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.

The End of the World as We Nevermind

The End of the World as We Nevermind

A joke I’ve seen circulating social media quite often is this: “Stop writing dystopian fiction, you’re only giving the government ideas.”

The joke, I guess, is that because dystopias are often written to underline specific and problematic societal and political norms by satirically torquing those values to their ridiculous breaking point, that it eventually and unintentionally normalizes the extreme examples that the author used to point out the absurdities of modern living.

Ha. Ha.

And to that point I’ll challenge the notion that George Orwell was some kind of prophet. 1984 stands as the quintessential dystopian novel, portraying a harrowing world of an omni-present yet ambiguous authority and panopticonical surveillance. And one leaps to think that Orwell is describing the future that we now live in, given how many things line up with our modern experiences with totalitarianism and the invasive practices of the NSA. I don’t want to diminish the modern relevance of the work. It’s currently significant, but what I want to make clear is that it was as significant when Orwell wrote it. He wasn’t a prophet so much as he was a scholar of how fascism operates through the arms of bureaucracy. Nazis rewarded those who provided information about their Jewish neighbors; spy networks have almost always been a tactic of every militarily-minded society; population surveillance has been the wet dream of dictatorships everywhere (it used to look like intercepting written letters, now it’s tapping into Smart TVs and that goddamn Alexa as well as examining piles of metadata); fascists have a tendency to make their face ubiquitous with pithy catchphrases underneath; populations, as a whole, have a tendency to react to things emotionally instead of rationally (compare the 2 Minute Hate to Tweet Storms about anything). I could go on, but the point I’m making here is this: George Orwell wasn’t trying to depict the future, he was describing his present using allegorical science fiction.

Let’s back up. All the way up. We wouldn’t have dystopias without utopias. Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, a fictional travelogue that came out in the early 1500’s, describes an outsider’s perspective of an ethical, puritanical island that operates under a strict set of benevolent rules that serves everybody’s best interests.

Everybody’s best guess is that Utopia is a satire, aping medieval Europe’s more liberal tendencies. It is, in fact, it’s own dystopia. If it was considered satire by More’s contemporaries, modern thought would look at it as a fucked up 4th world country. Slavery, pre-marital bonin’ punished by a lifetime of celibacy, women strictly relegated to the role of home-making, etcetera. Utopias don’t purely exist in fiction (and don’t give me Paradiso as an example, that shit is boring as… well, not hell, because Inferno was ultimately more satisfying to read.) because there is no under-riding conflict. If that sound familiar, then GOOD. That means you read my dumb musings on conflict months ago. Have a chocolate.

And so we’re back to dystopias. How come we love them so much? And does that reason vary from culture to culture?

The most recent episode of Wizard and the Bruiser brought up an excellent point about Akira: that a dystopic representation of Tokyo (re-imagined as Neo-Tokyo, 30 years after the Akira fallout, written in the 1980’s, 30ish some years after the Atomic fallout) where parentless gangs run the streets at night while the military tries to maintain order, is reminiscent of 1950’s Japan when the country was recovering from a devastating war and the victim of two Atomic bombs dropped on two of their civilian cities. In the same way that Gojira served to sublimate the horrors of the bomb in a way audiences could emotionally process, Akira is a digestion of the chaos the country experienced while rebuilding.

In America, I believe the shared fascination with dystopias digs at two things.

The first we are often hesitant to address– this country has been devastated. The genocide of Native Americans has been traditionally shoehorned into Cowboy vs. Indians John Wayne narratives, wherein the natives are either savage murderers or aides for Manifest Destiny. There’s a collective guilt there that’s been pushed down for centuries now but no matter how many times America tries to push a traditional western through, it sings the same old story. Dystopias, if you haven’t noticed, tend to put the atrocities mankind is capable of front and center. And there’s a reason why most post-apocalyptic fiction sets back technology and infrastructure  back to a familiar, nearly western setting. Various reasons, probably, but the one I’m poking at is the coping mechanism for the blood spilled on the frontier.

