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The Neat-Complex Axis

06 Feb

So despite having called this blog Inspector Faerie I seem to be doing very little actual inspecting of faerie and folklore. Yet again I find myself too bored of or too tired to write another bestiary type post – to either continue on by examining more traditional vampires (Strigoi, Mullo, etc) or to keep the bestiary posts going with other folkloric creatures (Nuckelavee, Djinn, etc) until I can find the energy to get back to finishing the traditional vampire series – even though that is what I intended to do. Does anyone actually care whether or not I keep going with that? Either way; have another decidedly not folklore-focused post:

The Neat-Complex Axis

I had a conversation a while back wherein I tried to articulate this and – much to my frustration – the person I was conversing with assumed I was talking about quality and could not be made to understand that this was not about quality, not about depth, and not about genre. It’s about form. So maybe I should get around to actually saying what it is I’m talking about…

In my experience people tend to define stories as falling into certain categories which are made by two conditions: they are separated as binaries (it is one or it the other) and whichever categorical divide is made it is always the only category division used (a book is either judged as Deep Vs Shallow OR Good Writing Vs Bad Writing, but never both). Furthermore, while genre is divided into more than two categories, books are typically divided as Humorous Vs Serious if such a division is made outside of genre description (which it should be, given that a humorous sci-fi would require very different framework than a serious one and even horror can split into humorous and serious). I found, as I struggled to articulate what it was that made me like one book but not another, that these binary categories (Deep Vs Shallow, Good Writing Vs Bad Writing, Humorous Vs Serious) were both insufficient to describe the difference I was trying to express and, worse, many carried baggage (Deep Vs Shallow is often wrongly equated with quality – a book doesn’t have to be deep and meaningful to be good quality writing) which made it impossible to use them to express what I was trying to say and which made it hopeless to attempt to repurpose them. Consequently, I had to come up with new terms to describe what I was trying to say.

Now, I assume that people who academically study fiction have already got terms for this – but I’m “just” a writer: that makes me a layman when it comes to writing, as far as academia is concerned and as I tend to talk to other writers rather than those who’ve made an academic study of writing I needed terms for laymen. (If anyone reading this does professionally – whether as a teacher in schools or an academic making a study – make a living off telling people that authors of other works meant/was inspired by/was using as a metaphor [X] in their work when the author themselves has explicitly stated that their works meant/were inspired by/was using as a metaphor [Y] kindly quit lying to your students/readers by insisting that you as the academic or teacher know better what the author meant than the fucking author! Also, if the author hasn’t stated what something meant/etc, don’t put words in their mouth by saying “the author meant” or “this represents” say “the author meant [y] but it also works as a representation of [X]” or “to me it represents” or “it is generally thought to…” Tolkien, for instance, stated emphatically that The Lord of the Rings was not about World War 1 – or 2 – but people still teach in schools that it was! Dear people who claim that “The death of the author” excuses claiming that the author meant something they never said they meant: you are not fucking telepaths; you don’t know what the author meant and you sure as hell don’t know what they meant better than they did – stop talking in fucking absolutes and telling authors they don’t know what their own work represents!) But I digress. Mostly because it pisses me off that some people in this world make a living off claiming to know better than the author of a work what the author meant or intended, but I still digress.

All genres – no matter how tightly they cling to reality – are essentially not reality. Drama set in as real as possible reality still ultimately create something which is not real and must do a tiny, tiny, bit of worldbuilding – even if it merely a town or a house on a street and the people who live in it. The choices the author makes build how that barely-alternate Earth works. Meanwhile, all the Speculative Fiction genres take worldbuilding to the other extreme and sometimes create entire galaxies and new laws of physics. No matter what genre, though, they all bound by several axis of form: Humorous Vs Serious, Good Writing Vs Bad Writing, Deep Vs Shallow, and – as I’ve come to call it – Neat Vs Complex. It occurs to me, as I write this, that I ought to explain precisely what I mean with the earlier terms (and why I call them separate axes) before I move on to explaining that concept which I had no words for until I came up with Neat Vs Complex.

