Not Sure How to Feel About This

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Incomplete Victories)

Last week I concluded a short piece with a bittersweet moment. In it the hero sacrificed his life, but not even to defeat the villain. In fact, the villain was left even more empowered than ever before. The hero did, however, manage to free a soul that had been enslaved to the villain, and so there was the triumph of something right having been done, though at the cost of the world becoming darker as a direct result.

Usually that isn’t how these sorts of stories end. Usually the heroic sacrifice is supposed to achieve a total victory, not a partial one. Therefore my ending was partially fulfilling, but I hope it was also partially disappointing. The purpose of the story was to offer a challenge to the reader. I want them to have to decide whether the saving of that one soul is therefore a “good enough” ending. How much value do they put in that success? Enough to accept some defeat along with it?

This idea of challenging the viewer with a partially-satisfying/partially-subversive ending is not a new idea. Consider the classic film Spartacus, in which we follow a Gladiator as he raises a ragtag army and uses them to challenge the oppressive rule of Rome.

We have come to expect a story like this to end with triumphant liberation, but that is not what happens here. Ultimately Spartacus and all of his men are killed, and the tyranny of Rome will continue for a long while yet. Even so, there is still the fact that these men died as free men, and Spartacus’s own wife and child escape to a brighter future. Spartacus therefore won some things, if not all. Is that enough?

 

Is This Still Good?)

Of course, Spartacus and my last story are asking this question with an implied answer. The audience is intended to feel a little taken aback, but then to affirm “yes, accomplishing even a partial victory is a worthy cause.”

These stories remind us that sometimes change is procedural, rather than revolutionary. They help us realize that following one’s morals can come at quite the cost. The reader hesitates because they are unsure if they have the stomach for a somewhat hollow victory, but not because they question that it is the right thing.

These stories, then, do not really provide a moral dilemma. There are stories that do, of course, ones in which the audience is meant to come out on different sides of the question being posed. These sorts of tales still make use of mixed moments, ones where the audience experiences both victory and defeat. The difference in how they employ these is subtle, but significant.

Consider the 2008 film The Dark Knight. In this comic book tale Batman is locked in a battle of wits with his nemesis the Joker, and he finds himself taking more and more extreme measures just to keep up. It then concludes with another one of these mixed endings. The Joker has been defeated, but the woman Batman loved has died, the man he considered a paragon of truth has gone dark, he has violated the privacy of innocent citizens, and he is now lying to them to maintain a facade.

Again, the audience is being asked was it all worth it, but it intends for some of us to say yes, and others to say no. Even among those that say no, Batman went too far, there will be further division about when and where he crossed that particular line.

In many ways the Dark Knight reflects the story beats of the classic Herman Melville novel, Moby Dick. Here again our main character, Captain Ahab, is intent upon defeating his nemesis, the titular whale. Ahab, too, goes to greater and greater lengths, leaving ruin and death in the wake of his monomaniacal campaign against the whale.

The main difference is that Moby Dick does not end with any sort of partial victory, though. The tragic destruction of the Pequod and all its sailors, save one, has no bright side to balance it out. The audience is not split on the question of whether Ahab pursued Moby Dick for too long, only as to where that moment of being “too long” was.

 

The Difference)

So what makes stories like Moby Dick and The Dark Knight so divisive, while Shade and Spartacus are only ponderous? What line is crossed in one set of stories and not in the others?

Well, the difference is in the characters themselves. In Shade the main character, Gallan, has an incomplete victory in the world around him, but he has a pure victory within. He remains true to his commitments, and his soul remains intact in a shattered world. Spartacus’s internal victory is even more pronounced. He progresses from indifferent and cynical slave to a passionate and inspiring hero.

In each of these stories the audience is meant to conclude that the outcomes are good, because the characters themselves are good at those conclusions.

In The Dark Knight Batman accomplishes his means, but it is clear that he is discontent with the actions he took to do so. He feels he did what he had to, but he is haunted by the corruption of his soul. In Moby Dick, Ahab doesn’t exactly begin as a saint, but he ends up far more guilty than how he started. At the outset he has committed his personal life to chasing down his quarry, but by the end he willingly dooms the lives of his entire crew as well.

