Writing for webcomics
I am back to working on the comic. I have planned out the rest of the first chapter (which should run about 30 more strips, give or take a few) and pencilled the next six strips. But I won't be able to post the next strip until I get back to my scanner and webserver (i.e. the Mac on my desk in my apartment) next Thursday. Until then I'm in California for more planning meetings with Mozilla.
(Egads, what's that burning ball of fire in the sky? Oh, I guess that's the "Sun" that I've heard of. I guess here in California it's visible from the earth's surface.)
I want to talk a little bit about my method for writing the comic. The problem is how to capture the amorphous mass of Yuki-Hoshigawa-themed ideas that's swirling around in my head and turn it into a sequential narrative. (I'm not talking about writing dialogue, so much as just "deciding what's going to happen and in what order".) I've tried several methods before -- pencil in a notebook on the train, giant text file on a laptop -- but none of them has worked the way I wanted.
Finally a couple nights ago I discovered a method that works really well for me. I take a stack of 3x5 notecards and on each one I put a one-sentence description of one of the plot points or jokes that's floating around in my head. (Often the same idea could be either a plot point or a joke, depending on how it's played.) Then I go back through them and jot down the dependencies that each one has. By "dependencies" I mean, for instance, "joke X is only funny after personality trait Y of character Z has been established", or "plot twist A only makes sense after we know fact B about the setting".
So far I'm thinking about each index card as a single strip, but as I go through them again I look for places where two cards could be combined into a single strip. I feel that for a story to be tight and well-paced, every scene should multitask. That is, for a scene to pull its weight, it should provide at least two of the following:
- Setting or background details
- Character development
- Plot advancement
- Thematic statements
I feel that a webcomic has to work in two ways: First, the individual strips have to be interesting (especially if it doesn't update that often). Including two or more things from the list above helps make a strip that has enough substance to stand on its own for a while. But a webcomic also has to work as a continuous story when you're reading through the archives in a big chunk. So for overall story pacing, the comic shouldn't neglect character development for too long, or neglect plot advancement for too long, etc. The different aspects have to be balanced in the long term.
I'm not very good about following my own rules, yet. For instance, in my comic I've been neglecting "plot advancement" almost entirely. Go easy on me, I'm a beginner at this, and I'm figuring it out as I go along.
So, I go through all the index cards again noting which ones hit character development, which ones hit plot, which ones hit theme, and so on, and if a strip is only hitting one of these things, I look for a way to combine it with another.
Next, I can lay all the cards out on the floor in a kind of dependency graph, so I can see what strips depend on what other strips. I can see whether there are several strips that involve the same characters in the same place, so they form a natural scene. From there, I can start to think about what order they'll all be happening in, and try to arrange them so that there's some kind of rising action. This is where the mysterious skill of "pacing" comes in.
Finally, glancing over all of the index cards and their dependencies helps me to see whether I'm missing something. For example, I notice that the names of the people in the office (besides Yuki and Fudai) haven't been mentioned in the comic yet. Some of them are scheduled for character development of their own later on, so I realize I'd better start dropping their names into the dialog, wherever it's natural to do so, in order to get people used to the idea that they might be people with their own lives.
Does it seem weird that I use such an analytical, top-down approach for what's supposed to be a creative process? Well, that's just the way I roll.
So, now I've got the rest of chapter 1 plotted out on index cards. This has a couple of nice side-effects. When I feel like sketching, I can look ahead to the next strip that hasn't yet been sketched. When I feel like inking or writing dialog, I can look ahead to the next strip that needs that done. Best of all, I have a solid base for revising and planning things, which I hope ought to lead to the comic being much tighter from now on.
If I can just find the free time to actually get the damn strips done!
By the way, I've found the TV Tropes wiki to be an excellent inspiration for story writing. (The only problem is that reading it can be so addictive that I never get around to writing anything...) This wiki started out as a list of tropes that are commonly observed on TV shows, but it's grown from their into something much more than that: it's almost like a design patterns for storytelling. And that's cool.
