Novelty: Jazz and Chess

Novelty: Jazz and Chess

“_____ is like chess” is the laziest simile there is in the English language. Supposedly, everything is like chess, right? Relationships, raising dogs, building roads, checkers, sex, and building Gundam models. The message is that something requires strategy. Like chess.

Writing is like chess for a different, less contrived reason. Radiolab did an episode a while back about the possible moves in chess. Since the 1600’s chess moves and positions have been recorded culminating into a huuuuge Russian library of games. There are hundreds of thousands of moves. It went online and expanded further. They describe it as a galaxy of possibilities. As a result, chess became an exercise of rote moves and countermoves– essentially prescribing the entire game before it starts. But as the episode points out, as certain games progress, the number of games a move has appeared gets smaller and smaller until a move occurs that has never occurred in history. They call it the Novelty and it’s supposed to be very exciting.

I bring this up because the question of originality comes up a lot in writing. When a piece of work is called “cliché” or “hackneyed” or “trite,” it’s usually a sign of laziness of the writer, right? After all, they just took the concept of X and dumped it into Y.

And maybe that’s unfair. It’s a disappointing experience, sure, but all work is derivative. I’m not defending plagiarism, which is a problem which should be dealt with by means of shovel-punching, but I’m saying once an idea works, the only way to go forward is to try deviations of that idea a million times over.

The Story Grid Podcast got into this a little bit when they discussed how every pitch in the 90s was basically “It’s Die Hard… wait for it… INSIDE OF A WHALE. WhhhhaaaaOOOOAAAAA!!!” It’s how memes work. You make a joke and then you drag it through every possible version until someone makes the best one and then wins some short-lived validation.

Better example: Cowboy Bebop. Jazz, noir, western, and sci-fi were all established genres before 1998. That gem had the audacity to combine all of those elements into something no one had ever scene before. And guess what? Four years later, that recipe was copied and repackaged as Firefly.  Those two television programs are undeniably their own thing, despite sharing the same DNA.

There’s a whole website dedicated to cataloguing the conceits that occur repeatedly in pop culture. And yet, new content, even if it mimics previous works, can bring us new experiences.

It’s almost impossible not to make a written piece your own thing, even if you’re “painting by numbers.” David Wong had a quote on this that I couldn’t find, so here’s a similar one about how the personality of a writer inevitably bleeds into the work:

You can’t write fiction that’s not at least a little bit biographical, since you’re writing it from inside your own head and filtering everything through your own experiences. Even if you aren’t directly recreating scenes from your own childhood or whatever, you’re still writing about your own anxieties and hopes and it’s all filtered through your own view of the world.

And that’s a great thing. In a world of an ever expanding ocean of literature with the rise of self-publishing, it’s heartening to recognize that each book, if written in earnest, has at the very least personal value in the pages. That novelty is something that can still be attained despite the flood of content. I once read a book by an indie author and it was laughably terrible– but I have to give the writer credit that I had never read a hardboiled detective novel in which the main character sings karaoke and gets laid instead of solving the crime.

The way that originality seems to work is by slogging through tropes and clichés and turning them on their heads when you see the opportunity– it has been explained to me by very smart people that this technique is why Shakespeare was somewhat popular in his own time. And there’s a lesson there: you play off the expectations of the reader/audience with the cliché and then subvert the cliché, creating a pleasurable irony.

That’s how jazz itself works, right? If you’re familiar with the complexities of musical theory, you can improvise on top of it.

It might sound like I’m justifying dubious writing practices, but remember this: books are organized by genre and sold by keywords and metadata. Inevitably, you’re going to have to study the obligations of that genre and the various recognizable tropes within basic storytelling. And then you’re going to contribute your own variation.

Because we don’t stand on the shoulders of giants. It’s more like a Yertle the Turtle situation.


Conflict is the Grandmother of All Invention

Conflict is the Grandmother of All Invention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See what boils to the top.