Tone; Humorous VS Serious: I must repeat, at this point, that this is about form rather than genre. Every genre (except comedy and parody, of course) can be divided into those which take a humorous tone to the proceedings and those which take everything very seriously (which is not to say that either is of lesser quality or that to be humorous a work must be a comedy). This is a matter of how a story treats itself – does the work take itself seriously with everything being treated with a grim solemn attitude or is it able to laugh gently at what happens with in, giving the work a light and gentle touch even when it portrays tragedy? This, I must emphasise, is not the same as Deep Vs Shallow – both Humorous and Serious can be Deep or Shallow. A Deep and Humorous work is called a Satire, while a Shallow and Humorous work is Slapstick; a Deep and Serious work is filled with layers of meaning and musing which are held within a frame of gravitas because the story is treated with the same solemn weight as reality, while a Shallow and Serious work takes itself very sombrely – treating the events inside with the same weight as reality – but is a gentle adventure which does not drag one many layers into the world and does not focus on heavy topics. All four of these, of course, can be written well or written poorly. Humorous Vs Serious is, essentially, a question of whether or not the story (prose, if not characters) is able to admit that the stakes are not that high because ultimately nothing is serious as all is fiction (faintly amused even at its most grim moments), or if the story takes itself very seriously and treats everything with gravitas (unwilling to laugh even at its absurdities).

Quality; Good Writing Vs Bad Writing: Every genre, yes even porn, can be written well or written poorly. This axis is a technical one and has nothing to do with the tone, or meaning, or encapsulation of a story. This is the axis of Twilight VS Literacy. This is the axis of “is the plot full of holes?”, “what the fuck is that comma doing there‽”, “those characters are pure cardboard”, “nice word but not the right word”, “this prose needs tightening up”, and “that doesn’t make any sense, damn you, Mary-Sue”. Quality of writing cannot be judged on genre, on depth, on tone, or on encapsulation – it is purely a matter of the technical skill of writing. This axis is, therefore, entirely unrelated to the others. I mention it only because otherwise people misunderstand and assume that because they believe things must be deep and serious to be worthwhile that Deep Vs Shallow is about quality – which it is not.

Layering; Deep Vs Shallow: Imagine a pond. It’s in your backyard and it’s just big enough for a few little fish to live and for you to occasionally dip your feet in (no higher than your ankles else you hit the bottom and get mud between your toes) and cool down comfortably. This is Shallow writing – the world and characters created are not flat (like a slick of raindrops on stairs) but only gently immersive: you cannot dive into this world, nor can you be pulled out to sea and drowned. It is more than just a surface – it is not like the flat slipperiness of droplets on tiles and 2D writing – but there are not many levels of meanings. Characters on this level are 3D enough but the reader is not required to delve into their psyche – the reader can follow along next to, rather than in, the believable character without having to immerse themselves in the character’s thought patterns. The world is gently formed; it is not a cardboard cut-out but it is also not filled with a rich history and unending locations and cultures. The Shallow story is not one to forget the world in but it is safe and comfortable and good for relaxing. The midpoint of this axis is not a pond: it is a swimming pool. You can swim up and down, dive in and dunk your head completely under the surface of the story, but at all times you can see the edges and it does not take more than a slight kick to break the surface again and return yourself to reality. There is more history, but not an entire history, and characters can be followed within but gently so. It is big enough to play in, but ultimately it is still mostly safe. The other end of the axis is the ocean. This is Deep writing – the world is layers upon layers of histories and meanings. The reader is immersed in the character’s psyches. Although it is a wonderful and seemingly unending thought-world to explore it is also easy, very terrifyingly easy, to be sucked under, or to lose sight of shore completely, and drown in the world because it is all too much. This axis, I cannot repeat enough, is not about quality – it is about layers of world and about how immersed the reader wishes to be. A light read while in the airport or waiting for a meeting is a gently refreshing thing – a story which you can just dip your feet in, because it is Shallow. But if you want to completely lose yourself while you read and be immersed in a richly layered world you want a Deep (and typically fucking heavy) read, which may well leave you questioning your existence months later. Neither kind of work is less than the other: they both have their time and place.

 

So if that’s what I mean by Humorous VS Serious (tone), Good VS Bad (quality) and Deep Vs Shallow (layering), what – you may wonder – the heck was I struggling to explain when I came up with Neat Vs Complex? Well, I’d found that more than tone, layering or genre (but not quality, quality is the deciding factor in the “do I read this?” question) it was how, for lack of a better term, the story was or was not encapsulated that made it enjoyable for me.