I've also been much inspired by reading the director's cut of Narbonic. This is one of my all-time favorite webcomics, which finished its story and ended after a six-year run; the strips are now being re-run with commentary by the author. The commentary is full of insights. There's a quote I can't find right now, so I'll paraphrase it from memory:
"When I started doing a daily strip, I mistakenly thought my biggest challenge would be coming up with enough material. So I thought I had to use everything I thought of. If this story arc had happened later in the strip's run, I would have cut this particular strip without a second thought."
That is wisdom. Seems like a major part of writing is knowing what to throw away: you will always have more ideas than you can use.
Final link for today: It looks like this hasn't been updated in a while, but what a great idea for a blog: Your Webcomic Can Still Be Saved. Note that in Yuki Hoshigawa I have committed every single listed sin of ugly lettering and ugly dialog balloons. I'll do better in the future, I promise! I'm hand-lettering my next comic; we'll see if that makes the text look better.
Fear our big ornate letter M!
As I predicted, the Golden Compass movie was an embarrassment. I was in a mall with Andrew and Atul on our way back from the airport yesterday and we saw a poster for it and all said "Yeah, I know it's probably going to be bad, but we're here, so I wouldn't mind seeing it." Big mistake. Blah. Do not watch this movie.
They removed all reference to anything remotely religious; the bad guys are simply "The Magisterium". Not the Church. Oh, no, definitely not the Church, nothing to do with the Church, goodness me. Apparently the Magisterium likes to put big, cheesy, ornate, golden, capital letter "M"s on everything they own -- buildings, vehicles, jewelery, etc -- to identify it for the audience. It reminded me of how Dr. Wily in the Mega Man games puts his big "W" logo on all his stuff. It was very silly and cartoonish. I guess the director wanted a prominent logo which was Definitely Not A Cross.
The servants of the Church, in the book, are morally ambiguous and tormented men, wanting to protect people from the effects of sin, but trapped in a misguided ideology that makes them go too far in trying to do so. To say these nuances were lost is an understatement. The servants of the Magisterium in the movie are saturday-morning cartoon villains; they might as well be rubbing their hands together and cackling about how much they love being EVIL.
Even worse, though, was that the movie ends before the final, critical scene of the first book. It was a strange choice to say the least; I guess they didn't want to end on a cliffhanger the way the book does? Which makes no sense, because if they're intending to film the next book than a cliffhanger is exactly where they'd want to end, and if they're not intending to film the next book, then their story simply ends with most of its plot threads unresolved and its main characters riding north in Lee Scoresby's balloon. Their ending robs the story of much of its power, as the audience is allowed to walk away still thinking that [CERTAIN CHARACTER] is a good guy, and that [CERTAIN OTHER CHARACTER] is safe from harm.
Maybe they just wanted a "happy" ending, and didn't care what they had to leave out to get one? The irony is that the audience is in for Quite A Shock at the beginning of The Subtle Knife, assuming that The Subtle Knife ever gets made and that its plot is not so divergent as to be a different story entirely.
The fight between Iorek and Iofur also missed the point entirely. (Iofur is named Ragnar in the movie, and this change is one I can buy, as the original names were confusingly similar.) In the book, this duel is a fight between two ideologies for the soul and future of the bear culture. Will the bears maintain their traditions and be bears, or will they imitate human civilization and assimilate? In the movie, all that motivation was skimmed over, and it was just a brawl between two bears who want to be king.
Missing the point, missing the point, missing the point. I can accept that some things have to be changed or left out to make a movie, but geez, the movie spent like five minutes on the scene of Lyra crossing the crumbling ice bridge, which has no effect on the plot and could easily have been replaced with more character development. The fight with the Tartars dragged on and on, because the movie for some reason felt the need to show us the death of every single nameless Tartar. I started feeling bad for them, even though they were just supposed to be mooks. That's more time that should have been spent on making the bear-fight matter or making the Magisterium into better villians or showing us the proper climax of the story.
Or they could have dropped the witches. All their important lines were already cut, so the story wouldn't have lost anything further by having the witches left out entirely. I found myself wondering why they were there at all, since they added so little; they were there because they looked cool, I guess. Even Lord Asriel had his scenes cut down to the point where his reason for being in the story was unclear.
