The Process of Empathy

The Process of Empathy

Steve Morris from the Cine-Files podcast made a really great observation during their discussion of the movie Psycho: for a while, you’re on Norman Bates’s side. It’s after the scene when he discovers Marion, dead, in the shower (“Mother! Oh God, Mother! Blood! Blood!“) and before the scene of the car sinking into the bog (while Bates chews candies, nervously, before expressing a smug satisfaction when the car’s fully swallowed). Both of those scenes show Bates’s arrested development (the candy, the way he cries “mother” over and again…) but what happens in between (and I couldn’t find a clip for this to my shame. DAMMIT PIERRE!) is the meticulous cleaning Norman Bates performs on the murder scene. Without knowing the ending (as I somehow didn’t on my first watch all those years ago, through some miracle), we assume Bates feels compelled to protect his mother. But it’s being alongside him as he washes away the blood and carries the body to the car that we actually root for the villain, ending reveal notwithstanding. As Morris puts it, “Whenever we watch somebody in a process, we end up on their side.”

I think there’s a lot to that.

Watching somebody work gives you a different, occasionally more insightful, look into their personality than simply talking to them. You ever hire somebody? Or be involved in the hiring process? You can talk to a person and get a performance highlighting all of their best attributes but the day they show up to work, they’re a shitshow. Watching someone wash their hands before handling food is ultimately more important than them saying “I’m a good cook.”

Which throws us back to the old writing adage, “show don’t tell.” With which, I’ll refry this down into two questions: why is it effective to show a process in narrative and why does that gain audience sympathy?

The immediate answer is that work is common. On the grand scale, few people have actually cleaned blood in any real sense (side note: I interviewed some folks who worked in some bath houses and found that cum, piss and vomit were no issue. Blood, however…) but they have had to deal with mess. Few people have actually carried a body and shoved it into a car but, most people have carried an awkward TV, couch, or bed frame and have tried to make it work spatially in a van. Not everyone cleans, but everyone works. That alone makes you empathize, on a dark level, with Norman Bates.

There’s an oft mentioned study about how reading fiction makes people more empathetic. The casual explanation is that by reading with someone else’s brain for 300 pages, one tends to carry that perspective along with them back into the real world– or at least, the learned ability to entertain notions that are not their own. I’d agree with that assessment, but I also think there’s something to be said about any and all media that challenges the audience to ask themselves, “what would I do in this situation?” or perhaps, “what would I ideally to do in this situation?”

See, if I was Lewellyn Moss in No Country for Old Men, I would probably spend the entire book not hunting and eating chips on the couch as a seedy world of intrigue and carnage obliviously passes me by. Luckily, for art’s sake, I’m not Lewellyn. Cormac McCarthy (and the Coen’s faithful film adaptation) does something simple and brilliant: we’re shown characters of few words and inner reflection simply work through solving problems step by step without us being told what the problem is.

Moss is carrying a bag filled with two million dollars. He rents a motel room and stashes the money in a vent. He suspects (correctly) that the cartel is waiting to murder him and reclaim the money. So he rents another motel room behind his current one. Then he buys tent poles, leaving the audience going “buh-why?” It’s only when he tapes a bunch of coat hangers to the end of it that we realize that he intends to snake the bag of money through the vent and reclaim it in the new, parallel room. Similarly, we see Anton Chigurh use a bag of gas station sundries to blow up a car, only to find that that it’s a ruse to steal anesthetic drugs so he can perform self-surgery.

Scenes like these build tension because you have to wonder “the hell does he need a lid to a box of cotton swabs for?” Once you’ve been shown the reason, or the problem solved, you like it for a different reason: the characters’ intelligence is fully illustrated. Whether it’s Moss blowing water out of the chamber of a gun so it’ll ignite a bullet when he shoots a dog in the face or Chigurh turning off the light in the hallway so his feet won’t shadow under the door, we see something being worked out during the action of the story and we double-down on our admiration/respect for these characters because we’re either thinking, “I wish I had thought of that,” or “Yes. That is what I would ideally have done in the same scenario.”

The reason why heist movies like Oceans 11 (or Hereditary, a heist movie) are so engaging is because it’s 90% process. We like seeing a plan come together even if we don’t know what the plan is. Ocean’s 11 is primarily about a bunch of criminals, doing crimes. Or, rather, a bunch of criminals executing a convoluted strategy to pull off one crime. The actors are charming, which helps, but robbery usually isn’t that sexy of a crime (see: Raising Arizona, Reservoir Dogs). But if you add a sequential series of fancy pranks, some glib banter shared between 13 Hollywood stars, and a grand revealing of a few red-herrings, you get a competent, satisfying story– but only because you watched the characters earn it step by step.

Ocean’s 11 is an oddly apt example because, just as you don’t know what the plan really looks like, you also don’t know what Danny Ocean’s true motivation is as it could be revenge against the man who’s dating his wife, an attempt to get back with his wife, or pure greed. Surprise! It’s all three! But that only comes together in the very end when the audience is led to believe that he would betray one motivation for another. It’s not high-cerebral storytelling here, but it does work, and it is clever in its own right (for a movie I watched with my mom while my brother was at a youth group superbowl party 18 years ago that I wasn’t invited to).

