Taking a Look Back: Part One

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Here we are approaching the end of The Favored Son: Alternate. It’s been a long road, and there’s been a great deal learned along the way. I want to pause and do a review on those lessons, because while it is important for me to practice my writing, my improvement accelerates when I then critique that practice and learn from it. There’s a lot to go over, so I’m going to have to split this review into two posts: this one today and another in a week. Now let’s get started.

Big Changes)

The whole thing began with a post about the struggle of humanity’s reach exceeding their grasp. Like Frankenstein I wanted to try an experiment that I had never attempted before: to take the same foundation from an earlier story and construct an entirely different experience on top it.

Last week I took a look at what I’ve written so far and decided that the answer to that question was yes. The two versions of The Favored Son are very different from one another, not only in the events that occur within them, but in style, themes, and message. As I shared before, this second version of the story hews much more closely to my original vision. In fact, the title “The Favored Son” really makes a lot more sense in this second take than it ever did in the first attempt.

That being said, I found myself starting to drift again during the writing of this second tale, too. Towards the center of it I had Tharol uncovering Reis’s plot in a way that was weak and unimaginative. This revelation was supposed to be a hinge of the entire tale, but it just came off as a cheap coincidence. I struggled for a little while to find a better way forward, but eventually an idea suggested itself to me, which improved the rest of the story. Things transpire much more organically now, and that has meant the final product is much lengthier than I had expected, but it is also more complete.

Little Changes)

There were smaller course corrections as well. Early on I mentioned that I was feeling bored when writing a certain piece, and realized that the audience would probably be bored when reading it as well. I saw an opportunity to introduce a small bit of inventiveness to the tale, which led me to create the “statue lady” who is trying to buy her way through the city gate.

While she has not been featured very much in the tale, she is absolutely essential to the entire thing, and I’ve realized that taking the time to give her distinctive qualities should have always been my plan. We’re about to see a lot more of her in these final two chapters, and I’ve realized that her stone nature is going to be a prominent piece in how the final action plays out. I sure am glad I acted on my boredom and breathed this new life into the tale!

Shortly after that sequence I came to yet another trouble area. My initial action scene felt a bit lacking, and given that I intended to write several more of those over the course of the story I figured I ought to do some research on the form. Ever since then I have tried to incorporate the lessons I learned of rapid, yet evocative sentences for every scene of combat. Some of these have come out better than others, but overall I am quite pleased with the result.

But while I was improving my technique in writing action scenes, I then stumbled into another issue of how to transition from them into more conversational pieces. I paused to examine the awkwardness in those scene changes, identified the conditions that led to them, and found a way to do smooth them over.

Last of all, I was dissatisfied with a sequence that showed the leader of the district as a clichéd villain. I wrote about why it is so easy to slip into using tired clichés rather than come up with more thoughtful solutions to our stories. Fortunately I paused and found a more creative way to vilify Lord Amathur, a way that will lead into the broader theme I intend to conclude this story with. In these last posts I am trying to make clear that Tharol exists in a much larger world than he realized, one that has politics and ideologies that he was unaware of, one that is torn between competing ideas and agendas that he doesn’t know his own side of.

This theme of uncovering a broader world was not part of my original vision for this story. It was an element I only discovered while writing out the first version of The Favored Son. It has become the binding theme between the two of them.

One way I will emphasize this theme is in my use of the “statue lady.” In my next post she and her forces will be presented in an extremely antagonistic light. But in the post following that we will see signs that she may not be as evil as we have thus far assumed. In a larger tale she might even have even become the hero.

Come and see this idea in play on Thursday, and then again next Monday where I will cover all the other lessons learned from writing The Favored Son: Alternate.

That’s So Cliché

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Let’s Make a Bad Guy)

Most stories have a villain, which is a character who embodies the opposition to the protagonist. The protagonist must overcome this opposition, which means the villain must be destroyed, in most stories violently so. As such, the villain needs to be painted in a very negative light. So negative that the audience won’t have any qualms about them meeting an untimely end.

