Category: Stories

Choices In Narrative

A little writing advice, for those who struggle with the idea of larger works which are themselves composed of many smaller works. It’s easy to imagine sequences of action and reaction, but it’s harder to render cause and effect. Here is a simple thesis about how to view goals in storytelling; the beginnings and endings of acts, things that determine the consequences that shape each stage of the plot.

An act concludes when a character the act pivots around makes a choice that cannot be undone.

This logically presents a challenge for time travel stories. The point is that these things represent necessary gates on a characters’ story, a point where the story has to accept and render permanent a new state.

I find this is a good way to think of stories and it can help to isolate why so many stories – especially those in heavily franchised works – don’t actually feel like they matter much. In any given Sweet Valley or Christian Ripoff Of The Same story, any individual misunderstanding will be solved by characters just explaining things and talking it out and maybe praying and talking to the pastor. It’s a useful rule of thumb for marking points where stakes reside: The way tomorrow is different from today.


Blacklist’s Twist’s Piss

I’ve watched all of the Blacklist that’s available on Netflix Australia right now, which is to say up to the end of Season 4, and I did so only, I can assume out of some sense of ridiculous obligation. Blacklist is a TV series that establishes itself with a strong premise, a robust opening, a promising cast of initial characters, and stands back, arms spread, saying watch this unfold.

I have now after all this watching, some information for you which must come after the fold, because somehow someone out there might be fancying No, I want to watch this show, without that knowledge, so it can surprise me. If that’s the case, friend, please, first of all, brace for disappointment, but, for your sake, here is the fold: Continue reading

Why We Laugh At Things

Humour is something that’s talked about plenty online but one thing I see rarely discussed when we’re mad about something is why things are funny. It’s understandable, because unless you’re me, you probably find this topic quite dull. Still, humour is a thing that, despite what you may want to think, does have some actual rules and conventions, and even a cause and effect. I, as someone who has done a single year of University am therefore in a perfect position to explain this enormous subject and I won’t mess it up at all, honest.

All humour derives from a subversion of expectation.

Your brain is a fairly sophisticated device that tries to keep track of the future, which it’s kind of bad at, but also pretty decent at, considering. When you see a ball thrown at you, your brain does all sorts of math to track where it’s going and can more or less work out where it’s going to end up and if it’s going to hit you in the face. You wake up each day with a general expectation of what’s going to happen in it, and your brain actually patterns behaviour based on that. Talking to people, you have the same thing; as they explain things to you, you will expect things. Want to see this in effect? Look at comedy shows from other countries, even subtitled. There will be social cues that you don’t understand, and therefore, when they are averted, you won’t understand why it’s funny – or even why it’s so funny. Even British comedy does this. Even surreal British comedy like Monty Python’s Flying Circus does this!

Of late I’m seeing people enraged by components of jokes, and the defense being it’s just a joke. I think that’s the wrong way to approach it. What you have to look for is to find what, in the joke, you’re meant to laugh at. What’s the expectation? Why is it meant to be funny?

I don’t want to use any examples for this. The ones I can think of are – or have now become touchstones of outrage and anger and legitimate hurt. Too often though, I’ll see a joke where the point of the joke is to highlight someone being an asshole – you’re meant to laugh at the bad person, with the bad view. But then people become caught up in arguing that the view they forward is the point of the joke. That there is one interpretation and the one they wield is the correct and harmful one.

(There’s also a whole extra nest of ‘this media is enjoyed by people it affects, but not all of them’ which I don’t want to get into).

Dumbledore’s Orchy

I kind of already want to apologise for that post title. Moving on.

Writing advice time. Specifically, writing advice about signalling characters of diversity. I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to me talking about Harry Potter as a universe, but one of the complaints I’ve had is of what I call ‘Dumbledore Diversity,’ the notion that an author can, post-fact indicate the orientation of a character that is never otherwise signalled in the media, and that isn’t, in my opinion the same thing as writing media that has actually included marginalised people.

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Good For Goodness’ Sake

Motivating a heroic character well ‘is hard.’ I say ‘is hard’ because if I say, up front, it’s easy, and you’re a bunch of shameful, pathetic cynics, I’ll look condescending, even if that’s ultimately how I feel about this bullshit.

Media I watch lately has featured an enormous amount of templated storytelling and one of the template points that’s become worn so deep it’s now basically a groove is the protagonist’s motivation is overwhelmingly linked to someone important dies. It’s usually a woman, either a lover or a child. I considered, briefly, making a little gif supercutting together every single game, movie or tv show I could think of in the past five years or so that used this trope then realised it’s enough of a percentage of the media output I partake of that it’s gagworthy. Even stuff I like a lot does it.

Looking at you, Dishonored.

Anyway, point is, that it’s a really common motivator, to the point where it’s basically unexamined. In the classical arc of the Hero’s Journey, which really is storytelling 101 for people doing a large, multistage production with a three-act structure, one of the key points is the Refusal of the Call – ie, the point where the protagonist declines to go on the journey. This is a useful story device for showing that the narrative has resistance to it, and that there are more complex things going on in the hero’s life than just compliance with the story. It is an opportunity to represent that the call, the heroic action, is a choice, which is more important than destined compliance. It’s also a chance to show that the destind action won’t just happen without them – that the hero’s inaction would lead to problems.

This means that for simplistic writers and boneheads and cynics, clearly, the only option is that heroes don’t want to be heroes and don’t want to do anything. It’s seen as relateable that heroes don’t want to be heroes. That is, when presented with the opportunity to do the hero’s journey, most people would say ‘no,’ until something so dire – the irrevocable death of a beloved one – pushes them into action.

