Would I Lie to You?

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On Thursday we had the second segment of Phisherman, in which our narrator let us into his home, more of his thought processes, and described various body sensations. But all of these are only surface periphery, and he has still stubbornly avoided sharing anything truly vulnerable. We don’t know what it is that makes him tick or what his real motivations are, and he adamantly refuses to tell us what he’s even feeling.

A narrator that has an adversarial relationship with the reader is not a new invention, but it still remains an interesting mechanic due to how it goes against the basic idea of what a story is. A story is supposed to be a way to share knowledge, to communicate, to bring to an understanding. Therefore an unreliable narrator seems that it would only make a story defeat itself in much the same way that telling lies defeats the natural purpose of communication.

Indeed almost every story begins with the assumption that the narrator is truthful and somewhat omniscient. Usually they know everything that is needed to communicate their tale accurately, and they will be used as the standard of truth that all else is measured against. Therefore when a narrator is not trustworthy it is something that has to be discovered. Bit by bit things just aren’t adding up, and finally there’s a breaking apart where our creeping suspicions become confirmed.

And it is in that moment of discovery that the self-defeating nature of an unreliable narrator is undone. When pulled off properly the communication that follows can actually become more true, due to its initial concealing nature. But don’t take my word for it, there have been some excellent stories which have proved this very point.

 

Fight Club)

Take, for example, the story in Fight Club. I’ve have not yet read the novel, but the film’s snappy, cynical dialogue was actually a direct influence on crafting Phisherman’s tone. Interestingly, this film starts by surprising us with just how brutally honest it is willing to be. We understand exactly how Edward Norton’s character feels about the media, society, and all the world’s various problems. He sees a lot to complain about, including of himself, and he doesn’t hold back in cutting down everything he despises.

But while that honesty is invigorating, the audience still gets the notion that something is being hidden from them. People occasionally treat Edward Norton’s character in a way that doesn’t make sense, and there are strange black-out periods that are entirely unaccounted for. It isn’t necessarily that we think our narrator is lying to us, just that he isn’t as in control of the situation as he should be. In the end it turns out to be both. He is lying to us, but he isn’t even aware of doing so.

In the final act the story reveals its secret, and we find out that our leading man is a far more complex individual than we had been led to believe. Certainly more than he, himself, had ever believed. Thus this tale is particularly interesting in that it features a narrator that is being duped right along with the audience. That “aha moment” where everything comes to light is even more of a shock to him than it is to us.

The takeaway here would be that the narrator does not have to always know when they are being unreliable. They might just be expressing the truth according to their limited understanding of it.

 

The Beginner’s Guide)

Another example of an unreliable narrator is that of the indie game called The Beginner’s Guide. This is a game that is unlike anything I’ve seen before, right from its initial moments. It opens with the game’s real-life creator giving you his real-life name and his real-life email address. It is incredibly, disarmingly honest, and leaves the player feeling a little embarrassed at just how far they being are invited into the creator’s personal space. But all of this is just a façade, and when it comes down things are only going to become more intimate.

The basic construct of the game is that the creator, Davey Wreden, wants to show you some small minigames that his friend “Coda” has made. These games are all quite short and about a very limited objective. They’re also very different, and feel less interested in providing compelling gameplay as being virtual art pieces that communicate an experience. For example a maze that is impossible to beat may not be very fun to play, but it recreates the sensation of being trapped that Coda was experiencing in his life at that time.

Then, at the end, Davey confesses that Coda actually hates him for sharing his games with the public like this. These weren’t meant to be put on display for everyone, they were very personal to Coda. Davey even admits that he has been altering the games, giving them glimmers of hope that he felt had been missing.

So clearly there was a deception here, and the player feels dirty for having been made an accomplice to violating Coda’s personal life. This might seem like it’s the “aha moment” of catching the unreliable narrator in the act, but there’s an even greater revelation still to uncover.

This one comes when you understand that Coda and Davey are not actually two different people, but rather two sides of the same individual. There’s plenty to suggest this fact within the game itself, but it is further confirmed by reading the blog posts that Davey Wreden has published about himself. He gets very personal and honest in those blogs, and they talk about his two conflicting interests: to be purely creative and also to feed his never-ending hunger for validation.

From his blog posts and this game we understand that “Coda” is the name that Davey has given to his muse, the part of him that provides him pure inspiration. But then there’s this other part of him, the public part, that tries to make those games more marketable and entertaining so that he can be praised for them. The more he does that, the more his private life is thrust into the limelight, and the more he starts to feel that honest creativity dying within him.