And such a common problem has a very common solution: make the villain do something so reprehensible that everyone will deem them unfit to live. The most obvious choice is to have them kill someone else early on, an innocent bystander who doesn’t deserve to die and who therefore must be avenged. Perhaps the bystander makes a small mistake and incurs the villain’s disproportionate wrath, or maybe the villain just kills them for the fun of it. Once that happens no more arguments have to be made. The audience hates the villain and will cheer their downfall!

Well…unless the audience feels absolutely nothing at all because this is the six-hundredth time they’ve seen this sort of scene play out. Every year there comes a deluge of films, television series, and novels that overuse this formula until it has lost any meaning whatsoever. Each of these scenes come and go like all the rest and we just can’t feel anything about them anymore.

Let’s Make a Good Guy)

Of course things are hardly any better in the hero department. Want to make the main character likable? How about we see them do an act of charity to someone pitiable? Perhaps share a loaf of bread with a beggar, or cheer up a crying child, or help an animal that is hurt. There, now the audience knows that our protagonist’s heart is true and they love them for it!

Well…unless the audience feels absolutely nothing at all. It just gets so hard for us to assign any feelings to a hero like this because they feel exactly like what they are: a contrived formula, not an actual person.

But what’s interesting is that each of these clichés usually have their root in a story that was actually impactful once upon a time. Take the example of the hero helping an animal that is hurt. Perhaps the earliest instance of this is in the tale of Androcles, where a runaway slave takes refuge in the den of a fearsome lion! The lion is in no condition to chase Androcles, though, it is suffering from a large thorn stuck in its paw! Androcles takes the thorn out and the lion is intelligent enough to feel immense gratitude for it. The two become fast friends, which friendship eventually leads them to a life of freedom.

Once upon a time that was a moving tale. But it’s been stolen from so many times that it becomes formulaic and incapable of eliciting emotion. Ironically, by the time someone first hears the story of Androcles today they will likely have heard so many other rip-offs that they won’t be able to appreciate the weight this original used to carry.

Shortcuts in Communication)

The main culprit in all this derivative work is good, old human efficiency. We are a species that ever endeavor to optimize and simplify. And while this is an excellent practice in many cases, it neuters the emotions behind any humanizing experience.

Consider the example of how we strive to communicate ourselves in more and more succinct terms. I must say, I find it very amusing how older generations will decry the vowel-missing lingo of modern text messaging, utterly failing to realize that this is only the natural progression of a trend that they themselves pushed forward. Far before the advent of cellphones prior generations were already greatly abbreviating our style of communication. First formalities were dropped, then grammatically complete sentences, and now vowels. Is that really so surprising?

Obviously increased efficiency is desirable in many walks of life and even in communication it has its uses. Knowing the right combination of gesture and tone can allow us to convey a complex meaning in a fraction of a second. But It can be taken too far and render the whole experience redundant.

Brian Christian makes note of this fact in his book The Most Human Human. Here he points out that we now have entire conversations that are nothing but short clichés in which no actual substance is ever communicated.

“Hey, good morning.”

“Good morning. How are you?”

“Doing well. And you and your family?”

“All doing well, thanks for asking.”

“Nice weather, today, isn’t?”

“Yes it is. Oh, you know what, I’m afraid I’ve got to run!”

“Oh, me too. We should catch up later.”

“Definitely. Well, see ya!”

There is literally nothing communicated in exchanges such as these. The entire give and take is performed on pure autopilot. Half the time we’ve already got our default response loaded in before we even hear the what the other person says to the last robotic statement we made.

Stories Should Say Something)

And I’ve read and watched entire stories that were exactly the same way. A synopsis of these tales could very accurately be given as “it begins, the usual stuff happens, and then it ends about how’d you expect.”

To be fair, I get it. Originality is hard. I myself feel the temptation to take a trusty cliché rather than invent a new way to express what I want in a story. I ran into this exact problem during the last section of The Favored Son. Here I wanted to show that a leader was really a tyrant, and I kept slipping into the tired, old routine of him losing his temper at some innocent peasant and brutalizing them.

