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Sunday, July 21, 2019

Humor, Tragedy and the Dynamic Story (Part Four)

“The longing for Paradise is man's longing not to be man.”

Milan Kundera

Part Four: The Human Condition and Subtext / Context

This post is going to be interesting.

Its flaws are beautiful. That is why you should break pottery on purpose.
There was this one particular book that stuck with me; it was Man and the Natural World by some obscure author from the previous century whose name I can't bother to look up, but here's what was great about that book.

It broke down the earliest origins of mankind from thousands of years ago, and one thing it made clear was where mankind stands existentially. This post might be a bit religious, but I'll mostly be exploring ambiguous themes of creationism rather than just shoehorning any one religion's themes into the text; that being said, even if you're agnostic / atheist, the central ideas are no less applicable because of it.

Anyway, in most monotheistic (and sometimes polytheistic) religons, there's one central theme, and that's the tiers of creation, which are as follows:

 The Divine, Mankind, and Animals.

It works like this: The Divine, which would include God (or gods in most ancient theology), angels or direct servants of God, and any other heavenly hosts as they may be called. The thing with The Divine in this view is that they are blameless, perfect by every metric, or at least physically. For example, in Biblical history, 1/3 of the angels rebelled against God, including Lucifer, which is very not-perfect.

But physically, they have no flaws or ailments. No disease, sickness, perverse thoughts, anxiety, depression, acne, injury or pain, etc. Their mental and physical health doesn't exist because they don't have a corporeal form.

Also, they don't have hormones or instincts. Unlike animals, their body doesn't affect their mind, or vice versa. The problem with animals is that their mind is at the mercy of their body; when their body suffers, it directly affects their mind. This applies to people too, but more on that later.

However, with The Divine, their motivations are singular and unaffected and worldly or tangible things. Chemicals and hormones cannot affect them or their resolve, they aren't motivated by nicotine addiction, or sex addiction, or anxiety, or serotonin. Nothing that physically exists in the forms of hormones, chemicals or dependency on certain physical sensations, could affect them.

For it is as Nietzsche said, "The mind is the plaything of the body."

(Okay, I stole that from the Alita manga, and I don't actually read philosophy very much, but we can pretend that I'm some deep, philosophical student who sips tea and wears a monocle [even Rich Uncle Pennybags doesn't have that] while using big, resplendent words that make me sound like a walking thesaurus, and not just a degenerate weeb.)

The animals, on the other hand, are the exact opposite.

They are essentially bags of meat that rely purely on instinct or physical motivations like food and sex. Some of them don't even feel pain--like jellyfish--but others are a bit closer to human, like dogs, elephants and dolphins, but this is because they're intelligent and have emotions that most animals can't or don't have, but that being said they are still far from human (but that doesn't mean they can't be your best friend, because humans are overrated).

Now, where does humanity fit in with all of this?

Man and the Natural World paints a picture where mankind is smack in between. Divine beings crammed into meat suits with brains that demand food, water, and possibly drugs and sex or any other thing it might be craving.

But here's the biggest misconception I hear with that; the idea that humans are animals (because we have a name in the "animal kingdom"), but we're just smarter. A lot of people--especially the young and naive--seem to think that humans are nothing but smart animals. But there are problems with that line of thinking.

For example, not very much separates the primates from the humans; after all, we share 99% of our DNA. But here's my problem; we only have a degree of separation of 1% from these creatures, yet that 1% difference somehow contains all of our ambitions, dreams, aspirations, rational thought, morality, dignity, sense of justice, and values such as monogamy, health, etc. Not only that, but we can grasp abstract concepts. The brain of a primate--or any creature for that matter--is extremely complex, yet as closely related as the primate brain is to our own, they can only grasp concrete concepts such as utility in tools, and could never fathom the idea of something they can't see, like air, mathematics or the motivations of another person (primate).

There is so much that elevates us above the primates that exists only in that tiny 1% difference; and not all of my readers are going to be religious and that's quite alright, you don't have to agree with me and I'm not gonna shove my beliefs down your throat or anything, but it's my humble opinion that God created primates as a mocking parody of mankind. It seems adequate to say He created the apes and chimpanzees knowing that some 18th century explorer somewhere was going to stumble on these hairy imitations of humans trading bugs and sex and throwing their feces at each other when they got annoyed. I swear, primates are like a Monty Python skit making fun of our entire existence, and the fact that scientists took these creatures so seriously and, not only missed the joke, but started studying these creatures believing them to be our ancestors, must be wildly hilarious to anyone else who holds the same view.

One of my favorite ways of describing where I think mankind fits in all of this is the Kite Analogy.

Let's say that the Divine was the sky, and the things of this world were the ground. In this scenario, people would be kites, billowing in the wind and reaching as far up as they can, but forever tethered to the ground by gravity, flesh, hormones, etc. Only kites are fickle and they get tangled up, and sometimes Jimmy lets his go and it floats off, even though you told that little punk four times already not to let it go or this would happen, and now he's crying because he lost his kite but you don't feel sorry for that little loser at all because you warned him a bunch of times and this is what he gets, but I digress.

Now, I think good writing is capable of unraveling all of the complexities that stem from that sort of idea. Nothing is entirely what it seems, and there's layers to every person as well as their interactions with each other and their environment. One of the simplest ways to drastically improve writing is through subtext; to summarize, subtext is simply the conversation that isn't being said.

One of my favorite YouTubers is The Closer Look who used Quentin Tarantino's dialogue in Inglourious Basterds (I don't have bad spelling, that's how the title of the movie is actually spelled, but there's like a 70% chance some random dude is going to PM me telling me I spelled them wrong anyway so this whole sentence is probably useless) as his explanation for subtext, but there are many other excellent examples.

One of my personal favorites is in Tarantino's 2015 film The Hateful Eight, which, in my opinion, is one of the most underrated films ever made, at least dialogue-wise. While I adore all of Tarantino's work for the most part, I was just so impressed with how he handled The Hateful Eight that it really made me reconsider everything I knew about well-written dialogue. That YouTuber I told you about, "The Closer Look," mentioned one of the scenes in the beginning of the movie when the characters first meet each other, but I'll be focusing on something that happens near the end of the movie.