Encapsulation; Neat Vs Complex: Imagine two little model villages. On model is standing loose on the table, but the other is encased in a snow globe. Apart from turning it upside-down to make the “snow” drift from point A to point B (like reading a book from start to finish) there is nothing I – or anything else outside – can do to affect that little village. Nothing comes in and nothing goes out because it is an encapsulated world all of its own: everything it needs and everything that has any effect is within the constraints of that little globe. It is, in a word, Neat. Nothing from outside can come in and make it messy or complicated. All the relevant characters are within the constraints of the globe, the nearby area of the world, all of the major plot events can be reached without leaving the village and everything – essentially – which is relevant or important to the plot is already secure within that globe. There are no random occurrences from outside; a cat could run through the other model village and knock things over, but inside the snow globe no cats can mess things up. There are no loose plot threads in such a Neat work – if there’s a prophecy you can be assured that it will refer to characters you already know and who all happen to live within the same country, or city, and who are conveniently both alive at the same time and aware of each other. Prophecies also make sense. Heroes fighting for the safety of their spaceship never need to worry about how the politics of something happening to their trading partners on the other side of the galaxy will affect them because if it was important those trading partners would be within the “village” of the hero. The romantic heroine seeking her true love never needs to go that far to find him or fails and the other potential love interest is conveniently shuffled to the side somehow (and there is no “he still has custody of the kids” or other such problems standing in the way of the plot). The murderer who the detective must track down is always someone in the area and on their suspects list. The villain is always defeated by the one who it most suits the audience’s sense of justice to do so. Good and Evil are politely separated into two teams and proceed to duke it out. It’s Neat. Some people like Neat – and there’s nothing wrong with that. But Neat’s not the only way to write a story. The opposite, which I elected to avoid calling “messy” for fear of giving it a negative bent, is Complex. The opposite of Complex I have called Neat because (like “messy”) it would have come across negatively if I called it “uncomplicated”.

Complex fiction is what happens when Setting, rather than Plot, is king of the story. Neat stories may be Deep with layers and mention many historical facts of their world, but these facts ultimately are either only mentioned because they are the key to wherever plot point C is hidden or in order to give the reader a feeling that there is more to the world than the plot alone. Complex stories, on the other hand, don’t need to give the reader a feeling that there is more to the world than the plot because the plot-train with the characters will be happily chugging through the countryside when BAM it gets derailed by a passing herd of history.

…Okay, that might not have been the best metaphor. Consider it this way: in a Neat story the hero with the need to avenge a relative will be the one who kills the Dark Overperson, which is awfully convenient given that no matter how many people the Overperson must have pissed off it is the one we readers are following who takes up action and gets the satisfaction of just revenge. That is, as mentioned, awfully convenient – this convenience is what makes it Neat – but the audience gets to feel along with the hero and see him do exactly what they’ve been hoping he will do. In a Complex story, on the other hand, the hero with the need to avenge a relative may find that someone else the Dark Overperson’s pissed off – who the hero has possibly never heard of before this point – has already done the Overperson in, which removes the “isn’t that convenient for the plot” issue because it is more realistic (reality is messy and complicated) but also robs the audience of the chance to see the dramatic Hero VS Overperson fight they (and the hero) had been anticipating. Done badly the first is trite and cliché while the second is deus ex machina. But done well both are perfectly valid stories. It’s just that different people like different levels of complexity. It comes down to the question of whether one likes the satisfaction of a realistic plot or a tidy plot.

Okay, so let’s look at some examples (as if this post wasn’t long enough already). I’m only going to look at Good Quality Writing for this to make it extra clear that I am not saying any of these differing forms are lesser than the others, because they’re not. So, ta-da! Examples:

Humorous, Deep and Complex: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is unmistakeably humorous in tone, is made up of layer after layer of (not always relevant) worldbuilding and the cast is constantly being side-swiped by unexpected problems and solutions from all through the deep layers of worldbuilding which happen to have nothing else to do with the main characters’ plots than that they (sometimes literally) crashed into each other, making the setting very complex. It also sometimes has not so subtle philosophical and political points buried in there (“they have to vote for a [corrupt] lizard or the wrong lizard might win”, anyone?) but that’s a different definition of deep than is used here.