The second thing to address, is the culminate fear of where society is heading. A lot of that is moralistic hand-wringing, to be sure, but many of those fears are not unprecedented. Nuclear holocaust is an anxiety we currently bear day-to-day, and have since the bomb’s inception. Again, here we have a means to digest that fear in narrative form that ultimately cherishes optimism. The Road ends on an optimistic note, despite all of the horrific and tragic build-up. The Mad Max series, while exploring survivalistic depravities, tends to end its chapters on a victory. You see the gore, you still get a (hard earned) happy(ish) ending and piece by piece, a little bit of that fear of the future is smoothed out just enough so you can get out of bed in the morning.

But whether the social consciousness feels regret about the past, or anxiety about the future, the sharpest gear in the mechanics of dystopias is set in the human brain’s inability to process reality. The world’s got some beautiful shit. The rest is kind of just… shit? And it’s not hard to understand why people willingly ignore the evil in the world. We get nauseated at the sight of blood. And yet, reality persists. For mental health reasons, everyone gives the news a break and doubles down on what is truly important to them because a day feels like a year if you keep up with everything. And that’s fine. To paraphrase Camus, you can’t live in the desert your entire life, otherwise you’ll go insane. Or, to quote A Tribe Called Quest, “VH1 has a show that you can waste your time with. Guilty pleasures take the edge off reality and for a salary I’d probably do that shit sporadically.” [punctuation mine]

Reality is hard to swallow. There’s a limit of what a person can emotionally process before they turn off and numb out. While directly reporting the distressing information about how the world turns is a necessary journalistic imperative, fiction isn’t bound to the same precedent while still remaining just as relevant. Dystopian fiction offers a method of telegraphing modern and relevant social pain and institutional betrayals within the world using the element of just enough fantastical devices to keep it distant enough to process with an indirect emotional stake. Example given: as someone who studied genocide for a semester in college, more people are comfortable discussing how despicable Death Eaters are than the brutal actions of the Khmer Rouge. Dystopias sublimate the horror of reality into an easily digestible parable.

And really, where the fuck else are you going to have the delicious opportunity to have a bedraggled Ronald Reagan fight a woman in football shoulder-pads, brandishing a sword made out of knee-caps or some bullshit?

That shit doesn’t happen in westerns.

 

Pierre’s most recent dystopian odyssey is available on Amazon. It’s called The Least of 99 Evils and you aren’t ready. 

Sex and Violence, Mostly Violence

Sex and Violence, Mostly Violence

First of all, here’s this.

Second of all, I spoil the grossest thing in The Road.

Whether you like it or not, violence is a part of our daily media intake. It’s always been controversial, from Quentin Tarantino to Marilyn Manson, Doom and Grand Theft Auto, but now, I feel, we’ve reached a saturation point where portrayed violence inhibits every corner of our entertainment– how many award winning television series are there on Netflix that don’t shed a drop of blood? Okay, a couple, sure, but those have tits in spades, releasing our other primal reflexes.

I think it’s worth examining the language of violence in media, because violence itself, is a language. In narrative, it’s a cathartic language. Similar to humor and sex, portrayed violence carries out modern anxieties out to a sublimated pasture of fantasy where it can die peacefully: instead of the primal urge to kill getting on top of you and you wake up next to the head of your neighbor because he wouldn’t stop blasting J Beib’s latest single, you watch an episode of Fargo and go to bed understanding the complexities of murder without actually committing any.

In America, portrayals of violence are more common than portrayals of sex. Bruce Campbell has a legendary quote about Hollywood: “You can cut off a breast, you just can’t kiss it.”  A huge part of that is the sex-negative mentality of the USA, but it almost stands at odds with the hyper-sexualization of women in media. Sex sells, after all. Which is true, but when you look at how sex is generally portrayed in Television and Film it’s almost always associated with a point of conflict, trauma, or the highest goal of a sustained relationship instead of something that just happens naturally. Anyway you cut it, sex is the end of something in media. It’s a punctuation.