The Beginner’s Guide is very unique in that it makes the player believe it is being entirely honest, then convinces the player they have been deceived, and then let’s them discover it was actually being more honest than ever.

 

Truth Through Deception)

So obviously these are two very different examples of an unreliable narrator, however there is one aspect that they share, that of actually unveiling more as a result of their covering up.

If in Fight Club we had understood all the wrinkles of the main character from the outset, then we would not have experienced the same sense of confusion and foreboding that he was experiencing. He would have been wandering around scared and confused and we would have been waiting for him to catch up to our level. Being left in a place of uncertainty only better connected the audience to the lack of completeness he had been feeling the whole film long.

And as for The Beginner’s Guide, it could have been introduced as simply “here are two different sides of me,” but that would have lessened the sense of betrayal that we experienced at the end. By dividing the psyche into two individuals we better have this idea of a relationship, one which requires respect from one to another to survive. In this way this story is able to make its point that we know it would be unquestionably wrong to exploit another person, but why do we think it any better to exploit oneself?

This element makes for one of my favorite styles of unreliable narrator. Even though the narrator may not be telling you the truth about the details, they are informing you of other truths about themselves. This, however, is not the technique that I am utilizing for Phisherman. In fact I’ve decided to do the exact opposite to see how that affects the outcome.

Jake is being entirely honest about all of the details, and there is not going to be any sort of twist where he has a split personality or an imaginary friend. The deceit is one that he, himself, doesn’t recognize as a deceit because it is really a self-deceit. Jake has been able to omit his feelings from the story thus far because he is very practiced at numbing them, even to the point that he would doubt their existence. In the final section of the story we will have a moment where the pure terror that always lives beneath his surface finally rages to the forefront for all to see. My hope is that that moment of stark clarity will then color every scene that came before.

Come back Thursday to see how that works out. I’ll be waiting for you there!

Universal Languages

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In a prior blog post I shared an experience I had while teaching in University. I was saying all the words to correctly describe the concepts I was supposed to be teaching, but I could tell that none of it was being comprehended. The students could understand every word that I was speaking, just not any of what was actually being said. In that moment I felt that the English language had failed me.

I’ve been on the other end of that experience as well. In my career I’ve received all manner of technical training, and I’ve certainly been guilty of just nodding my head while all of the information goes in one ear and out the other.

As a reader you’ve probably experienced this, too, moments where you read and reread the author’s prose, but just can’t seem to get what it is they are trying to say. In fact, for a writer to communicate their ideas effectively is probably more difficult than with any other communication medium. These efforts to paint worlds with words often requires pushing the boundaries of written languages to their very limits.

For one thing all visuals have been removed from the communication, everything has to be imagined. For another each language has its own blind spots where they lack the words to convey certain thoughts. Then, of course, there is also a strict limitation on the number of words that can be put in a sentence before it falls apart under its own weight.

Finally there is another limitation of words, one which I want to focus on particularly. Words tend to only useful down to a certain level of detail. They are good at communicating complex associations, but fall apart at the very simple things. As an example, it is easy to describe the wavelength characteristics of light, how they excite photoreceptors in the eye, the electrical signals that are then sent to the brain, and how all of this results in the sensation we call “the color blue.” But now can you tell me what it is actually like to see “the color blue?” Someone that is blind from birth can understand all of the technical details, firing the neurons necessary to stow the data in their brain. But they will never find the words that will fire the other neurons necessary to artificially reproduce the sensation of seeing color.

And yet…sometimes when I read words I do experience a physical sensation. When I read a menu I might salivate over the food being described and seem to taste them already in my mouth. Why is that? It turns out that this occurs when words are used as triggers to access memories in my mind. It’s not that any of the words “grilled shrimp slathered in garlic and butter” are inherently delicious in their composition. Rather it is the the memories those words call up that are delicious.

Think of it this way: the words on the page are the address on the envelope, leading you to the residence of your own memories. In this way any words can could be used to call up any experience, there just has to be an association between them. When my wife and I speak to each other we are able to use a shorthand because we know so well the memories one another holds and the words that will access them. Communication becomes less about what is being said, and more about the experiences that have been shared.

There’s a few important lessons in this for all writers. Let’s take a look at them one-at-a-time.

You Need to Connect)

When Pixar released their film Up they were lauded for their powerful opening montage. In this sequence we are introduced to the main character, Carl and a young girl, Ellie. We then watch the two of them become best friends, fall in love, get married, share a life, and then separate when Ellie passes away. Not only does this provide an emotional journey, but one that is shared between the main character and all of the audience.

