The Alabaster Sock

We Will Fight the Threat with Fighting

Posts Tagged ‘Writing Problems’

Posted by Matt on June 2, 2011

(I found this draft floating around on the dashboard. Apparently I wrote this in September. Wow, how did it get lost in the shuffle like that? Weird.)

I like to think that I’ve created an uneasy alliance in me between pessimism and optimism. There seems to be elements of both whenever I react to something. As much as I tend to hate humanity, I can’t give up on it; I don’t see the point.

It’s pretty obvious to anyone looking around with a critical eye that the world is in shambles, and it’s very unlikely to get any better. The cheaters have jury-rigged the system so they can get as much as they want when they’re winning, and when they lose they get a clean getaway (this is what I get from reading Paul Krugman’s stuff). The people who can call them out are either in on the scam or are too obsessed with little comforts for them to ever risk them for something better. Everything people seem to do to try and help out the situation, especially in poorer parts of the world, seems to be temporary, or may end up making things worse; and the people who end up doing most of the ‘helping’ do it out of a sense of patriarchal duty brought upon them by their vast, often undeserved, wealth. And the people without the same wealth? They could care less about starving people in Africa; they have their own problems to deal with. Not that they could do anything the way most of society is set up.

The observation that people are paranoid, violent, stupid, and hateful? Mostly true. You could give us all the wondrous discoveries that will make our lives better, and someone somewhere will find some way to use it to screw everyone else up. People ruin everything.

And there’s no refuge in the past, either, as many deluded people seem to try to find. It was just as bad back then, if not worse in many regards. Think your idyllic childhood was the norm? Trying looking outside your privileged corner of the globe.

So, all this stuff seems to add up to an irredeemable portrait of the world we live in. So why do I hate misanthropy so much? Well, because it’s an idiotic response to the problem: you’re adding to the problem. You ARE the problem. You are worthless.

My philosophy is this: just do what you can do. Does it matter if it seems pointless? It’s better than doing nothing.

(That’s it. I guess I can understand why I ultimately abandoned this post. I was trying to show why I decide not to give up when everything is shitty…but who cares? Even I don’t care that much. I think I still have some uneasiness when writing about real world issues, as if I’m afraid of coming off as an idiot (which I’m pretty sure I do anyways). Lots of generalization, lots of oh-it’s-so-serious-but-I’m-not quips, some amateur sociological and psychological observations. Not a whole lot of new ideas being shared here, either. All in all, a mediocre post.

But what’s more likely: me deciding to give up on this because it wasn’t very good, or because I was afraid? There really wasn’t much for me to be afraid of – if anyone actually read this sucker, why would they get mad? It doesn’t make any real points, good or bad. A backlash against a high school blurb like this is incredibly unlikely.

Maybe I was just bored with it? Maybe I found something else to talk about? Maybe I really did just honestly forgot I started it at all?

In any case, it’s not a particularly good post. So no one was missing anything while it sat, unloved, in my blog’s guts. But here it is anyway, in all its glory.)

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Posted by Matt on May 22, 2011

…and while I’m complaining about television, I got another issue.

Despite being heavily based in genre fiction, in books, comics, games, and movies, I have a hard time getting into most genre television. Most of it is because of the length issues I talked about the other day (and although many are not so heavily plot-based, most series since X-Files have story arcs). There’s something else, though, something that I think is far more ingrained in today’s genre TV conventions.

I have never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer for an extended period of time. I may have seen a few episodes here and there; in fact, the only season I have any real exposure to is the first one, which contained episodes about giant praying mantises and hyena people that I’m sure most fans are wont to forget (the only other episode I can remember watching? One that featured John Ritter as an evil robot. As far as I’m concerned, this is what Buffy is, a show about giant praying mantises and evil John Ritterbots). I do know many people who have seen all of it, and love it, and evangelize it. This audience kept a cult show on for seven seasons and a spin-off, and it has acquired a bit more cultural cache because of that. It has, really, become an influential force on the world of genre fiction. That’s where my problem begins.

Now, I’m not going to dismiss Buffy or its fans; I have no reason to, as I have not been presented with anything that says the show was particularly bad. But I have become quite aware of the show’s, and Joss Whedon’s, storytelling tics from exposure to fans and critics online. Since that awareness came, I have begun to see them everywhere. The show may not have been a cultural force, but it was a nerd cultural force, and so the nerds with a creative drive start getting their work out there, it’s influence spreads like a plague.

