Old time cinema was used for more than just telling stories. Indeed, several of the original films were particularly light on story, with only threadbare plots and single-dimensional characters.
The Great Train Robbery, for example, did not strive to dissect the mind of the criminal, or provide an important moral lesson to its viewers. What it did do, though, was allow audiences to experience something that most of them would never encounter in life: the danger and thrills of a heist on the rails! And as cinema continued through its infancy, this idea of showing people things they had never seen before only grew.
High action stunts and feats of derring do abounded everywhere. From Laurel and Hardy dangling for dear life from a skyscraper, to the entire front of a building falling around Buster Keaton, to Houdini leaping from the wing of one plane to another, people saw things they had never witnessed before. The camera could take them to places they wouldn’t dare go on their own, and showed them wonders that no other form of entertainment could claim.
More recently, the prevalence of CGI and extensive editing in recent years have been both a source of greater and lesser thrills in cinema. On the one hand, filmgoers have been transported to fascinating and impossible worlds, such as the lush jungles of the Navi and the halls of magic in Harry Potter. But on the other hand, films have also felt increasingly artificial and animated.
Perhaps that is a strange thing to say, given that movies have always employed a healthy amount of smoke and mirrors, even before the advent of digital effects. But at least even the smoke and the mirrors used to be actual, physical objects, not purely digital effects. A bad take was a bad take, and one did not have a hundred others to smooth it over. A mistake was a mistake, and one did not have editable pixels to cover it.
As a reaction to that fakery, there has been a push among some filmmakers to keep the marvels authentic. So Tom Cruise still does his own stunts, Christopher Nolan still crashes real planes, and Alfonso Cuaron still makes his actors memorize their roles for very long takes. It is still possible to go to the cinema, see something that you’ve never seen before, and believe that that something is really real.
Another Kind of Marvel)
Yet presenting a marvel to the audience is not the exclusive purview of visual mediums. Forget about CGI or smoke and mirrors, the written novel is nothing but pure imagination, yet it has still been able to inspire readers for centuries.
A novel has a much more limited currency to deal in than movies or songs: it has only its own ideas. And even so, the written word has still managed to spark the imagination of readers everywhere, and put into the mind notions that are entirely new.
Thus long before any alien movies, readers had already explored space travel with H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. Before the high-octane stunts of today’s secret agent, Sherlock Holmes was matching wits with Moriarty, the “Napoleon of crime.” Before audiences were horrified by the visage of monster makeup artists, they were held in captive-dread by the Headless Horseman and Frankenstein’s monster. And long before children were taught morals by animated, anthropomorphic creatures, they were enthralled by the whimsy of fairy tales and fables.
As I said, the currency here is the “idea.” Authors invented the narrative idea of space-travel, and detectives, and monsters, and readers fell in love. Though it wasn’t only genres that can be invented in a story. Tragic love, cathartic resolution, an ironic twist…these are all notions that have their first forms in the written or spoken word. And these sorts of inventions are just as capable of grabbing the imagination of their audience, and making them form connections that they never have before.
However not every new idea in a story has to be a new narrative concept or a new genre. It is possible to write a tale that provides absolutely nothing new on an outline level, yet still captivates by dressing it in a way that feel fresh and new.
Consider the basic idea of Harry Potter: a chosen youth discovers a greater world that he had been blind to, and along the way learns truths about himself that are necessary to overcome a great evil. There is nothing new in this. From Star Wars to Lord of the Rings to The Chronicles of Narnia to It, there have been countless similar monomyths throughout the centuries.
But having that greater world be a community of witches and wizards that are concealed within our modern-day reality? That was something new, and it hooked the imagination of readers everywhere. It hooked them because it made them picture something they had never pictured before, and people love it when stories ask them to do just that.
Invent or Be Forgotten)
And so yes, an author should put a great deal of effort into making a solid story, one that has a good outline at its core, compelling characters, and dramatic arcs. Authors should learn how to describe a beautiful setting and to write gripping dialogue. They should learn to structure their sentences in ways that are both precise and beautiful.
But if they accomplish these, and still do not spark the imagination of the reader, then it will all be for naught. A flashy story without substance is superficial, but a story of substance that does not spark the imagination is quickly forgotten. If you truly want to make your mark, you need to say something that matters, and you need to say it in a way that has never been said before.
I’ve always wanted to put interesting, new ideas into my stories. I’ve wanted to craft worlds and mechanics that felt unique. With my latest story you can see examples of this in the multi-stage acted-out password that Tharol used to enter the armory, the weapons that fold into the characters arms, and the gang of elders morphed into a single body.
Obviously the best inventions are ones that integrate directly with the drama of your story, and if I’m being perfectly honest I haven’t achieved that particularly well with The Favored Son. The novelties of my last session were mostly just interesting for being interesting’s sake, not representative of any greater meaning, and not likely to carry any special significance in later events. Perhaps I’ll be able to find a way to integrate them more into the story of the architecture moving forward.
Come back on Thursday to see how I continue striving to put images and ideas in the readers’ minds, and hopefully ones that they have never considered before.