Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Ain't No Party Like an Inaugural Post Party OR: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Pronounce Verisimilitude

"Doctor, Doctor! You have to help! I can't stop myself! I keep giving my opinion to people who never really asked, Making terrible internet in-jokes, and punctuating them with crudely drawn pictures! And the Cats, Doctor! I can't stop posting Cats!"

"Hmm...This is grave,"
Chin Stroking Doctors; The universally accepted sign of Grave. Also Mad Science.

"It would appear that you have...A Blog!"

"Give it to me straight, doc; what's gonna happen to me?"

"Well, the best case scenario is that you rise to some sort of vague, internet celebrity status and then vanish, never to be heard from again."

"And the worst case?"

"More or less the same thing, but you skip to the last part."

"That's terrible! Tell me there's a cure, Doc; tell me there's hope!"

"I'm afraid...It's terminal."

"That will be $1100"

It sounds ridiculous, but that's actually how it happened. He had one of those head mirrors and everything. It was all very official. 

My terminal illness aside, it would appear that you have indeed arrived at my dark little corner of the internet. Welcome! What? You want to know what it's about? Ha! Silly internet person; that's your job! This is actually a thing that, unlike nearly everything else about this project, I've put a lot of thought into. See; blogging is pretty much something I've considered since I found out it was a thing, and I was encouraged by sites like this one and this one over here; they had a good concept, a good stream of original content, and a good readership. The more I would think about it though, the more I would come across some very practical problems. For one; I had no clue what to write about. I don't have a weird job or a zany circumstance that would allow me to make astute observations, I don't have any sort of wide-appeal discipline (I mean come on; everyone loves cake), and neither my childhood nor my adult life have been interesting enough, even through the surprisingly generous lens of internet comedy. And I knew the price of not being able to come up with an interesting idea. That's how sites like This and This happen.

I like to think that he's disabled comments to hide the fact that there are none.

And so every time someone brought it up I'd think about it and come to this point and end up deciding against it, even though "lol, u really should write a blog! it would be soooo funny!" 

But not this time, no sir (or ma'am. Or...other). This time I had an idea; instead of banging my head against the wall of "WHAT DOES THE INTERNET LIKE TODAY?!" I'd cut out the middleman. I'd eliminate the guesswork. If you'll direct your attention to the right side of the page nearish the top, you'll see an email address that was created specifically to receive suggestions for next week's topic. I'm open to very nearly anything and (especially if it's a popular suggestion) I'll feature anything that seems like good blog-fodder, and don't think I won't stretch to meet that criteria (Pre-Empire English History! Yeah!). A slight caveat to that though; just because I accept a topic doesn't mean I'm going to say what you want, expect, or even agree with. You want a ferinstance? I'll give you a ferinstance. Say you email me saying "Tom! I want you to talk about all the benefits that can be found in pederasty!" Well, I have bad news for you; best case scenario, I'm going to bring up some very interesting things about the Greeks and the radical differences in societal norms. Worst case scenario, I'm going to make hilarious jokes at your expense. A lot. And I'm not known for being nice about it. 

Just don't be surprised when I do that, is all I'm saying.

So get on it! Email me a suggestion and I'll name you, if you like. That way you can show off to all your friends at the office that you got made fun of by someone you've never met before on the internet and it was damn funny, too.

As an aside, for those of you who still want to give your input but don't feel creative enough, I'll be posting a poll every week for the top four topics I've received so far. That way you can feel like you helped, even though you didn't do anything. Like sending a letter to your Congressman!

Now that introductions are out of the way, let's move on to the meat of this week's first ever post ever.

This Week's Topic is:

 This week, Lesley asked to hear a little bit of creative writing theory, specifically how to give stories the requisite length and depth to make people, you know, read them and stuff. 

I'm going to level with you, Internet; I chose this topic for a few reasons. One; it's a secret wish of a surprising amount of people to write a book/screenplay/what have you, but lack the direction, willpower, or knowhow to do it. That way this first post has a nice, broad appeal to anyone who's interested in maybe one day becoming famous while forgetting all the hard work it takes. The second reason is that this is such a broad topic that I can't really cover it all unless I write my own book (which I will not). This way I can still pick a topic I'm familiar with while still staying inside the parameters of the request. Yes; I have just relegated myself to a practice round. Give me a break; it's my first post. The third reason is that I'm a lit nerd and this is so far up my alley that I actually got the alley pregnant and it named the kid after me so I'd feel guilty enough to own up to child support every month.

You might say I have a complicated love life.

Source: Getty
Children born in alleyways are one thing, children born TO alleyways get all kinds of crap in school.

So for the purposes of this post, I'm going to broaden this from sheer prose (Books and stuff) to all forms of storytelling. Mostly because embedding pictures and videos in a text-heavy blog is fun! Embedding more text in a text-heavy blog is not. Also because despite the differences in formats, preparations, and presentations, the brick and mortar of fiction is basically the same composition throughout. You've got your setting, your characters, your dialogue (usually) and you've got to make it all believable.