But what is this influence that haunts me? I think it boils down to the following recurring qualities:

1) General cheapness, with little or no desire to make up for it visually
2) Snarky dialog coming from all characters
3) A strong sense of ironic detachment

The first is more or less out of the creator’s hands; TV budgets are notoriously minuscule. Which is generally no excuse for lame direction, which is an epidemic among genre TV. Budget or no, bad action is bad action, and it’s not like its impossible to make something LOOK good on a small budget.

The second and the third are tied together, and this is what really gets me. It’s a nerd thing; they want to like the things they like, but they can’t look like they take that shit too seriously (even when they do), because well…it’s silly stuff. I know it’s odd to think of nerds having any sense of social awareness, but it’s there, every once in a while. What it does is when these types get a hold of entertainment, however, is make a contradiction.

Now, having an ironic, or less-than-deadly-serious take on genre conventions is not in itself a terrible thing. It can be done right, and has. The problem is that…everybody’s doing it now. You can’t have wizards or vampires or aliens in anything without at least one character who thinks the whole thing is a joke. But then the story plays it mostly straight otherwise, so any sort of commentary or comedic value is removed. It’s having your cake and etc., is what it is. These writers really do love stories with vampires and wizards and stuff like that, but they know that most people think that shit is stupid. So, they make this show that basically says “Here’s a monster, but just between you and me, this is really pretty dumb! Keep watching anyway” It feels a bit dishonest to me.

I think a lot of this comes from comics culture. I’m sure most of the people who write genre television was, at one point, a Marvel or DC reader. By the mid-90s, all the kids and teenage comic readers had vacated superheroes, leaving the long-time readers to hold the fort. Being adults, they knew that if other people found out they still loved stories about men in gaudy costumes punching each other, they would be ostracized…moreso. So they started that ironic detachment, mocking most of what had built the superhero comics up until that point: the silly adventure stuff, the world domination plots, the super pets. Then these same guys went on to be the writers of the comics, and they brought that sensibility to the books themselves. Superhero comics have yet to recover from that incursion of irony, and even the movies have yet to really capture the kind of grand cosmic weirdness that they were capable of 25 years ago (both Thor and Green Lantern seem to be getting closer, though).

In fact, it really seems that in the last decade, all the mainstream comics have essentially become genre television in ink form. All above features I listed above are there, in addition to things like a focus on ongoing story arcs, and even the contradictory desire to be both shocking (usually via character deaths) while maintaining the status quo (because change makes people feel scared). As I mentioned, some of this stuff originated in comics and comic readers, so it’s all full circle. It’s worth mentioning that many comics writers in the mainstream today either moonlight as television writers, or seem to desperately want to be (I don’t remember where exactly I read this, but I remember someone saying that Brian Michael Bendis, for example, seems to want to write crime or espionage thrillers, but life dealt him superheroes instead). So there really is no mystery to why all this is going on.

I just don’t really like it. It’s not the type of writing I can really enjoy very often. It gets tiring. You just want them to commit to an idea; either be a full-on comedy making fun of genre tropes, or just write a story using those tropes (hopefully in a creative way). The closest thing to it on my regular viewing plate is Doctor Who, which while not completely serious, is still pretty devoted to its sci-fi ideas, which I find enjoyable more often than not. The funny thing is, the original run of the show is one of the things that I think a lot of genre writers aspire to, but are forced to distance themselves from because of its (perceived or real) cheesiness. The new show embraces its past, but has still taken in what has changed within the world of genre TV within the past two decades, so it ends up avoiding the major shortfalls of both eras. It’s a nice balance, one that I hope to see more of.

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Posted by Matt on May 19, 2011

You know what kind of bothers me about storytelling in games? When done ‘right’, it robs many of the characters of agency. That, to me, makes the whole thing less interesting.

Maybe I’m alone here, but when I read or watch something, a narrative, I kind of want it to be about people who aren’t me. I like to see creators create a glimpse of people who will experience different things than me, or who experience the same things as me, but react in a different way. It’s a sort of educational or mind-expanding exchange going on there. A testament to the breadth of humanity. You don’t even need to like the characters – if you can understand them, they can still be interesting.

