RSS

Tag Archives: metaphor

Yes, All Cars (a Metaphor)

All cars could kill pedestrians. Yes, ALL cars.

“But,” you might object, completely missing the point of the first sentence, “I’M a careful driver. I’D never do a hit and run. I’D never crush an innocent pedestrian who observed all possible safety protocols and was minding their own business when crossing the street at the appropriate crossing. You are just complaining about nothing! Drivers have it hard too! I’D never hurt someone with my car! You can’t blame me for what a few other drivers did! Not All Cars!”

Yes, All Cars.

All cars COULD kill pedestrians.

Do they? No.

Could they? Yes.

Do pedestrians have a way of telling whether all of the cars on the street – whose drivers they do not all know – are dangerous and going to hurt them? NO.

Would you, Nice Driver, think it sensible or stupid to assume that because you are a competent and considerate driver that when complete strangers cross the street you’re driving on they can just wander across the street when your light turns red, without looking both ways too see if a car is going to ignore the red light?

Do you really think that somehow every single pedestrian in the world can just walk across the street trusting all cars to obey traffic laws because they know you specifically would never run a red light?

I doubt it. I suspect you are aware that not everyone drives as cautiously and considerately as you. I suspect that you are aware that it is perfectly reasonable for all pedestrians to be wary of all cars – because all cars could kill them. And there is no way for a pedestrian to know who is driving. And, even if they could know that when you were the driver stopped at the crossing they were safe from that direction, how can they know you’ll never screw up – just a little? You might be on your phone, or distracted, or just a bit too close to the legal drinking limit. You’d never normally be the driver in a hit and run, after all, so surely they should stop complaining and let their guards down while you veer wildly across the street, right? No. Not right. I hope that’s your automatic response, but I doubt it.

You’re a Nice Driver. A Good Driver. So when pedestrians are cautious and look both ways because they know that not all cars obey traffic laws and justify taking precautions by pointing out that All Cars Could Kill Them, you get upset – it wounds your pride to feel included in the “Bad Drivers” category, even though you aren’t – and so you loudly protest at every opportunity that Not All Cars!

Then, one day, while you’re driving cautiously and carefully, another driver pulls a hit and run right in front of you. It’s horrifying. It’s tragic. It’s totally not the pedestrian’s fault, because the car ran a red light and the pedestrian was on the official crossing while the crossing light was green and they had looked both ways before stepping onto the crossing. The pedestrian did nothing wrong. The car was totally in the wrong. And you’re a good, nice driver, so you get out of the car and – without looking anywhere or worrying at all about traffic laws and cars hitting you – walk over to where the victim is (bleeding, half-dead and severely traumatised) being cared for by the paramedics and you say to the victim “It’s your own fault for walking where you were supposed to – for existing as a pedestrian in a world full of cars. How can you blame the car for running over you? You’re a pedestrian: you should have expected it.” Then, feeling mighty proud of yourself you get back in your car, again not having even thought to look out for traffic while you walked and ignoring the pedestrian’s week protests that they DID look out for danger and were expecting it because they always have to (even in their own driveway and home) while you walked back to it.

When you check your phone, still in your car, you see angry and frightened articles from other pedestrians – articles which talk about how dangerous cars are, because not all of them obey traffic laws and no pedestrian can tell from a distance which will. Articles which call for an end to the driver’s Car Privilege – saying that they should come to understand that they are, no matter how nice they personally might be, driving high-speed four-ton metal boxes of death. Articles saying that it is wrong and unfair for pedestrians to have to constantly be checking if cars are going to behave with basic decency, while the drivers enjoy a complete lack of concern for their own – and everyone else’s – safety. Car Privilege, the social movement calls it, an unfair burden on the pedestrians who are forced to take the drivers’ responsibility for them while it never even occurs to the drivers that pedestrians shouldn’t have to live with a quiet, constant, fear in the back of their minds – that pedestrians shouldn’t have to view existing outside their homes as a potential life and death situation every damn time they walk out their front door, even if they stay in their own gardens. Drivers, the social movement says, shouldn’t be allowed to blame cautious pedestrians for existing and claim they deserved it when a driver ignores a red light. That “you just need a good hit-and-running” should not be drivers’ go to reaction to pedestrians who speak out for their rights. That threats of being turned into road pizza as revenge for daring to defend their rights should not be seen as harmless or acceptable – especially because all too often the drivers who do perform hit and runs take the public’s refusal to condemn such comments as validation and go on to deliberately run down other innocent pedestrians.

The articles and the social movement rally around a simple truth: All Cars Could Kill You. But this, this infuriates you. It wounds your Driver’s Pride. After all, you aren’t the sort of driver who performs hit-and-runs. You are a Good Driver. A Nice Driver. So, while you drive, you respond vocally to these upstart pedestrians. “Not All Cars!” you write to them. You explain how you are a good, considerate, driver and they would never need to fear around you. When they inevitably point out that you are a complete stranger who could be making that up, that cars don’t come with helpful Safe Driver alerts for pedestrians and that it doesn’t fucking matter if you specifically are a good driver because all it takes is the one asshole on the road and they are road pizza, it wounds your pride even more. How dare they? You tell yourself. This Car Privilege is a load of nonsense. Drivers suffer too! They, like, can’t text whenever they want and their drink holders aren’t always secure and they have to drive around the parking lot like six times before they find a parking space close enough to the doors! It’s not all cars that are dangerous.

Yes, All Cars are dangerous, the movement replies. Yes, All Pedestrians have near misses. But you don’t want to hear it. You’ve already decided that Car Privilege is a load of nonsense, so you start talking about Pedestrian Privilege and how those pesky pedestrians are so lucky they don’t have to suffer taking their feet in to the mechanic or getting stuck in traffic. Those are real, serious, problems for drivers! They’re totally on par with not being able to leave the house without being subtly, but constantly, on alert because of all the cars on the road ANY of them could be the one that runs the red light and – if not outright kills the pedestrian – at least brutalises them and violates them. Getting stuck in traffic, you decide, is totally equal to living in constant fear that any stranger might take your life or mutilate your body.

You’re wrong. You’ve missed the point. You’re so blinded by your Car Privilege that you can’t see that you’re making the problem worse.  Yes, All Cars Could Kill A Pedestrian. That doesn’t mean that all cars will. It means that they could. Yes, All Pedestrians have experience with drivers abusing them and blaming them for the driver’s inability to stay off the damn sidewalk. It means we live in an unjust world where drivers think their minor inconveniences are equal to or worse than always having to double check that everything is safe, that all of the drivers currently nearby aren’t going to decide your life and bodily safety aren’t worth as much as their desires, that even if you are in your home you could have a rouge car (or the car of one of the Drivers in your family) come crashing through the wall to crush you and leave you with mental and physical injuries which will ruin much of your life (assuming they leave you that much).