That's what we're going to focus on, incidentally; believability. Making your world, your characters, and what have you seem real. More specifically; how other people did it first. See, fiction is one of those things where you really don't want to reinvent the wheel; just kill the guy who did and steal his design.

And by that I mean subject his work to critical analysis and apply your observations to your own work. Yes. That. Exactly.

For our first example, let me direct you to a film very close to my heart: Toy Story.


"But Tom!" You say to me as only a hypothetical person presenting a purposely flawed argument can, "I thought we were going to talk about believable stories. No one actually believe their toys are alive." And you know what I say to that, you fictional second-guesser? How many times as a kid did you barge into your own room hoping to catch your toys off their guard? Probably not too many because I made you up just five minutes ago to make a point, but I can tell you that I sure did. You see, in creating a believable work (or giving it verisimilitude, if you wanna use the big words), realism is not only not a necessary requirement, but in fact can be almost entirely divorced from it, if you know what you're doing. Hence; Toy Story. A movie with a plot that could not possibly come true, but because of the craftsmanship of the story, characters, and world, you not only could allow yourself to believe it, you wanted to.

How is this accomplished? Like nearly everything else in writing, mostly it's done in steps. Also like nearly everything else in writing, the order of these steps is generally entirely disregarded as anything but a polite suggestion. This post will focus on what I consider to be the best first step.

Conceptually, the best place to start first is in your world. While your reader/viewer/audience won't always be thinking about the world, it gives the greater context for why your characters do things the way they do and why things happen the way they happen. Sometimes, if you're nerdy like me and watch all the bonus features on your DVDs, you'll hear someone say something like "This world we made really became a character of its own" and this, to a greater or lesser extent, is what you're aiming for, especially if your world is one that doesn't actually exist. The most direct way to accomplish this is to give this world depth; you see this in Harry Potter with all the side literature Rowling wrote; a bunch of miscellaneous details that you'd never know about if you'd just read the books but are totally there if you wanna know more (Yes, I do have a Harry Potter Bestiary and the history of Quidditch, I'll own up to that right now.). None of this stuff is at all necessary to understanding the story, the characters, or the greater world, but if you want more, be secure in the knowledge that it's there. Similarly, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote entire languages to use in his books. Several of them. Languages with unique scripts that you can totally learn.

But lets say you don't have time/space to do something crazy like write up a whole language or imagine things that a large number of people will never actually bother to seek out. That's where you have to get crafty. Something you have to understand, Internet, is that storytelling isn't just about making stuff up. Sometimes it's about making up the fact that you made stuff up.

Yeah, kinda like that.

What do I mean by this? Simple; sometimes creating actual depth can take a backseat to creating the illusion of depth. Imagine you've gone to a play. It's the Sound of Music or some other Rogers and Hammerstein thing with a really big set piece. You go in already knowing that they didn't transplant some rolling Austrian Hills just to stage this show. Hell, at best you probably have a nice backdrop with some AstroTurf hills thrown in for effect. You know it's not real, but they've given you an illusion of realism that you'll accept or you'll spend the whole play as the asshole who points out stuff like that to his girlfriend which he only does to spite her because he hates The Sound of Music anyways. Let me tell you something friends, you don't want to be that guy. That guy is not getting laid tonight.

That went a little off-topic. Let's try again.

Ah, Good old Starship Troopers. These clips are fantastic and I'll tell you why; they create that very same verisimilitude that we've been looking for and they do it without a too terrible amount of side work. How? Simple; the creators used these clips to set the stage and give the greater context for the world the characters live in. Without them, you'd have an okay sci-fi action movie with a modestly uncomfortable fascist overtone, but with them, you understand that the Earth that Starship Troopers imagines is jingoistic enough to make Glenn Beck feel right at home. It makes the actions of the characters make more sense and helps you better understand Johnny Rico, the protagonist, as the square-jawed, vaguely Aryan poster boy of the very thing the film satirizes.

"No, seriously, man. I'm from Brazil."

Even though the movie is set in a world that we find largely unbelievable, we accept it because it all makes sense within itself, it's own context. Because we are made to understand that the society of future-Earth contains nearly comical levels of patriotism, we also accept that giant, semi-sentient bugs from outer space are throwing rocks at us. Our suspension of disbelief has already been subtly engaged by this prior farce and so we're just okay with it all. Further, one could even make the assumption that humanity goaded this alien race into attacking them as a direct result of the attitude these clips have set them up with. The point is, you don't have to create an entire world, just trick us into believing that where we are doesn't end at the horizon.

But I'm not done quite yet, because I've saved my favorite, and what I consider by far the best example of this quality for last. It's not a film or a book; it's neither play nor television show, some might even argue that it has an unfair advantage over the other examples because, by it's nature, it's a medium that sucks you into its world. Ladies and Gentlemen;

I don't mean just Skyrim; it's just really hard to find a logo that's simply "The Elder Scrolls" that also doesn't suck.

