some of my evaluative patterns

At the beginning of 2008 I threw together a list of 28 things I found myself saying over and over in my Calendar articles: things I like, things I don’t, things that seem to me like good rules for writers to follow.  The order was basically random, but as I have since referred to most of these by number in later articles, I guess I’m stuck with it.  In the intervening years I’ve added a few more, so I guess it’s good that I had no particular order to begin with because trying to figure out where each new item fits in thematically would be a pain in the ass.

The first of three patterns on the importance of surfaces.  Yes, the deeper aspects of a work (ideas, structure) are important, but the surface is what the audience is most immediately interacting with.  And in a written work, I will forgive a lot in exchange for a memorable sentence.  On the flip side, if the prose is boring, those other aspects had better be awesome.

Similarly, unappealing art in a comic tends to be a deal-breaker for me.  Everything else about the comic could be brilliant, but if I hate the way the noses are drawn it’ll be hard for me to be a fan.

And while I have a whole pattern below (#34) about how uninterested I am in the specifically cinematic aspects of film form, I can certainly be wowed into liking a film more by beautiful or even just striking images.

By contrast, trying to evoke gorgeous landscapes and the like in prose is extremely difficult.  Long descriptive passages very rarely work for me.  My eyes just bounce off them.

But let’s move beyond the surface.  Non-fiction, in particular, must have a clear structure.  The whole point of non-fiction, I would argue, is to organize information and thereby aid the reader in understanding it.  A book may be full of interesting data, but without a framework for it, I find that not much tends to stick.

Non-fiction also tends to fall into the trap of failing to communicate with the reader.  All too many writers, especially in academia, act as if they’re programmers in 1979 trying to fit an entire videogame into four kilobytes.  Write to communicate; don’t just densely encode information for storage.  It’s hard to escape the feeling that these writers are trying to convince the reader that they’re smart.  But a good non-fiction book makes the reader feel smart.

Just as non-fiction writers often need to unpack things for the reader, narrative writers should usually resist the temptation to summarize.  It’s one of the most basic rules: show, don’t tell.  If you find yourself writing, “Alfredo defended himself bitterly. The other council members pitched in with their opinions.”, go back and try being a little more concrete.

While I like non-fiction to have a clear structure, in narrative works I often like structural tricks.  It is wonderful to think you’re watching story X and then discover that all along you’ve really been watching story Q.  Even a crazy left turn at the end can be a real treat.

However, twists only work if you have some investment in the story being twisted.  Twists like “the world of the story isn’t real!” fall flat if that world never felt real in the first place.  The same goes for sleight of hand involving story elements that never registered.  “That guy was actually an enemy all along!” “And, uh, who was that guy again?”

Many stories these days are told out of sequence.  That can be cool.  But a non-chronological story still needs to be good enough that the audience would find it compelling if told in sequence.  If there’s nothing to the story other than the way it’s told, why bother?

One trick I see less often is the creation of a false ceiling.  False ceilings are risky, but are among the most rewarding tricks a narrative can achieve when successful.  For instance, when a character initially seems to have a very narrow emotional range, it’s very powerful when that character escapes that range.  An even bigger gamble is for an entire work to seem bad until vindicating its wince-provoking beginning with the revelation that, yes, it was bad on purpose—​more specifically, that it was accomplishing something important to the story by being bad.

Related to the idea of the false ceiling is a phenomenon that I once called “the redemption of the ludicrous”.  The redemption of the ludicrous is wonderful.  It involves revisiting a work that is either for children or just plain not very good and turning it into a respectable work for adults.  (A lot of superhero comics fall into this category.)

A mild form of the story‑X-story‑Q phenomenon I mentioned above is genre blending.  The most basic version of this is a blend of comedy and tragedy.  Comedy and tragedy can and should coexist.  Life, after all, is pretty funny from moment to moment but then heartbreaking when you step back and look at the big picture.

On to content.  One of the best things a storyteller can do is thoroughly think through the premise.  I love it when a story starts to unfold and it becomes clear that not a single angle has been overlooked.  The best science fiction tends to fall into this category.

However, I tend not to like science fiction very much as a rule, because, at least in my experience, the characterization tends to be weak.  The rule the SF writers I’ve read tend to violate is this: don’t treat characters as sets of traits rather than as fully realized human beings with unique life stories.  Why map out an cool alternate world and then populate it with types rather than people?

I’ve mentioned some things that can keep literature from working very well.  Some say that literature never works, and create piles of words that aim to deconstruct the very notion of literature as anything more than the freeplay of signs or some such crap.  These are the worst.  Aim to fail, and you will; you will prove nothing thereby.