The point of the movement isn’t “All drivers are terrible”. It’s “All drivers COULD turn out to be that one asshole and it’s unjust that pedestrians should have to live in constant Fight or Flight mode because All Cars could potentially run their red light and there is no way to know which is which.”

Now replace “Cars” and “Drivers” with “Men”, “Pedestrians” with “Women”, and “Hit-and-run” with “Sexism” and “Sexual Assault” and maybe, just maybe, you’ll finally understand why male privilege is a problem.

It’s been years since those hashtags started, guys, why are so many of you STILL unable to understand a simple concept?

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on January 13, 2017 in On Reality

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

How Viewers of Inside Out Got the Message Upside Down

There’s a reason that I used the word Rants in the title of this blog. This post is full of strong opinions, italics, bolding, and ALL CAPS. I also had a bit of fun with the colours.

 

This has been bothering me for a while. It doesn’t bother me that often, but every time I see a theory article, comment, or youtube video asking why there were mainly negative emotions in Inside Out, and every time I see a fanfic which “fixes” things by adding another emotion – almost exclusively: lust/desire, love, or surprise – it makes me furious. As in: it makes the little Anger inside my headquarters not merely burn hot enough to roast marshmallows, but actually burn hot enough to turn metals into gas (like on the sun).

I have yet to meet a child who did not understand the basic message of Inside Out – that all your emotions, even if you don’t understand them, are necessary for your health. And yet, almost no adults seem to understand what the movie was about, despite the fact that the message was all but spelled out for them and the intended audience – some of whom are young enough that “not needing diapers anymore” is an important achievement – did get it. What I’m saying here is that adults are clearly idiots. Well, no, that’s a bit too mean, but it’s still extremely frustrating to see so many people not get it. Urgh.

The point of Inside Out IS that there is no such thing as negative and positive emotions: it is how the emotionals are handled which gives positive or negative results. Come on, people this was literally explained in the prologue and the rest of the movie was about the discovery that this applied to Joy and Sadness as well as Anger, Fear and Disgust. Heck, the movie could easily be summed up in the phrase “sometimes you need a good cry”!

Emotions are like magnets. Magnets have a North and a South pole – but if you chop a magnet in half you do not get one which is totally North and one which is totally South: you get two smaller magnets, each with their own North and South poles.

The emotions shown and dealt with in Inside-Out are – as per the psychological theory the film was based on – what can best be described as Primary Emotions. Like primary colours: if you divide pink into its basic components, you get red and white (or negative green, depending on how you look at it, since pink doesn’t technically exist). If, however, you try to divide red into its component parts you get …red. Red is the colour equivalent of an atom: it cannot be broken down into further pieces. Likewise, anger is a primary emotion; it is not created by mixing two simpler emotions. If you mix anger and sadness (in the right amounts) you get bitterness. If you mix nothing with anger you just get anger. If you mix anger and joy you (can) get vindictive glee.

So what does this have to do with magnets? Well, to the outside observer – unable to remove their own filter which divides things into separate categories based on whether they cause positive or negative results – these emotions seem to be double-sided. They aren’t: it’s just that we give different names to the different results and expressions of them. Nevertheless, if you chop them in half to separate the “good” from the “bad” you just end up with two smaller bits of the same emotion – just as the magnet will become two smaller magnets, rather than an all-positive/north and all negative-south.

This is made explicit in the prologue, when Joy is talking about her fellow emotions and what they do.

Anger is the one who “keeps things fair”. That is: Anger and a sense of Justice or right and wrong are the same thing.

Fear is the one who “keeps Riley safe”. That is: Fear and self-preservation/common sense are the same thing.

Disgust is the one who “keeps Riley from getting poisoned – both physically and socially”. That is: Disgust and comfort/non-sexual desire – and the ability to discriminate between things which are good for you and those which are not, the ability to dislike and like things – are the same thing.

The rest of the movie is about Joy figuring out what Sadness’ purpose is and learning not to be an egomaniacal tyrant. But the answer to that question is shown in the first minute or so of the prologue, when Sadness’ actions are what alert Riley’s parents that something is wrong when she can’t say anything (the baby cries to indicate it has needs). There is really no excuse to have missed it.

Sadness is the ability to empathise. Sadness is the sympathetic emotion. Sadness is what allows us to cope with all the terrible things that happen to us and the ability to give a damn about the suffering of others. Sadness and caring are the same thing.

So what about Joy? It astonishes me that so many people keep insisting that Inside Out should have had more than one “positive” emotion in it, given that Joy – as I already mentioned – spends most of the story as an ego-maniac who selfishly terrorises the other emotions because she’s convinced of her own superiority. It’s only when Joy experiences sadness that she is able to feel or express compassion. When Bing-Bong looses the one thing he cared about most (besides Riley) Joy is annoyed with him for getting in the way of her happiness.

Joy and selfishness are the same thing.

Anger-Justice, Fear-Self-Preservation, Disgust-Comfort, Sadness-Compassion, Selfishness-Joy. These things are one in the same. They’re magnets. You can’t take the selfishness out of joy. Joy is an inherently selfish thing. Anger always comes from a sense of justice (no matter how warped that sense can become). Fear is always about protecting the self and those things which the self has deemed important. Disgust is always from and part of the ability to discriminate between what is comfortable and what is unpleasant. And all Sadness is inherently about the ability to sympathise – sometimes with your own circumstances, sometimes with those of others. Someone who is incapable of feeling sadness is also incapable of feeling sympathy, because they are essentially the same thing. There are words for that, often which begin with psycho- or socio- and which typically end in –path. I AM NOT SAYING THAT RILEY WAS INSANE. If Riley had been insane in that fashion, she wouldn’t have had a Sadness in her head at all.

Which brings me to another point which the adult viewers, in general, have fundamentally failed to understand even though their toddlers got the message: Sadness and Depression are NOT the same thing. The main reason people keep not getting this, I think, is that there is a tendency toward exaggeration in language. The deeply grieved and sorrowful person who keeps bursting into tears and eats three tubs of ice cream wails “I’m soooooooo depressed”. No. No you’re not you fuckwit. You’re SAD. Deeply, deeply, grieved and sorrowful – but those are intense forms of sadness, not of depression.