Whereas violence exists as a means to an end. It’s a driving force that threads the hero along. You think of Obi Wan slicing off that guys arm in the cantina and your inner cave-dweller goes “FUCK YEAH.” And the scene progresses because of it. Our action narratives thrive on the promise of fucking somebody up. No one really cares when John McClain reunites with his wife, that was a given from the start, but serves mostly as a happy bonus– the money shot of the movie is the cruel schadenfreude of watching Hans fall to his death.

But everyone knows that books are more fucked up than films when it comes to violence, or really, anything. We all know that American Psycho was a much more depraved novel than its silver screen counterpart, but why is that? Is dropping a chainsaw on a woman objectively less terrifying than turning a woman into a human rat-maze? Perhaps. Perhaps the written violence disturbs us deeper because of the more explicit sexual component the novel adds to its morbidity. But I think, at least in a large part, it’s something else entirely:

You’re forced to imagine it yourself. You become culpable for the detestable creation in your mind. You, as the reader, are now a co-conspirator in this depravity and are now, in some capacity, responsible.

But what about the writer’s responsibility in portraying violence? In the forward for A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess bemoans that the original US release (and Kubrick’s film adaptation) refused to see the main protagonist as anything other than a violent delinquent, both having excised the final chapter of suggested redemption via free will. Yet, Burgess admits the following:

It seems priggish or pollyanniaish to deny that my intention in writing the work was to titillate the nastier propensities of my readers. My own healthy inheritance of original sin comes out in the book and I enjoyed raping and ripping by proxy. It is the writer’s innate cowardice that makes him depute to imaginary personalities the sins that he is too cautious to commit for himself.

That second bit I’ll take issue with, as I don’t believe the people who write fucked up stuff are necessarily fucked up people (some, surely) so much as I believe that they are using a certain language to cathartically expunge a host of emotions in singular gestures. To Burgess’s point, I will say that there’s a lot of dark psychology that is also expunged from the writer’s mind when writing horrific flourishes– I’m of the school of thought that believes Horror and Dark Fantasy writers are probably the happiest people on earth– which happens to resonate, cathartically, with the reader who will inevitably share a similar shade of a dark mind. In that way, the creative yoke of violence is shared between author and reader such that everyone benefits.

The first part of that quote is about the glee one feels having written something truly disturbing. While drafting The Least of 99 Evils, I wrote perhaps the most gruesome scene in my entire writing career. I immediately went downstairs and told my roommate what I’d just done, laughter spilling out of my mouth. He was disgusted which only elevated my elation higher. You can’t deny that pushing the boundaries of discomfort is a satisfying experience. I call it the discomfort zone.

But let’s talk about how violence gets telegraphed in written narratives, shall we? The overarching principle of writing violence is a gentle touch, followed by a perusal of the aftermath. Everything else is all style.

You have writers who use short, and blunt language to drive home the punches of the scene. James Ellroy excels at this. The most heartbreaking death scene in LA Confidential is a sentence that can’t be longer than half a tweet. You’re left with the sudden realization that this character is dead and you don’t have time to follow up on any details because the rest of the action is moving way too fast. It puts you in the perspective of the other characters and is retrospectively very realistic. Real-world events happen fast. You fill in the details while you color in your memory.

Using medical terminology distances the reader from the grisly details. At first. The realization of the cruelty bestowed becomes clear as the reader translates the terms in their mind and finds (or feels) that spot on their own body. It’s an outside-in strategy that works like a grenade: it takes a couple of seconds, but once it sinks in it’s a repulsion-explosion.

Likewise, you can use metaphor in a similar way. “He held his heart like a rotten apple,” is effective because it forces the reader to imagine holding an apple, bringing the violence (abhorrent behavior) closer to home by suggesting a common, shared experience. And then the wave crashes back when the reader realizes they know what it’s like to hold a human heart.

