Category: Writing

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

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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).

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

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

Tell Queer Stories

Whoah, haven’t done this in a while.

So earlier this morning I may have made an angry tweet that apparently a hundred of you thought was pretty cool even though some of you do not know who I am or have no reason to know who I am or in some particularly odd edge cases, may have me blocked on twitter, which is a little weird, but anyway the point is, today I got mad about how ‘trans folk’ problems are almost always ‘cis folk’ problems. Like ‘bullying’ is not actually a problem of the weird kid with the gawky teeth, bullying is the problem of a bully being shitty to someone and not being given any reason or incentive to stop doing it, but fixing that problem is often hard and doesn’t work so we instead I dunno, teach the victim kung fu and that creates a satisfying story we can hang our collective moral consciousness on.

When it comes to issues of trans folk I, as a cis folk, do not seek to devalue experiences that are wholly trans folks’, like I understand a lot of trans folk have a reason to pee a lot and that’s probably not a byproduct of anything cis people do as much as it is a function of hormones, but what cis people do do is, like, almost everything else. The things like suicide rates, mental illness, PTSD, social ghettoisation, fear of going out in public, fear of sexual assault, fear of trans people, fear of associating with trans people, etcetera is all functionally a byproduct of cis people doing things to make life harder for trans people, sometimes in really invisible ways (“Hey guys!”) and sometimes in really blatant shitty ways that we try to pretend are about something else (lookin’ at you North Carolina and the Pope).

The thing is, I know what it’s like to have had a moral foundation of my life built on hating other people, because it was basically all we were good at when I was a kid, and I was so good at hating people I could even improvise reasons to hate them, and attach that to a list of silly Bible verses like some sort of mortifying horribleness scavenger hunt, especially since there are some great catch-all arguments in a book that old and that poorly edited. Then when I got out of that environment and realised a lot of that hatred was directed at myself I kind of realised I needed to get to the root of why we actually think of things as good or bad and then slowly come around to ways to fix or address that problem because I knew I was pretty heavily fucked in the head.

Anyway, one of the things I learned through this, particularly summarised by Dr. Professor Luke Galen (a professor at the Grand Valley State University, which is weird because I’ve never heard of Grand Valley State but whatever) is that most people make moral judgments to justify emotional reactions. Most often, the thing that really trips people up when they regard a moral action isn’t someone’s context or their intentions it’s our initial gut feeling of disgust, and disgust comes in a lot of really silly ways because disgust keys off socialisation and personal self-image. There are a lot of guys who are totally okay with gay marriage when they’re being asked about it by a cute woman who are against it when they’re asked about it by a big hairy dude, and even more dudes are uncomfortable with it when it’s asked of them by a guy they can see as their personal superior

Note that this is a byproduct of how we tie the sexuality of women to a commodity and suddenly the idea of two women kissing is seen as a commodity men can consume and that’s not good either but the point is that these things flow not from a reasoned philosophy or, in many cases even a religious textbook but from a personal experience of finding something icky. And you know what a lot of people find super icky? The Non Standard Queers.

I know full well that once you kinda fall into a queer society you will wind up getting steadily more and more contact within that so you’ll eventually joke six months later when talking to me that you forgot heterosexual cis men even exist as actual human beings, but for a lot of people outside of queerness, they don’t have a lot of identities or humanity they can attach in their minds to people who use nonstandard pronouns or any of the off-the-shelf genders, and for anyone who jumps out of a gender box, the main place they’re going to think of that is, well, probably these days if we’re lucky, SheZow and if we’re unlucky, Buffalo Bill.

For me personally understanding queerness came at first by connecting to people, becoming their friends, then learning about their queerness. It humanised ideas I had no understanding of, and it then let me slowly come to terms with them not as things that gave me a gut reaction but rather as people. I keenly remember a queer girl telling me once that after we were done talking, she had to explain to her Indonesian mother ‘transgender’ in a language that had literally no adverbs and used repetition for emphasis. That really echoed with me personally because I too had to once have a conversation with my dad for which neither of us had language, and again, I do not seek to claim the struggles of trans people for my own struggles, but I can say that some of the notes struck harmonies with my own. It let me translate the experience of other people into the experience of mine, which gave me empathy which helped me realise I was not dealing with some assault on my own identity or disgusting pile of teeth and hair and flesh, but rather a person and it was my responsibility to recognise that, not their responsibility to assuage my fears.

I bring this up not because I want to get lots of smooches for my great tweet all over again but rather to put a call out there for the creatives I know who are Some Variety of Queer who are trying hard to make things. I know a lot of soulful, thoughtful, caring queer folk who want to make things and then seem to resort to writing A Queer Perspective On Blank or A Memoir Of A Queer Trans Girl or whatever and it is fine to write those things if you would like to write them, but.

But.

If you want to write a story about a girl like you or a boi like you stopping at the gate of the Star Pillar of Eternity, turning back and saying to eir partners, “I’ll see you three later,” before hefting a giant laser pistol and diving in to do battle with the Capitaliser, a ninety story tall robot made entirely out of bitcoins, you should feel free to do that too because representation of queer people in media is important not just because it gives you a voice but because it lets you see you can be heroes. It lets the people who also feel powerless who are not like you see you as people and it adds another way that people can humanise and understand characters. When people realise that it doesn’t matter if He She Or Zir are the one who pulled the trigger and slew the Diabolical Museum Magnate, it will be easier for them to realise people exist.

I have not ‘done my part’ by including trans characters in my work, though so far all my major works have sought to include a noncis person at least. I just know those types of people exist, thanks to other people bringing them to my attention and I include them because not including them would be pretty weird.

You don’t have to write miserable plodding memorial pornography. You can write about lasers and gunships and dinosaurs and shamans and fistfighting superheroes and all of that stuff because you know the stuff you love and you’re allowed to build in that space too. There are pitfalls – and success is, basically random – but please, please, please, remember that creative work and media are places we practice ideas. The people who read memoirs are either in a place to seek them out, or doing it for a class assignment. I learned first about what a racist chucklefuck I was by reading and comparing storybooks. I learned about trans women because I talked with a fan of Ranma 1/2 writing her fanfiction. And there are a lot of cis people out there and we don’t get a monopoly on the cool, fun kinds of story to tell.

NB: This Isn’t About You

Sometimes I’m struck by my need to talk about an idea that sits in the back of my head, which lurks on the edges of an idea spurred by someone else, and someone else, and something else, this coalescing kalaidoscopic notion that owes its genesis not to a person or a thing but to the myriad experiences of my life, but where I fear that if I post about it on my blog it will be seen – perhaps reasonably so – as an example of using my blog as some sort of long-form so-there no-response alternative, the slamming of a door in the face of someone who is sure I’m yelling about them, instead of rather the natural flow of notional detritus from someone dedicating themselves to recording and testing and improving the way their ideas are expressed and tested on to a page in some way, and creates the problematic gulf of trying to prove to a person who’s already mad just how much what I just said is in fact about what I was talking about, and not actually, really, honestly and secretly about you.