Now, a quick disclaimer, I cannot and do not recommend this film to everybody. It's pretty gritty and vilely inappropriate at times, especially with all the gore at the end, but by God was it a glorious movie.

Also, massive spoilers for the entire movie, so if you want to watch a western-murder-mystery type movie blind, I'd recommend watching The Hateful Eight before spoiling it for yourself. Honestly it's impressive how Tarantino managed to make an entire western movie take place basically just inside a single-roomed cabin and somehow made it super interesting the entire time.

Alright, moving on.

So in The Hateful Eight, there's an old man sitting inside the cabin when the main characters arrive; an old general for the South who survived the civil war. When the friend of a black man approaches him, he refuses to look him in the eye and says "You're a hyena, I have no desire to speak to you."

The MC (there's a few MCs, but this is one of the first we meet) replies that he's been called worst and walks off.

It seemed odd that the old man refused to talk to him or even look him in the eye, but not so odd that we couldn't accept it. However, at the end of the movie, it's revealed that the brother of the female hostage was hiding under the floorboards with a gun pointed up at Old Man Smithers, and he gave him specific instructions not to talk to the bounty hunter, or else he'd blow his brains out.

This makes for fantastic writing because it shows that Old Man Smithers wasn't just a cranky old fart who refused to talk with anyone associated with negroes. While Smithers is a racist, he does chat with the black man later on (Samuel Jackson) later on in the movie, begging the question, why would he chat with a black man like they were friends but refuse to talk with the bounty hunter associated with him? It just didn't add up.

So when we find out that he was being held at gunpoint with instructions not to talk with the bounty hunter, it places that entire sequence into a new context that changes our perception of it. When we first watch it we assume he doesn't walk to talk with the black man's friend because he's a racist southerner, and when we rewatch it, we already know that he's being held at gunpoint and isn't allowed to talk to the bounty hunter, and suddenly all the nuances of that scenario are revealed. Suddenly we see his refusal to talk to the bounty hunter as well as his almost scared demeanor in an entirely new light.

A good film or story is one that can change context on a whim. Most new writers (I was guilty of this with my first novel) try to throw plot twists and surprises at us by digging up something out of the blue or retconning new information in. That is NOT how good writing works.

Instead of throwing new situations or simply concocting new "unexpected" (usually these are random things that, while they are unexpected, feel out of place or don't fit in the story) events, we should change, not the situation, but the context of the situation.

Revealing that Smithers was hiding a criminal under the floorboards, and that the criminal was holding him at gunpoint and letting him live in exchange for his silence, completely changes the context of the encounter with the bounty hunter without changing the encounter itself.

The situation itself hasn't changed at all, but our perception of it is completely altered.

This is a great example of the "Bomb Theory." The bomb theory goes like this:

Let's say there's a movie where two gentlemen are sitting at a table, and they chat for 5 minutes and suddenly a bomb goes off.

The audience would be surprised for a second, but it would feel so random and out of place that it wouldn't be easy to take a scene like that seriously.

Now let's say that the camera panned down and revealed a bomb under the table, and the timer said it would go off in 5 minutes.

That changes everything.

In the first scenario, the audience would be bored to death watching characters chit-chat about sports for 5 minutes, and then they'd be surprised for a second when the bomb went off. But, if you showed them that there was a bomb under the table at the beginning of the scene, suddenly that boring scene is a suspenseful one. For five minutes straight the audience would be screaming in their heads at the characters, thinking, Don't talk about baseball, there's a bomb under the table!

Now, The Closer Look and Nerdwriter use the Bomb Theory example to teach about building suspense; watching two guys talk about baseball knowing there's a bomb under their table is far more suspenseful than just watching them talk while not knowing about the bomb.

However, while that can be used to build suspense, it can really be applied to anything. By selectively choosing to reveal some pieces of information to the audience that the character's don't know, you can alter the context of anuy situation to completely change the viewers previous assumptions about how things would happen.

Another scene in The Hateful Eight that uses the bomb theory is when it's revealed to the audience that someone in the cabin poisoned the coffee and only the hostage saw who did it. So the audience knows two things: someone poisoned the coffee, and that the only witness is someone who would benefit from her captors dying and thus has no motivation to squeal on who did it. Now, the thing is that it would be interesting either way. If we found out the hard way that the coffee was poisoned, it would still unravel as a mystery as we try to figure out who did it. But when we know that the coffee is poisoned before the characters do, it adds a layer of suspense as we not only wonder who did it, but wonder who's going to drink the coffee first and die. We see characters pick up the pot and start pouring themselves a cup, and we're thinking to ourselves, Don't drink the coffee! We see a couple of characters who start drinking it and at least one or two who almost drink it but don't.

The Closer Look uses Tarantino's table scene in Inglourious Basterds as an example, but I think a fun example of literally using the bomb theory is in Arrival. Arrival is a brilliant alien-invasion movie unlike any o,ther, because it isn't actually about invasion but instead focuses entirely on communicating with and exchanging ideas with extraterrestrials.

However, there's one scene (mild spoiler), when the linguist--Amy Adams--goes in to talk with the aliens and find out why they came to Earth that uses bomb theory literally.

Just to reiterate, this is already an interesting interaction. Finally, after an hour and a half, we might get to find out what the aliens actually came to Earth for. But it's revealed that a group of soldiers went rogue and planted TNT in the ship with a 10-minute timer. By the time Amy Adams gets in the ship, there's only 4 minutes left on the timer before it explodes, so the entire time they're talking, we want to find answers like she does, but we also want her to GTFO before that bomb f*cking kills her and the scientist on board. They literally show us that a bomb is going to go off and that changes our perception of her interaction entirely.
As stunning as that is, get your asses out of there you morons!
Many of you might be wondering what any of this has to do with the human condition, but the connection is stupidly simple. You aren't limited to changing the context of a situation, or to building suspense; you can alter the context of a person's motivations or their entire existence within a story.

I'm very fond of YouTubers who write video essays like The Closer Look, but by far my favorite one is this one, where he breaks down the difference between telling your audience how to feel, and giving them a complicated, fully-fleshed out character with multiple layers and letting the audience decide how to feel.