Fortunately I fought down that temptation. I stuck with it until I felt I had something a little more original to say. This more original scene was also far more complex. In it I introduce a group of slaves who are dragging a massive stone behind the tyrant, for a reason that is never explained. It is clear that they are a broken people, though, paying a penance of some sort. Then the members of a resistance ride onto the scene and urge a few of the slaves to escape with them! One of them does, to which the other slaves seem quite distressed. The reason for this is made clear when the royal guards chase off the resistance riders and the tyrant makes the remaining slaves atone for their missing fellow by slaying one of them.

The final outcome of this scene was the same as the cliché: the tyrant kills an innocent waif. But the path to this was far more intricate and involved. One gets a sense of political struggles, of victims being manipulated by competing powers. It is different, it is original, it took effort, and it is therefore far more likely to make an impression.

I will endeavor to keep fighting down the pull towards cliché, and instead imbue my stories with something more thoughtful. Come back on Thursday when I post the next section of my story and pay special attention to how I incorporate original ideas instead of settling for something more trite.

Cliché vs Story

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Some stories are timeless, but most are not. In fact, many a story that grips us when first experienced will become drab and lifeless the second or third time around. There is, of course, a very simple reason for this: more and more, media is designed with the fresh-newcomer experience as its sole focus. This means emphasizing on spikes of short-lived emotion instead of cultivating a long-lasting meaningfulness, which results in something like a “fast-food” story. They are lesser quality and will disagree with your digestion later, but they sure do look flashy and are pumped full of senses-pleasing fat and sugar. And, like blowing the sugar coating off of an otherwise bland pastry, each of these stories is immediately less palatable once you get past the shallow fluff. This has directly contributed to our become such a spoiler-averse society. Once I know who lives and who dies, who turns evil and who is redeemed, there is little left of the story that is actually interesting.

While this unfortunate trend exists in films, novels, and games alike, for this post I’ll draw each of my examples from the movie industry as its shorter-length format is especially susceptible to this weakness. In Hollywood, action films are scheduled for the summer months and horrors are scheduled for the fall, each entry crafted to ride a targeted wave of nostalgia in their season and wring out as much profit as possible before getting dismissed to the discount bin forever after. Let’s take a look at how a few specific genres focus on that first-time experience at the expense of each repeated exposure.

Comedy. Nothing is ruined by knowing the end from the beginning like a joke, a witty zinger just will not land if the audience is quoting it alongside of the main protagonist. Even worse, once you know what the punchline being built up to is, you may realize that much of the story is nothing more than setup for it, as opposed to actual plot development. I personally find that most comedies are only worth revisiting either when it has been so long that I’ve forgotten how each bit pays off, or else when I can share it with a friend who has never seen the comedy before, and thus laugh vicariously through them in their first-time experience.

Action. The summer blockbuster, the high-octane flick, the hero who can stand up to anything…except repeated viewings. A chase or fight sequence may be thrilling the first time you see it, but each punch and crunch just feels a little less impactful with each time you see it repeated. Soon you start to see the sequence more and more for what it actually is: choreography, two actors simply repeating an endlessly-rehearsed set of moves. The movie is showing its seams and the magic is broken. Also, the effects-heavy sequences that were considered cutting edge and photorealistic when released, stick out like an immersion-breaking sore thumb in as little as a year or two later.

Horror. Modern horror films eschew true fear and instead heap cheap gore and jump scares on the audience. Sure, this gives a quick gut-punch on the first viewing, but just like the punchline in the comedy, once you know what’s about to pop out from around the corner the effect becomes worthless. Predictable monsters aren’t scary and gore that was once nauseating will soon become  mundane. After the startles and discomfort subside, you’ll realize that these stories have hamstrung their own pacing, because you cannot create any sort of meaningful tempo or cadence while also maintaining a constant barrage of adrenaline spikes.