One of our greatest fears is the loss of our own souls. We want to make it through life successful and happy, but also to feel that we did not comprise ourselves along the way. Some stories reaffirm our commitment to do what is right, even if it is a partial victory, by showing the soul being preserved or improved. Other stories, however, can make us doubt our convictions by showing us an overzealous soul becoming fractured.

 

This is a very subtle, but very important lesson for how to steer your audience into self-examination. If the ending of your story isn’t challenging them in the direction that you intended, perhaps it is worth considering whether this principle has gotten crossed. In the meantime, I would like to explore the idea further with my next short story. Last week we had a hero that maintained his soul through a difficult decision, this time I want to do the opposite. I will create a character that does what he feels he has to do, even though it condemns him to do so. Come back on Thursday to see how that turns out.

Let Me Explain This to You

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Telling vs Evoking)

It is interesting that we so often use phrases like “let me tell you a story.” Once upon a time people did exactly this, but today we try for something different. Today most writers want to “evoke” a story instead.

It wasn’t always this way. When we look at fairy tales, Greek tragedies, and myths of old, we find very little evoking. These stories were told straight ahead: this is what happened first, and then this, and then this, and so on until the end. We get only a little explanation of what characters are thinking or feeling, and when we do it is a very stale statement like “he was scared.”

The audience that hears these stories understand all that occurs, they have been told the events plainly, but they usually do not feel very much from the story. This defines the difference between telling and evoking.

Evoking became more prominent as the craft of story-writing evolved. Somewhere along the way authors learned to use their prose to elicit intense emotions from their audience. Consider this brief passage from the first paragraph of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House:

Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

Dickens might have “told” his reader that it was dark and dreary, but instead he used flowery descriptions to better make the reader “feel” the bleakness directly. Generally we consider this “feeling” approach to be better, although there are pros and cons to both it and straight-ahead telling.

By just telling you something I can use a minimum of words to communicate a great deal. In a single sentence I can convey a broader scene. By evoking something I generally have to be a good deal more wordy. In fact it is very easy for me to go overboard and become too long-winded! But while my sentences might not be as broad, they will run deeper. Many authors will therefore combine the two, giving the general lay of the land in a few expository sentences, and then focusing on specific details with carefully chosen adjective and adverbs.

 

Active vs Inactive)

Another difference between telling and evoking is whether the audience is actively experiencing an event, or only hearing about it secondhand. Exposition is where someone tells you what happened. Plot is where you see it unfold directly.

Almost the whole of my last story post was exposition. The main character was at a critical juncture, the pivotal moment where he had to commit to his single, greatest deed. Now because I decided to write this short piece as if it were in the middle of a larger narrative, this main character was making his decision based off of facts that the reader had never seen. I therefore had to explain these things, and that was how the exposition came to be.

One might feel that the obvious solution would be to not try telling stories in the middle, if the reader had been experiencing all of these accounts as they happened then they wouldn’t need to be told about them secondhand later. This is true, although even a story that seems to begin in the beginning will still have some of its hooks in the past. Every story is in media res, with past events that will have to be summarized to some degree.

Another consideration is that even if the reader had experienced all of these moments, they might still need a quick recap to explain how each moment is weighing in my main character’s penultimate decision. They would need to be able to follow his train of thought to understand his behavior, otherwise his choices would appear to be random.

So once again, active plot is ideal for putting the reader in the experience and giving them information firsthand. But there is still a place for exposition when it comes to briefly going over broader details, and also to point out the significance of previous events when linked together.

 

So Do You Show Or Tell?)

All of which is to say that both showing and telling have their place. Of the two, telling is easier, and as such we tend to fall into it by default. This is why novice writers have to be coached to step out of that comfort zone and embrace more evocative methods. It is still perfectly valid to tell someone that they need to “show more” in their story and “tell less.”

But when we say to “tell less,” we do not mean “do not tell at all.” Not all passages should be evoked. Sometimes an event just needs to happen, and without fanfare. In those situations a writer needs to be practiced enough to tell the events succinctly and clearly and then move on to the showing.

Personally I found real value in writing the second section of Shade. It was a good exercise for me to see how to approach exposition when it is necessary, and I am decently pleased with the results of it.

The next section will be much more evocative, though. It will be the conclusion of Shade, and I absolutely want the reader to feel that ending, not just hear about it. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out, I’ll see you then!

