Thems Writin’ Words

Thems Writin’ Words

It can be hard to describe literary styles. We usually fall upon metaphors and comparisons to other writers when attempting to distill tone and lyrical execution, both of which never seem to fully capture a writer’s voice. At the hazard of leaning hard on one particular metaphor, as well as hazarding the comparison to Hemingway and Norman Mailer’s non-writing interests, let’s talk about writing as fighting.

Specifically, writing as martial arts.

It’s kind of a dumb idea, but one that I want to flesh out because it allows for easily digestible, real word examples to help understand the conceptual mechanics underneath literature. And like an MMFA fighter, modern writers need a diversity of styles to balance out their stories.

So let’s break it down.

Karate was born out of necessity. It was the common farmer’s self defense against corrupt officials. It is straight to the point and eliminates any extraneous movements. It is efficient and quick. This literary dojo follows the gurus of Hemingway and Raymond Carver. It is verb based, rooting the entire story in action. No word is wasted– just a snap-quick punch to the stomach, kept short in distinctively brief sentence structures that the layman can understand. This style is commonly referred to as the gold standard of writing.

Jujitsu is weaponless combat, born from facing an enemy without a sword. It utilizes grapples and throws, exploiting the opponent’s momentum, to put them into submission. Likewise, exposition is utilized only after you have the reader hooked. This is your time to hold them by the neck and force feed them your story in a way that they’ll understand. They’ll be so relieved when you let them go that they usually won’t even remember that you held them hostage. It generally violates the rule of “show don’t tell,” but jujitsu writers don’t give two dookies about that. This is your fantasy writer’s bread and butter– Tolkien, Martin and Rowling all captivate their audiences with authoritative exposition that tells the reader the way things are (Tolkien by way of intense histories, Rowling with a surrogate, eg, Hagrid explaining everything to Harry “Hot Pockets” Potter). Once the reader has submitted to this world view (via the suspension of disbelief), the author allows the reader’s imagination to run wild and then capitalizes on that momentum to throw the reader to the ground and hold them with another expository grapple.

Kung Fu is artful and hypnotic, much like a dance but with a pragmatic reason. The goal is to stagger and intimidate your foe by your performance and obfuscate your movements in a way that they cannot anticipate the next move. Because flourish and grace are celebrated in this fighting style, prosaic writers are Kung Fu masters. Don Delilo, Haruki Murakami, Ken Kesey, Ursula Le Guin– these writers are experts in describing the moments and revealing them with colorful language. Kung Fu masters relish the singular moment and stay there with intense focus. And there’s a split between internal and external intensity. While concentration and focus on interiority can lead towards some personal truths we usually hold locked inside us, similar truths can come from an aggressive breakdown of landscapes, a house, a pair of old shoes and society at large. The general principle in Kung Fu writing is that there’s beauty in everything.

Aikido, similar to Jujitsu, is predicated on the notion that it’s better to use your opponent’s momentum against themselves, instead of exhausting your own energy.  You ever watch Steven Seagal fight a bunch a dudes at once? It’s nuts. He literally just stands there casually and redirects his opponents’ movements into another direction. That placid, casual focus is why I couch the masters of tone into the Aikido camp. Cormac McCarthy, Chuck Palahniuk, Vonnegut, Raymond Chandler (It’s pretty apparent I need to read more female authors, I know), these guys confidently stack up their literary voice to the point where it controls the narrative. The reader accepts this voice rather organically, as the style is generally written in vernacular, and it is through that natural speed that the author can redirect the reader towards where they want them to go. I’d probably lump myself in this group, if I had to choose (sorry, Karate Sensei Dan, who taught me how to punch people really hard in 7th grade! Sumimasen!)

Ninjutsu is the shadow craft. While Kung Fu obfuscates its movements in exaggerated movement, Ninjutsu achieves the same principle by taking a step back. The primary weapons are diversion and tactical invisibility. But we should not forget that, like Karate, Ninjutsu is the art of the common farmer. Writing-wise, the tone must be practical and pragmatic, but the meaning itself is shrouded underneath its common garments. Metaphorical writers are true ninja warriors. Shakespeare is classic ninja. It took a few hundred years of reading his plays to figure out that he made a smelly pussy joke. James Joyce is so ninja, scholars couldn’t figure out that the plot to Finnegan’s wake until the 1990’s. That doesn’t mean the ninja prose has to be immediately baffling– I include Roberto Bolano’s Savage Detectives, and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves as modern ninja stories– the actual, purely implicit, plot of both don’t hit until well after the books themselves have left your hands.