Romance. These stories are almost a meta example of the very topic we’re talking about. The vast majority of these focus solely on capturing that first-time excitement of meeting someone new and falling in love with them. And, like many real-life romances, repeated exposure transforms the initially charming quirks into grating pet-peeves. This first meeting is being cute just for the sake of being cute, isn’t it? This breakup at the end of the second act is pretty cliché, isn’t it? The music swelling at this vow of undying love is just manipulating an unearned emotional response from me, isn’t it?

Now, lest I sound as though I hate all movies, let me emphasize that not every film is so vapid and short-lived, just that too many of them are, and all for a lack of even trying. There are excellent counter-examples in each of these genres though. Groundhog Day is a comedy that holds up by interweaving its jokes with the main character’s development. He begins as a cynical and sharp egoist, and that is exactly the style of humor that is employed. As he gradually transforms into someone more sentimental and kind, though, the mood follows suit. In the Bourne Identity the action remains compelling in how it actually embraces the idea of a man rehearsing hand-to-hand combat moves ad nauseum until he can repeat them by muscle memory alone. This lends the choreography an honesty and makes both the amnesiac character and the audience uncertain of the depths of his potential. The Sixth Sense begins with creepy characters and menacing ghosts, but then goes out of its way to disarm them by revealing that they only seek to be helped. Then it shifts focus to the deeper fears of everyday jealousy and grief, phantoms that will haunt you for far longer. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is a romance that takes place long after the typical first falling-in-love encounter. In fact, it takes place at a critical juncture where the relationship, and even life, is threatened to end forever. In an allegorical fashion it drills down to the fundamentals of both how love is lost and how it can be saved, thus remaining just as relevant today more than 90 years later.

There’s one thing each of the examples I’ve given have in common. They are stories first, and genre-pieces second. The easiest way for a writer to fall into the trap of making a short-lived story is to sit down with the intention to write the most humorous, or the most exciting, or the most frightening story, or the most romantic story ever told. With time that most adjective will fade out, and all that will be left is the…story. If that story is weak, the audience will soon see it for what it is and wonder how they ever tolerated such drivel. Writing should be approached with the intention to just try for the best story, and then incorporate themes of comedy, action, suspense, romance, or whatever else only as it pertains to the subject of that tale. If you’ve written an outline that calls for “some sort of epic chase sequence” as a bridge between the actual scenes where plot happens then you’re forcing action on top of a non-action story. If your story actually needs a chase, that chase should be inseparable from the plot, baked into its very DNA.

When a story is well composed and true to its core then two things happen. The first is that knowing the end from the beginning does not lessen the experience. If anything it only heightens it because now you can recognize the expert craftsmanship as it is happening. You notice how this early scene is effortlessly setting up for the character-inflection that follows in the next, you pick up on how the emotions evoked by the first half is contrasted by the opposite trajectory of the second, you take the whole work in as a single piece of art where every stroke supports every other. The other effect that happens is you get sucked into the premise and believe in the characters. Though you may still remember the punchline, anticipate the betrayal, know where the monster is hiding, and recite the closing vows by heart, you can’t help empathizing with the characters’ tension in the moment. These aren’t actors playing pretend anymore, these are real characters who you believe are experiencing all of these moments for the first time, and you always find their journey incredibly fascinating.

At this point we are brushing up against one other differentiator between single-season stories and timeless tales, one that has to do with whether the story’s focus is on the character’s experience or on the audience’s. There is a time and a place for both, but to do this topic justice would require a separate post all of its own. For now I’ll just say that for the types of stories we’re discussing now, it is often better to go the route of prioritizing the character’s experience and trust the audience to empathize with them. First, though, we need to conclude our Free Cleaning Service story. My intent in that title is to not manipulate the reader with short-term emotional hooks, or try to shoehorn the tale to meet some genre cliché. Instead I wish to imbue the suspense and dread deep into the atmosphere of my tale and allow them to manifest themselves as something more corporeal naturally and whenever they see fit. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out!