The Elder Scrolls, as a series, has created some of the most involved, intricate, and simply ginormous fictions I've ever seen. You see, it's what we gamer types refer to as an open world or "Sandbox" game, meaning that some time after the tutorial, you're sitting in the middle of the world and told "We'd like you to go over there there, but you know, whatever, no hurry." Every game has a Main Quest. Save the world type stuff; you're the Dragonborn/Nerevarine/Random guy who happened to get just the right cell, and we need you to save the world from an evil, world-eatng dragon/a daedric (demon) prince/the gates to Hell itself opening. It's usually fairly well done and entertaining, and that's good.

But it doesn't stop there.

Because, you see, there's also a collection of other factions; warriors and mages and assassins and thieves, who want you to join up and do some epic stuff for them, too. Most of these are also very well done, and a couple are arguably better than the main quest (Dark Brotherhood, I'm looking at you.)

But it doesn't stop there, either.

Because there's a bunch of individuals who've got problems that you can help them out with, whether it be reclaiming a farm taken over by Goblins or murdering a business rival, it seems like everyone's contracting out their dirty work to wandering adventurers in Tamriel.

But, wait, it still doesn't stop there.

Because let's say that you've saved the world, brought all the various factions into their own golden ages, and solved every minor problem that every single person has. There's still an assload of books, each of which contain interesting lore tidbits about the world. These are real books mind you, books that you can pick up and read and several of them, such as journals and letters, and unique, only occurring in the world once. Most of them go to maybe ten pages at most and the text is large, but don't let their individual size fool you; someone took the time to print out and bind all the books found in Oblivion, the second-most recent Elder Scrolls game. You know what?

source: Kotaku
He's got a pretty fucking big book on his hands is what.

But, I shit you not, it doesn't even end there because in every game there are hidden secrets. Places and things that aren't on the map, aren't part of any quest, and don't feature in the lore. Just little human touches; stories with no words or arcs, just what you can glean from what you see. Stuff like a dead troll under a bridge, clutching a poorly-spelled suicide note.

Or some hunters who apparently do nothing but chillax in a hot spring.

It's not just that these things exist in the game, that they're secret, or that there's so many of them, it's the details that go into each one. Once, in Skyrim, I found a tent on a beach (Northern coast, around Solitude, I think, for any other Skyrim players out there). This tent had two bedrolls right next to each other, there were some candles, a plate of sweet cakes, and a bottle of wine. This is an excellent example of good storytelling because all I had to do was look at what was in front of me to realize that this was probably a place that a couple of people (Or giant lizards. Or giant cats. Or any combination thereof.) got jiggy. To relate it back to verisimilitude; no one had to tell me what the scene was trying to imply and frankly, if they hand, it would have ruined it. I saw it, and by strategic placement of items that, together, held certain connotations (bedrolls, sweets, wine, candles) I was made to understand what they were trying to get across.  Similarly, a writer of any story should seek to show their audience, not tell as much as possible. A frontloaded narrative is nice and all, but simply giving the audience a context and allowing them to make their own conclusions draws them into your work more efficiently than all the preamble in the world. Granted, you're giving them a context that you specifically engineered to lead them to those very same conclusions, but then again, part of being good at storytelling is being good at being sneaky. 

Sneakiest Motherfucker on Earth.

To a certain extent, we see this in Starship troopers. At the end of the movie, they've neutralized and captured a brain bug which directs all of the other Arachnoids in battle, similarly to a queen ant. Neil Patrick Harris (Who is Psychic, don't ask, he just is) knowingly lays his hand on the creature and stares at it for a bit before victoriously declaring "It's afraid!" Everyone cheers in victory because they've just won a major battle for humanity and finally have the bugs on the run. Feel Good!
Only not. 
You see, I've left out a few key details. For one, this thing truly is afraid and the brilliant schmuck who designed it pulled nearly every trick in the book to make you empathize with it. It's got big googly eyes, it makes sounds that you can't help but identify as hurt and defenseless, and it truly is defenseless. It's one inborn weapon, a big spike that stabs you in the skull and slurps up your brain, was shot off earlier in the movie. Once the film establishes this bug as clearly helpless, you see it being pretty brutally tortured in the very next scene by scientists who apparently think that  "stabbing it with needles" will unlock the secrets of how it thinks. Why do they do this? Because the filmmaker wanted to drive home the suggestion he's been trying to insinuate into your head since the beginning of the film; maybe the human race isn't the good guy in this movie. 

Storytelling is a big subject and quite frankly, entire books have been written on the subject and even then not quite covered it all. Still, I hope this was an interesting look into the mechanics behind it all. Maybe, just maybe, if I've done everything nearly right, one or two of you out there will start looking for small stuff like some of the things mentioned here. That'd be cool. In fact, if you do, go ahead and share it. I'd like to know that this supremely long, ambling, collection of words did someone good.

Now finally, I leave you with one last lol.

Thank you, Goodnight.

1 comment:

  1. Even on writing do you write well. You should still write a book. But if not you can help me edit the book I am writing...if you want to that is.