So Dark and Edgy

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This last Thursday I shared the first part of a story, in which a small band attacked a military caravan. This assault resulted in a few moments of violence, including people being shot, an arm being severed, and a man being stabbed in the chest.

Now I did not dwell on any bloody or gory details, but I am aware that the mind can readily supply them to the imaginative reader. On the other hand, the more conservative mind will be able to envision these details as happening “off-screen,” and thus be spared any gruesome visuals.

I personally prefer this approach to violence in a story. I am one of those “conservative readers” that simply does not care for strong depictions of harm. Therefore I am quite appreciative when a writer doesn’t try to force unwelcome images in my mind.

And yet I do still write stories that feature violence. I have published quite a few pieces here that include monsters and killing. Terrible things have happened in my stories, though I have tried to not describe them in explicit detail. Is that hypocritical? Does it really make sense to avoid violent descriptions for actions that are inherently violent? And just why do I feel the need to include any scenes of violence in my stories at all?

 

Why Include Violence)

We might expand that question to why do so many stories feel the need in include violence? There’s no denying that the mainstream media is saturated with all manners of death and destruction, and it has been so for quite some time. Are we a sadistic race of psychopaths that require violence simply to be entertained?

I think not. Certainly scenes of action give us a boost of adrenaline, which can become an addictive experience. Certainly there are those that crave violence for its own sake, and certainly we have shameful examples of how this has been exploited in our past. We may feel far removed from ancient Rome, but let us not forget it was our own race that made sport of gladiators killing one another. We should be very conscious of these unhealthy trends, and we should take great care for what behavior our stories promote.

All that being said, these are not the reasons why I either write or consume media that contain mild depictions of violence. Nor do I believe these are the reasons why most authors and audience-members do. The real reason is actually much more basic.

We have violence in our stories because conflict is a central theme to them. Almost always we have characters, we have an opposition, and therefore heat and friction between them. Violence is simply one of the most straightforward ways of depicting that conflict, in fact one might argue that it is the only way.

I have written several stories which might appear to be devoid of any violence. Consider The Storm, Harold and Caroline, and most recently Hello, World. In these stories no one gets shot, no one dies, no one so much as slaps another.

But if you think about it, even these stories do feature a sort of violence. They include people that make one another feel angry or sad, which is an emotional violence. They have characters that wish ill on one another, which could be considered a mental violence. They even speak criticisms and threats to one another, which is certainly a form of verbal violence. The only line that they all stay behind is that there is no physical violence in them.

 

Levels of Conflict)

This would seem to suggest that violence is inherent in conflict, though it may not always be physical. And there are degrees of violence, which seem to directly correlate with the level of conflict in the story. A tale with deeper conflict most often has stronger depictions of violence.

Thus the question of to what extent a story should show violence is simply a matter of to what degree the conflict warrant it. One of my stories, A Minute at a Time, is about a father who is trying to care for his sick child. There is friction between them and each is frustrated and exhausted, but also they still love each other. They have a conflict of opinions, but it is very tame and the story features absolutely no physical violence.

Glimmer, on the other hand, was an epic between the forces of good and evil. The protagonist holds to a worthy cause, even as the opposition escalates to a frightful degree in front of her. The tension and inherent conflict is extremely high, thus it only felt fitting for it to conclude with a violent fight to the death.

 

Maintaining Proper Focus)

Does this mean that any level of violence might be appropriate for a story, just so long as the underlying conflict is strong enough? Any answer here can only be subjective, but my personal opinion is no.

I personally believe that there comes a point where violence exceeds any level of communicable conflict. A scene that is horrifically gruesome no longer seems to be connecting to any narrative arc, it has just become a spectacle unto itself. One has to wonder what are the moral implications of a scene that chooses violence as both its means and ends.

Aside from any ethical question, there is also a functional aspect to it, too. A story that elevates any spectacle too far will undermine whatever greater meaning it was meant to convey. When the audience walks out of the theater, does the director want them to be discussing the jokes, the CGI, the violence, or the sex? Or do they want them to be discussing its message?

It’s a very fine line to walk, a balancing act that takes great care. Especially given what we have already said about how violence is very closely coupled with conflict. In all of my stories I want the focus to be on the conflict, because I have found that it is only in the conflict that anything a story is going to say will be said.

So how do I find that balance? How do I include the appropriate level of violence so as to communicate the underlying conflict, but also not go so overboard as to smother that conflict’s message?