As so brilliantly illustrated in the film when the console stop responding to the other emotions and turned dark (the lock out), truly depressed people don’t feel anything. They don’t feel. They’re hollow, worn through. The depressed cannot feel sad. They can’t feel anything – they are apathetic. To give you an example: my mother used to work in a psychiatric hospital and one of the patients there was truly and severely depressed. She was, literally, too depressed to move: she sat all day, every day, for years, in the same chair, staring out the same window – never talking, never moving. She wasn’t sad. She wasn’t anything. That’s depression. It is the purpose of sadness to keep that from happening. Only sadness can lift a person from depression, because sadness is what allows a person to accept that terrible things have happened and then move on.

We live in a society which has falsely labelled happiness as the only “positive” emotion – a society which claims all the other feelings are negative. But, as shown with Riley, when a person tries to be happy all the time – even when it’s inappropriate, even when they desperately need to feel Anger, Sadness, Fear, or Disgust – they only ever wear themselves out and become empty, depressive shells. Depressed people, at least those who aren’t quite dead inside yet and still can be bothered to move about, are terrifyingly good at pretending to be happy. In fact, if a person who has been depressed for a long time suddenly starts being happy all the time, it is often – but not always – a sign that they are preparing to commit suicide. Depression and Sadness are not the same thing. Sadness is the cure for depression, because it allows the feeler to then move on.

 

Now for the other thing that’s been really pissing me off: the fans who feel the need to add an additional emotion to the primary five. STOP IT. Yes, in the psychological theory the film was based on there was a sixth: Surprise. But surprise as a character would have been a gibbering idiot because every moment of everything would have been a complete shock to him. The filmmakers knew that would never work and so combined surprise with Fear. Yes, surprise is one of the “primary emotions” but it was cut for cinematic reasons.

JOY, SADNESS, ANGER, FEAR, DISGUST, SURPRISE. There are no other Primary Emotions. All other emotions, in the psychological theory the film was based on, are made by combining those primary emotions – just like other colours are made by the painter who combines the three primary colours on their palette. “Love” is one of the more popular additions, but has absolutely no place in headquarters because Love is a COMPLEX emotion made by combining the others in uneven amounts (Joy/Selfishness, Sadness/Compassion, and a hint of Disgust/Comfort, most likely). Even HATE is more complex than the basic Primary emotions. Hate is a combination of Anger and Disgust.

Moreover, the idea of these primary emotions, and of the film, is that these are the basic emotions which EVERY SANE HUMAN BEING HAS. Which is why the other most common interloper who fans try to “fix” things by adding is so absolutely disgusting and offensive.

I’m talking about Lust/Sexual Desire/Desire/other name. Usually, as the fanfic cliché goes, this one turns up in Headquarters after the Puberty button gets pushed. This is especially egregious, given that many fans of Inside Out believe that Riley may be some form of Intersex or Genderqueer because she has both male and female emotions. In other words: most fans are aware that people who are not cis and straight can still be sane human beings, but somehow they still feel it is acceptable to try to “correct” Riley’s mindscape to feel lust. Because “obviously” everyone must feel lust.

How dare you?

Especially given how many of you know about the genderqueer, intersex, and so forth. How dare you?

I think I speak for every Asexual person here when I say: lust is NOT a fundamental part of human nature and we aren’t broken or in need of fixing.

Now, I’m not saying I think Riley is an Ace. I think Riley is a preteen girl. But that doesn’t mean Lust has any place as a primary emotion (things all sane humans are supposed to have all of – meaning that if you insist Lust should be a primary emotion you are saying you think asexuals are either not sane or not human). Lust is a physical sensation. To use a metaphor: if emotions are paint colours on a canvas (primary colours = primary emotions, complex emotions = mixed colours) then lust (like hunger and physical pain) is a bottle of perfume being sprayed around. Not everyone likes or wears perfume. And even those that do don’t add it to a canvas and call it a colour!

In other words, “dear” Inside Out fanwriters, I don’t care if you “didn’t mean to” – by adding Lust to the primary emotions you are engaging in the erasure of Asexuals by encouraging your readers to think of those people who do not lust* as broken or insane. KNOCK IT OFF.

 

*Lust is, by definition, sexual attraction (save when used in terms such as “wanderlust”) and as Asexuality is the orientation of not feeling sexually attracted to anyone, the two are mutually exclusive – regarless of whether or not the ace in question is nonlibidoist, although there is a distinct gray area of Gray-A aces.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on July 15, 2016 in On Writing

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Artists and Gods

The go to metaphor for explaining the position of a writer to their work is that they are that work’s god (or goddess, or – arguably – pantheon if it’s a co-written project). To someone who is not an artist by nature, this can seem arrogant. This, typically, is due to a critical lack of understanding on the part of the non-artistic person. Writers aren’t merely “telling stories”. Writers create entire universes. And sure, those universes aren’t real, but gods (probably) aren’t real either and it’s actually impossible to prove or disprove whether the universes artists create actually do exists in reality – given that there is no proof that what we call reality is actually real. For all we know the worlds we write do come into existence and we, oblivious, truly are as gods to them in reality. For all we know something that is as a god to us is, oblivious, writing us into reality.

But even without getting philosophical and triggering existential crisis in people, the metaphor remains a metaphor rather than some form of “proof” of human arrogance. Why? Well, here’s the thing; there are only three things in human comprehension which can create universes: artists (writers, directors/producers, computer game designers, etc), the Big Bang, and gods. Of the three, one is what we are trying to find a metaphor for (artists) and one is mindless – thus incapable of the deliberate creation we are trying to compare to – and that leaves only one option (gods).

So why am I gabbing about gods and artists at all, if I don’t think the metaphor is somehow arrogant? Well, because while the metaphor itself is basically the only available metaphor for writers (and associated artists) you could argue that there is some arrogance in the fact that artists almost never flip it.

You see, the standard argument against putting actual gods – or for having them mentioned as real but not really letting them do anything other than send prophetic visions and choose the one hero whose destined to save the world – in fantasy is that gods are “too powerful and would solve the plot too quickly”. …But would they? Really? Sure if you automatically think of gods as omnipresent, omnipotent, pure good beings who nevertheless somehow let evil get created and won’t lift a finger to save their precious mortals from it because it’s a learning experience or unfair or some such. But that’s just true if you assume all gods in fiction must conform, on some level, to the model set forth by the Abrahamic religions. That’s absurd. If you’re in a position where you can choose to nullify the existence of gravity you sure as hell can branch out beyond the traditional forms of deity found in fiction (Greco-Roman-esque pantheons and good-nature-goddess versus evil-technology-god being the second and third choices of most writers, respectively).