I’m not a Christian.  I consider Christianity, and all Abrahamic religions for that matter, transparently wrong and unworthy of consideration.  Stories that are about exploring these religions—​as things to actually believe, that is, not as sociological phenomena—​I therefore want nothing to do with.  (I once bailed on auditing a class on the modern novel when the professor spent one of the early lectures going through a story and pointing out all the parts that obliquely referred to Jesus.)

This pattern used to say, “Don’t speak the subtext!”  It argued that subtext adds richness to a story, but that a lot of authors appear to be worried that the audience might miss it and therefore short-circuit the subtext by blurting it out.  You can really undermine a story by telling the audience everything you’ve just shown, I argued.  But I’m taking that one back.  Richness is a fine quality for a story, but so is impact, and impact depends on first-time readers or viewers not having to piece together key elements of the story after the fact.  Sometimes you do in fact have to spell things out!

Some stories exist purely in order to trot out characters who essentially say, as a Lyttle Lytton entrant once wrote, “I have ninety minutes and lots of unpopular opinions, so let’s get started.”  Let’s not!  If you feel like writing an essay, be honest and write one instead of putting your essay in the mouth of a character (and then have other characters talk about how great that character is).

Some books do the opposite, using characters not as mouthpieces but as anti-mouthpieces to beat over the head.  Piñatas don’t make good characters.  If your story goes “a character says stuff I don’t agree with, and then the narrator talks about how vile that character is”, reconsider writing it.

One of the major strengths of film as a medium is that it can make even outlandish things seem as though they’re really happening.  I’m not talking about special effects here, but the simple fact of fleshing out a story with sets and actors and stuff.  So unlike Mike D’Angelo, who seems to have a penchant for movies that blur the line between reality and artifice, I tend to think that movies should save the theatricality for the theater.

Old movies tend to be more theatrical than more recent ones, and their conventions strike me as foreign if I’m feeling charitable and wrong if I’m feeling grumpy.  So in general I have a hard time relating to older films, which feel to me like artifacts of a distant, inaccessible era.

As long as we’re talking about foreignness: I grew up in California, and to me, Britain is a foreign country.  The fact that British people and I happen to speak variant dialects of the same language doesn’t make the UK feel like home.  I have much more of an affinity for Canada or Australia than for Britain.  Britain I would class alongside a country like Japan: familiar as a developed country that has had an influence on my culture, but still, not my culture.

But hey, going to foreign places and times can be fun!  Geographically and chronologically grounded narrative is great.  I often like stories that evoke a specific place and time, even when they’re not places or times I would care to visit in real life.  Much of what I like about them is not the vicarious tourism they offer so much as the acknowledgment that everything happens in, and is affected by, its setting.

Films are so good at conveying places and faces, images and sounds, that often narrative doesn’t just take a back seat but ends up in the trunk.  Movies and television series tend to be experience delivery systems more than they are stories.  It’s two hours of dinosaurs, or girl‑girl swordfights, or daydreaming about a manic pixie dream girl having a crush on you, loser that you are.  Whether it’s soulmate porn or torture porn or food porn or whatever, the stories matter as little as they do in actual porn.

If you’re going to be an experience delivery system, at least deliver the experience.  Movies (and stories in general) shouldn’t be coy.  If you’re going to make a movie about, for instance, people getting high and fucking, well, then, you should probably show people getting high and fucking.

There is a point at which “clever” devolves into “cutesy”, and cutesy is death.  This can mean trying too hard to jazz things up with wordplay, or going overboard playing postmodern structural games, or hitting the FDA limit for whimsy.

The last pattern in the original batch builds on many of those above.  A text’s awareness of its shortcomings does not make those shortcomings okay.  It’s the old “It’s stupid, but it knows it’s stupid and has fun with it!” routine.  If you know your project has a problem, don’t cover your ass by commenting on the problem.  Fix it.  If your book is boring, having characters comment on how boring everyone is doesn’t make the boredom easier to bear. If your characters are annoyingly long-winded, having them chuckle about their prolixity doesn’t make it better.

Storytelling is about communication, but dreams tend to be meaningful only to the dreamer.  Film is a visual medium, but dreams tend to be a tissue of internal states that can’t be seen.  Narrative is a web of causality, but in dreams the links between cause and effect are tenuous at best.  Therefore dream logic is the enemy of narrative and should be avoided, particularly in movies.

The prose in a written work doesn’t need to be completely transparent.  I’m all for style points.  But the meaning of each sentence should be transparent.  No colorless green ideas sleeping furiously.  If the world of the story is sufficiently surreal that some strings of words might need a bit of setup, do the setup first.  If it’s full of homcom slugs and lo‑index sub‑subems, recognize that just dropping those terms before explaining what they mean creates a great temptation to bail.