My approach with Shade has simply been to be quite clinical about it all. I state that the violence happened, but I do not delve into the details. I leave it up to the reader’s mind to then choose the appropriate visualization to match the themes that they are sensing in the story. It’s certainly not the only possible approach, but I hope that it is serving the story well.

In my next post I will share the second section of the story, in which the physical violence will take a back seat as we spell out all the layers of conflict and tension. My hope is that those details will ring true because of how I setup for it with the first part of the tale. In either case, come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.

 

I Was Expecting Something Different

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Feels A Little Off)

Recently my wife and I watched the anime series Death Note. Its basic premise is that a teenager obtains a notebook, and the name of any person he writes in it will die. The boy ends up with a flawed sense of justice, and determines that he should reign as judge over all the rest of the world, killing those that he deems unworthy without trial.

While watching the show I found myself strangely conflicted about the main character. He was clearly the villain of the show, and his methods ended up actively harming many innocents. He wasn’t even very likable, behaving manipulatively and deceitfully to those who cared most for him.

And yet, despite it all, I felt like I was supposed to be rooting for him. I wasn’t sure why at first, I just had this vague sense that the show wanted me to want him to succeed. So I spent a little bit of time examining why I felt that way, and I realized that I had had my emotions hijacked by the structure of the story. There are many little ways that storytellers give us silent cues as to what we are “supposed” to be feeling.

For example, imagine if a story opened with a scene of a single boy being chased and cornered by a group of four others. Even without telling us the reasons and motivations of the characters, we naturally assume that the single boy is our hero and the four others are our antagonists. We believe this to be the case, because we always expect the hero to be an underdog.

Or consider a story that begins with one central character. We follow her exclusively for the first third of the story, at which point the focus is handed off to another person. Even though the focus has changed hands, we still expect the first character to be our hero because we have spent the majority of our time with her. We firmly expect that this shift is temporary, and that the first character will soon return.

Well, it turned out that both of these elements were at play while watching Death Note. That boy who obtained the notebook was the character we spent the most time with, and he stood alone against an entire team of detectives trying to catch him. The fact that he was an underdog, and also the main focus of the story, created in me this sense that I was supposed to be rooting for him, even though his actions were deplorable.

 

I’ll Be Back)

There are several advantages that creating expectations in your reader allows for. One example is how it elegantly foreshadows upcoming plot points to them. This will provide the audience with a cathartic sense of satisfaction when fulfilled. They won’t even know why they feel so good, they’ll just say that the events “felt right” to them.

For example, consider the iconic “I’ll be back” scene from Terminator. In this the T-800 has tracked Sarah Connor to a police station and approaches the front desk to ask if he can speak with her. His request is denied, and he is told that he will have to wait until she has finished giving her statement to the police. The T-800 looks around, says “I’ll be back,” and walks out the front door.

And then, inexplicably, the camera remains at the front desk. The T-800 is the one driving the action, we should be following it, but for some reason we’re not. We’re staying in this boring, stuffy place. And then, silently, the anticipation starts to mount in the viewer. Slowly he starts to realize that this isn’t just an overly long end to a scene. There’s a reason why we’re staying here.

And right as that epiphany hits the car comes smashing through the front door, barrels down the desk, and the T-800 emerges wielding a shotgun and an assault rifle!

By utilizing the unspoken language of film the scene silently created the expectation, fulfilled it, and as a result created one of the most quotable moments in movie history.

 

Subverting Expectations)

Another benefit of giving silent cues to the audience is to then subvert the expectation that you have put in them. You can catch them by surprise and they won’t even know why they never saw it coming. Not always, but often a twist comes as a result of lying to the audience at some point or another. Some stories make the mistake of doing this explicitly. The characters straight up tell you one thing, and then later say “Ha! Just kidding, I lied! Aren’t you surprised?” And no, the audience isn’t surprised, they’re annoyed.

But if the lie was made implicitly, by planting an unspoken expectation in the audience that you then exploit, they won’t even know why they’re surprised, just that they are.

This bait-and-switch is perhaps most prolific in a mystery, such as when the author puts out a red-herring to distract the audience from the truth. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie famously moves its suspicion from one character to the next at a blistering rate. Each new suspicion has compelling reasons to buy into it, though none of them feel totally satisfying.