The thing about a good metaphor is that it can work both ways. If a writer can be a god, then a god can be a writer – and that opens up, for those who would otherwise have gone for stock options – a whole slew of options for made up divinities beyond Abrahamic!god with the serial numbers filed off, severely confused and oversimplified “pagan” god and goddess, and cardboard cut outs of stock gods from Greece and Rome without acknowledgement of how distinct the two were.

Think about it this way: writers care about their chosen protagonists, but put them through absolute hell for the entertainment value and only reach in to lend a hand when the chosen one is really, really stuck (because deus ex machina ruins the fun of it) and yet are definitely on the hero’s side because they guarantee a win for them in the end (usually). That sounds pretty much exactly like what the non-interference-with-minor-inexplicable-exceptions gods of most fantasy do, only it makes sense because the motive isn’t goodness or righteousness it’s entertainment. Now, of course, if everyone automatically used that model instead it wouldn’t be much use either, but it seems that writers have a far easier time of imagining writers as being varied in nature and personality – of imagining them each with their own quirks and interests – than they do gods. This is probably because even the most reclusive writer has the benefit of learning about all the bizarre truths of famous writers who came before them.

If you start off by saying that your elves worship an omnipresent, omniscient being who happens to like poetry, chances are that the poetry aspect is going to fall by wayside as the worship slides into the clichés of every other Abrahamic religion cut and paste out there. But if you start off saying that your elves worship a Homer-inspired deity who happens to be all knowing and all powerful you are more likely to get something truly unique. (“Gracious poet who watches over us all, listen to my prayer and heed my call, I need advice at this time, preferably in a very brief rhyme!”)

This trick, for getting a non-generic starting point for your deity, works for deities in the plural as well. If you want to avoid the typical Top God/Zeus-lite, Love Goddess/Aphrodite-but-sluttier, Moon Goddes/Artemis-without-anything-that-made-her-awesome, God of Evil/Satan-got-lost-on-the-way-to-Albuquerque, etc, imagining various authors into the pantheon and then working out how they relate to each other and what they represent can be a good method. If you have a writer friend (who can take a joke!) who typically micro-plans everything for their story and then fights with their characters when they try to run off and do something else, you could translate that into a Top God who Has A Plan, Damn It, and gets exceedingly frustrated by the lower ranks constantly not going along with it. If you yourself are the sort of writer who can’t plan worth a damn and adds and removes features at a whim, you can mitigate how bad that is for your story by putting into play a creator god in the story who is constantly making life difficult for their creations by adding and removing things (like, say, gravity) at random points because they aren’t sure they like the look of it. Or perhaps you might base a Top God on William Shakespeare – in which case there might be serious religious schism in the world over whether The Shaking Spear of The World actually created it, or if there was a faceless creator god before him and the Shaking Spear merely took over after the creation was done and breathed life into it.

That being said, in both of these cases there is a caveat: do not simply copy-paste a real person into your work as a god! Not you, not a friend, not a famous person. Use them as a starting point (Lord Byron was famously described as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” which could be a fascinating basis for a God of Love, but not if he’s Bireon the Club-Footed, whose daughter is the goddess of Mathematics and whose wife/favourite lover considers him to be the Mad God, and the god’s history is basically Byron’s life done paint-by-numbers).

 

When there exists something beyond artists and gods that creates entire universes intentionally, then, and only then, will it be arrogant to use divinity as a metaphor for artists. But just as writers can be gods – shaking off the restraints of reality to completely design universes of their own where even the laws of physics are not a requirement – so gods, in fiction, could do with being a bit more like writers. I’d much rather read about a divine war between the God of Politics (inspired by Plato) and the God of Wit (inspired by Oscar Wilde) and mediated by the Goddess of Fear (based on Edgar Allen Poe) than yet another God/ess of Good versus God of Evil fiasco.

Artists, creators, do not fear the omniscient, omnipotent nature you have taken upon yourselves when you began to create – shake off the norms of the (possibly not even real) reality you live in and get creative.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on May 12, 2016 in On Writing

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Methods of Plotting

Plotting. It’s the thing that every amateur novelist on the internet urges you to avoid during the month of November and every writing class tells you must have so carefully worked out, before you start writing, that your outline is more like an abridged version of the story and every time your characters start to develop away from it you have to put them in a metaphorical straightjacket.

A more realistic statement on the matter would be that, while it is necessary to do some basic plotting before you write to avoid your work deteriorating into a mess of “and then”s with nothing to hold them together, the amount of plotting you need to do has no fixed amount. It is ultimately dependent on both the author and the type of story – although in every method it is still true that you should not continually try to force your characters to follow the plot you’ve laid out for them if they insist upon taking you down a different road. For all that they are flaunted about by their adherents as if they are the one true answer to everything (that would be 42) the two extremes of plotting are hardly the only methods available. Ultimately, what method you choose (be it one of these or some other I have failed to catalogue) to plot by, (mostly) before you start writing, depends not only on where you’re starting from, but also what works best for your genre and for you.

 

Roadmap Method: This is the method most commonly used by people who know where they are and where they want to end up (and possibly a few places they’d like to stop at along the way) but aren’t overly concerned with how they get there – and who are therefore inclined to plot as they write, so long as they keep going in the right general direction. It is, as the name suggests, plotting your story as if you were looking at a roadmap (or travelling on a road) and trying to decide the route to take. You know where your car, and story, will be starting from, and you know what place they need to end up. But instead of plotting out the sequence of events before you start writing, or driving, you follow the most logical routes – based on road signs and what the setting allows for, on other traffic and the behaviour of characters, and on the way the streets and shops are laid out and what plot events can occur if you choose to drive by or stop at them. This type of plotting means beginning with a very vague outline, perhaps entirely a few vague ideas in your head, instead of a specific one, and then constantly adjusting (just as you would if you were driving in a new place) to work with the way things pan out. This method requires an author to keep a firm eye on the “road” their story is taking, because it is all too easy to go on excessive detours, because this or that looked interesting, and then find that you have gone completely the wrong way, or must double back, or have been circling a roundabout for three hours …while the rest of traffic tries to figure out if you’re street art or just an idiot.

Conclusion: Some people can write naturally in this method without crashing their story into anything, but for beginner writers who don’t find that it comes naturally it’s probably best saved for later projects (just as rush hour driving in a strange city is best left until later for someone who’s just earned their learners plate). Learners and experienced drivers alike must always keep in mind that every choice of turn, speed, and stop, must help them to get from A to B, else they’re likely to run out of gas or end up with their story driving down a one way street and trying to do an illegal turn. (If you can’t imagine why that would be a bad thing, re-imagine the situation with your readers as very enthusiastically vindictive traffic cops.)