He describes propaganda--that is, any story designed with the sole intent of making you audience feel a certain way about a real situation--as the "bastardization" of art. He goes on to say that great stories don't tell you, "This is good, and this is not," or "this is bad and this is good," etc., they simply say, "this is."

He uses food as an example; we usually think that propaganda has to be political or religious, but it doesn't. Anything can be propaganda. If the message of a story was, "Reeses Peanutbutter Cups are better than Kit Kats," then that would technically be propaganda, even if it's seemingly insignificant whether one chocolate is superior to another. Any story that throws genuine story-telling out the window to shove a message down the audience's throat corrupts the very nature of what makes characters, and their stories, compelling.

The Closer Look does use an example of bad characterization in the first half of the video, but what interests me most is the second half where he talks about The Red Baron from The Witcher 3 as an example of a complex character who is more than he seems.

I'm going to insert the video here and I recommend watching it before proceeding, because everything I'm about to say relies on the assumption that you've watched it, and won't make any sense otherwise. Linked below under the thumbnail.
Link here:

Now, if you only want to watch the second half of the video where he starts talking about the Bloody Baron, that's quite alright, but I can't recommend the entire video enough as it's good to get an idea of both good and bad writing to improve your craft, and this covers a large chunk of what the human condition has to do with the characterization of people in fiction.

The Closer Look used the Bloody Baron and Doctor Who as examples of covering sensitive topics like religion or politics, but it isn't exclusive to just sensitive topics; this is precisely what we as creators should use to depict any quality in a person.

This is a minor spoiler for my current manuscript Desolation's Reach, but knowing this won't change your reading experience very much so you don't have to worry about this tidbit soiling the entire story or anything like that.

In Desolation's Reach, there's a race of inhuman creatures called the Chaeklin who do unspeakably disgusting and horrible things, and for over 600 pages these monstrous beasts are demonized as despicably awful beings with no bound to their cruelty.

But then, in the final act, it's revealed that the history books haven't been entirely honest, and that the humans had previously held the Chaeklin in slavery, treating them like animals and working them to the bone, often to their death, in dangerous coal mines where their children were taken away and forced into the same slavery.

While one can try to make the argument that what the Chaeklin proceeded to do was much worse and more violent than what the humans did to them, the story never actually takes a stance or tells you who to side with. It presents the Chaeklin as initially innocent creatures who grew to resent their mistreatment so much that they eventually exploded and had enough, going on to commit atrocities that rival those of historical dictators like Hitler and Stalin.

It also deals with the idea of ancestry; the events of the story take place many decades after the Chaeklin revolution, so the Chaeklin who continue to commit these obscenities are not the ones who personally experienced prejudice, and the humans being murdered by them are not the ones who had enslaved them. On one hand you can blame the Chaeklin for their continued transgressions against mankind, but on the other it was the humans who started it, and what I'm hoping is that every reader will have their own opinion on the events of the story. I don't want them all to hate the humans or all hate the Chaeklin, and I don't want them to all come to the same conclusion or feel that the story itself takes a side. It really just presents everything that happened and... that's it. Everything else is up to the reader.

While some can try to draw conclusions between the Chaeklin and the slavery of Africans prior to the 19th century, it's actually focused more on themes of child labor from the Industrial Revolution and ancient civilizations like Rome, and whether or not violent retaliation to slavery is justified if it means committing atrocities against innocents in the process. Real life events would be things like the Spartacus Rebellion in Rome or the Haitian Rebellion is Haiti, both of which were events where mistreated slaves not only revolted and escaped, but rampaged and went on violent rampages after, leading historians and ethics teachers all over the world to debate over who committed the worst transgression.

In a way, I think we should present our characters the same way Richard Feynman presents science. Feynman once said, "Science is a key that can open the gates of Heaven, but the same key can be used to open the gates of Hell." Science doesn't tell you how to use it; the same technology used to carry man to the moon can be used to launch nuclear warheads at other nations.

When scientists and mathematicians learned how they could develop powerful long-range rockets, there wasn't anyone around to tell them how to use them. Some were used to go into space. Others were used to show off that the US and Russia could single-handedly end the world as we knew it if one of them got too cocky, and one day they might be used for real.

But when a man is sent into outer space, or if a warhead was ever launched at another country, you would praise / blame the people behind the operation, and not the rocket itself.

At the end of the day, characters, as well as people in real life, are rockets, and whether those rockets accomplish something great or something terrible, you can't fault them for being a rocket, because a rocket's sole duty is to fly, and that's it. A rocket doesn't ask itself whether it's about to see the stars or instantly annihilate millions of people when it's being launched.

I'm not sure if anything I said made any sense whatsoever, but I hope you got something useful, or at least mildly entertaining out of it.

As always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Humor, Tragedy and the Dynamic Story (Part Three)

“People don't expect too much from literature. They just want to know they're not alone with being confused.”

Jonathan Ames

Part Three: The Core of Dynamic Comedy 

I was considering doing one post dedicated to comedy, and then one dedicated to tragedy, but came to the realization that neither post would make sense without explaining the core idea first. I mean, what good is a nervous system if you have no spine? Think of this post as the spine of the topic. Or the heart? I know a lot of people refer to the core of something as the "heart" of it, but I feel like spine is a bit more accurate. But then again, the brain is pretty important too-- but I've never heard anyone say that something was "the brain" of something to refer to the most important part. Unless it was "the brains of the operation," but that refers more to the ideas behind a plan rather than the core concept of said plan. Although this makes me wonder if analogies referring to the core of something are limited to body parts.

What do you guys think, does spine or heart sound better? I suppose in extreme cases, a person might be able to theoretically survive without a spine (please don't quote me on this, I'm just an idiot), but no one could live without a heart, so maybe the heart is more important.

Okay maybe I should stop procrastinating and get to the point already.

That looks pretty important, let's go with that.
The thing to understand is that funny and sad are two things that go together miraculously well. I say "thing" because I''m not sure if "funny" is an emotion; at the very least it's a feeling, because we all know what it feels like to be rolling around in laughter, although I suppose "funny" is only used as an adjective to describe something that makes us feel that way, which raises the question, what is the "funny" emotion? 