I can accept a story being changed and simplified for cross-medium translation, but what's left of it has to make sense and stand on its own. The Golden Compass movie fails, in all aspects except special effects, which seem to be the only thing that Hollywood cares enough about to put any effort into.
In conclusion: I am a grumpy old curmudgeon who hates movies and cares way too much about children's fantasy novels.
P.S. I just remembered what this movie reminded me of most:
this tongue-in-cheek article about "Hecksing".
Fictional cause and effect
I just had a thought about how fiction works.
It's like this: Every event in a work of fiction happens for two reasons. There's the real reason, and the imaginary reason.
The real reason is "Because the author decided it needed to go there, usually in order to set up something that happens later." E.g. the author decides that Dr. Doom accidentally leaves a clue at the scene of the crime so that the Fantastic Four will have a way to track him to his secret base so that the issue can end with a big fight scene.
The imaginary reason is the reason according to in-fictional-universe cause-and-effect. The Fantastic Four find a clue at the scene of the crime pointing to Dr. Doom, therefore they follow it to his secret base.
If you look at the imaginary reasons for things, causes precede effects, the same way we're used to it working in real life. But if you look at the real reasons, the causes are later in the story than their effects. Causality works backwards! Imagine fiction as having two arrows of time, pointing in opposite directions.
What does this mean for the aspiring author? To make a story good, the real reasons and the imaginary reasons have to line up in a believable way. If the real reasons are solid but the imaginary reasons aren't, then you'll have an exciting story but it won't make sense — it will be full of annoying plot holes, missing character motivations, etc. If the imaginary reasons are solid but the real reasons are not, then you'll have an internally consistent world with a plot that goes nowhere, and the readers will wonder what the point is.
As I see it, the process of trying to get real reasons and imaginary reasons to fit together is a huge part of writing fiction.
We could be Heroes... Just for One Day
I've started watching Heroes with Sushu. Yeah, I know, I'm like 4 years late to this party. I have heard that Season 1 is good but after that it gets sucky, so we'll probably watch all of Season 1 and then move on to watching, like, Rose of Versailles or something. Some brief observations:
1. This show is almost a Prime Time Adventures game. Look at the way the show is composed: a short punchy scene that takes a single spotlight character through a single personal conflict related to their issue, then CUT! Next player's turn. It's totally PTA. Even though each character has their own plotline, they all weave together into a greater whole, thanks to recurring side-characters and events and themes that connect one character to another even if they've never met each other.
Next time I'm talking to a traditional GM who's still hung up on the idea of keeping "the party" together, I'm gonna point at Heroes and say, THIS is how you have a game with no "party". This is why you'd want to have a game with no "party".
2. Of course Hiro is my favorite character. How could he not be? If Heroes was a PTA game, Hiro is like the exact character I would be playing. He's so unabashedly dorky, and so damn excited about being able to bend the space-time continuum. His enthusiasm is infectuous. He never even stops to think about what's going to happen after he teleports somewhere. He's a complete innocent.
Heroes's version of Japan is... almost right. It's not quite exactly the real thing but it's head and shoulders above most American TV attempts to portray Japan. The main thing that makes it seem off is that all their pop-cultural references are American. Hiro and his friend are always quoting Star Trek and Marvel comics? Really? Not, say, Ultraman and Space Battleship Yamato? I mean, I guess they wanted references their primary audience would be familiar with. It just makes Hiro come off like the inverted version of a crazily Japan-obsessed American anime otaku, which is probably not what they were going for but it's pretty amusing anyway.
(The song that was playing when Hiro got kicked out of the karaoke bar in the first episode. これが私の生きる道 by Puffy Amiyumi. Enjoy.)
2. Hiro might be my favorite character, but Niki's story was the one I found most gripping, cuz it's so scary-tense and uncertain; the threat is always just one step behind her. Also, something about single working mothers raising gifted kids and fighting the school system to get them a quality education; I don't know why, but that speaks to me.
Niki does have my Least Favorite Superpower, though: Super Unconsciousness! The one where the character (almost always female) is always waking up to find out she kicked copious ass and doesn't even remember doing it? Agatha from Girl Genius has the same thing. It bugs me a little because it robs the character of agency. Niki didn't decide to kill those goons; the plot took over and made her do it. Paul Czege would say it's "Deprotagonizing".
