Stop, You Fool!

red and yellow stop sticker
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In a previous post I discussed the matter of giving the reader and the main character different amounts of information. In most stories the reader and main character share the exact same knowledge base, and have roughly the same intelligence as one another. This creates a very comfortable sync, and reduces the friction in adopting a fictional perspective.

 

Creating Suspense)

But sometimes you do not want your story to be comfortable, sometimes you want the reader to feel friction. An excellent way to accomplish this is by providing the audience with more information than the main character.

This is done very cleverly in Wait Until Dark. In this suspenseful thriller, three criminals are trying to trick an innocent, blind lady into giving them a doll that has been stuffed with cocaine. They attempt this by all manner of manipulation, each of them posing as a different character in a wildly convoluted facade.  One of them plays the part of a sympathetic friend, another as a police detective who accuses her husband of infidelity, and the third as an unhinged menace that threatens her with violence. They work at her from each side, and though she is clever she literally cannot see through all of their deceit.

Most notable is a scene where she discovers the missing doll and excitedly calls the “sympathetic friend,” telling him that she has found it and needs him to come over straight away to help her dispose of it. Of course, the audience already knows that he is one of the villains, and so we cringe and say “No, don’t call him! You’re setting yourself up!” It’s not that she’s foolish, it’s just that she’s ignorant while we are not.

In Dial M For Murder the audience knows from the outset who the real murderer is, and therefore watches in agony as all the evidence instead condemns an innocent woman. Rope also reveals its secrets right from the outset, so that the audience feels the constant suspense of an undiscovered body laying just out of sight. In Psycho we watch in dread anticipation as the detective enters the house that we already know houses a lunatic killer.

 

Poor, Naive Fools)

It is not always necessary to divide the information given to the audience and the main character, though. Another approach is for the main character to be naive, and therefore incapable of processing their situation as clearly as the audience will. This was my approach on Thursday. Here a naive toy drummer is taken advantage of by some unsavory types. That he is being taken advantage of is painfully obvious, but he never clues in on it. We’ll have to cut him some slack, though, in the story he literally was born just yesterday!

And so the audience cringes as he willfully puts his faith in the wrong people. Each step that he thinks is getting him closer to his goal, is actually taking him farther away.

I’ll be honest, it was hard for me to write these sequences. Just like the audience, my gut desire is for him to see through the deception and do the right thing. In fact when I first started writing stories in my teenage years that was exactly what happened. The heroes did the first exact right thing, then the next exact right thing, and then the next and the next, and then they had won and the story was over.

And you know what? They were very boring stories. And so while I wish the drummer could be a bit brighter, he can’t be. He has to be duped and go to where the story needs him to go.

At least he won’t be alone in his follies, though. Along the way he’ll have the company of all the many other literary characters who have been fooled by cunning villains. Consider, for example, Disney’s film depiction of Pinocchio, which directly inspired this tale of my little drummer.

In this movie Pinocchio is also a newly fashioned toy, and also one that lacks any street smarts whatsoever. A cat and fox convince him to leave school in search of fun. A puppet master promises him fame and wealth, while really only exploiting Pinocchio. Later Pinocchio falls in with a gang of lawless boys, and nearly loses his own humanity as a result. And once again, through the entire film, the audience knows that Pinocchio is making the wrong choices, but he simply doesn’t have the experience to recognize it himself.

 

The Meta-Narrative)

Not all naivete is so dour, though. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Huckleberry Finn. This, too, is a young and uneducated boy, one who does not understand the deeper things that the reader does. A great moment in his story comes when he considers the plight of his friend Jim, who is a runaway slave trying to gain his freedom. Finn has grown up in the South, and has been taught that it is not only illegal to help a runaway slave, it is immoral. Though it causes him great consternation, Huckleberry Finn ultimately resolves to help his friend, even though he believes it will damn him to hell to do so.

Of course Mark Twain intends for the audience to see the matter quite differently. Readers will understand that Huckleberry Finn is actually doing a good and honest thing, and that he is cleansing his soul, rather than dirtying it.