Now I suppose the question remains, which dojo do you ascribe to? Do you need to pick one? In my view, modern authors need to be self-aware of how they write so that they can write to the best of their genre– that being being said, modern author’s are lucky to have such a rich tradition with which to engage with. Perhaps the best attitude to utilize this stupid fighting metaphor is to adopt the stance of a MMFA fighter and pick and choose which styles can best telegraph your brain’s guts against particular narrative issues. Need a hook? Karate. Want to explore the human experience? Kung fu. Want to world build within that issue? Jujitsu. Ride a voice into oblivion? Aikido. Want to impart wisdom or cleverness in a way that can be unpackaged overtime, like a good Arrested Development or Seinfeld episode? Ninjutsu. The modern novel calls for all of these things.

So put on your weighted clothes, work out in your gravity-fixed capsule, learn the art, and go Super Saiyan.

Pierre has his new book out! It’s called The Least of 99 Evils and you can get the ebook pre-order it here. More of a hardcopy kind of person? Get it in paperback here

Also Nick gives Mortal Kombat a 5/5 rating so as to use their image. It’s a review! Of Mortal Kombat! Surprise! 

 

Affecting Realism in Dialogue

Affecting Realism in Dialogue

People talk funny. I’m considering ending this post right here.

But that wouldn’t be fair. Writing dialogue in fiction is a tricky little monkey because it wears probably the most hats out of any of the devices in your narrative tool kit. Before we go on, take a moment to appreciate the image of a tricky monkey trying on a lot of hats. Heh. Rad.

Dialogue needs to exposit the plot without being too obvious, represent the atmosphere of the setting, as well as indicate a character’s specific values. Instinctual solutions to this triple-headed problem are often, ehm, shitty.

Kind of in the same way every novice thesbian reads every character in a British accent, the writer’s most common pratfall is raising the dialogue to give it a touch of misplaced class. “Stilted dialogue,” is probably a phrase you’ve read in a book or movie review and refers to the dialogue being stiff, overly-prosaic and “unnaturally formal.” It’s an easily justified solution– “My character’s a class act”– but it commonly bores the reader to hell and back. Worse, it’ll show your ignorance of how Victorian age gentlefolk actually talked because, let’s face it, you don’t know from personal experience, you just watched Pride and Prejudice and thought that’d it look smart on paper. It doesn’t. It’s boring and stupid. Moving on.

The other direction is one I’m more likely to head myself: utilizing dialect. There’s some pratfalls here, too. The most obvious one is looking like a bigot. Writing, say, a Chinese character in broken English would probably earn you a lot of hate. Another danger is steeping the dialogue in so much slang that the meaning is unrecognizable. There are exceptions to this, of course (Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, for example), but generally speaking you still want the reader to understand what’s being telegraphed. A third danger is similar to the stilts– which is an over reliance on the same dialect. I have this problem that I’ll end up injecting southern drawls into all of my stories, regardless of genre. I’m working on it. But I opt for this direction more often than not because dialect is a means of relaying attitude–and yes, sometimes that attitude is hoity-toity high class Bourgeois bullshit– reflective of the character saying the words.

Over explicative dialogue is also a bummer. I call them “information dumps.” It’s when a character breaks down the plot without nuance and spoon feeds the reader “the grand reveal.” Sometimes it’s unavoidable. For readability and logistical reasons, eventually a character needs to squeal. I don’t always handle this well myself but studying hardboiled detective fiction has offered a blunt solution– make the Macguffin of the story the information itself. Noir fiction achieves this by making the primary action of the novel a series of interviews rife with exposition in a way that seems natural to the needs of the primary character. There’s a suggestion there that applies to all genres– if you need to exposit some plot, enact an interrogation of some kind. Is it a perfect solution? Well, nothing’s gonna be, but as far as my money’s worth squeezing information out of a character tracks more naturally than unsolicited explanations for what’s going on.

Between the tasks of characterizing, expositing and reflecting the setting through dialogue is a golden opportunity to triple down on all three. It requires doing something rather unintuitive at first. Go off track. Instead of having a character simply stating their goal or the nature of their world (which I understand, sometimes ya gotta do), have them fixate momentarily on something non-sequitor. This loop around the immediate problem at hand provides a subtle glance at the setting while keying the reader into how a character thinks– while still participating with plot driven dialogue. Let me dummy up an example:

“Jess, we got to get goin’.”