3. I do rather like Mohinder's monologues. They're hella corny and overblown and full of the kind of thing that a college sophomore taking their first philosophy class would think was, like, really deep, man, but Mohinder delivers them with such conviction and starry-eyed wonder that I can forgive all that.
What I can't forgive is that he keeps making the damn Teleological Fallacy with regards to evolution, i.e. thinking evolution is a ladder with an up direction and a down direction and thinking that creatures are in some sense trying to, or being driven to, reach the "next rung". In real life, whatever adaptations make something more likely to survive and reproduce are the ones that get passed on, and sometimes the best way for a species to adapt is to get smaller, dumber, or less complex; that doesn't mean they're going down a rung on the ladder, because there is no ladder, there's just changes that help you survive and changes that don't.
TV and movie scriptwriters LOOOOOVE to make the evolution-as-ladder mistake, but biologists know better, and Mohinder is supposed to be a biologist, right? He shouldn't be asking whether the super-mutations are "the next step in human evolution", he should be asking whether they are an adaptive mutation or a detrimental mutation.
The story thus far would seem to imply detrimental.
Writing dialogue: Why, how, and what
In working on writing my comic, I'm trying to figure out the secrets of writing good dialogue. It's hard! And there aren't a lot of helpful guides. Books on writing always say things like "write subtext!" but what does that actually mean?
Here's an approach I've figured out which seems to be working for me.
(Apologies to whoever took this picture... I got it from Google Image Search)
The stuff above the surface is the WHAT: what the character says. The stuff under the water is the HOW and the WHY: How the character says it, and why they say it.
My approach is: Start with the WHY, because that will determine both the HOW and the WHAT.
Here are some reasons that people in real life may have for saying things:
- They want to make a good impression on someone they care about impressing. (Politeness, showing off, flattery, etc.)
- They sincerely care about their relationship with the person they're talking to. (bonding behavior, expressions of affection and trust, sincerely interested inquiries)
- They want to look like they care about their relationship with the person they're talking to. (Small talk, noncomittal statements, social grooming behaviors, looking for the earliest non-rude way to end the conversation)
- They're making idle chit-chat to fill up an awkward silence. (how bout those local sports teams!, every conversation that happens with a stranger on an airplane)
- They're filling somebody in on what's happened since they saw each other last because they think it's either important, or just cool/interesting (excitement, "You won't believe what happened!")
- They're defending their point of view on something they care passionately about (argumentation)
- They're upset and they just want to strike out at somebody (snippiness, sarcasm, random outbursts about trivial things)
- They're upset and trying to hide it (noncomittal grunts, changing the subject)
- They're upset and openly confronting the source of what's making them upset (rage, frustration, sobbing, accusations)
- They're with a friend, relaxed, and just having fun (jokes, stories, gossip, quoting random song lyrics)
- They've got something they want to get off their chest and don't really care who they're talking to but just want somebody to listen (griping, ranting, commisserating)
- They're doing their job ("Would you like fries with that?" "I think we need to upgrade the servers.")
- They've got a reputation to uphold (people think I'm smart with computers, they're asking me a question, I better have an answer that doesn't sound dumb...)
- They're teaching or mentoring someone else how to do something (patient explanations, questions to see if they understood, pride when the student succeeds)
- Something terrible is going to happen unless they speak up (desperation, lying, pleading, grudgingly confessing...)
- Someone asked them a question and they're giving an honest answer (It was $40, why do you ask?)
- Someone asked them a question that they would really rather not have to answer (changing the subject, looking away, leaving things out, evasiveness, outright lying)
- They're trying to get someone else to do them a favor (extreme politeness, wheedling, begging, demanding, trickery, manipulation, bargaining, bribes...)
- They need to exchange information in order to make a plan (anything from "Do you want to go grocery shopping before or after dinner?" to "Where is the rebels' moonbase?")