Anyway, the idea that funny and sad go together like gasoline and fire is a concept that the likes of Cervantes and Jonathan Ames understood fully. They knew there was something exceptionally charming about things that are tragic yet hilarious at the same time.

Gonna use Don Quixote as an example because of course I am.

Good grief, I mention Don Quixote so often I should make a long-winded 15k word blog post about it like I did with Alita.

Oh no... now I'm thinking about it, and the more I think about it, the more I want to do it.

No, don't worry, I won't do that. I have better plans.

Alright guys, I'm going to tell you something but you have to promise not to get mad.

I'm gonna write a long-winded and boring post about Don Quixote after this.

You guys all saw it, I valiantly tried with all my might to resist. I did my best.

Moving on, the thing that made Don Quixote so famous was that it was both beautifully written yet was so unconventional. Don Quixote was written around the same time Shakespeare was growing in popularity, and most writers and playwrights by that time had settled into two narrow categories: comedy and tragedy. Now, comedy back then simply meant "a story where the hero succeeds" and tragedy simply meant "story where the hero fails." Technically, every story in history falls into one of those two categories.

Or do they?

(Play this music while you read for maximum immersion)

The thing is that many stories don't have a clear-cut ending where the hero succeeds or fails. Take Inception for example, where he spins the top to find out if he's in a dream or if he's in the real world, and the camera cuts off before you can see if the top stops spinning or not.

Now, a lot of stories combined comedy-- as in the humor kind-- with tragedy. Shakespeare was known for throwing lots of funny and inappropriate moments into otherwise dark stories, but what you rarely see is the inverse; a funny story with occasionally dark moments.

You see, when humor and tragedy are both largely relevant in a story, usually one dominates the other, and 9 times out of 10, it's a sad or emotional story with sporadic bursts of comedy.

But what happens when you write a comedy, something that's so well-written and relatable that it makes its readers / viewers laugh uncontrollably, but insert unexpectedly sad moments?

You get Don Quixote and Wake Up, Sir!

It's not just that-- it's the way humor and sadness interact with each other. Usually this means creating a funny set of circumstances but a pessimistic or nihilistic view of them.

For example, in Spongebob, as discussed in my Cartoons post, as well as Emp Lemon's Video, the main thing that made Spongebob resonate with millennials was the contrast between Spongebob's and Squidward's outlook of life, despite them both working the same dead-end job. Yet one thing I'd like to add to that is the notion that, not only is that dichotomy what made Spongebob great, it's what made it funny.

In Wake Up, Sir!, the circumstances that the protagonist Alan Blair finds himself in are hilarious and outlandish, but his depressing and bleak view of the world contrasts with the humor we as the readers experience. What this means is that his misfortune is our entertainment, his suffering is what makes the story funny.

Now with Don Quixote, it was the opposite. His life was completely depressing and inconsequential; he was a poor Spaniard who owned a tiny farm and had no real family or friends besides a couple of extended relatives who he hardly interacted with. But he was so batshit crazy that he thought the windmills he was fighting were giants, and that the sheep being herded by the shepherd were actually saracens or an army of enemies from some foreign nation, and he then proceeded to slaughter all of the sheep with a broadsword in one of the most morbid but wildly hilarious scenes in the entire 800,000 word book. Then there's his clueless "squire" Sancho Panza, being dragged along like a middle aged man on Ashley Madison, who keeps taking the blunt of all his master's fuck-ups and constantly wants to quit but has absolutely nothing better to do so he sticks it out.

There's even one scene where Don Quixote and Sancho Panza puke in each other's mouths, and I recommend the book just for that scene alone.

But what intrigues me is the ability for the story to switch between hilariously flippant and serious at the toss of a hat.
Aw crud, it landed all the way over there?

In one scene two guys are violently puking their sweet guts out into each other's mouths, and in the next the story is exploring heavy themes about depression, loneliness, suicide, unrequited love, financial instability, etc.

Great, now I gotta go get it
(How did Cervantes predict 2019 over 400 years ago?)

Now the thing to note here is that it's not a gimmick. A lot of stories might try to haphazardly throw in some random depressing shit into their funny story, or vice versa, as a half-baked attempt at keeping the reader hooked (looking at you Cassandra Claire) but this usually comes across as inauthentic and contrived.

What's that? Brittany and Brad are breaking up for the 4th time in the book?? And they got back together at the start of the next chapter each time they previously broke up, but this time is totally serious?
Yep, they totally aren't going to get back together next chapter.
Although with stories like Don Quixote, the change of mood isn't artificial or manufactured. It's developed naturally by drawing from the setting and events of the story. In other words, it grows organically.

This is the result of careful planning; in order for a story to pull this off, there has to be meticulous attention to detail on the creator's part. This means deciding before you start writing the story how the mood will change, and then planting seeds that can grow later on. This example shouldn't count because it hasn't been written yet, but this is what I'm planning for The Pen Pal. I casually mentioned it in a previous post (I talk more about this story idea than the actual book I'm writing, lol) and what I'm doing right now is planning where to plant the seeds in the first third of the book, that way later on I have material to work with.

One example from my work is drawing from relatable experiences in the real world.

(This is a minor spoiler for one of my future works, so if you don't want it spoiled, skip ahead to the SAFE marker.)

I noticed that a lot of funny stories usually have a small, and subtle element of mystery. In Wake Up, Sir! it was the slipper thief, and in Don Quixote- well, there were several in Don Quixote, but one of the bigger ones was if Sancho would ever become lord of an island one day like he was promised.

In The Pen Pal, I decided to insert an element of mystery at the beginning of the story by having the protagonist's friends notice a promiscuous woman. It starts with one of them smiling and saying, "See that piece of *ss over there? I snuggled that last night," and then one of the others chiming in that they did too. Of course this causes a small argument to break out, where both think the other is lying, only for them to realize that this woman actually had slept with two of the seven people at that table.