Gaming is an interactive medium, obviously. The point of it is that YOU are in control of the action. One of the most frustrating things about games as a storytelling medium is that most developers seem to forget that that fact, and so the story is basically a side-element, a thing that gets in the way of the interactive stuff. Cut scenes are the main offenders here – they are an outdated method of storytelling in games, and are akin to someone coming into the room and forcing you to pause the game and watch a DVD of scenes that might as be completely unrelated to what you were doing before. Games like Bioshock and pretty much everything by Valve have shown us how to do it right, so hopefully everyone will catch on sooner or later.

(As a sidenote: I’m not against all cut scenes in games. As annoying as they can be, if they’re at least skippable, I don’t really care. It doesn’t bode well if you’re telling a story, but for the games that really aren’t trying to tell a story, it’s acceptable. Same thing goes for text reading in games.)

But therein lies the rub: once the story in the game becomes completely interactive, I find it less interesting. Bioshock and Portal make up for a lack of real character with atmosphere, and great dialog. But the fact remains that once the protagonist loses the ability to make decisions on their own, they cease to be a character in the story and simply become…you. The argument can be made that putting yourself in a different situation and making you think about how you would act under those circumstances. But you know what? I don’t care what I’d do. What do I learn from that? Besides, it’s not really me making those decisions – it’s me with a bunch of additional factors that will likely decide your actions just as much as you will.

I don’t really know where I want games to go, then. I know they should embrace the interactivity, which is the one unique thing they have. On the other hand, to fully implement that interactivity, they have to remove one of the most important part of storytelling. Can someone strike a balance? I don’t know. I hope someone can, because I’d really hate to not be part of a new wave of good stories. But right now…my issue remains.

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Posted by Matt on February 1, 2010

Here’s my current dilemma: I have a series idea, see? I’ve been working on it for years now, and it has over that time slowly evolved into various things, although certain crucial elements have remained constant. I am at a critical point with it: at this time, I feel that its ideas are strong enough to run with and I could actually write it (although that barely ever happens, even with ideas I feel strongly about).

The problem is that there seems to be something off about it still. I do understand why this problem exists: essentially, while things have changed, ideas came and went, and structures differed, little bits and pieces from every iteration of the series remains, and it feels like a grab-bag of various ideas that don’t always work together, or make creating an internal logic for the thing difficult.

What it essentially started out as is a silly Simpsons-style comedy that a friend and I came up with. When he lost interest and I carried on with, it became a sort of repository for funny real-life stories and random jokes that I have accumulated over the years. Eventually, while some parts of the starting point were kept, stories and additional characters brought something supernatural to the setting of the show, although in a silly/surreal fashion. At first I embraced that, but then found that the logical ways that would pan out just didn’t jive with what I wanted to do. So things started to separate out a bit…my attempts to bring a sort of Venture Bros.-inspired aesthetic didn’t work out. Currently, a show that I see as a positive inspiration for it is The Mighty Boosh, but I still have the ‘wall’ in the show that separates the more mundane stuff from the weirder stuff. It often feels like I have two different things that have been crudely welded together.

I try to justify why there seems to be an inconsistent tone in the series to myself, but I’m not entirely convinced. The Simpsons oftentimes went in bizarre directions, although there still seemed to be a basic set of limitations that kept the whole thing grounded. The show could go from episodes about school science fairs and adultery to hallucinating space coyotes and becoming a world-famous barbershop quartet, and you could have jokes about talking dogs and escalators to nowhere, and it all felt like it was one coherent show nonetheless.

Some parts of my series feel like episodes of South Park (the main characters find problems in a regular area of life and end up meeting wacky characters in the process and reacting accordingly), others are super-grounded and based on weird, dark humour (the main characters are forced to stay in the same room while waiting out a heavy storm and slowly go insane; or, a character is maltreated and everything bad that could possibly happen to him does), and others are way out there (an entire story based on obscure Beach Boys trivia, parodies of Digimon and Nicky Fury, Agent of SHIELD, the fact that I have a Dr. Doom-inspired supervillain as a recurring character). I just feel that I need to develop these ideas a bit more before I can find a way to make them a coherent whole. I mean, it’s not impossible for such varying stories to be brought together, but I still feel I need to have more confidence in the thing before I really take the idea to the next next level.

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