Stories that rely on these different levels of understanding between reader and character provide two narratives at once. First there is the plain and simple story of the character: Pinocchio faces great adversity in his quest to become a real boy, Huckleberry Finn has grave misgivings, but still helps his friend. But beyond this there is also a meta-examination of the experience that is occurring. The author and the audience are having a conversation on the subject matter even as it is happening.

Is a child such as Pinocchio guilty, if all his follies are made in ignorance? Does he deserve to be punished for wrong if he does not know it is wrong? Whether deserved or not, the world does punish the gullible. So what dangers await our children if they are left so uneducated and naive?

How can a social climate be used to make those like Huckleberry Finn cross good for bad, and bad for good? Do we rely too much on arguments and laws and reasons, when really all we ought to do is follow our own conscience?

A common theme of these meta-narratives is that our society has corrupted the innocent. We ought to be able to live entirely naive and trusting, and not be taken advantage for it. We ought to be able to live purely from our conscience, and not be conflicted for so doing. Maybe that isn’t how life is, but it is how it should be.

In Toymaker I have endeavored to weave both of these themes into the story. In Thursday’s post we saw our innocent drummer tricked by other devious characters, and we feel that he shouldn’t have been. We saw his conscience trying to warn him about their wiles, but he was compelled to sideline it, and he shouldn’t have. So no, he shouldn’t be in this situation, but he is, and now he will have to deal with it. And all these messages and all the tension are able to come through by simply letting the audience understand more than the character does.

In my next post we’ll see our naive fool beginning to see through his follies. He’ll start to recognize that there are those that are trustworthy and those that are not. He’ll even find a new friend to help him live more shrewdly. Come back on Thursday to see how it goes.

 

 

 

As Long as You’ll Clean up After It

close up photography of adult golden retriever
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Doing Your Duty)

I never had a dog growing up. I always wanted one, but the answer was always no. I tried telling my dad that he wouldn’t have to worry about feeding or cleaning up after it, I would be entirely responsible for all of that stuff. He knew, better than I, that that was not the way these sorts of things go.

Now I have a home and family of my own, and we have a cat. What I did not understand as a child was that because I am a provider in my home, and chose to bring the cat into it, I am therefore obligated to him. Even if my own son was old enough to do all of the cat’s chores, I would still feel emotionally responsible.

I am also obligated to the fish that we have. I am obligated to the woman I asked to be my wife, to the son we are raising, and to the baby daughter that we are expecting this winter.

Each one of these responsibilities came about by some sort of creative or additive act. I made, purchased, or requested all of these connections and added them to my life on-by-one. And because I chose to add these to my life, I have a duty to them.

Having that sense of duty matters to me. There are some traditions of “masculinity” that I do not hold with, but one that I think is good is the idea that a real man takes care of his own. A man chooses his responsibilities, and then he commits himself to them. He does not take on dependents lightly, he does so with full intent to provide.

A mature, responsible adult therefore holds to the things that matter and lets go of the things that get in the way. So much of adulthood is simply learning how to divide between these two, and one that manages this balancing act will lead a fulfilling and blameless life…but also one that doesn’t make for a good story!

 

Conflicting Obligations)

Narratives are about tension and drama. Compelling stories have points where the decision between right and wrong is not so straightforward, situations where there are pros and cons to each side and compromises have to be made.

One of my favorite animated films is Wreck-It Ralph, in which the main character rejects his role as a video game villain and goes in quest of a hero’s reward. Along the way he befriends a young girl who is an outcast in her own game. Her dream is to live as a racer, and he helps her to build a car that can compete in an upcoming race.

And then, at that critical point, he is made aware of a terrible conundrum. This young girl has a glitch, and if she performs in the race and players see her glitching, the game might be unplugged and she will die.

Through their adventures Ralph has come to feel responsible for this young girl. Part of that responsibility is to her happiness. To that end, he has built her this racecar. But also he is responsible for her safety, and right now her happiness seems to be putting that safety in jeopardy. He tries to reason with her, to tell her that she shouldn’t race. She rejects that notion. So what does he do? He breaks her car into pieces. He is both the good guy protecting her and the bad guy crushing her dreams.