“The flowers haven’t blossomed yet. Why haven’t the flowers blossomed yet, Jake?”

“Jess? We need to leave, now-like.”

In three short lines of dialogue we know that Jake is urgently concerned with the current setting. Maybe he’s a protecter type, maybe he’s just anxious, but he’s moving the story along. We know that Jess is perceptive, curious and introspective. We know that the flowers haven’t blossomed which makes us feel like the world that they inhabit has gone wrong. It goes from plot and setting to characterization and atmosphere and back to plot.

The reason why deviation coupled with dialect works as a means to express dialogue is that it’s how we naturally speak. We don’t necessarily write the way we talk– except for me and it’s weird to talk to me in person– but we should aim to come as close as we possibly can while still serving the purposes of dialogue. Dialect works because it grounds us to a particular lexicon and style. Deviation works because real life conversations often occur with both parties speaking around each other’s point (I hate to bring up Hills Like White Elephants again, but that’s the perfect example of this). How many times have you yourself brought up something entirely off topic in order to express your own interests? If you can find a way to instill that sentiment while preserving the alternative talking points (and excise the social obligations of “I’m sorry, this is off topic, but…”) while still sharing a conversation that explicates, characterizes, and reflects atmosphere, you might just make your piece feel a little bit more real.  And a spoonful of realism makes the plot go down that much easier.

Fuck stilts.

 

 

 

Exploring the Novel

Exploring the Novel

I hear it all the time: “Pierre, you’re such an interesting-looking creature, why don’t you pursue an acting career as a bent-faced, chain-smoking gambler in the upcoming Gun Shooty Bang Robot Boom reboot?”

And I always say, “Naw, babe. I love novels too much.”

And I do. A lot of people do. You ask people who don’t even read what their favorite book is and they’ll still tell you a couple of novels that have stuck with them over the years. So let’s talk about novels. More importantly why novels are, specifically, so important to the human experience? Maybe how.

By and large, people will read a novel once and only once. There are exceptions to the rule, but it’s different from, say, re-watching your favorite films or rediscovering an album from high school that friggin’ Jocelyn burned for you. Songs and scenes might get stuck in your head but it’s hard to capture in any directly relatable way what exactly got you with your favorite book, isn’t it? It’s less about the isolated moments that are so easily defined in music and film and more about the experience itself. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

What sets novels apart from anything else is the participation of the audience to help create what’s being seen, said, smelled… it’s a sensory illusion that the reader, on some level, hypnotizes themselves to believe is a felt, interior reality– if the writer did their job right. It’s a collusion between the two to create the suspension of disbelief. And unlike other art forms, it requires active participation.

(Which isn’t to say that film and music are solely passive experiences– it’s just that reading cannot be so.)

That intermingling of minds has always fascinated me. There’s a strange intimacy there between the author and reader that isn’t experienced elsewhere. Films have a lot of hands that touch the project– and while that is a remarkable thing of itself, that a collaboration of people came together to create something potentially beautiful– it only takes a producer’s (or an actor’s, or a budget’s) soiled fingers to spoil the whole pot of soup. When it’s a singular vision (editors notwithstanding) conveyed directly to the reader, the experience becomes thinking with another person’s brain. This is likely why reading novels makes you a more empathetic person.

That author-reader relationship is only possible through the design of the novel. It’s strange to think about novels as technology, but in the historical context of formatting of stories, novels are sleeker and more easily digestible in its modern form than epic poems or the travelogues that birthed them. There’s no baby fat of repetition for repetition’s sake (like you see in fairy tales) or the loose skin of extraneous oration that bogs down Greek narratives.

While the rule of threes has been commonplace for centuries, the novel perfected the three act structure by shaving it down to its base components. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the novel was developed concurrently with the re-popularization of the triptych in western culture during the 1500’s. The Japanese invented the novel at least a good 300 years prior— and, not coincidentally, had been enjoying cohesive scroll ink paintings for at least a 100 years before that. Classical painting is emotionally and intellectually stimulating but is still more sensed through the lens of the viewer. Even with the triptych’s cohesive storytelling ability, a direct means of story remains elusive. That’s where the novel comes in as a continuation of that tradition– able to paint a picture in the reader’s mind and then able to explain the painting.