And, afterwards, they notice that every night of the cruise, she's hitting it off with a different guy, and come to the conclusion that she's a femme fetale, making rounds around the ship to seduce men and destroy their relationships. They come to this conclusion when they see her hitting on numerous married men.

But then, the plot thickens.
I love when the plot becomes dummy thicc

For you see, there is almost always one man seen conversing with her, and often these two kiss. Based on the way they act, and the fact that both of them have a wedding ring, it is possible to conclude that they are married!

So it is at this point that the two friends of our protagonist realize that she has been cheating on her husband with numerous men on the cruise ship, and that she must have pulled it off flawlessly if her husband still didn't know about it.

But that's not all; it is later revealed by one of the female friends that the husband tried to hit on her, and it is only after their burning curiosity becomes so hot that they can no longer bear it, that they get up and approach the woman directly asking what's actually going on.

It turned out the woman and her husband were in an open relationship, and were entirely aware of what the other was doing the entire time.

The thing to note with this is that it is in no way a part of the main plot, in fact it's barely a subplot. The story itself doesn't really explore this little tidbit very much, however it pretty much unfolds entirely through dialogue. Just little snippets of conversation here and there bring this subplot to fruition, and it is only one of many like it.

By planting the seeds of the "promiscuous stranger" subplot in some dialogue at the beginning of the book, I can clear the way to expand on it more later on in the story.

But after seeing how planting seeds early on works, you might be left with the question, How do I come up with this stuff? It's a lot more simple than you might think-- just work backwards.

The truth is, that most normal, ordinary stuff can be made interesting just by working backwards to create some sort of mystery or ambiguity about it.

(Minor spoiler here)

 For example, with the "promiscuous woman" subplot I mentioned, I could just have introduced a couple that was in an open relationship, but introducing them this way is much more engaging and interesting, even if at the end of the day the characters are still the same.


By working backwards, from the end of the story to the beginning, you can decide how to scatter clues and ideas as "seeds" to accomplish this effect.

No, not those, those only grow watermelons.
Now just to make something clear, this isn't something you only do if you're writing a mystery novel. While this is something you would do if you were writing a murder mystery, every story should utilize this technique. Pretty much every story does (or at least, should) have some element of mystery to it, because if you already know everything, why continue reading?

This is also how you utilize foreshadowing. It's easier to foreshadow events when you, the author, already know what's going to happen.

Now many people might say, "I don't need to work backwards, because I already know what's going to happen," but no, you sir are mistaken.

Even if you already have the ending planned out (and I hope you do because you probably shouldn't start writing until you've at least outlined the story), odds are it won't be exactly how you planned. Because there are factors in the first half of the story that you couldn't possibly keep track of, the end result will likely resemble what you had in mind, but probably won't be exactly how you initially imagined.

In my current manuscript Desolation's Reach, (it's about time I mentioned my WIP instead of just talking about The Pen Pal) I always had a basic outline from start to finish:

The main character is Cerres, he'll end up fighting three different "bosses," if we refer to the strongest enemy fights as boss battles, and then everything is revealed at the end of the book and the veil is lifted.

However, while I technically accomplished all of that in the completion of the first draft, it turned out way different than I expected.

(Don't worry, there's no spoilers.)

For example, I intended for there to only be two races in the story: the humans and the Chaeklin.

But halfway through the story, I realized that the history and world of Dormere was too rich and saturated for there to only be two factions in play, so I created an entire species called the "Airock" that would ultimately end up playing a pretty massive role in how the events of the story unfold in the second book.

I didn't know that the Airock would be a thing in the story when I initially planned out the basic outline, so the final product, while technically following the guidelines I set, was vastly different from how I anticipated, and that's why it's important to go over the story a few times from the end to the beginning and plant those seeds. Now that I know what role the Airock will be playing the grand scheme of things, I can go back and plant little seeds and foreshadow some of the events that follow.

By now I think I've exhausted this topic pretty extensively, so the last point I would like to make is this:

When you go back to plant seeds, don't just use them for mysteries or for foreshadowing; while those things are important too, the best use of this technique is to plant seeds for entire emotions. Not just events of the story or individual plot points, but entire sentiments and worldviews.

With the omnipotent control you have over your story, you can go back and plant seeds of sentiment
that will later grow into entire character arcs.

Let's go back to Zuko from ATLA for a second.

It's no mystery why so many people refer to Zuko as the greatest redemption arc in television history.

He went from a rotten brat who burned down villages to please daddy to a well-rounded and deeply flawed character who ultimately became Aang's only chance at defeating Ozai. We see the ultimate culmination of his story arc when he confronts Ozai in his chamber during the eclipse, and he has all the opportunity in the world to kill him while he's defenseless, but he merely says, "Because I know my own destiny. Taking you down is the Avatar's destiny."

And he was right, because if he had just killed Ozai on the spot, it wouldn't have ended the war. He would be seen as a traitor who murdered his own father for the throne, and his sister Azula would have taken over. Iroh said the same thing earlier when asked why he wouldn't face Ozai, when he said, "History wouldn't see it as bringing peace. They'd see it as a brother killing a brother for power, only the Avatar can kill the fire lord."

The thing with Zuko was that the sentiments were planted early on, mostly through Iroh.

We see early on that Iroh understands Zuko's drive more than anyone else, and probably the first solid example of this is when he talks to Zhao in season one about Zuko's past.

So in a way, Zuko's story arc begins vicariously through Iroh. Even if we don't have the full picture, we know enough to know that Iroh does, and it is through Iroh that the pieces come together.

I think one of the best ways to execute a more complex type of comedy is through tenderness. Shows like The Office aren't just funny, they're also a little sad, a little heart-warming. There are so many examples to choose from-- when Dwight reads Michael's recommendation, when Pam says goodbye to Michael for the last time, when Pam and Jim are both dating other people, and many others.

There's nothing wrong about making things funny just for the sake of comedy, but there's something intrinsically valuable in comedic moments that serve a bigger picture of different emotions.

That's all I got for you today.

As always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.

Friday, June 21, 2019


Oh, did you think I gave up?