These two are examples of implicative violence. The reader has to fill in the blank to fully flesh out the scene. In comic writing, implicative violence is frowned upon because it lacks a dynamic image to carry the scene through. Panel one will have a character about to punch another. Panel two is a sunburst that says “POW.” Panel three is the other character with a dent in their forehead. It doesn’t work visually… but in written narrative you have the readership doing your dirt for you and a sequence that portrays a before and after moment can capitalize on the reader’s repulsion reflex in a powerful way. Take Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example. In the most grotesque chapter you have a scene that portrays some travelers progressing through the wasteland and one of them is a pregnant woman. The protagonists hole in for the night, wary of these people. In the morning they inspect the travelers’ fire pit and find [UGH]. All of the abhorrent behavior is out of sight, but the resounding image of the aftermath haunts you long after you put the book down.

Which I suppose brings us to explicative violence. I’ve already talked about American Psycho. I’ve already talked about the gleeful plunge into unthinkable acts. It’s fun. Who doesn’t love a zombie’s head exploding with the thunderous clap of a Desert Eagle? But explicative violence can get lost in its own purpose and circularly justifiable in its own narrative presence that I feel the stories that go whole-hog generally read a little flat. An exception is (because I’m on something of a kick) Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian which ups the ante further and further in it’s depravity with every chapter. There’s a lot to be said about that book, but the portrayal of violence never ceased to, quite frankly, amaze me with how low the characters go and how absent their conscience is throughout. McCarthy uses a conglomeration of techniques to get this across. He utilizes metaphor quite a bunch, but isn’t afraid to tell you exactly what’s occurring. He doesn’t use medical terminology so much as he does archaic phrases (in and of themselves in modernity, a metaphorical language). To wit: when a significant player in this madness finally meets his end, his death with an axe is described as “split […] to the thrapple.” It’s obscure, but you know exactly what it means.

Which lands us in a place where we have to merge the two. How can you be explicative and implicit at the same time? Noir authors know. Harkening back to the cold, surgical language above, a body that has sustained terrible damage until death (and usually some more afterwards) is a device that is used to at once remove and include the reader to the shock. And there are interesting ways the author can format this. James Ellroy (again) puts the body front and center in the beginning of the novel and includes details that nearly made me barf. Raymond Chandler uses a body, in shocking, ironic terms to the casual breeze of Marlowe’s verbiage, as a way of connecting the story to real-life stakes: grisly death.

But it’s Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 that capitalized on this technique to an effect that still haunts me. He wrote all of the implicative violence it in police reports which, by nature, tend to be cold and surgically accurate. Around 200 pages of police reports about the serial femicide are written in stoic fashion. Just one after the other. It centers around the fictional city of Santa Teresa, recalling a calamity of real, unfortunate events that actually happened in Ciudad Juárez. Knowing that only makes the book harder to digest.

For knowing all that I know about the world, and having read a pile of fucked up books, I’ll say this: we’re just animals who learned how to write…

Animals with a good appreciation for not actually killing each other. The reality of which stings in our nostrils.

And so we write fucked up shit sometimes.

Scene Anatomy: Turning on Conflict

Scene Anatomy: Turning on Conflict

Here’s a joke a drunk woman who claimed to be an assassin told me in the back of my favorite café the other day:

“A gorilla walks into a bar and orders a banana-tini. The bartender thinks it’s really strange that a gorilla is ordering a drink, much less speaking English to him. He begins to shake up the order when he wakes up. He realizes that he’s been dreaming and he turns to his wife to explain this absurd experience. His wife isn’t there because his marriage is falling apart.”

This joke seems lazy at first but it works.  It works because it turns well. It turns twice, in fact.

Let’s talk about scenes in narrative fiction. Without really looking anything up, I’d define a scene as a largely non-exposition, action driven piece of writing involving at least one character. The scene itself has a beginning, a middle, and an end and needs to resolve itself cleanly, while also furthering the broader story.

Real quick though, let’s talk about scene length. According to Shawn Coyne‘s analysis of The Silence of the Lambs, the perfect scene length is 1,500 – 2,000 words. That’s the “potato chip” size that’s long enough to accommodate the needs of the story without losing the reader’s interest. The goal here, kind of operating on the same psychological weakness that drugs, alcohol and app developers exploit, is to satisfy the reader with minimal effort such that they will be willing to do “just one more.”