- They're confused and asking questions just to try to figure out what the heck is going on
- They're trying to make somebody else feel worse (bullying, teasing, put-downs)
- They're trying to be funny (to defuse a tense situation, because they want to seem clever, or just sharing honest amusement)
Etc. etc. etc. Infinite possibilities and combinations! But I'll stop there.
If a character has no reason for speaking in a scene, then why are they there? Why aren't they off somewhere else reading a book?
Figure out this reason for EVERY character in the dialogue. It tells you WHY the character is speaking. And that will tell you HOW the character speaks: their tone of voice, facial expression, body language, choice of words, choice of emphasis, whether they speak metaphorically or sarcastically, etc. etc. Everything!
The agenda itself, the WHY, does not end up on the page. The HOW ends up on the page. The reader reads the HOW and interprets it, using it to deduce the WHY.
Meanwhile, the WHAT -- the actual literal meaning of the words -- is there too, but it's secondary. The HOW and the WHY are the subtext, and an alert reader uses them to understand the character's internal state, which conveys what the scene actually means for the character, which is generally where the meat of the storytelling is.
Here are some things that are NOT reasons people say things in real life:
- To advance the plot
- To explain things to the audience
- To announce their true feelings to nobody in particular
- To narrate what they're doing
- To make sure the overall conversation is grammatically correct and has smooth transitions. (For example: just because one person asks a question doesn't mean the other person will directly answer it... unless they're characters in a foreign-language textbook.)
- To make a dramatic speech expressing the moral of the story (OK, preachers and politicians may do this for a living, but nobody else talks like that.)
- To give somebody else the set-up for a joke or a dramatic speech
Those are reasons that authors make characters say things. They're not reasons for characters to say things.
They are nevertheless sometimes necessary. You do have to move the plot forward somehow. But putting the plot directly into the WHAT, what people literally say, breaks suspension of disbelief, because people just don't talk that way in real life. People don't say things like:
"Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo, so long ago when there was nothing but our love."
Movie screenwriters have a word for this sort of thing, when characters speak in literal plot-advancing statements. They call it "On-the-nose dialogue". A useful term for what you're trying to avoid. Google it!
Instead, take the plot-advancing reason for the dialogue and hide it behind an even more compelling in-character reason. Tell the story through the subtext, through the characters' actions and HOW they speak, not WHAT they say.
If you do this right, it lets the reader exercise the parts of their brain that evolved to understand the motivations of other human beings. Exercising this part of the brain is one of the main things that makes fiction enjoyable. Don't let it atrophy by writing crappy dialogue!
Didn't know much about story structure
When I started my webcomic, I didn't know the first thing about story structure.
I didn't know anything about story structure when I came up with the original idea and first sketches and plot outline, which was in freaking 2003, I still didn't know anything about it when I started drawing pages in 2004, and I still didn't know anything about it in 2005 when I started drawing the stuff that ended up in the archive I have now.
Story structure is hard to learn. It's even harder if you're a science fiction fan and a (traditional) role-player. Science fiction teaches you all the wrong lessons about story structure, because SF makes the settings so prominent that when SF fans start trying to write things, we've got a pathological focus on setting to the exclusion of character and plot. Traditional RPGs have character and plot, but they get it all backwards. The GM writes the plot first and then you take a bunch of characters who have nothing to do with the plot and try to force them into it. So as an SF fan and RPGer I had a lot of crap to unlearn about the relationship between setting, character, and plot. (And theme? What's that?)
In the last couple years I've finally been figuring out a few things about story structure.
Part of it is understanding that it's all artifice. It means looking critically and analytically at how your favorite stories function, not just letting yourself get swept away in them. You have to look behind the illusion if you want to learn how to create it, which means giving up certain romantic notions: about inspiration, and about imaginary worlds taking on a life of their own, stuff like that. I understand now that comicking is 1% inspiration: the rest is careful planning, repeated revisions, throwing stuff out, trimming dialogue, and grinding out lots and lots of drawings of the same things over and over.
I think I've also learned a lot from the improvisational, collaborative style of role-playing that I've been doing the past few years: how to create an initial situation that is ripe for action, with characters who have motivation and natural reasons to get into conflict with each other, characters with issues that will force them to make morally/thematically relevant decisions.