Okay, I did kind of disappear off the face of the planet for a little while there, but here I am, Dylan 2.0.
My gift to the world. (Here's a hint: it's me.)
Well, I didn't change that much (or improve enough to warrant a new version) but we can pretend that that's why I was gone for so long.

Long story short, I f*cked up my car and started looking for a new job, which I acquired, and now I will make butt-loads of money.

By "butt-loads," I actually mean a pretty modest amount, and still much lower than is livable, but significantly more than I was making this last year. But if I have enough to buy overpriced coffee and Alita merch, and, you know, pay for emergency car repairs, I consider that filthy rich. They better start calling me Rich Uncle Pennybags because boy oh boy will I finally have enough money to stop hating myself. All I need now is a monocle.

Dafuq? He doesn't have a monocle? Dang Mandela effect back at it again.
Also, if we're being honest, I was also just kinda lazy. Not gonna sugar-coat it, I just didn't feel like blogging or writing much while I was job searching. But now that's all behind us; that was Dylan 1.0, and that poor loser had no management skills whatsoever.

So yeah, I've come back, like herpes, to blight the world with my unfiltered opinions and tomfuckery.

At this point, I'm just trying to make the text long enough to catch up with the bottom of the picture of Pennybags over there, because I just previewed the post and it looked aesthetically unpleasing to look at the way it cut off so soon, so I'm essentially just wasting about 10 seconds of your time (20-60 if you're slow) to make sure that this post is as aesthetically pleasing as possible. A small price to pay for salvation.

More posts coming soon, if you haven't all forgotten about me and moved on with your lives,


Edit: Nvm, the job fell through. My life is still as sad and pathetic as before.  And I don't have money bags.

Or a monocle.


Friday, April 26, 2019

Humor, Tragedy and the Dynamic Story (Part Two)

 “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

― Don Quixote

Part Two: Inner Turmoil

So I totally failed my "post every 2 days" goal, but that's not gonna stop me from picking up where I left off today. In the last post we talked about anti-heroes and non-heroic protagonists, but I'd like to expand on that by introducing a new concept; inner turmoil.

When I talk about inner turmoil, I'm not referring to tragedy. Tragedy comes as the result of external forces, or a massive failure of some sort, while turmoil is more of a chronic condition. I'm not trying to make it out that protagonists have to be miserable all the time, but that some level of turmoil exists. It's vital that it fluctuates, that at their peak they feel at ease and sanguine; but if your character is to be compelling, and their journey is to have any bearing on the reader, they have to suffer at least a little. It doesn't always have to be depressing or anything, it can be small things like in Wall-E when the ship takes off with Eva on it. (I keep coming back to Wall-E because it's so precious and I love it.)

One of my favorite booktubers is an author named Jenna Moreci, and while it certainly wasn't perfect, her book The Savior's Champion is the best example of a troubled protagonist I can think of. Her book Eve: The Awakening is also very good but I think TSC is definitely where she hit her stride. I won't spoil anything, but her character Tobias is a great underdog and the story just keeps chewing him up and spitting him out.

Now there is one thing we need to establish before we go any further- the dynamic between external conflict and internal conflict.

While one could try to argue that stories like TSC and Shield Hero are examples of external conflict- not internal- they're actually both.

While it is possible to have a character full of inner turmoil for no external reasons, that usually isn't very compelling unless you came up with something incredibly original that no one has ever thought of before.

This means that there has to be a relationship between the external troubles of the world and the way the character responds to them internally.

One of my favorite ways to create inner conflict is by forcing the protagonist to do something horrible with the consequence of not taking action being even worse.

Having your character do something that they really don't want to only because they're told they have to isn't good enough. Even if all of your characters insist that X action is important and that the protagonist has to do it, that's not a good reason. The simple solution is to force them to with factors beyond their control.

The best, most simple example of this is in Avatar: The Last Airbender during the Library episode. If you haven't seen Avatar, this is a mild spoiler, but I won't say what happens afterwards so if you ever decide to sit down and watch it the outcome will still be a mystery.

In Avatar S2 episode 10, they begin a search for an absolutely massive library containing information about the Fire Nation, when they discover that the entire thing is buried in sand except for the little tower on top, and they climb the little stone tower to descend into the library.
While they go inside the buried library to search for information about the war, the blind earthbender Toph stays behind to watch the main character's companion animal, a giant flying bison named Appa.

But while they're inside the library, two things happen simultaneously.

They break the trust of the spirit guarding the library, and he decides to sink the entire building all the way below the sand to bury them all; and while this is happening, thugs ambush Aang's bison Appa and drag him away to sell him to whatever nobleman or butcher will buy him.

Toph, who is blind, realizes that the library is sinking while everyone else is still inside, and roots her feet in sand and tries to keep the library from sinking with her earthbending.

But as soon as she gets a grip on the tower and slows down the sinking, the sand thugs approach from behind and start binding Appa in ropes in a muzzle, tying him down and talking about what they'll do with him.

Toph yells "Don't make me put this down!" and drops the tower for a few seconds to try and fight them off, but the building immediately starts sinking rapidly and she has to grab the tower again before it's completely buried in sand.
And then we see this heartbreaking moment where she has to stand there and do nothing as these people muzzle Appa and drag him away to some butcher or zoo where they'll sell him, and she just cries and whimpers, "I'm sorry, Appa...." as they take him right out from under her.

This was an amazing story-telling device because the two things happening simultaneously created this. If the library wasn't sinking, she could have fought them off, and if the library started sinking but there were no thugs, she could hold the tower up without any other issues.

But because both of these things occurred at the same time, she had no choice but to let them take Appa because the alternative- everyone inside the building being buried alive- would be even worse.

What's great about this method is that it's completely show-don't-tell. I have a problem with stories that tell the main character that they have to do X or Y will happen, but in The Last Airbender and many other good stories, we see that creating an external conflict where two or more things are happening simultaneously is the best way to force the character's hand and make them take action on their own conviction.

