaces.

The first one that leapt out to is the basement. The basement is where the secret is stored. A true crime example of this would be how John Wayne Gacy buried 33 bodies in his basement as a way of dissociating himself from his crimes, essentially keeping it separate from his primary personality. Likewise, the zombies are stored in the basement in Dead Alive, the shameful burial of the archaeologist’s wife occurs in the basement of Evil Dead II (with great payoff), and Breaking Bad‘s Walter White keeps his first drug-world rival and first murder victim in, wait for it, the basement. The Burbs even brings us into that space by the film’s culmination, justifying Tom Hanks’s paranoia by revealing hundreds of skeletons present in his neighbors’ furnace. Perhaps because we associate that space with darkness, we also attach fear. This is a common enough attachment– we fear what we can’t see, and we see this part of the house the least often– on top of it being, generally, poorly lit. Just to indulge another example: A B-plotline that registered with me as a kid was Home Alone‘s sequencing of getting over the fear of the basement furnace. It personified perfectly the fear a child experiences when encountering a space that they don’t know very well as well as machinery that they don’t understand.

If the basement is where you place scenes of fear and horror then what of the basement’s maligned sibling the attic? The attic’s symbolism revolves around the mind. You know that old phrase, “toys in the attic?” That’s a folksy way of saying that someone is insane. If the top of the cranium is where the brain resides, then so to must the “mind” of the house. Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea utilize this by restraining the crazy woman in the attic. So does The Yellow Wallpaper. Even if we’re not talking about mental unwellness, the attic serves as a venue for cerebral exploration. The entire plot of The Goonies starts by finding a map in the attic, but the better example here is The Never Ending Story– the entire thing is the imaginative exercise of a child reading a book in the attic. Goddamn Beetlejuice spends over half the movie in the attic, most of which is spent, not ghosting the shit out of the inhabitants, but rather, wrapping the characters’ heads around the concept that they are dead. It’s the mental space.

The bedroom is usually reserved for sex. In adult-themed media. You rarely get a glimpse of what an adult’s bedroom actually looks like. It’s the punctuation of sexual achievement– a dude carries a lady into a bedroom. Cut to pillow-talk followed by a source of unnecessary conflict. Right? Except in more juvenile-aged marketed media where the bedroom is a refuge. You think of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Three Ninjas, Gleaming the Cube… the prepubescent bedroom becomes a space of personal expression and safety. Which makes sense in the human experience– that’s the only place where a teenager has any control over their own lives, even if that control is over which posters go up on the walls. But whether it’s for sex or personal rejuvenation (and general character building), the bedroom is almost never used as a primary stage for for plot. Exceptions to this are, of course, Toy Story (wherein the bedroom is represented as a town of sorts, and doesn’t really count) and Nightmare on Elm Street (wherein the bedroom, a vulnerable time, becomes a door for a broader stage. Johnny Depp getting absolutely eviscerated, though, remains one of my favorite film moments).

The staircase has stood reliably as an opportunity for one character to spy upon another character. And this is consistent from H.P. Lovecraft to J.K. Rowling: when a piece of information needs to be discussed and then overheard by the protagonist, the protagonist will linger on the staircase. That might divide the house into two distinct levels of trustworthiness to match its literal stories– the lower level is untrustworthy, whereas the hero always sneaks down from the upper stories. While it serves as a bridge in its architectural purpose, it’s not redundant to point out that it serves as a metaphorical bridge between two parties and the vehicle conveyed between them is generally unintentional information.

Kitchens are an interesting beast. The idea is always to portray family in a day in the life. How that family is portrayed with the kitchen is up to the author. In The Godfather Part II, a family is shown falling away from the uninterested Michael Corleone around a dinner table. Likewise, you have family comedies like The Simpsons or Malcom in the Middle where, despite the chaotics antics of the individual characters, they still come together for meals and create the status quo of the familial unit. From those two examples, we always come back to the status quo of dysfunctional, quirky families that support each other in dysfunctional, quirky ways. The status quo of the family in American Beauty is established with a similar scene, although any semblance of casual or warm acknowledgement is replaced with cold, forced and even scripted dialogue. Harkening back to Home Alone, the initial kitchen scene is one of immense chaos with a broad range of characters. Which sets up the essential conflict of the film and justifies it with a few, short scenes– there’s a lot of kids. One of them could get overlooked. (There’s also my favourite line, “You’re what the French call ‘les incompetent’.”)

Living rooms are for Christmas and people getting murdered. I’ve literally got nothing else on that.