Tapestry Pattern Method: This is a good method for people who like to have lists or plan ahead – as well as for anyone writing for the first time, since its key benefit is that it allows you to keep track of all your plot threads (and where they’re going) without becoming obsessively rigid and stifling the story if it wants to do thing differently. It’s also great for keeping on top of things when you’ve got a lot of different story arcs rising and falling around each other. Unlike the Roadmap Method, the Tapestry Pattern Method means that you work out your plot (and all subplots) before you start writing; like laying out the pattern for a tapestry before you start to weave. Generally speaking, with this method, you write up a chapter list – giving bullet point explanations for what things happen in each chapter – so that you have the frame of the story there in its complete form and can see exactly why each thing happens. This also allows you to rework your plot on the grand scale before you begin so that each particular plot thread gets to arc and fall in the right places, without being left to dangle unwisely long. This is akin to having a pattern to work from – and knowing how much of each type of thread you will need and where to start weaving them in – before you create the tapestry (the story) in its filled in, colourful, complete form. This method, of writing up the chapter list or laying out the patter before you begin, also allows you to do something which truly rigid plotting would not: it allows you to – if necessary or if you made a mistake – miss weaving the weft through some of the warp (or drop a stitch, if you want to use, more common, knitting terminology, instead of weaving) or change the plan of your story slightly because you just can’t fit something somewhere. Even better: it allows you to work out with ease exactly how failing to weave or ignoring a thread, or changing colours, at any one point will alter the entire shape of the story tapestry. This is invaluable; because it means that you stop and work out how to work with it, instead of making one change and then finding out down the line that you’ve made yourself a huge knot because you didn’t factor it in. This also means, in none metaphorical speak, that you don’t merely write up one chapter-by-chapter plot outline and then only look at what each chapter’s section says, but that you re-write the outline as you go along, to compensate for changes you make (allowing you to create a slightly differently patterned tapestry than what you’d originally planned, but avoid ending up with a giant knot or fraying mess).

Conclusion: Tapestry Pattern Method is a good choice for any writer who doesn’t mind planning ahead, but especially for beginner writers and those who have a great many plot threads and character arcs which need to have their page time and pacing carefully monitored. Any writer using this method, however, needs to keep in mind that they are working with fabric and patterns, not hard rules set in stone, and anyone who has trouble changing a plan once it’s set in motion would be advised to treat this method with caution.

Jigsaw Puzzle Method: Unlike the previous two methods, the Jigsaw Puzzle Method is not suitable for any type of story (depending on type of author), but rather is suited to one specific kind of story: those which are inspired by the ending and worked backward. Thus this is the best method for the writing of detective and mystery stories. In this method the author starts out knowing the solution to the puzzle or the end situation of their story – just as a puzzler begins working on a jigsaw puzzle with the complete picture on the puzzle box. Then the author, or puzzler, must take all the individual pieces and figure out how they go together to make that ending or image. As with putting together a jigsaw puzzle, it helps to begin with the frame (or a very rough outline – setting the boundaries of the story). After that, however, the method is not about figuring out the order of things until the end of the process, when the best order for the plot to progress will have naturally revealed itself, but about figuring out how all the different pieces of plot, world, setting, and characterisation fit together. Some will naturally tie into each other (once you know – from the finished image – that character X has something to hide, and possibly how they were hiding it, you will know what clues to must be portrayed of it before its reveal and how that character’s pieces connect to the other pieces around them), but there will be no obligatory order in which to start putting it together (that character’s pieces might all tie into place, so that you know roughly what order their clues get revealed in, but float unattached to the main frame until later – unconnected – work allows you to see where they would fit well and slide them into place). The method, thus, begins by writing up the ending scenario or solution. Then you draw lines backward from each fact or image detail in that ending and writing down the steps required to reach it (and what clues it would leave). You then right up a basic frame (“story begins with detective getting request for aid in mystery”,
detective meets suspects”, “near climax detective is almost murdered”, “detective gathers everyone in a room and explains what went down”). Finally, you jigsaw the various events and clues – taking care to watch how they interlock (what has to come before what, what could trigger or flow into something else, etc) – into that framework until you have a cohesive plot outline which matches the solution or ending image perfectly.

Conclusion: This back to front method is pretty much vital for writing anything with a mystery or puzzle of some kind as the main point, but all the plot-thread-reverse-tracking can be a bit of a headache for those who simply started out knowing where they wanted to end up (came up with the idea for a cool climax or ending first), in which case other methods – such as the Roadmap Method – may be more suitable. The Jigsaw Puzzle Method also requires that the author be able to view the plot in a non-linear fashion, and to move the plot and timeline around to suit the needs of sets of cause and effect which ripple out from the complete solution at the end. While excellent for keeping mysteries from contradicting themselves, it can be a headache for anyone not tied to the restrictions of the puzzle-solving types of genre.

Bricklaying Method: This method is akin to the worldbuilding method of starting from a point of major change in recent history (world, local, or personal history). Compare it to coming across a partially-made garden path, where the brickwork which has been done so far has a distinct pattern to it, but it is abruptly left unfinished and all the materials needed to complete it are sitting to the side: awaiting use. The author, or avid bricklayer, can see what has happened up until now (the bricks already set down in hardened mortar being immovable, each representing some incident or plot point) and can continue on using the same pattern, or alter the pattern, as they please. However, they will always be constrained by the fact that they have only the left over materials to use and so must judge how wise it is to make any given pattern. For example, if the pattern was so far chiefly red bricks with a simple diamond pattern of black bricks worked into it, then the author could add three rows of black only brickwork if they so pleased, but they would likely have none left for the rest of the path (massive action in the middle and then talking only for the rest of the story). This method differs from the Tapestry Pattern Method as there is not pre-laid out pattern etched into the ground for the bricklayer to follow the rest of the way. Instead the bricklayer decides how to direct the path and work the pattern by checking back on what has come before and what options they have left – making it up as they go by analysing and comparing to that which has come before. If the story the path is telling is a personal drama, for instance, a crossing point of two lines of different coloured bricks might represent a pair of characters fighting over some issue, in which case the remaining bricks that sit to the side of the path are each representative of the feelings and arguments those characters might have as a consequence of the fight, and which of those the bricklayer chooses to put down – and in what pattern – decides how, based on the building materials on offer from what came before, the story shall progress.