Then comes the final revelation: all of the suspects are responsible for the murder, not just one. Now why doesn’t this possibility occur to the reader beforehand, especially where the story was blatantly providing evidence against each and every character? It doesn’t, because this is a murder mystery, and readers know that in a murder mystery there is one killer and many red herrings. Agatha Christie understood that silent expectation and exploited it. In Murder on the Orient Express the red herring is that there was no red herring.

 

With Great Power…)

This ability to silently create expectations in your reader has to be given proper respect. It is a potent tool, and as such can cause much harm when misused. For example, subverted expectations only work so many times before the whole story starts to feel disjointed. If the plot is constantly misaligned with its subliminal messages then the audience will feel that something “is just off.” They won’t like your story because it simply felt wrong to them.

Creating expectations that are never confirmed or challenged will also be a source of frustration for the audience as well. Even if every narrative plot was tied up by the end, they’ll still have this sense that something was missing.

Of course the most common problem is to to have created silent expectations without even realizing it, and therefore having not ensured that each is resolved satisfyingly. Try reading over your work and pausing to ask what the story is making you think is supposed to happen. Then see if you handle that expectation elegantly or not.

 

In my next post I would like to share the first part of a story, in which I will intentionally create an unspoken expectation. Then, in the later posts, I will subvert it. Obviously my hope is to do it in a way that is as satisfying as it is unexpected. Of course by telling you all these intentions upfront I’m already tipping my hand, but hopefully it will still be a satisfying read for you. Come back on Thursday to see the first half, where I will create the expectation, and then a week later I will implement the subversion.

A Big Something or Other

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Repeatedly asking the question “why” very quickly leads to things that cannot be explained. We can begin with the most grounded of subjects and the most basic of functions, but if we repeatedly ask why things are the way they are, things quickly venture into one of two domains:

  1. The metaphysical
  2. The unknown

Either the question doesn’t have an answer, or any answer exceeds our mortal comprehension. In either case, we have found the limits of our cognition.

 

Order and Chaos)

Now I have already discussed the ways in which stories have handled the metaphysical elements. I described how things like karma, fate, or God are often living characters within a story. They remain unseen, but they do have a very real influence on the characters in center stage. Thus they are not perceived, therefore, so much as felt, such as the karmic justice that drives the journey of Oedipus. And in some ways this makes a story feel more true. Many of us see patterns in the world around us, and by this believe that there are supreme forces maintaining a balance in our lives.

But what about that other domain? The pure unknown? Because while we see metaphysical order in life, we also perceive chaos and randomness. We don’t want to embody these forces, we want them to remain indescribable and formless, and yet they also need to have some sort of tangential effect on the narrative. As a result there are many stories where things “just happen.” Not really to move the narrative forward, not to center some cosmic balance, not for any discernible purpose whatsoever.

Consider the coin-tossing in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Here the two characters begin a game of flipping coins, and find that only Heads comes up. Over and over and over and over again, more than a hundred times. Guildenstern does begin to wonder about external cosmic forces: some form of karma, a trickster god, time itself having ceased, etc. But he finds no answers, and neither does the audience. It just happens…and then it does not.

In Cael: Darkness and Light, we have a massive void that is visually perceptible, insofar as it impinges upon the world that it is swallowing up. Why it is here, where it came from, and what it will become after swallowing the entire world are never answered. Because in that story there are no answers about that void. It just is.

In this way I am trying to use Cael to portray both the metaphysical and the unknowable in one. That void seems like an all-powerful and malevolent force of nature, one with a specific purpose to fulfill: to destroy. However the origin, reasons, and methods of it feel like random chaos. And it is this strange synergy of both order and chaos that I feel rings most true. Because as I said, in life we seem to perceive both forces of order and random chaos.

 

Unnecessary Origins)

Sometimes the unknown isn’t kept a secret for any philosophical reason, though. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter. Such as when we don’t fully explore a side-character’s backstory. We don’t need to know where the waiter was born and why he was so distracted as to spill coffee on our detective, all that matters is that it happened. Are these things knowable? Sure, we just don’t care.

Of course there are some things that the audience might think they want to know, but if they did the story would lose some of its magic. I had that experience when I tried to read The Silmarillion, an epic which gives the origin story of Middle Earth. Partway through I realized that really I didn’t want to know where elves came from, or how and why they built Rivendell. I preferred the magic of that city existing “just because.” I have never gone back to try to finish the book.