The obfuscation of motivation is important when showing a process. In Psycho, no matter what we’re led to believe, we want Bates to succeed in hiding that body. In No Country, we want Chigurh to heal his leg because we suffered through watching him tweeze buckshot from the meat of his thigh. What a character wants is an integral part of writing but it’s something that drives a character throughout an entire arc and is only understood in retrospect. In fiction and cinema, we’re only exposed to these characters scene by scene and those characters have very immediate needs despite their longterm desires. Hey, kinda like life, ya know?

Showing a process of action is not unlike showing a thought process, brought to you by this new-fangled technology of first person narrative, where the reader is up against the grain of a character’s decision making. It’s a more intimate relationship, to be sure, as the reader might stop thinking “that’s what I would do,” and instead entertain, “this is what I did,” but the story itself shouldn’t be too different. And the reason, with, you know, good fiction, is a certain with-holding of motivation.

It’s noir time.

Phillip Marlowe is a pretty damn good chess player. He strategizes, he thinks, he mulls, he makes decisions. Even still, he bumbles into situations making him a hapless sap that often leaves him bloody and bruised with yet another body laying in the next room. Homeboy once smoked a laced cigarette and spent three hours on a floor. Sometimes he has a theory about how everything shakes out only to find that all of his instincts were wrong. Then he makes some plays against the antagonist and the truth finally outs. There’s a disconnect there, yeah? Even though he’s telegraphing his story to you, he isn’t going to tell you how he brought everything together until the very end, because it’s very likely that Marlowe is flying without a map until all the pieces are aligned and even then you’re still taken aback that the bastard fit it all together. It’s a bit of a motherfucker to know the narrator’s opinion about a secretary’s dress and not know the plan. That’s part of how story works, sure, but it’s also an example of how the narration itself is a strategic process– the narrator decides what to tell you and when, despite the narrator living in your brain.

It’s the whole principle behind Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest, wherein our Continental Op is dropped into a corrupt town, expected to pick sides between the corrupt cops and the criminals. The Op plays off of ALL of those expectations and nets so, so many bodies. Only it turns out, The Op’s motivation was to simply stir chaos on both sides, not necessarily knowing that they would murder each other– he had no plan, he’s just a drunk fucking psychopath. Still, he tells us every decision he makes as he systematically destroys the institutions and crooks, but he never tells us why, likely because he doesn’t know or doesn’t remember. He’s driven, in his own words, “blood simple.”

And we’re in their corner, despite them being monsters or virtuous, if occasionally inept, troublemakers. What people respond to are decisions, whether that’s shown through cleaning blood from a bathroom or scheduling a massacre of the police force with a phone call.

Still.

With the advent of reality television and video games, I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that we find routine processes humanizing. We watch entire blocks of entertainment dedicated to showing us the machines that make taffy, step by step. We follow Alaskan fishermen into the waves, cops into the streets, chefs into the kitchens. We come home from work to watch someone else do their job. We’ve attached so much personality to an Italian plumber because of the personal satisfaction of bringing him from the left side of a screen to the right (and we’ve apparently made so much goddamn pornography from a blue hedgehog, simply because he had to go fast).

It’s not surprising, but it’s something that I consider often when writing. I utilize “showing the process” of a character regularly, for the reasons I’ve explained: it illustrates intelligence, it creates tension, and it can exist outside of the over-arching motivation and focus on the immediate’s scene’s needs. There’s a delicate balance at stake here, as a reader’s attention-span is only so thick, and I sometimes worry that I’m tugging the boat a little too far. Truth be told, sometimes I think tugging the boat is pretty funny. Sometimes you need to “yada-yada” the reader along. But in writing The Fish Fox Boys Part Three: Ballad of the Badger Knights (which is free for Kindle until 3/15), I found that exploring the process in how someone builds or grows things provides several opportunities to further explore setting (In FFBIII, we get a better sense of the geographical landscape when Anne puts her mind to mutating corn. We get inside the old dilapidated schools, twice, when Fred and Adam go scavenging for parts, once in a rural school and again in an inner city one and there should be a difference felt between the two). I found that there’s an opportunity for characterization when the process frustrates the hero and we get to see how they handle that frustration. And while I tried to keep the flow of information economical, hints of motivation are indeed present, although mostly through subtext. Anne’s obsession with winning the Corn Festival had less to do with her justification of philanthropy and more to do with vain ambition just as Adam’s willingness to scavenge has more to say about his need to please a new friend, instead of serving his old friend’s needs.

And then there’s the logic itself: the simple satisfaction one receives from solving a problem, even if the character was responsible for the problem in the first place. It doesn’t matter if the reader themselves never invented a Zamboodlator, they’ll still listen to how you made it. I know this, because every time I pop the hood of my 1984 Volvo, there’s suddenly six dudes from no-where, peering over my shoulder, examining something that they do not understand yet have advice anyway.

Makes me think if I ever discover a body in my shower, the same audience will appear and one would say, “Clean the bathroom.” Another, “Put it in the trunk of a car.”

And another would agree, saying, “That’s what I would do.”

I just officially released The Fish Fox Boys Part Three yesterday. If you catch this blog before 3/15/2019, you can get a free copy of the book here. If paperback’s your game, as is mine, get that shit here. It’s a fairy-tale about the end of the world, what’s not to like?

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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

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.

Object Permanence and Logical Sequencing

Object Permanence and Logical Sequencing

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

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

It’s the lack of object permanence in writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unless you’re being ironic.