Humorous, Shallow and Complex: Monty Python’s Flying Circus is also without a doubt a humorous work, and although it sometimes gets a touch political (again not the definition of deep herein used) it ultimately does not build layer upon layer of character’s psyches, of history, or of cultural worldbuilding. Meanwhile the surreal work is based on the principle of making it impossible to know what is coming next and each little sketch’s plot has no guarantee that it will be solved by the tidy inclusion of what has come before and not, say, interrupted by a general who insists that it must end because it is silly, or a cartoon foot, or the audience, or just wander off into another skit. It’s complex.

Humorous, Deep and Neat: The Discworld Series is unabashedly pun-filled and humour to its core – even the more serious later books – and is filled with layer upon layer of history, geography, cultures and character’s psyches (admittedly, the history is somewhat skewed on account of history having been broken in the past and the history monks having to patch it up, but in general…). The world, although Deep, is also a Neat world – despite how astonishingly bizarre it can seem because it turns many clichés on their heads. The Discworld runs on an element called Narrativium; meaning that plotting itself is a force of nature in that world and that the world will reshape itself to the plot at times over the plot being reshaped by the world. Although the Discworld can seem like an utterly mad place, the heroes who solve the problems are usually the same heroes who found out about the problems and, when not going to the moon or switching places with a kangaroo in what is definitely not Australia, the heroes typically do not get involved with things too far away …unless, of course, the majority of the plot takes place there. It’s a Neat world – Vimes solves the problems the Patrician tricked him into getting involved with, Granny Weatherwax uses the same tricks subtly shown earlier to defeat the most recent threat to Lancre, and calling an orang-utan a “monkey” results in pain; just as warned.

Humorous, Shallow and Neat: The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the best and longest amusing comedic plays in the modern English language. It is all about the wit and for all that the characters take things very seriously, the work itself does not and thus it is humorous. Although time has added extra layers to the work, as happens to all works set in what their authors viewed as the “now”, the play has very little in the way of depths – the characters are fairly straightforward (with uncomplicated inner thoughts), the culture is precisely as it was in reality with no layers added and no histories created, so the reader or playgoer does not have to do more than dunk their feet in a pond which reflects their reality. The play is also extremely Neat: the mysterious parentage of Earnest (who is not called Earnest) is revealed by Prism who (conveniently) works for him (rather than say, having left the country after misplacing him as an infant, which most people would have!) and (conveniently) he is revealed to be the brother of Earnest (who is also not called Earnest) who is his closest friend (how convenient) and (conveniently) makes him a suitable match for the woman he wants to marry. It wouldn’t be funny if it weren’t so convenient.

Serious, Deep and Complex: A Song of Ice and Fire is a work which takes itself seriously. There is nothing amusing about the fact that humanity is too busy being corrupt and at war for petty things while a potentially world-ending force goes near unchecked. The set up could have been played for laughs, but instead it focuses on the tragedy and the gravity of the situation. The world is unquestionably Deep: the history of the entire world is mapped out and has affects on the plot, characterisation and cultures. The map is not merely filled in at a few key points, but a complete world geography which interacts. The cultures are shown through stories, sayings, and a whole variety of behaviours – and each culture is fleshed out, with its own take on the history of the world. This world (Planatos?) is also unquestionably Complex: there is no deus ex machina to rescue the hero from being murdered, those who seem to be set up to have the big dramatic duel to the death so that the more heroic can vanquish the worse while the audience cheers for them never happens, characters long, cunning plans are thrown out the window (pardon the phrase) when their legendary fighter dies of circumstances brought about by a minor injury, and minor characters turn up all the time having been forgotten by or having never met the heroes (term used loosely) to pursue their own goals with no regard for the viewpoint characters’. Oh, yeah, and prophecies are obscure little buggers which sometimes outright fail to happen and the meaning of which no one can agree on. It’s entirely possible, give the sort of world it is, that the guy who thought he was the saviour and then thought his son was and then died IS going to turn out to be the saviour and the world will be even more screwed because he’s dead. It’s messy and it’s realistic – complex to the core.

Serious, Shallow and Complex: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes may seem to be the odd one out here, but as I have said before this is about form not genre. Doyle’s writings, presented as Watsons (and Holmes’, on occasion) do take themselves as seriously as any real criminal investigation would. The world, however, is a Shallow one – like with Wilde’s play, the setting is a mirror to reality in which the reader may comfortably soak their feet rather than risking diving in and being washed away as Martin’s readers are. The characterisation is deep enough, but still counts under Shallow because the people presented are not so different or deeply investigated that the reader risks losing themselves in the characters. The works are unmistakeably Complex, as Doyle wrote before Agatha Christie set the standard for mysteries as “logic puzzles for the reader to solve set in literary form” and so Holmes – unlike just about every detective after him – is free to run about the city looking for the connection between a lost Christmas fowl and a jewel theft, to solve cryptography issues without allowing the readers to see all of the symbols, to have his investigations crashed by someone he didn’t know about looking into the same (or another) mystery, and, yes, to get the answer totally and utterly wrong.