In some ways I feel that this selective exclusion also rings more true to life. The first time you visit a new city you always come to it in media res. It just exists, entirely outside of your understanding why. And while you could read up on its history and learn all about its origins, the actual experience of being in that city still only begins with the day you walked into it. For you, that will always be the origin.

I incorporated this sort of selective exclusion with Instructions Not Included. Here we have a box of strange objects with properties unlike anything else on earth. And while we eventually learn about the organization that planted the box, we do not ever learn how and why the objects came into being. Presumably it must have some point of origin, but knowing it would dispel the whole mystery at the center of the story. So I leave it unknown.

 

Beyond Register)

And sometimes we know what the thing is, but we lack the words to describe it. Not because we need a larger vocabulary, but because things that go “off-the-scale” will, by definition, defy any description. Sometimes you don’t just want to say that your character is angry, you want to say that he is so angry it cannot be fathomed. But if it cannot be fathomed, then the words cannot be written to properly detail it. Raging, fuming, frenzied…all these words fall short of describing an indescribable rage.

I have mentioned in a previous post how 2001: A Space Odyssey dealt with this exact problem. Here we had a constant escalation that needed to climax in a sequence that defied comprehension. David Bowman is supposed to be witnessing things that are beyond all understanding. The film handled this by showing strange, meaningless patterns and colors to the viewer, ones intended to be baffling. In the book it merely describes him seeing many diverse races and cultures, which makes for considerably less impact.

There is undoubtedly a paradox here. Visual and aural mediums are quite capable of creating experiences that cannot be  captured by words. But a written story, by definition, must be captured with words.

In Once Among the Clouds I decided to take a stab at this problem by way of metaphor. Throughout the tale I describe an escalating conflict and an abundance of violence and destruction. Then, at the very end, all is overwhelmed by a towering, dark rain cloud that washes everything away.

While I was able to describe the rain cloud in detail, I did not explicitly spell out that it was meant as an embodiment of all the hate and strife. I could have, but I expect that the reader’s subconscious will make that interpretation already, and that which is perceived subconsciously often feels more legendary to us. My hope is that this round-about form of expression will therefore make the magnitude of hate and violence seem inexpressibly deep to the reader. Whether or not I succeeded is a matter of opinion, but I found it interesting to try.

 

I would like to conclude this series with a short story that attempts to weave in all three of these types of monolithic entities. I will start with a creation of unknown origins, one that becomes a being of chaos, and by that chaos establishes a skewed sense of order, which contrast will hopefully imprint an idea on the reader that feels larger-than-life. It’s a tall order, and I’m very anxious to see how it goes. Come back on Thursday to see.

Influencing and Inspiring

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Overflowing Personalities)

Some people have essences so strong that they cannot be contained within themselves. Instead bits and pieces of their soul seem to permeate into our own and change us. Charismatic leader compel us to share their vision,  spiritual giants motivate us to adopt their morals, and creative artists inspire us to imitate their ideas.

This transference of the self can even occur with both parties being unaware of it. One does not have to be conscious of the fact to either influence or be influenced. In fact may times the influencing happens even when the two parties never meet, such as when an artist is not appreciated until after their own death. Though they are not present to propel their ideas, the ideas move forward on their own.

To be influenced means to have ones actions directed by another. Sometimes this takes the form of imitating the example of another. Other times it is coming to a personal interpretation of another’s work, and creating something new from that.

 

A New Seed)

Both forms of influence have their value, but in the case of art the second is better. Directly replicating the work of a master is ideal in moral discipleship, but in the arts we we call that plagiarism! Instead the influence of the master artist should be akin to a tree that creates a seed, which then yields a new tree that is its own creation.

Indeed, whenever I read or watch or listen to any work, one of the metrics I measure it by is whether it instigates new thoughts and ideas in me or not. An average creation might entertain me, but a powerful one will bring possibilities to my mind that I had never conceived of.

With this understanding, I would like to offer two simple definitions that encompass my entire philosophy of art.

I consider the word “art” to simply mean the expression of something new. That expression can be in any medium: word or image or sound or any other means.

I consider the word “masterpiece” to mean art that transplants its ideas into the minds of those that consume it. It imbues in the recipient the mind and feelings of the creator, and in so doing it is planting a seed in new soil that can spring up as new creations.