This is dark magic we’re fucking with here.

But that 1,500 word chapter would be just a meaningless number if it doesn’t turn. Scenes need to exist on a hinge, otherwise they become useless exposition. Maybe useless exposition is your style. Maybe you’re making a point. That’s cool. But you’re pretty likely to piss off the readers you want to support you so why don’t you put down your pipe and take off your graduation robes. It’s goddamn July, you high-fallutin-nobody-understands-my-art chunk of ass-granite. You can be subtle and experimental but we’re talking about being accessible here.

Here’s what I’ve learned about turning a scene: you want to use that first 50 words to re-engage the reader with of what is happening– if you did your job right with the last chapter, this shouldn’t be too hard. It’s important to contextualize (but no need to go overboard) because people read books at different speeds. I chew through them like Skittles because I’ve really got nothing better to do. Still, others will read maybe three pages at a time and put it down. They’ll give up if they pick the book back up again and can’t figure out what’s happening. So give them a little help. You’ll notice that in TV shows, the plot of the episode is summarily explained in two pieces of dialogue at the beginning of the third act so that insufferable channel surfers have something to latch onto:

Joey: “No, I didn’t do it because I think you’re ugly, I stabbed your sexdoll because you slept with my sister!”

Joeghy: “Bro!”

(Dan Harmon writing table, here I come.)

In that contextualization, there should already be a conflict present as a continuation of the previous scene. By giving context to what’s happened prior, you’ll ensure that this scene can stand on its own. The remaining 450 words should explore the scene. Are your characters stuck in a tree? What’s that like? This is the best opportunity to flesh out characters and scenery because while you can and should certainly have this later in the scene, it might feel a little sluggish. Think of the introduction to every scene as a reintroduction to the book, because (ifyoudidyourjobrightlasttime) the book has changed since the last chapter.

From the Mother conflict, emerges another, or rather, a complication of the initial conflict, by the characters attempting to solve the previous problem (or from the “exploration” you took earlier). They can solve their immediate situation, but that only lands them into hotter waters. That’s how the next 500 words are used: the bartender wakes up which resolves his cognitive dissonance about serving booze to an ape and he sets himself up for the punchline.

Which blends into the final 500 that should definitively resolve the initial conflict and then maintain the emergent conflict for the next scene. I’m saying conflict a lot. Think of the joke: It’s been resolved that the gorilla ordering a drink was just a dream. The punchline is the grim realization that the bartender is alone and forgets that fact for a brief moment of sleepy vulnerability. HILARIOUS. If the joke existed in a chaptered novel, that would set us up pretty well for the next scene (does he try to date, do we see what his actual workplace is like, does he call his ex-wife to try and explain the dream? the possibilities are endless).

Here’s how I write a complete scene these days: I don’t think in terms of threes, because, if I do it right, that’ll happen naturally. I think in terms of twos. A night’s assignment looks like 750 words the first night, taking the previous chapter into mind, recontextuliazing it to progress along the character’s path and once the character’s figure out what immediate problem plagues them,  I stop and go to bed. The next day I brush my teeth, go to work, think about the shitty situation I’ve left to these poor defenseless characters, laugh (because I’m a sadist), and when I get home, I know exactly how to begin because all I have to do is respond to the conflict set up for them.

That’s really the point here: Conflict is the narrative drive of story. To make a scene interesting, it needs to turn on conflict. Problems make the world go round because problems get solved.

And writing, if nothing else, is just solving a bunch of problems that you’ve made for yourself.

Because you have a problem.

 

Novelty: Jazz and Chess

Novelty: Jazz and Chess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Enterprises of Great Pith and Moment, Fear and Loathing

Enterprises of Great Pith and Moment, Fear and Loathing

Disappointment alert: there’s not anything here about Hunter S. Thompson.

“Brevity is the soul of wit,” says Polonius, an ironically longwinded gasbag in Hamlet. But he’s got a point. Clever turns of phrase are measured in their pithiness. A lot can be crammed in a single sentence. The infamous “To be, or not to be” phrase that appears in Hamlet has staying power because in five simple words the audience is asked a probing, disturbing question: Is existence better than nonexistence?