Another thing is that this scene was visceral. Normally when there's a big moment in a story where the protagonist has to make a hard choice, there's a big buildup to that decision and its implications, but there was no build-up or warning to this. We had no way of knowing that the spirit would sink the library as soon as they entered, and we had no way of knowing that Toph would be left to keep it from sinking while sandbenders kidnapped Appa right in front of her. It just came out of nowhere, yet it wasn't random or unrealistic. A lot of times writers and scriptwriters will try to throw in something random or retcon something in to create a dilemma (I'm guilty of this in ASH) but this scene didn't come across that way at all; we already knew the sandbenders were kind of scummy and were eyeing Appa earlier, and we knew the library was partially buried in sand, so when this scene happens it feels sudden and knee-jerk but not unrealistic or unreasonable.

While the setup is external, the situation creates inner turmoil because Toph has to stand by and do nothing while the sandbenders kidnap Appa. This is a simple example because there's only two options- save Appa and let the library sink or save the building and let them take Appa- but other stories do this in more complicated and nuanced ways.

I mentioned that Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames was one of my favorite books and that's mostly because it's a master of the nuanced inner conflict. This is because the main character overthinks everything, and even though the story itself doesn't provide all that much external conflict, it only takes the slightest bit of external resistance for the protagonist to be completely thrown spiraling into confusion and strife, and I love it. It's not completely generating internal conflict from thin air, but it's very resourceful at making conflict from things you wouldn't normally think about.

But the thing with inner conflict is that it can't be constant. There has to be highs and lows, good times and bad, and we need to experience them both equally in order to appreciate the other. You can't relate to the bad times if there's no good times, and if there's only good times we won't appreciate anything the protagonist has and neither will they. In other words, the protagonist should have something taken away from them.

Of course it doesn't just have to be the protagonist- when Appa is kidnapped in ATLA, Toph was just as hurt as Aang was, even though it was his animal companion that was taken and he's the main character.

This is an oversimplified example, but The Emperor's New Groove is a great template to use. He starts off as the king, or emperor if you want to be specific, and is turned into a llama and loses everything he had.

Of course, that's ultimately a good thing and his humbling experience is what makes him better to the villagers, but to him it just sucked.

A more serious example is Shield Hero (spoilers!). In Rising of the Shield Hero, Naofumi is summoned as the Shield Hero, meaning he can only use a shield and it's literally impossible for him to wield another weapon. All seems alright though, because each of the cardinal heroes gets to start with a group of capable adventurers who can fight alongside them, but then, because this show loves torturing Naofumi, not a single person voluntarily joins him. When he makes a big commotion out of it, a girl named Myne volunteers to join him, but of course she's just one person and all the other heroes get a large group of adventurers, but it's better than nothing.

Myne is cute, and she's nice to Naofumi, and she helps him get his basic abilities down with the shield and they buy a bunch of expensive high-quality gear together. Things are looking up for him.

But then, he wakes up in the inn to discover he'd been robbed, and all of his money, armor and equipment was gone- except for the shield, which can't be separated from his arm- and when he goes to the guards to alert them about the theft, they strip him and take him away in chains. They throw him to the ground in front of the king while Myne hides behind the guards, sobbing and crying that he raped her.

This is all unprovoked; he was nothing but good the entire first episode, and it ends with a false rape accusation and all of his equipment and money being stolen. He was already in a bad position with being the Shield Hero, meaning he can only fight with a shield, but it's infinitely worse by the end of the first episode, because now he has nothing, no companions to help him fight, no money or gear, and his reputation is ruined and the shop keepers and inns refuse to serve him because they think he's a sexual predator.

"Begone, thot!" the anime.
Now, this is all external, but it sets up everything else that will happen in the show including the internal conflict. Because of this single, devastating event, Naofumi goes from this wide-eyed, hopeful 20-year-old to a bitter, distrustful pessimist who doesn't trust anyone and won't hesitate to take advantage of others to give himself leverage over them. You could say in many ways he becomes an asshole in the second episode, but it's hard not to justify his mentality after what happened to him.

But even though he's kind of a jerk, we get to see the inner conflict he has and the resentment he's built up towards the kingdom for summoning him against his will and tearing him down the way they did. And the shop owners and innkeepers continue to refuse him service, and people continue to spread nasty rumors about him, and he continues to resent them. But this creates an internal conflict when he meets characters that actually do care about him and want what's best for him, because he's become so calloused by that first episode that he'll turn away anyone he thinks has suspect motives.

A similar example in ATLA would be Zuko. While it's not quite as extreme as Shield Hero, Zuko from Avatar goes through a similar experience.

His father never loved him and his sister Azula was always the favorite child, and when he spoke out against a general during a war meeting, he- a 13-year-old-boy- was told he would have to duel.

Zuko was willing to try to fight the general in a 1v1 duel, but when he arrived he discovered that he would be facing his own father, because, as the show put it, "When Zuko spoke out against the general, he thought it would be the general he would be fighting, but because he spoke out against the general at his father's war meeting, it was his father who he had disrespected."

When Zuko sees it's his father who showed up to duel him and not the general he argued with, he kneels down and begs for forgiveness, refusing to fight his father Ozai.
But Ozai tells him that he will learn respect one way or another, and when Zuko still refuses to fight, he horribly burns off a portion of his face and banishes him from the country.

He has nothing but a small ship and his uncle Iroh to keep him company, and a promise that if he captures the most powerful man in the world- the Avatar- that he can come back to his homeland.
Having everything he knew taken away from him when he was just a child, and being permanently, literally scarred, he becomes obsessed with capturing the Avatar and returning home a hero.

But even that is taken away from him when others from his homeland- like his sister Azula and his direct rival, Commander Zhao, take what little he has. Zhao tries to assassinate him by detonating his ship while he's still in it, and when he somehow survives his own sister tries to take him captive as a prisoner to stand trial in his homeland.

The situation puts him in a position where everything he knows and everything he wants are at odds with each other. What he wants is the Avatar, so that he can return to his homeland a hero, but no one in his homeland wants him. His own people and family banished him and tried to have him killed and imprisoned, and he goes through this struggle where he doesn't know what to do because his life goal goes against his own self-preservation and the way his own kind are treating him. They treat him like a traitor for not letting them imprison and kill him, and it reaches a point where he is so sick of being called a traitor for no reason that he actually does become one and joins forces with the protagonists.