A lot of stories rely heavily on keeping one or more characters in the dark about things the audience knows.  This is supposed to create suspense, but it just makes me want to shout the secrets at the characters in question.  Suspense doesn’t heighten attention; rather, it creates impatience, which dampens the effect of what goes on until the secret is revealed.  I want to know what will happen next, not when the characters will catch up to what I already know.

I don’t remember why I thought I needed to make a whole new pattern for this, since it’s pretty much covered by numbers 7, 18, and 19, but since I’m pretty much stuck with the numbering, here it is: Some stories exist in order to convey ideas.  Great!  But those stories should illustrate their ideas; don’t just stick the ideas in the characters’ mouths.  That doesn’t mean that characters can never say anything of substance.  But the things a character says should tell us something about that character—​and “in agreeing with me on this vital political/philosophical/etc. issue, my character proves to be a right-thinking individual” doesn’t count.

I’m quite fond of the uncanny valley between realism and fantasy.  I like fantastic milieux to be treated naturalistically, with careful attention to mundane detail, and I like real-world stories to be full of people with extraordinary qualities and abilities.

There are certain media in which form interests me.  Interactive fiction is one, though I have little patience for it as a member of the audience.  Comics is another, though I seem to have settled into a pretty rigid style in my own efforts in that medium.  But the specifically cinematic aspects of film form don’t particularly interest me.  Any movie whose chief raison d’être is to explore how to convey something with a camera is pretty unlikely to be my thing.

A story should have a beginning, an ending, and a planned middle, not a beginning, possibly an ending, and an indefinitely drawn out and episodic middle.  The latter structure is endemic to American television, which is one reason I don’t have a TV.

Many authors have attempted to demonstrate the boundlessness of human potential by writing stories in which human potential is boundless.  I once read a book that argued that you could fly around like Superman if only you could, like, free your mind or something.  It proved its point by telling the story of a guy who freed his mind and thereby gained the ability to fly around like Superman.  The problem is that fictional examples don’t prove anything.  You don’t actually prove the existence of time travel by writing “I have the ability to go through time, he suddenly remembered while at a bus stop near a tree.”

Closely related to patterns 29 and 30 is this one: when the logic of a story deliberately breaks down in order to convey a character’s madness, my ability to get anything more out of the story than “I am looking at ink marks on a piece of paper” breaks down as well.  Prose that reflects a character’s lost grip on reality will also lose me.

One sign that you might be onto something good is that when someone asks you what a story is about, there’s more than one answer.  Integrating multiple story ideas, each of which could plausibly be developed into a stand-alone narrative, can have great results.  (It also makes it exponentially less likely that someone will scoop your idea.)

An author’s job is to generate content, not the illusion of content.  Characters will often make references to things that have happened to them; stories work better when, even if we don’t know what a character is talking about in making such a reference, we have the sense that the author does.  (A corollary to this is that references to earlier moments in a story are more effective than references to backstory that we’ve never seen for ourselves.)

Many filmmakers have a penchant for presenting scenes that are meant to make viewers scratch their heads and ask, “What’s going on here? What am I even looking at?”  Moments like these can have powerful payoffs, but every moment of confusion that elapses in the meantime is unpleasant.  In general, a storyteller’s goal should be to make the audience wonder what will happen next, not what is happening now.

In any medium, both story time and real time contribute to the feeling of how long events last, but real time generally contributes more.  It takes serious talent to develop a character in a feature film, because even if you say that twenty years have passed, it’s very hard to buy that a character is a whole different person from half an hour ago.  On the flip side, one day of story time can feel like the makings of an epic when it’s split into two issues of a comic book with a 28‑day wait in between.

Though part of my objection is that it doesn’t jibe with my experience, love at first sight, especially in movies, feels to me like a narrative artifice, dictated by the constraints of the medium.  Real love develops over time, but time is a resource feature films have in very short supply, so in place of those weeks or months of growing affection they substitute meaningful stares.  I can’t get on board with a story’s insistence that two people were meant to be together if they haven’t even had time to get to know one another.

I confess that I have written more than my share of meta stuff, and am even guilty of the exact thing I am about to complain about.  But it gets tiresome to read books about writing, to watch movies about filmmaking, to listen to songs about performing music, etc.  “Write what you know” is a good rule, but it works better if you know something other than how to craft this particular type of creative work.

I’ve read everyone from Vladimir Nabokov to Mike D’Angelo scoff at the notion that a story needs sympathic characters.  But I have to confess that a character I love, or at least feel that I deeply understand, is often what separates a work I adore from one I merely respect. 

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