That is great drama and excellent storytelling! Not only that, it authentically captures the real-life difficulty of making the right choice “in the moment.” When we reflect on our choices, hindsight often makes very clear to us which were right and which were wrong. When making those choices in the moment, though, things seemed much less black-and-white.

 

Making Up For Mistakes)

This means that sometimes we will make a choice that seemed right in the moment, but later we learned was not. One of the most difficult things we have to do in life is admit we were wrong, work backwards, and make an opposite choice to undo our mistake. Because that is something else we are responsible for: what decisions we have already made.

Ralph faced this exact same conundrum. He came to realize that he had been fed some misinformation, and that leads him to make amends with the little girl he broke the heart of.

Victor Frankenstein was another character who had to face responsibility for his actions. In his novel he creates a new life, and is therefore responsible for the individual he has made. But he finds that the creation is hideous, and full of violent intent. The creature tries to coerce him into providing a mate, but Frankenstein refuses, unwilling to be responsible for the propagation of this monstrous species.

Ultimately Frankenstein seeks to destroy his creation, so that he may at last have rest from his responsibilities. Instead he dies in the effort, and so his rest is discontented. He is filled with the disappointment of having failed his duty. That is the last great tragedy of his life.

Last weeks’ story was based around this same idea of a father trying to bring a premature closure to his responsibilities. I also ended it in a place of grim dissatisfaction, because it wouldn’t feel right to have an easy fix to an inherently complex problem.

 

The Responsibility of Power)

The last type of responsibility I wish to examine is that of a character who comes into unexpected power. There are several stories that ask what would happen if a person suddenly gained tremendous strength or influence, and in the moment had to decide what responsibilities were inherent in that? Aladdin uncovers a powerful genie, but has to learn to use it wisely, rather than just satisfy his selfish desires. Edmond Dantès finds great riches, and is empowered to ruin the men who wronged him. To do so, though, will break his responsibilities of love and fidelity to the woman that he loved. Is he to live out his vengeance and lose his soul, or remain true to his core and swallow a defeat?

I would like to craft  a story that further examines these themes of responsibility, and particularly that of the responsibility inherent in great power. At first the main character will be unaware of his tremendous capabilities, during which time he will bind himself to only the common sort of responsibilities: loyalty and protection for another. Come on Thursday to see the forging of those bonds, and then later in the story we will examine how those ties are affected when he discovers his greater nature!

It Sounded a Lot Better in My Head

selective focus close up photography of red eared slider turtle
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A Peek Behind the Curtain)

It was pretty early on in this blog that I wrote a story that I didn’t like. In that moment I had to decide whether I was going to publish it or not, and I knew that this decision would set a precedent for all future story posts. I decided to publish.

One reason was that I simply don’t have the time to be writing posts, scrapping them, and then creating entirely new ones. Another reason was that I started this blog specifically to get me in the habit of delivering on ideas instead of sitting on them forever. And finally, I wanted to represent all sides of writing in this blog, both the good and the ugly. It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that everything that I write is good. Some of it, frankly, is very much not.

I do feel a little guilty about a person who takes time out of their day to read one of my stories and is then disappointed by it. I don’t know how to avoid that, though. Even the pieces I am most proud of I’m sure are disappointing to some readers. Of course if I were trying to sell something, it would be a different matter. Asking people to give money for something you know is of subpar quality is not only a bad business practice, it is immoral. This is one of the reasons why I do not try to monetize this blog in any way.

There is still one more reason why I choose to keep the lesser stories in this blog, though, and it is because they still have valuable lessons to share. Sometimes learning from a failure can be more fruitful than reaping the rewards of a success. And that’s just what we’re going to do today. Let’s take a look at why our stories are sometimes so much worse than we thought they were going to be, and what we can do to reduce this frustration.

 

Sometimes You’re Wrong)

I’ve already mentioned in the past how a writer can have a great idea, but will then struggle to capture it properly on the page. In this case the idea is still good, and it is just a matter of practicing until one can transfer from their mind to their work with a high degree of fidelity.