Speaking of the 1500’s, it’s also not a coincidence that the novel technology is also concurrent with the spread of literacy. Once a privilege held only by clergy and bards, the ability to read leaked out from the clouds above and pissed on all us sinners in a baptism of critical thinking. Without an interpreter, individuals were given the means of direct processing of written content. The result, of course, was an explosion of experimental writing (aaaand institutional upheaval), as well as a certain power regained by the common person: the ability to read and write your own stories. As much as the newborn readers found a sense of individualism with this new privilege, so did the authors– and it’s on that mental platform on which this medium was able to speak from the perspective of an individual and reach people on a personally affecting level, despite that thousands of people were reading the exact same content.

Now you might think I’ve forgotten about poetry. So what about poetry? Didn’t it have the same bloom along with the democratization of literacy? Sure did. I’m not talking shit. It’s just a different, more ancient, technology. My understanding is that poetry is the perfect distillation of emotion and moments into words. If the poet has done their job right. Poetry can be wonderful. But to me it often feels voyeuristic into the mind of the poet and the poet alone. The audience didn’t get there themselves. A journey’s missing. The crystalized truth within the poem often feels like an ill-gotten treasure.

So why obscure the feeling with arcane logic when you could just tell the reader what’s actually happening?

Some of the most powerful fiction I’ve ever read has been a short story. Still, I struggle to engage with a lot of it. Ideally, a short story identifies the moment before a life-changing event in a character’s life, not the moment itself. One of my all-time favorites is Jodi Angel’s A Good Deuce (Tin House Summer Reading 2011, issue #48) which takes place after the narrator’s mother has died from an overdose and ends right before the narrator has sex with an older woman in a car in an overtly oedipal exorcism of the tragedy. This is damn near as perfect of a short story as you can get– but it might’ve been untenable as a part of a full novel. The whole story has already been implied and would feel lopsided in the frame of a different story.

But more often, there’s the opposite problem. Short stories have the general policy of “you get what you get,” and often have the shortcoming of ending just a little too soon. In “Trouble Is My Business,” by Raymond Chandler, everything gets wrapped up just as the characters are beginning to flesh out. I didn’t feel cheated, necessarily, as I felt like the payoff was rushed and, as a reader, that I didn’t earn it. (It’s not unlike that Rick and Morty true crime spoof.)

Like a good (or bad) psychedelic experience, the books you read change you. Feel free to disagree, but I’ll forever maintain that novels are the most effective devices for changing you for the better.

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.

 

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.

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.

 

Genre vs Fiction: FIGHT!

Genre vs Fiction: FIGHT!

There’s an interesting divide in the academic literary world based on the question of “what constitutes Literary Fiction?”

This rift has spread to the publishing world. The Literary Fiction camp holds the belief that Genre Fiction writers are cookie-cutter sellouts, pumping out as much trash as possible to earn a quick buck. Whereas the Genre Fiction camp views the Literary Writers as idealistic snobs, writing from an ivory tower and waxing poetic in ruffled shirts.

With some of the stubborn and pompous attitudes of literary authors and all of the garbage self-published on Amazon, it’s hard not to agree with both stereotypes. But I think if you want to get in the habit of writing successfully, you need to understand and aspire to both schools of thought.

Speaking of schools, here’s a story from my last class I ever took at University. It was a Renaissance Fiction Class, 400 hundred level. Through all of the reading, we were asked a simple question: is this Literature? No one, not even the teacher had a solid definition of what that meant. The vague answer is something like, “a written work that has literary merit,” which loops infuriatingly into itself.

The term began taking upon its popularity as its own thing around the time travelogues came into vogue–somewhere in the early 1500’s– and it’s easy to understand why, as a written, true account of a journey strikes on the “beginning, middle, and end” narrative structure naturally. These were supposedly non-fictional accounts, but there’s no doubt that details were embellished. The trend of intentionally fictionalizing these travelogues is traditionally credited to Sir Thomas More with his work UtopiaWe also read a bunch of martyrologies, another supposedly non-fictional account that has some, shall we say, mystical qualities to it (in addition to being objectively metal). With every chunk of reading we were asked if this was literature. 

More questions followed. Does literature have to be fiction? (A: “Not… really?”) Does it have to be interesting? (A: “Apparently not, because travelogues are boring as hell.”) Does it have to share significant insight into humanity ? (A: “Uhm, hmmm.“)

One answer was certain: that everything we read was written to the guidelines specific to a particular genre.

