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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 by 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 96% of our DNA. But here's my problem; we only have a degree of separation of 4% from these creatures, yet that 4% 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 4% 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 (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 other, 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 the 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. The equivalent of 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 frenzies 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.