And the whole thing with Zuko is that he's one of the villains in the first half of the show, but he is the way he is because of his turmoil and inner conflict, not because he's inherently evil. It's important that every character- good and bad- has inner conflict driving them, because even bad guys need to be human and fleshed-out. The thing with Zuko is that we hated what he was doing but felt sorry for him as a person. He wasn't evil, just confused and misguided and full of resentment and rage. But it's fantastic that the show was able to take a character like Zuko and give him a compelling redemption arc where he not only stops being the bad guy, but becomes a pivotal part of the MC's success. 

If you leave this read with anything, it's that there is a dichotomy between external situations and internal conflict, and that these things do not exist in a vacuum independently from each other, rather they rely on each other to keep the characters and plot going.

You need the external forces of the world you've built to shape the character you're working with, to set off a series of internal struggles that will drive them deeper into the thick of it.

As always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Humor, Tragedy, and the Dynamic Story (Part One)

“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”

Richard Feynman
Don Quixote by Adrien Demont, 1893

 Part 1: The Anti-Hero

One thing that I'm fond of in stories is a sense of wonder, defiant assertion in itself, and a feeling of fondness and tenderness.

Those were some of the very reasons why I liked Adventure Time so much, but very few stories can capture the essence of these ideas as well as Don Quixote.

After reading through it and starting a second reading just recently, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what made this story click, until I found this painting here on the right.

The writer of the post described Don Quixote as the "anti-hero" of the story, which is surprising because he's often referred to by literary giants like Stephen King as the greatest hero in history.

By definition, an anti-hero is a protagonist that lacks heroic attributes. So how then can someone who defiantly lacks such heroic traits be regarded as one of the greatest heroes of all time?

For example, Deadpool is a hilarious example of a complete anti-hero, but throughout the movie he keeps saying the same thing. "Don't call me a hero. I'm not a hero." And I'm sure most of us would agree. Deadpool is fantastic, but he isn't a hero. He's chaotic neutral at best.

But what makes Don Quixote any different? Could it be that he isn't actually a true anti-hero?


The author of the post I read was completely correct. Don Quixote is the personification of the anti-hero trope. He's someone who is, perhaps well-intentioned, but so delusional that any heroic notions he exhibits are filtered out by his ideological worldview.
Of course, this raises an interesting philosophical question. Is heroism defined by intention, or action?
Is someone doing good for bad reasons, like Deadpool, heroic?

And is someone doing wrong because of their twisted interpretation of their good intentions, like Don Quixote, a heroic person despite the end result of their actions?

There is no clear-cut answer, but there is something interesting.

It might be possible to be an anti-hero and a hero.

Here's why.

Deadpool is just as surprised as you are.
There are prerequisites- qualities or traits that a hero must have to be defined as a hero, and then there are associated traits. It's possible to meet all of the requirements without any of the associated qualities that usually come along with them.

In other words, heroism is not a package deal.

In my humble opinion, these two things are the only set-in-stone requirements for a character to be considered a hero.

1). Good intentions. Now this does vary, but not too much. For example, Deadpool just wanted to save his stripper girlfriend, which one could argue was a good intention. However I'd go as far to say that consistently good intentions are what makes a hero, not a self-serving one. While Deadpool is a fantastic fella, his desire to get his girlfriend back and reap revenge did not come from a heroic heart.

2). Drive. It doesn't matter if someone has the best intentions in the world. If they don't ever take action, then they aren't hero material. Which brings me to my next point...

Things that are not requirements for heroism:

1) Competence. That's right, competence doesn't matter. And Don Quixote is kind of the proof of this. It is theoretically possible for a hero to be terrible at their job, but that doesn't mean they don't qualify for being the Hero™. This is something only a handful of stories have explored. The anime series One Punch Man is wildly popular for this very reason. A lot of people don't realize it, but what makes One Punch Man so funny is that he meets all the criteria for being a hero- he is extremely powerful (overpowered, in fact) and has completely benevolent intentions, but sucks at being a hero.

For non-weebs out there, Hancock is another great example of this, and some might argue that Mr. Incredible in the first Incredibles movie is another, albeit to a lesser extent.

Don Quixote is a hero in every sense of the word, except he sucks at it. The outcomes of his attempted heroism reflect this.

In one scene, Don Quixote rides up through a dense wood on his donkey-steed Rociante, and hears the wailing of a boy in distress. When he arrives at the scene of the suffering, it's an indentured servant- only a young boy- being lashed with the whip, tied to a tree, by his master.

The boy cries for help fro Don Quixote, and the master quivers in fear when he sees Don Quixote raise his weapons and threaten to let the boy go. The boy explains that he messed up a job, and that's why he was being lashed, but his master hadn't payed him in weeks. Don Quixote forces the master to let the boy go, and Don Quixote commands him to pay the boy his wages, plus extra for the lashings, but the boy pleads with him not to leave. Don Quixote, being so sure in the obedience of the master, leaves anyway, and the master ties him back up and lashes him even worse than before.

He had the drive and intentions of a hero, but in his stupidity he not only failed to save the boy from the whip, but made it worse by angering the master who then took it out on the boy, saying, "Come, child, let me make sure that I owe you even more" before tying him back up and resuming the lashings.

I googled "folly" and this came up, so whenever you think of folly, imagine this duck building.
Now here's another thing that makes this type of character interesting.
In a way, I think there's a second type of anti-hero.

In my post about villains I talked a lot about stories where there is no villain. But, in some stories, the protagonist is their own worst enemy- thus raising the question of whether or not they are their own villains. In these types of stories, it isn't immediately clear whether there's no villain at all, or if the villain is the protagonist. Perhaps "villain" wouldn't be the right word, since a villain has to have a reason to hate the protagonist and hold personal malice against him / her, but in a way the main character can have a sort of duology where they are both their greatest ally and their greatest antagonist.

That's why Wake Up, Sir! is one of my favorite books, because Alan Blaire is his own worst enemy and I love it.

I apologize if this post seemed a bit short, but rest assured this is definitely the shortest piece of the 7-part series. You can expect the next part to either be posted tomorrow or the day after.

As always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.