Conclusion: This method works very well for both those people who like to take stock of what has recently happened and what options are immediately available from that and those who have a visual organisational bent and find it easier to understand their plot by drawing up the lines of events in some artistic rendition of patterned squiggles. The author can use the paper or blank image as the ‘main’ or background bricks their pattern is set into, and then use different colours and shapes to show how the characters and plot points interconnect and what they do. However, for those who do not like to constantly look backward before asking “now what” and/or dislike moving forward without a distinct plan it can be a less than appealing method. Writers using this method should also keep a close eye on how many of each type of “brick” they have left (how many big reveals, new characters, types of plot point, etc, they can get away with).

Obligatory Chess Metaphor Method: Have I mentioned that I hate the cliché old chess metaphor? Never mind. This method is the best for those authors who are trying to plot out a political or strategy-heavy work. In order to use this method successfully, an author has to be able to write without playing any favourites among their characters – and that means treating protagonists and antagonists equally. It works thus: imagine how many sides your story has which are fighting each other (this may be armies, or individuals, or both) and imagine that each one is a different colour and side of a chessboard (this almost inevitably means your imaginary chess set will now be rainbow-hued and possible hexagonal – just go with it). It’s possible that your sides/characters are not all starting with an even number of pieces (which is why, were it slightly better known, a D&D comparison would work better, but oh well). In order to keep track of everything, the author will need to make a timeline as they plot – noting down what each side does at each instance. Now, whichever side instigates the plot takes the first move. The author has to imagine themselves as playing that side of the chess game (white, in this case). After this the author needs to go to their timeline page and write down the “opening play” of Round Zero. Next the author needs to imagine themselves playing each of the other sides of the chess game (we’ll say: black, red, yellow, blue, and green, for this metaphor) and each of those sides gets one move to respond to the white pieces’ move. Now here’s the most important thing: you have to play white as if you’re playing to win, but you also have to play black, red, yellow, blue, and green as if you are playing that side to win. Write down these moves in a line called Round One, under Round Zero. This is where it gets confusing. The author will probably do best to cycle through all the colours/sides in a set pattern for all of the remaining rounds (however many that may be) so that they don’t forget any of them, but each round is played to counter the previous round’s moves (by all the sides) and so if red comes after white in the circuit of playing each side, which the author performs each round, then the author must remember to counter only white’s move from the previous round and not the current move (which, supposedly, is happening at the same time). This also means you have to be ware of moves which could cancel each other out (playing from blue side and putting a rook on one square and then playing as purple and putting a knight on the same “empty” square – next round both sides will need to deal with that clash).

Conclusion: This is an excellent method for those writing politics, plotting (as in being sneaky, not story-plotting), and/or strategy heavy works. However, for it to work effectively the author really must be able to play every side as if they want that side to win and most authors have pre-decided who their heroes and villains are and will rig the game by playing less wisely as their less favoured sides. The key with this method is that you have to accept that your designated hero side might lose if you’re using this method correctly and there’s nothing wrong with that. This is an extremely difficult method to pull off, because you really do have to think every action everyone takes through as if you were playing chess against [as many people as there are characters or sides] at once.

Globetrotting Method: As with worldbuilding before, this method is best used if you have a starting point in the form of a world map and want to figure out your plot from there. This method lends itself to journey focused stories, such as but not limited to; adventures, and tends to follow the basic structure of “I’ve made a really awesome map and named all the places, but [happy place name] is near [evil whatever of doom], I wonder how they handle that? And how does stuff from [place on the left] get to [place on the other side of the map] anyway?”. This, you could argue, isn’t much of a structure at all. But this is the method of plotting for those who love travel and the question of where would be interesting to visit. But author beware: anyone using this method should plan it as if they were genuinely in the shoes of their characters and embarking on a journey (thus considering: best travel route to reach destination, amount of money on hand at the beginning to reach destination, and purpose of travel) else they may drive their readers batty by attempting to visit every place on the map. The map isn’t a checklist. Un-visited places are ripe pickings for sequels. In this case, the map shows you where you are, where you want to go, and what dangers (and other travellers) stand between the start and end. In this way it is very much like the Roadmap Method, but where the Roadmap is a fairly small distance (and a metaphor to boot!), the Globetrotting Method means examining the entire world for an interesting journey and deciding the plot based on actual (not metaphorical) locations and traffic issues, rather than treating the roadways as a guideline for possible routes the story might take. In truth the Globetrotting Method is more akin to the Tapestry Pattern Method, as you begin by deciding what would be an interesting journey/nice pattern, and then make a list of how your plot goes from A to B in a step by step form. It’s just that where the Tapestry Pattern Method can take any type of plot and leaves room for adjusting the plotting and chapter list later, the Globetrotting Method creates a travel checklist “go to A, go through B to C and try not to get mugged there then head to D” (the plan the characters have for their travels) and then corrects it to what will actually happen “go to A, go around B because of confusion with guards at A, go to C and get mugged, pit stop at E to regain funds, go to D by way of M” – all according to what the map makes possible. Then these two alternate journey plans are used as a plot outline or chapter list which is followed from beginning to end.

Conclusion: This is a good method for those who like travel stories and exploration. However, it comes with the risk of trying to go everywhere or taking stupid paths if the map itself is not firmly adhered to. It also comes with the binding issue that maps – once complete and making coherent sense – are damn near impossible to change and therefore hugely constrict the number of options an author has for altering their course or getting out of a corner they’ve written themselves into. If you have created an awesome world and you don’t have a story to tell in it yet, then plotting from a map as starting point can be a great way of developing a story – but you have to keep in mind all of the realities of such a journey.

Central Object Method: This is the last method I will list, but is hardly the least of them. The Central Object Method is the method of plotting you want if you’re starting from an idea for an object or item (which could be a location such as a Temple of Doom, or a rare object like a Crystal Skull, or just a casino vault with lots of money). As you can guess, this method leans heavily toward action, heist, and adventure plots, because the plot is built out – both forward and backward – from a stationary object. Once the author has envisioned an object (which will be the objective of the major characters) they will have to decide where it is. The plot will thus be build backward (how did the main characters get into the room with it, how did they reach the room/cave, how did they get on the plane which they used to reach the room, how did they get to wherever they got the idea to find the item and left for the plane from, where were they before they got the idea to go find the item, by taking the plane to the room and the item inside it). But it will, be this before or after building backward, also be built forward (now that the character is in the room with the item how do they get it, how do they get out of the room, how do they get back to the plane/other mode of transportation, and how do they get back to where they started or where they will end).