But sometimes that isn’t the case. Sometimes the idea you had is just bad, and that’s all there is to it. You might be able to imagine something and you might be able to recreate that something, but that doesn’t mean that the imagined joy you had in that something will be present in the reality.

Often we know what we want in life, but sometimes we don’t. The dessert that “sounded” good ends up making our stomach turn, the new toy we wrote Santa for is boring within minutes, and the clique we were desperate to join becomes a toxic influence on us. People make bad choice all the time, thoroughly convinced that they were good ones.

One of my side-hobbies is that I like to make small mobile games. I think of new game mechanics all the time, and just like my story ideas I’m certain that all of them are good. And sometimes when I first try to implement them I have the parameters a little off and I have to tweak them until they’re just right. And other times I keep tweaking them for hours before I realize there just isn’t any “fun” in any version this.

 

You Are a Combination Machine)

There is a simple reason why this phenomenon happens. Your brain is an amazing piece of work, capable of inventing new things constantly. And as I mentioned in a recent post, it most often does this by taking two separate ideas and combining them into one. Any two items, no matter how random or disparate, can be combined in an infinite number of ways.

Door + Turtle = …

  1. That could mean a giant turtle with a door in its shell that leads to a fantasy kingdom inside.
  2. It could be a small hole cut into the bedroom wall for a pet turtle to walk through.
  3. Or perhaps it was a turtle crawling across the doorway at the top of the stairs to the basement; and Mom didn’t see it when she slammed the door closed and sent him on a grand, final adventure…rest in piece, Chuckles.

The point is there are an infinite number of things to combine in this world, an infinite number of ways to interpret each pairing, and we humans prosper by being able to generate and appraise these combinations at tremendous speed. This sort of inventiveness has been critical for our growth as a species, and it turns out that this behavior is wired into our very biology! A study in 2006 found that whenever subjects were presented with a new experience that a portion of their brain lit up and dopamine was released as a reward.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627306004752

This means that whenever you come up with that new combination your body makes you feel good for it. But in my experience this initial rush of excitement can be a poor indicator for whether an idea actually has value or not. It is good that I am thinking of new things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that this new thing is itself any good. Some combinations are useless, no matter how we feel about them in the moment.

 

Prototype)

To make matters all the more complicated, sometimes the bad ideas appear like good ones, even from an impartial, objective point of view. The technology sector is full of devices (Zune, Google Glass, Betamax, Newton) that sounded like good ideas at the time but still flopped horribly.

Most recently I was surprised that I ended up disliking Hello, World. I thought there was good reason for it to be a success because it reminded me of my other tech-heavy, snarky piece Phisherman, which I am really quite proud of. But “close” to a good idea is nowhere near to being a good idea.

So how can you tell whether your idea is really as good as you think it is? Quite simply you have to test it. In the game industry there is a common understanding that you have to make a prototype of your new idea as fast as possible. The reason being that the sooner you are able to actually taste the reality of your imagination, the sooner you can truly discern its value. It would be pointless to spend months writing music and making art for a game only to then discover that its core mechanic is boring.

And it turns out that a story can be prototyped as well. Try writing an isolated chapter to see if it still speaks to you or not. Frankly one of the main purposes for this blog is to be a test-bed for all my ideas. I’ve been able to quickly and accurately pinpoint which ideas are hollow, and which are really going somewhere. I’m never going to put a thousand of man-hours into making a complete novel out of Hello, World, but I might for Deep Forest, Phisherman, or Glimmer.

 

A final piece of advice is once you discover that your latest idea is lacking, don’t waste time trying to “make it work.” If you try really, really hard, maybe you’ll be able to dress it up to the point that it looks “okay.” But why settle for “okay” when you could be putting your time into something that is effortlessly beautiful? Like I said above, our minds are coming up with new ideas all the time, a really good one is going to hit sooner or later.

That being said, I also don’t want to be guilty of not giving Hello, World enough of a chance either. Nor would I want to deny the closure to anyone who was actually enjoying it thus far. To that end, I will dedicate just three more days to writing out the second half of that story. Come back on Thursday if you want to see how it turns out, I promise it will only get stranger from here!