This is dumb, and it paints a worldview of heroes as glum people who don’t have any reason to like what they’re doing. It makes the action of being a hero – of being powerful, capable, survivable, important – as an annoying imposition on a life of happy potato farming. No doubt this plays into a protestant ideal of being content with your lot – heroes are just wishing they could get back to the dull drudgery bullshit of your 9-to-5, let me tell you.

The thing is, the refusal doesn’t have to be ‘I will not do anything at all.’ It can be ‘I will try this other method that won’t work.’ Or ‘I will focus on this different set of priorities.’ Or ‘I cannot make this decision for myself and must comply with an other.’ Or even ‘I can’t yet see a way I could do this.’ They are all ways to illuminate character, arrest the narrative briefly, and none of them require the murder of a woman only to provide motivation.

Interestingly, the movie Hercules does use the murder of a woman but it’s in the third act, in a way to intensify and narrow the focus, to make the stakes that were global personal, and that’s another, different problem. The Last Of Us is similar, though much closer to the end, and the threat of that death. But anyway.

When you paint heroes as being unable to be happy being heroes, and when you create a world where nobody would, with power, act in a way beneficial to others without it instead speaking to some trauma, you first reduce all heroics to emotional selfishness, and dissolve the idea of heroics as meaningful. Second, it’s so fucking repetitive.

There are worlds full of injustice and by creating characters who only care about it when the injustice directly impacts them you are suggesting that we should only care about things that directly impact us. You drag heroic aspirations down to our level, instead of elevating them, and you do it in the name of a cynic’s idea of realism, that there surely could be no reason a person might choose to do the right thing at all.

Instigatory Events and One Stone

As a matter of structure, stories are meant to happen in a world. They happen in the context of a place with some degree of homeostasis: There is a natural order, a way things are, and then this order is disrupted, leading to the events of the story. I feel that in a good story, there are as few of these disruptions as possible – that a good story is about how a minimal number of disruptions re-contextualise existing tensions and operating order into the path of what we call the narrative. The Netflix series Stranger Things is a good example where one major event happens and everything else is just reactions to that event, or reactions to reactions to that event. Everything is in a stable loop until the event, and then that event results in the greater narrative.

Now, I’m going to give you a chance to bail out on this reading because SPOILERS FOR ONE STONE. And I mean it, this is a pretty big spoiler, as in ‘you can read the whole book and not realise this is in there.’ I’m going to briefly outline something about One Stone I was thinking of in this vein: Continue reading

Remix Theatre: Ghost In The Shell

Whooehee, going to step on some landmines here.

Source: Kotaku
Source: Kotaku

Basically, I don’t want a live-action American-made Ghost in the Shell movie. I think that it’ll be bad, and I think that in part because I think that the process that goes into making movies isn’t really very good at making movies I like. I think that the process that creates movies in America is a process that produces things like The Last Airbender and Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice as a stated purpose, and good movies that I like as a sort of accident. Even movies that are adaptations that I like (like Watchmen or V for Vendetta) kind of have to be ‘the stupid remix’ of what they’re adapting.

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Gravity Falls


Hey, why not let’s talk about something I really like. And I really like Gravity Falls, which is a cartoon show made by Disney, seemingly under a sort of duress. I mean, it’s a strange little piece of what I guess I can only really call rural urban fantasy, with a modern-day setting, complete with smart-phones and cars and despite that, it successfully manages to weave a multi-series conspiracy theory narrative that pulls together all sorts of wonderful stories from a variety of American folklore sources. I mean we’re talking alien crashes and roadside attractions and just general, all-purpose the weird and unsettling and paranoia-fuelling –


I have such a hard time talking about how good this show is because there really isn’t anything like it. I’ve called it glibly Tween Peaks, and I’ve invoked The X Files while talking about it but that doesn’t do the show justice because it’s so much smarter and so much better than both Twin Peaks and the X-Files. It’s coherent and it’s layered and its aesthetic is soaked through the whole thing, with this sort of beautiful postcard letters-from-the-road streetside ridiculousness. Rather than ignore the obvious and immediate concerns of the story space, like we do in most conspiracy narratives (why aren’t there any pictures of this), Gravity Falls uses its aesthetic and style – a small American roadside town – and its tone – comedy – to reinforce it. It’s a town full of weirdoes and that weirdness is part of the script. So much of the narrative folds back on itself, it’s just so dense with rewatchable traits…

And it’s also a super-sweet story about a wonky, fractured little family. It’s about a girl going through a boy-crazy phase, about a boy struggling with ideas of masculinity and family. It is also so enthusiastically itself. Even its cringe humour comes from a place of love.

So I guess what I’m saying is I really like Gravity Falls and wish I was better at saying that.

Success! And Not!

Yesterday I offered the incredibly nebulous and not at all satisfying off-handed comment that ‘success is complicated’ which can go into the pile along with my similar expressions like ‘success is random, basicallly,’ which I’d like to expand on now as a sort of signal of hope for the people around me and as a way to tangle with my own success, or rather, my own grotesque lack of it.  The challenge in addressing this is that when put to it I’ll wind up talking about things I do like and things I don’t like and wind up saying something rude about a piece of media you do like, and I know that tends to upset people so if you don’t want to hear me being mean to books or games or tv shows, maybe just head somewhere else and chill out for a bit. Anyway. Continue reading