 

Being Receptive)

Of course, the burden of influence does not fall solely on the creator. The greatest symphony cannot move a heart that is dead. Transference of ideas is a mutual effort, and requires both a skilled creator and a skilled receiver.

To get the most out of a story you have to be receptive to the ideas that are coming from it. You have to have a fertile imagination, or else that seed won’t be able to grow. This fact explains why so often the greatest artists are also the greatest audience to others’ art. They take in the work of others, are deeply impacted by it, and from that germinate terrific ideas of their own.

Now our society tends to not like the idea of being “influenced.” We are wary of being duped or brainwashed, and want to assert that we can think for ourselves. This is all well and good, independence is a positive thing.

But we can take it too far and turn it into a sort of fashion: suppressing any thought or feeling that we feel might have originated in another person. Of course if one feels compelled by society’s trends to maintain an image of not being influenced…one is living a humorous oxymoron.

The better balance is to have one’s independence, one’s capacity to think for oneself, and then intentionally choose the influences one will derive inspiration from. Reject those that are shallow, choose the ones that are worthy, and then drink deeply.

 

Combining Sources)

And choose a set of varied sources. Though inspiration comes to us in separate streams our minds are wonderfully designed to combine those individual ideas into one. One of the brain’s core functions is to discover connections, even where no connection was originally intended. Stirring pieces of classical music can therefore be combined with scenes of film and television to great effect, even though that application never occurred to the composers when they wrote them.

Many of our new creations are nothing more than this marrying of separate ideas into one, each half unoriginal, but the fusion being entirely novel. That was my pattern most recently with Once Among the Clouds.

That story has two origins. The first took place when I was reading comic books as a boy. I had an issue of Spider-man, the one where he first meets the Sandman. I was fascinated by how that villain’s form was so fluid. He could reform himself at will, change his density, and grow and shrink as well.

It was an interesting idea in and of itself, but it wasn’t fully fertilized until I made an unexpected connection to it another day, about a decade later, when I was serving a mission in South America. I was in the country of Guyana, which happens to be an incredibly flat piece of land. Not only that, but the country also happens to border the Atlantic Ocean. These combine to provide some of the most stunning cloud formations I have ever seen. They appeared like billowing mountains, stretching from one horizon to the next, constantly combining and dividing with one another at will.

And one day I looked at those clouds and I made the random association of how they were like that fluid character Sandman. And then I started thinking of entire armies of fluid cloud-beings, wrestling for sovereignty in the sky. Which, to my knowledge, is an entirely original invention, though derived from two unoriginal sources.

 

So, in summary, I believe one of the sacred elements of creativity is the way it inspires the same in others. It is a self-perpetuating power, one that ripples through all of humanity. Out from one source, across us all, and then back again, like one species-wide heartbeat.

I believe that everyone has the power to be creative. Perhaps some are born with more of an inclination for it than others, but in the end it is merely a muscle which anyone can exercise. If one wishes to do so, they may begin just by looking for beauty in the creations all about them. See what works resonate with you, what new ideas come to mind from them, and let them move you to make your own.

On Thursday I will post the second half of Once Among the Clouds, where I will combine the cloud-combat that I have already employed with other elements: the wind and rain. Come back then to see how it turns out.

Eating Things

red and white mouth plastic toy and food plastic toys
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Agents of Destruction)

Monsters. They come in all shapes and sizes. Amorphous blobs, oversized insects, scaly reptiles, hairy beasts, underwater phantoms, undead humans, shape-shifting tricksters, killer robots, and hodge-podge creations. Some of them come straight at you, slow and meandering; some of them lurk behind you in the shadows, and still others fester right inside your mind.

Clearly there is a great variety in our literary depiction of monsters, yet there are a few things that remain consistent. Or at least mostly consistent. Each of the patterns I am about to mention surely have their exceptions, but they do hold as general rules.