Another question: Was this considered Literature at the time? Nearly everything we hold in literary prestige garnered its accolades long after the author died. Shakespeare’s works didn’t get the literary treatment until the 20th century. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a horror novel. The Great Gatsby was considered a failure until after World War II. Is it literature? (A: “Let’s sleep on it and figure it out next century.”)

Now, as far as it relates to the publishing world, a distinction between literary and genre fiction can be made. As far as I can tell, the difference is this:

Literary Fiction focuses on introspective character studies that attempts to reflect a philosophical truth of the modern age. The character dictates the plot.

Genre Fiction focuses on universally recognizable characters driven to make choices by external actions. The plot dictates the character.

Modern fiction necessitates an overlap– Don Delilo’s White Noise, for example, ends a meticulous and surreal study of a modern family with elements borrowed from a thriller. It’s in that overlap that you should aspire to. On one hand, learning and understanding the conventions of basic storytelling is important, because those elements don’t really change over time. Our brains are wired to understand stories and, ideally, you want the reader to understand and enjoy the act of actually reading your book. On the other hand, you should give a shit and try to make your work as affecting and relevant to the world around you as you possibly can.

Because at the end of the day, literature is like pornography. No one really knows what it is, but we know it when we see it.

Out of Frame

Out of Frame

I got into an argument with my favorite bartender recently about the genius of Baz Lurhmann. His argument was Moulin Rouge. My counterpoint was The Great Gatsby.

Ahem.

Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby is heartwarming tale of how a writer-director can take what is arguably the most American novel of all time and transform it to a staggering monument of cinematic piss. At 2 hours and 23 minutes, the film is a bloated psychedelic music video that is bookended by the frame narrative of Nick Carraway writing the book while being treated for alcoholism in a sanatorium.

While certain critics will defend this retcon as an innovative insight into F. Scot Fitzgerald’s life, which indeed spiraled into alcoholic chaos, it’s important to note that Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby in Europe, relatively comfortably, and that it was, in fact, Zelda Sayre who actually wrote a book while in psychiatric care.

You could say the use of the frame narrative device is similar to that of the cinematic adaptation of Naked Lunch, but that argument does not hold an ounce of water (or… gin?)–the film Naked Lunch is a schizophrenic journey of pornographic, junkie appetites that desperately needed narrative grounding, whereas The Great Gatsby is already a complete narrative, rendering any additional storytelling device unnecessary.

It’s kind of frustrating when you read Luhrmann thoughts on his own direction:

“What scenes are absolutely fundamental to the story? What scenes must be in our film? And what scenes can we do with out, even if we love them?”

Luhrmann isn’t really known for discipline in his movies. And that’s fine. He’s about spectacle and I can respect that. But when you pair the above quote with the one below, from the same interview, my mind explodes:

“in the novel, Fitzgerald very deftly alludes to the fact that Nick is writing a book about Jay Gatsby in the book […] – “Reading over what I have written so far…” So Craig and I were looking for a way that we could show, rather than just have disembodied voiceover throughout the whole film, show Nick actually dealing with the writing[…]”

That’s a wide reach to justify the choice of framing the narrative in the film. If I had to guess, Baz either wrote (or directed) his way into a corner, and the focus on Nick Carraway was his solution. I respect that writing involves a lot of creative solutions for the problems you give yourself and a frame narrative might actually be helpful. I’ll even say that the subdued shots of a novel being organized was some of my favorite imagery used in the film, because I’m a gigantic dweeb.

But I’ll take this explanation to task as the Nick storyline is the very definition of visual “telling” and not showing. It’s making literal what was initially implied. Many book adaptations mention that the narrator wrote the book that you hold in your hands– without having to wedge apocryphal material in to justify it.

And if you want an example of perfectly adapting a narrator into a film, look no further than Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Which proves that it’s doable without coming off as heavy-handed.

But maybe I’m bitter because when I watched Gatsby in 2013, I left the theater angry because the novel I was working on at the time began with a frame narrative taking place in a psychiatric hospital. When I saw the trope play out on screen, it came off as cheap and melodramatic. I changed it immediately as soon as I got home.

Why did it come off as cheap? How did the device actually change the story?

In Gatsby, the frame device put a lot of weight on the story itself– that’s what a frame narrative does, looking back to a time with a different perspective– and shifts the perspective of the interior story away from a ruminative reflection on the foibles of greed, the emptiness of shallow relationships, the tedious culture of high society and the meaninglessness of achieving the American dream through ill-gotten gains to a brooding, traumatized perspective that undercuts the significance of anything else.