From this point on the viewers now share a common language with the story. Everything that follows in the plot will makes perfect sense. We understand why Carl is grumpy, why he is irritated by a young adventure-seeker, why is so reluctant to leave his home. When Carl reacts to events that are happening around him we feel a ripple of that same reaction within ourselves because we remember the same things that he is remembering in that moment. We just get it.

If you want your reader to care about the things that happen in your story, you have to share meaningful experiences with them as soon as possible so that they will relate to the character’s state-of-mind. Then your protagonist and the reader are speaking the same language.

 

Describing vs Sharing)

But of course, part of using a shared language to connect to a reader is knowing when not to use this trick. In that same film, Up, we are later introduced to the villain, Charles Muntz. From his own lips we learn how he was pushed out from society’s limelight and ridiculed until he became obsessed with a monomaniacal objective. He has his reasons for his disposition, but those reasons are only described to us, not shared first-hand as they were with Carl’s past.

This is not the story being lazy, though, it is actually very clever. This technique means we don’t feel what Charles feels and we easily reject his conclusions. His sob story is supposed to go in one ear and out the other and that’s just what happens. We hear his woes, we don’t care, and we move on.

Why doesn’t the story want us to feel sorry for Charles? Because that would only get in the way of the experience the story wants us to be having in this moment. What the story wants is for us to be sharing in Carl’s sense of betrayal at this discovery. That sensation comes through loud and clear because of how the story has prioritized its communication to us.

Describe an experience when all you need is for people to understand what your character is feeling. Share an experience when you need for people to empathize with what your character is feeling.

 

New Languages from the Universal)

Of course none of those examples from Up work if people are not first moved by the opening montage. If viewers come away feeling annoyed at Carl and Ellie’s relationship then they really won’t care about Carl’s sadness or sense of betrayal. How is it, then, that the filmmakers managed to get the opening montage to work so well?

For this I’ll go back to my problem as a teaching assistant back in University. Rather than diving straight into the new material, I ought to have first established something common and familiar, something that we all understood equally. That would have put us all on the same page, and on that shared analogy we could have incrementally added all of the new material.

The reason that that opening sequence in Up works so well is because it utilizes universal experiences that almost everyone can relate to. It introduces us to Carl as someone that feels awkward and shy, sensations we’ve all experienced at some point or another. It shows the newly married couple doing all the sorts of mundane household chores, ones that each of us do in our own homes. It explores their desire of wanting great adventure, something that is common to all of humanity. It turns somber when the two learn they cannot have any children, one of the most basic fears in all potential parents. It uses music that swings from bright and playful to slow and somber. All of these things are universally relatable, and so they build that common foundation between character and viewer. All the unique aspects of their relationship that follows extends from common places we all have been.

 

Not Everyone Will Relate)

But obviously when I say these experiences are “universally relatable,” what I really mean is “mostly universally relatable.” In my previous story post, I wanted to establish a tone that was deep, thoughtful, and introspective. I decided to open on a beach with the rolling waves gliding against the coast. I chose this because this setting generally impresses us with themes of largeness, timelessness, and purposefulness. That makes sense, seeing as waves are big, constant, and follow deliberate motions.

But now suppose there is a reader who primarily associates beaches with their partying years in college. Or they might have suffered some tragedy during a boating accident. For these readers my referencing a coast may end up throwing them far from the intended atmosphere. But then no location is ever going to be 100% effective, is it?

I’m sure there were those that watched the opening montage of Up and did not come away with the intended experience either. One such audience might be the very young who have not yet experienced the full richness of life, or those who just barely lost a spouse and are still so lost in the bitterness that they cannot taste the sweet. The fact is these miscommunications are unavoidable, and the idea is only to minimize them as much as possible.

 

In general you can achieve better communication with your readers by first using universal concepts to establish a common ground with them. While doing so, allow them to share meaningful experiences alongside of the main characters so that they can relate to their perspectives and understand their later actions. Finally use those moments of connection deliberately, so that you can steer the reader into taking the sides you want them to have.

In my next post I’d like to explore this idea of language within the context of a story itself. I’ll present a main character and two companions for him. One is familiar and seems to speak the same language, another is alien and does not share of his vocabulary. How he communicates with both of these characters will transform through the experiences they share. As such those communications will be stripped of the periphery and pleasantries of idle conversation, and come to be based upon core needs and feelings. Come back on Thursday to see the first portion of this exercise.