Last time we discussed implicit stories by maintaining control of narrative information. This time, let’s get into the implicit stories told by individual lines.

For there to be a story weighted to a phrase, there needs to an implied question– which in turn implies an underlining conflict. You know who understands this very well? Advertisers. Sometimes they give you the answer to the question first, like a slimy Alex Trebek. Then you figure out the question and complete the story on a subconscious level:

Just Do It.

The question in your head is something like “will I or won’t I?” with the underlying conflict being a testament of courage. It becomes “Am I brave enough to do it?” And then this shoe tells you to go for it.

I’m Loving It.

The presupposed question is “DO YOU LIKE THIS HAMBURGER, HUMAN?” And you love it.

Some advertisers just give you the question and have you answer it. But they do it in a shitty way. It’s not, “What would you do for a Klondike bar?” its “What would YOU do for a Klondike bar,” asking you to plumb your depths and find the most appealing depraved act you could possibly stomach for a freezer-candy. “What’s in YOUR wallet.” Etc.

It’s effective marketing because it puts you into the story. Moving on.

The phrase “I do,” summons an entire scene specific to your own history of witnessing weddings, even if you’ve never been to one. The phrase “I didn’t” should probably conjure up a specific memory of shifting the blame to someone else when you broke that vase as a kid. Point is, the less information you provide, the more the reader fills in.

Now. There’s the urban legend of Hemingway’s six word novel. Supposedly (*cough*falsely*cough*), Ernest penned the following in exchange for zeroing out his bar tab:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

The implicit story is clear: that The Beatles got the idea to smoke pot from Bob Dy–haha, just kidding, a baby’s dead and an impoverished parent is reduced to selling the shoes. It’s tragic and concise. It tells a complete story. It’s not a novel.

The distinction of a novel is defined somewhat arbitrarily by word count– Starting around ~40,000 – ~50,000 words. I supposed you would call the baby shoe thing flash fiction. I’m not really going to argue whether or not flash fiction has merit– we’ve already gone into the power of short, implicit phrases– but I do want this to come around to long-form story telling, because the baby shoe “novel” feels kind of cheap and exploitive of the reader’s emotions.

So, flash fiction is fun and also kind of bullshit. I like Twitter. I also get bored reading Twitter. You know why pop music is grating? It’s just a bunch of hooks jammed together. A meal is not a bunch of appetizers. A bone without meat on it is only good for making broth–I’M GETTING OFF MESSAGE.

Listen.

“To be, or not to be,” is fantastic in its divine simplicity. But despite how you might remember it, there’s more to the soliloquy, which not only further explores the merits of suicide and keepin’ on keepin’ on (as the bard puts it) but it also turns to the question of action. Is it better to act, or be idle? Hamlet kills Polonius a few scenes later, answering his question. (“Dead for a ducat.” Killing is easy, cheap.)

We remember the short, key phrases as a mental shortcut to the story. But they’d be worthless without the rest of the poetry in Hamlet. Imagine how disappointing the play would be if it was simply a guy yelling a single line per scene. It’d be two minutes long and while surely a greater story is implied, it’d be insubstantial garbage, no better than corporate advertising.

Don’t get me wrong, I want you to write the densest, most meaningful, most pregnantest lines possible. Give me pause or give me death! It’s just easy to forsake substance for style. And without substance, there’s no new challenge to the reader.

I’m still figuring this out. But I’ve noticed that there’s a methodical application of where to put your darlings for maximum effect:

  1. The hook for the scene (“To be, or not to be…)
  2. When accompanying an action (“Dead for a ducat…”)
  3. When closing a scene, or when a character exits (“To a nunnery, go”)

That last one’s got some stank on it.

Effectively, these encapsulate the idea and concept of the “meat” while also relaying questions for the audience to fill in (is life worth living; is death meaningful; is that not some cold-ass shit to say to your fiancé?).

Or you could give up and write poetry.

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.