Conclusion: This method is very much a start from the middle sort of deal, but for stories which are built on physical items, rather than emotional entanglements, it can be a very good method of plotting. It is important, however, to give equal attention to both the building forward and the building backward, else you might end up with a good beginning and middle of your work, only to have your main character do something insane like survive a nuclear blast in a refrigerator because you paid less attention to building out in that direction. It is also important to remember that either the characters must go in a different direction as they go to the item and away with it, or there must be a strong parallel of movement in both directions (go through the same locations with different plot actions within them).

 
2 Comments

Posted by on April 15, 2016 in On Writing

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Scrap Pile 3 – My House: My Rules

I wrote this years and years ago… maybe even a decade ago (where did my youth go‽) in order to make my position on the idea of fanfiction in general clear. Many fans believe, erroneously, that fanfiction is a right when it is in fact a privilege. Notably that opinion is only held by those who want to be able to use other people’s work as they please, and never by those whose works are being used – and often mutilated or used to make a profit – without their permission. I got into a debate with a friend and – despite not yet being published – wrote this as an explanation of where I stood on the matter. I wrote it as if I was talking to a fandom I had (which I don’t) and as if I had already published books (which I have not yet) based on the idea that I would simply have this ready for one day in the future when I was famous (naïve much?).

 


 

My House, My Rules:

A fictional world is like a house built by the creator – the characters are the creator’s pets. Publishing a work is the equivalent of selling photographs of your house and pets. The purchase of said photographs does not transfer ownership of the house or pets.

Fan works are the equivalent of visiting the house and pets rather than just looking at the photographs. That is: a fan is a guest and the owner lets them in with the expectation that they will behave acceptably. No matter how casual a person is in reality, they aren’t going to allow visitors into their home if they expect those visitors will berate them for their choices, trash their furnishings, claim to deserve the house more than the owner (who designed and built it from scratch), claim that the owner and owner’s wishes are irrelevant, or rape the pets. When someone allows a guest into their home they expect polite, socially acceptable behaviour. No one would argue against a homeowner who forced out a visitor who behaved inappropriately.

As long as fans can behave like vaguely descent human beings while visiting my home and my pets, they are welcome. If they cannot I shall have to enforce a no visitors policy and leave everyone with only the photographs.

My writing – my stories – is my house: a property I designed and built (and own) all by myself.

You are welcome, as guests, to let yourselves in and make yourselves comfortable – to write fanfiction and make fanart, so forth. However, you must remember that you are guests and guests are only welcome as long as they respect their host’s wishes and general patterns of social acceptability. Since I have seen far too many other ‘houses’ trashed by badly behaved guests (many of whom feel they have the right to complain about being kicked out afterward) I have made a simple list of rules which, let’s face it, really should be so obvious they don’t need to be spelled out for you (so why, exactly, do I have to?).

  1. You are welcome to make use of my furniture, read in my library and make yourself tea in my kitchen. That does not mean you have the right to take any of my things with you when you leave. If you wouldn’t steal your neighbours spoons (or characters, ideas, etc) don’t try taking mine. [You were not the inspiration, nor can you claim ownership of any characters or ideas. Yes, even if a sequel has something you also thought up in it. That just means you know my characters well. Congrats.]

 

2. You are welcome to tell me, and the other guests, what you like and dislike about how I have designed and furnished my house. You are not welcome to claim that I did things wrong because it is not the way you’d like it, nor that you could have designed and furnished it better. If you could have done it better you would be the host and I the guest. It is not so and that is not ‘unfair’. I am not ‘stupid’ because I painted the living room blue where you would have painted it green, nor because I do not try to make my pets sleep together. [Your opinions are welcome as long as they are given maturely. ‘I’d have preferred’ is acceptable, ‘you’re stupid because you didn’t do what I wanted’ is not. You do not know better about my stories than I do.]

 

3. On that note: my cat and my iguana do not wish to have sexual intercourse with each other. Kindly stop trying to force them together. It is not cute. I wouldn’t make your hamster fuck your gerbil. [If my canon states that a character is not interested – be it in a particular gender, person, or sex as a whole – do not try to change this …especially not because ‘they’d look so cute together’.].

 

4. Also, I am aware that my house is near another house where the guests are welcome to roam. I do not own the other house, but I am pretty sure that its owner will be just as upset as I if we find that you’ve dug a tunnel under the garden fence to connect the two. Even if I owned both properties, this would still be unacceptable behaviour from guests, no matter how drunk they are. If I wanted the properties connected, there would not be a fence. [In other words: crossovers are a no-no. I don’t care if you’re writing this at three A.M. and you’re high, that’s not an excuse.]

 

5. Similarly, I welcome guests, but not when they are drunk or high (or otherwise compromised). I assure you that your neighbours would no more approve ‘I was drunk’ or ‘I was high’ as an excuse for defacing their walls and destroying their furnishings that I would. [If you are, drunk, high or otherwise compromised then you should not be putting up ‘fanwork’ – especially not with a mention of the fact to ‘defend’ yourself.]

 

6. If you and another guest feel the need to shout at each other over whether my blue living room should have been painted green or purple please do so on the main road. This not only stops you from disturbing and frightening the other guests, it also makes it easier for disgruntled neighbours to run you over. [Flame wars: no.]

 

7. I have no problem with you drawing up plans for extensions to my property and showing them to other guests – I might even have a look myself if I hear good things and I have the time. I do have a problem with any attempts to actually build such extensions. Furthermore, you came to my house because you liked it – you call yourself a ‘fan’ – so if you do draw up extension plans have the decency to put effort into it: this means making sure you get everything (including spelling, punctuation, etc.) right. If you do not have the time or skill to do so, but have an idea for an extension you’d like to see: tell the other guests, I’m sure it would make the day of some of them to try for you. [Do not claim it is canon, claim it ought to be canon, or try to publish it anywhere but inside the fandom; no making profit or selling fanwork. Furthermore, if you claim to be a fan put effort into your fanwork: there are no excuses for poor spelling, punctuation, capitalisation or just plain bad characterisation and plot. This also goes for getting your canonical facts right. If you do not have the time to get it right, put up a story request in a community, etc, and hopefully one of your fellow fans will help you out.]

 

8. It is not symbolic. No, really, it’s not. Nor is it symbolism that I have subconsciously put into the work – I spend far too much time going over and revising my work for anything to slip in subconsciously. Assuming otherwise only shows that you, as guests, have absolutely no idea how much effort goes into the building and furnishing of a house – yes, even those of you who hold official university degrees and teaching positions in architecture and interior design. If I put symbolism into my house, you can be certain that I will specifically mention it. [If I haven’t specifically and clearly stated, in the story itself, that something is symbolic, then it’s not. Any ‘symbolism’ or ‘intentions’ you might have ‘discovered’ are merely the workings of your own – distinctly lacking – imagination. I don’t care how many degrees in literature you have: you don’t know my meanings or intentions better than I do.]