  1. Monsters are mindless. It isn’t just that you never see a monster making a painting or working through a mathematical equation, it’s that they seem incapable of any sort of creative expression. They might be cunning, it is true, but never for the purpose of inventing something new or advancing their understanding.
  2. Monsters are evil. A villain can be sympathetic, but a monster cannot. To be a monster means that it serves no virtuous purpose. It is never engaged in an act of compassion or kindness, even to others of its own kind. A monster is commonly described as “menacing,” by which we mean it has evil and violent intent.
  3. Monsters want to destroy you. The two above principles combine into this one. We began by saying that monsters are mindless, but perhaps we should instead say that they possess a single-track mind: one of violence. They want to destroy and that is all. And it is that monomaniacal thirst for destruction that makes us identify them as evil.

Monsters are therefore the antithesis of ingenuity and creation. They are pure agents of destruction. They are often used as an archetype that stands opposite to the creativity of the hero, and most often are defeated by that creativity. Think of Jaws, where the titular shark is defeated by the ingenuity of the hero using a tank of compressed air as a bomb.

 

Grim Reapers)

Monsters are, of course, also associated with a specific form of destruction: death.

In the animal kingdom we have two states that define the endpoints of a creature’s life. There is the birth, which is an act of creation. Then there is the death, which is an act of destruction. We rejoice in the first, and assign to it feelings of love and peace. We agonize over the second, and assign to it feelings of hatred and fear.

Death can come peacefully, but inherent in all of us is a fear that it might not. There are few things that terrify us more than a savage end. A fear we not only share universally as a people, but with the entire animal kingdom. Every creature shows intense fear for its own demise. It is not a vain fear either, nature is full of those that seek to bring early and violent ends to every form of life. Nature is full of hunters. Which brings us to our next point: in the world of nature, death is almost always followed by eating.

 

Many Teeth)

Almost every monster we conceive of has some fascinating mode of ingesting others. In fact some of the most common characteristics among them are many pointy teeth and oversized mouths.

This act of a predator eating its prey is a true horror, but also a fascination. It couples something we dread with something we enjoy. Eating provides us our daily sustenance, after all. It is an experience we take sensual pleasure in. Psychologists have long been aware of the satisfaction of hand-to-mouth movements. To not eat would be to die.

Eating, then, is the nexus by which one entity’s death becomes the life-sustenance in another. Moments of contrast, such as this, are always the ones that grip our curiosities most strongly. It creates in us a strange mixture of feelings, one where we find pleasure in the very thing that horrifies us. We don’t want to watch…but we do want to.

 

The Loss of Self)

But what exactly gets eaten? Certainly the body in the simplest of cases, but our imagined monstrosities have become incredibly complex over the years. We have invented monsters to feast upon any component that we feel defines us. So the dementors swallow the soul, the zombies feast on the mind, and the one ring consumes the will. The soul, the mind, and the will; these are all things that we define our individuality by, and therefore things we fear having taken from us. Perhaps that part of us is destroyed, or perhaps it is assimilated against our will. In either case that core life force is taken from us and given to another.

Which leads to another interesting correlation between monsters and their preferred food. Many times the creature wishes to eat that which they are forever absent of, meaning they are an abyss that can never be filled. The dementor that sucks out the soul has no soul of its own. The zombies are defined by their own lack of any rational mind. The one ring is an inanimate object, and so has no personal will. Their sole function is to take what they cannot have, a ravenous hunger without end.

I tried to follow this pattern with my “void” monster in last week’s story Cael: Darkness and Light. Here the monster was a massive, undulating cloud, devoid of any specific form or definition. It crept forward and consumed all forms that it encountered indiscriminately, folding them forever into its nothingness.

Now I would like to that same idea again: create an entity that is devoid physical form and have it consume all other things that are better defined. This time, though, I am going to incorporate one final theme of monstrosity into it.

 

We Are Our Monsters)

A common interpretation of monsters is that they are our own worst parts, which if not kept in check will consume/ingest the good. Dr Jekyll gradually has all his kind qualities overtaken by the cruel Mr Hyde, and eloquent Larry Talbot transforms into the drooling werewolf.

In some ways this might be the loss of self that we fear most of all. And we feel it is not a quiet, peaceful loss either, one that can only occur by our worse nature violently taking the reins from our kinder spirits. Once that defeat occurs, all the goodness we once knew becomes fuel for the ravenous beast to grow on.

On Thursday I will present the first half of a story where damning character flaws create a conflict. Then, in the second half that conflict will give rise to a mindless entity that represents karma and reciprocal cause and effect. The actions of the main characters will lead to its perpetual increase to the literal point of bursting. Come back then to see how it turns out.