 

But in the end, The Great Gatsby (2013) got 48% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is a score a high school English teacher would give a book report presentation if it was just Baz Luhrmann nodding along silently as a Jay-Z album played through.

Then again, Robert Redford’s 1973 Gatsby vehicle got 39%. The one in 1949 has a score of 38%.

Maybe we should just leave Gatsby alone.

 

Tuning to Harmony

Tuning to Harmony

I remember that the two dirtiest words in an English course discussion were “author’s intent.”

Summarily, the discussion basically the cuts the same way every time: one side says that author’s intent is negligible, creators aren’t always cognizant of the significance of what they’re creating and the other says that we must respect the genius inherent to the craft, every little thing is in its proper place and there for a reason.

Good rule of thumb is to be a middling son of a gun. Writer’s aren’t gods, but the good ones ain’t slackers either. (Except for me. I wear my hat backwards and am late to stuff).

Anyways, this discussion generally leads to another popular discussion: “Is symbolism intentional?”

Again, it depends. And I’ve found that the answer can be yes and no about any particular symbol.

In an episode of Radiolab, Paul Auster describes what he calls “rhyming events,” and he uses the real world example of a girl he dated in college that had a piano with a broken F key and later that year, on a trip to rural Maine, they encounter an old (abandoned?) Elk’s lodge with a piano… that had a broken F key.

Uncanny? Sure. Does it mean anything? I think Auster mentioned it because there’s a certain unworldly profundity to the circumstance that he doesn’t understand. And a theist could point to the hand of God underlining a certain meaning and an existentialist would write in their own meaning as to how it’s to be interpreted and a rationalist would say that it’s just the hazard of coincidence. And so forth.

I think this question is one that Murakami plays with often. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World there’s a little, non-assuming detail about the main character– that his most prized possession is his whiskey collection. That the narrator is a heavy whiskey drinker is featured prominently, but when he describes the bottles he values, he lists Old Crow and Wild Turkey (among others,) the former being generally low shelf, the latter being middle shelf. Did this mean anything? Does it speak to a sense of emptiness that the highest possession of value is some of the cheapest bourbon on the market? Or was this just a sign of 1980’s Japan, when the foreign whiskey market opened up, thus making Old Crow a hot item of the times? Does Murakami want me to be asking these kinds of questions?

I’ve also argued (in my head) about the recurring motif of lice in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. [cue montage to every line using the word “lousy”] Does this speak of Caulfield’s paradigm? That the world is a louse-ridden, filthy place? Or is Salinger just tapping into the common verbiage of an angsty teen? Am I cheated out of anything if the second turns out to be true? Does it make it the first interpretation any less true? History has shown that it’s not the best idea to overthink Catcher in the Rye.

Another quick example: IS PAUL DEAD? Quick take: No, but The Beatles sure loved to keep the meanings of their songs ambiguous, and probably played into the hoax as it unravelled the minds of acid tripping college radio DJs.

Ahem.

For writers, it would seem that woven-in symbolism is optional because it might happen anyway. Disregard the question of intentionality entirely because, successful symbolism and underlying conceptual themes ask the reader questions, instead of attempting to define anything concrete.

That doesn’t mean you should stop trying to massage meaning into your own work. That means that you first have to keep it open.

Riffing of Auster’s terminology, I’ve noticed that there are resonating frequencies in my own work. In the first draft, it’s my job to create opportunities for these moments, these scenes, details, dialogue to resonate. Just like Auster’s example, I’m writing about circumstances that appear to have profundity, even if I can’t quite place what’s so profound. It might not be the author’s job to place it, either.

Going back over them in the second draft, it’s my job to see which frequencies work together and tweak them so that they harmonize, and cut everything that’s singing out of key. The idea is to normalize a certain sense of complex language that it’s barely noticeable– casual readers can enjoy themselves, and thoughtful readers can dig in to some juicy concepts.

But when in doubt, it’s best to stick to basic storytelling first. Don’t carry the burden of making the cleverest, densest and heavily layered piece of fiction in the world. It’s been done and it sucks.

It’s also helpful to remember that a cigar can just be a cigar.

(Bonus round: Did I include the Kanji symbol as the header because it has some sort of significance or because I thought it looked like a haughty bird person holding a basket?)

 

 

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.