 

9. Any attempts to imply that the house was – in any way – your idea and/or to make a profit off of it will result in you receiving a boot up your arse on your (assisted) way out the door. [Do I really have to explain this one?]

 

In other words, ladies and gentlemen, if on any normal day you would not do it while visiting the home of your neighbour, your best friend or any random stranger: don’t do it in mine.

 


I still hold to a lot of those principles, but I’d like to think I could explain myself nowadays without being quite that condescending.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on February 8, 2016 in On L.C. Morgenstern's Work

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

The Neat-Complex Axis

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.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on February 6, 2016 in On Writing

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Scrap Pile 2 – The God-Writer Metaphor

This is another piece I had originally intended for my current writing project, but which I found simply didn’t fit in the work.

 

Now, you may be thinking “How can anyone say writing has to make sense? Everyone knows the author is god for that world so if I don’t want to bother keeping track of what my background characters special powers, names, appearances and personalities are that’s totally, like, my choice”. Unfortunately, this idea that the god-author of a universe can do whatever they want with it comes with a fundamental flaw in the god-author metaphor: it doesn’t specify what kind of god the author or creator of a universe actually is. And when examined, it proves to not be the one you’d automatically think it is. You see, conceptually speaking, there is more than one type of god (and we are NOT getting into any actual religious debates here, okay? Whether or not I or anyone else believes in one or more deities, which I don’t, is irrelevant to the metaphor).

Most people when they think of a writer as the god of a fictional universe imagine them in a vaguely monotheistic form – a single, omniscient and omnipresent deity who is supposed to have total control and who created the entire universe (often with ease, which just goes to show how little some people know about how much effort viable writing actually takes). The idea of the author as a singular all powerful, unquestioned, creator-god is certainly tempting to the ego of those who write, but ultimately it does not gel with the common experiences reported by writers (phrases like “[character x] insisted on doing the opposite of what I wanted”, “I’ve got so many stories fighting to come out that if I don’t write my head will explode”, “the story just decided to go a different way”, “you [the readers] asked for more [blah] so…” and “my editor/beta suggested” are typical) . If the author of a work was a monotheistic omniscient and omnipresent deity, none of those things would be the typical experience of a writer.

Similarly, it might be tempting to expand the metaphor to say that the author is one of a dualistic pair of deities – the other being the editor/beta or story as it so pleases – but this is also not quite right. The story is the universe the deity creates, the editor – although a non-negotiable necessity – is not an equal creator as the author. Likewise, the author is not a deist deity; impartially creating the world and then letting it run amok as it pleases, because authors are actively involved in the path their work takes and find it to be not-unlike herding cats. So what kind of god is the author if the metaphor can work at all?

Congratulations, dear authors, you are but the head of polytheistic pantheons. The author, essentially, fills the same role as Zeus atop Mt. Olympus (although, I feel I ought to specify, Zeus was a third generation deity and did not create the universe – minor issue with the metaphor there).

The author is officially the ultimate power, as head King of the gods, but is forever struggling to deal with their shrewish and demanding Queen (editor or beta who, like Hera with Zeus, was actually – for all that she could be unreasonable – vital for keeping Zeus’ head from getting too big and to stop him from doing too many stupid things). The author is forever dreading the passing visits from and occasional wars with the Titans and Protogenoi who came before (such as Real Life [Gaea], Critics [Kronos], Publishing Houses [Rhea], Legal Issues [Tartaros], and Money [Ananke]).

It just gets worse from there, too, since as King of the Gods the author has people with their own opinions to rule over (and hope that, as Zeus did to Kronos and Kronos to Ouranos, no one of their children will overthrow them – that’s why he ate Metis and their daughter Athene came out of his head and why he married Achilles’ divine mother off to a mortal, by the way). That means having to keep a lot of people happy while keeping the world working as it should.

First come the other deities – the siblings (co-creators) and divine children of the king of the gods (characters) – and boy do they like to fight! Aphrodite is supposed to be going along plot A with Hephaestus, but instead keeps sneaking into plot B with Ares, which causes Hephaestus to go totally AWOL. Artemis shoots every plotline that gets near her, while Apollo is supposed to be off doing important things but instead chases Hermes around because he decided to fuck up a plot twist again. Demeter seems to be a perfectly compliant secondary or background character, but when Persephone’s plot goes a way she doesn’t like she starts ripping the setting to shreds (that was SUMMER by the way, not Winter – it was the fucking Mediterranean, after all). Dionysus gives everyone a case of writer’s block by insisting on being too drunk to make the plot anything other than a drunken I-give-up-party. Aphrodite and Athene fight over their prominence as characters while Hera-the-editor tries to strangle them both because she doesn’t like those characters. Meanwhile, Hebe’s whining in the background that she doesn’t get enough page-time (even though the fans love her and have invented a Fan Character – Heracles – to be with her), Athene’s whining about how Poseidon destroyed a background character (Medusa) in Athene’s (setting) temple, and Hades is hanging around in the back, refusing to do any work and snarking about how the story would probably work better if rocks fell and everyone died. Oh, and then, to top it off, the Titan Prometheus (another author of other works) decides to steal a major plot point off you and buggers off to leak the spoiler for free so that the author/Zeus can’t use it and they can take it for their book.

Then there’s the little people down the mountain. The readers. They’re always whining for something. More rains of angst so the crops will grow. Set a hydra on those people. Stop setting a hydra on those people. Pay more attention to this character. Pay more attention to that character. Don’t smite me for complaining about how you made the world even though I don’t like the way you made the oceans and the streets aren’t clean enough and I want more cows. Give us more heroes. Take away the heroes they’re making a mess. Make someone really pretty. Get rid of her: she’s too pretty. It’s little wonder that Zeus spent so much of his time as a drunken manwhore – and that Hera was always getting exasperated at him for that and chasing after the trouble he caused while doing it.

So, yes, the author is the metaphorical god of their fictional universe. But they aren’t a monotheistic, omniscient, omnipresent deity; they are but Zeus atop Mt. Olympus, fighting the urge to give up and get drunk in order to deal with all the editors, character and readers making demands of them and constantly aware that – as Zeus overthrew Kronos and Kronos overthrew Ouranos – if they fuck up too badly someone else might wrestle control of the rights away from them and take the position of King of the Gods of that fictional universe, leaving the original author exiled to Tartaros.

 
1 Comment

Posted by on January 29, 2016 in On L.C. Morgenstern's Work

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,