Serious, Deep and Neat: The Lord of the Rings is one of the great epic fantasies of the English language and although it purports to be in a fantastical setting it treats itself with seriousness befitting the grandeur of the events unfolding – and rightly so, as Tolkien was in favour of treating fantasy with dignity and depth. Depth is something which Tolkien’s world (both Arda and the Undying Lands) has in abundance – with culture in every phrase, saying, song and random burst of un-translated Quenya (or is it Sindarin? Maybe both). The history is rich and reaches literally back to the creation of the world, the geography nearly complete (the East, alone, was a little vague) and the characters are immersive in nature because they are so much part of their world. It is, ultimately, a Neat world, though, because (possibly because Eru was nudging things but given his deistic hands-off approach highly unlikely) it has an awful lot of convenient situations – Isildur’s heir happens to turn up at just the right time, the one ring happens to be found by the right sort of person at the right time and handed over to the next right sort of person to handle the mission of its destruction (conveniently) just before the bad guys can work out where their glittery weapon of mass destruction is and ultimately, every character who is important is one the main characters get introduced to at some point and who are of some high regard (there are no “random” murders by common people with a reason to fuck things up, for instance).

Serious, Shallow and Neat: The Harry Potter Series takes itself seriously (perhaps more than it needs to because, seriously, how is it up to the one British teenager to stop Voldemort else the world is doomed when he’s so far only been a threat to Britain, France and bits of eastern Europe? There’s plenty of other continents worth of wizards who could fight him once he became a threat to them – not to mention normal humans who would probably drop a few nukes if Britain came under control of a mad dictator and started attacking with unknown super weapons/magic, would horcruxes really survive that? But I’m getting ahead of myself). Although the Potterverse offers up a great deal of facts about the history of wizards, the majority of the history and culture is a reflection of the modern world and the world of a few hundred years before – Christmas is celebrated by people who learn at eleven how to perform what the bible counts as miracles, the people are essentially just modern people in robes and the historical facts, while interesting to a fan, have no connection or bearing to each other or the story …nor any affect on either. The geography is …splotchy. London and Scotland are where they belong and that’s about it. It is a slightly deeper pond, but at most you can put your legs in up to the mid-calves, rather than just the ankles. It is still Shallow and comfortable, there is no great effort involved as the world is not truly immersive (everything in the magical world is current real society with a few trappings – such as the four house school system, etc). This does not make the world any less fun, but it does make the world non-immersive and Shallow. The world is also, quite undeniably, Neat (both as in cool and as in tidy). The prophecy is fairly straightforward and all players in it, conveniently, know about each other, grew up in the same greater city area (Surrey and London) and went to the same school. All of the plot items needed are to be found in dramatically meaningful locations (conveniently so) and characters duel to the death against plot-appropriate enemies (even if some revenges are unexpected – what happened to Bellatrix, for instance, was Neat in a different way than expected but still Neat). No random victim the hero doesn’t know even tries to put a sniper’s bullet through the back of an enemy’s head, no external politics (that includes muggles) come into play and, as I said before, it’s awfully convenient that the only person who can defeat the Dark Lord is a local boy instead of, say, pissed off foreign governments. It’s Neat. The story, although set in Britain, is self-contained to the point that the magical world of Harry Potter might as well be alternate Britain in a snow globe for all that the rest of the world affects it.

 

Some people like Complex worlds and find Neat worlds to be too simplistic and convenient. Some people like Neat worlds and find Complex worlds to be too chaotic and messy. Some people like both. And some people don’t read fiction. Nevertheless, liking or disliking based on encapsulation (Complex or Neat) is very different than liking or disliking something because of its quality (Good or Bad), or layering (Deep or Shallow), or tone (Humorous or Serious), and is worth having words for, because it makes explaining why you like one but not the other of two well written works in the same genre.

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Posted by on February 6, 2016 in On Writing

 

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