Suffice to say, if I was starting the comic now I would do things a lot differently. I'm proud of (most of) the pages that I've done, but if I was doing it now I wouldn't have spent 30 pages just on lining up characters and setting and Yuki's daily frustrations etc. I would have started with more of a bang.
My plan right now is to do 19 more strips to finish out the arc I had planned for chapter 1. I've had to throw out a lot of stuff to get it down to just 19, including some strips I had already sketched - they amused me, but they weren't essential to the story. Chapter 1 will end on or around strip 50.
Then I'll plan out Chapter 2 using everything I now know about story structure, and hopefully it'll be a lot tighter and have a lot more drama.
Story structure: A theory about tension
What is "tension"? It's the force that makes us want to keep reading/watching a work of fiction. Without tension, the audience loses interest.
You've all seen that graph in English class that shows time on the x-axis and "Tension" on the y-axis? And it's got, like, rising action, then climax, then falling action and denouement. You know the one I'm talking about? Good.
That graph is completely unhelpful because it doesn't explain how to increase or decrease tension. How do you create it?
My theory is very simple. Tension is really just questions. The audience has a question in their mind, so they'll keep watching/reading to find out the answer.
Let's look at some examples from one of my favoritest movies ever, The Princess Bride, which is a nearly flawlessly paced movie. (Spoilers ahead, but really there is no excuse for you not to have seen this movie a hundred times.)
At the beginning, when Buttercup and Wesley are all lovey-dovey, there are no questions, so there is no tension — which is why the kid rightly declares the book boring! In fact at this point in the movie, the only tension is between the kid and his grandpa, because the only question the audience has to go on is:
Will grandpa win the kid over with this story?
Once we hear that Wesley is murdered by pirates, the story in the book starts generating questions, and therefore tension, of its own. As the kid says: "Murdered by pirates is good!" From that point on, we can easily map out the entire plot just in terms of the questions that are being introduced to the audience's mind, one after another:
- Now that Wesley is presumed dead, what will Buttercup do?
- Will she get married to Humperdink despite not loving him?
- Who are these men who kidnap her and what is their plan?
- Will Buttercup get eaten by the eels?
- Who is the man in black?
- Why does he want to get Buttercup back from the kidnappers so bad?
- Will he succeed?
- Will they reach the top of the cliff before he catches them?
- Will he fall off the cliff?
- Will Inigo ever find the six-fingered man?
- Who will win this swordfight?
- Will Humperdink catch up with everybody?
- Can the man in black beat the giant?
- Which glass has the poison?
- Why does the man in black seem so angry at Buttercup?
- What will Buttercup do about it?
- How is Wesley still alive?
- Now that we know Wesley's alive, will he and Buttercup end up together?
- What's the deal with Wesley saying he was the Dread Pirate Roberts?
- Can they survive the Fire Swamp?
- Will they surrender to Humperdink?
- Will Humperdink keep his word about not harming Wesley?
- Will Buttercup really get married to Humperdink knowing Wesley is alive?
- Can anyone rescue Wesley from the Pit of Despair?
- What's the deal with Humperdink's evil plan?
- What will Inigo and Fezzik do now that they've found each other?
- Will Humperdink keep his word about sending out his ships?
- Can Wesley survive the machine being turned to 50?
- Can Inigo and Fezzik find him?
- Will Buttercup really kill herself if she has to marry Humperdink?
- Can Inigo and Fezzik convince Max to bring Wesley back to life?
- How will they break into the castle when it's so heavily guarded?
- Will the wedding be finished before they can break in?
- Can Inigo catch the six-fingered man?
- Can he beat him? ("Are you still trying to WIN?")
- How can Wesley beat Humperdink when he can barely even move?
- How will they escape the castle?
- What will Inigo do with the rest of his life?
Some of these questions, like "Who will win the swordfight?" last for only a single scene. When the question is answered, the scene ends, and the next scene introduces a new question to replace it and raise the tension back up.
Other questions last for much longer, and keep tension going throughout the whole story. In particular, "Will Buttercup get married to Humperdink?" is in question for almost the entire length of the movie; that question is the main plot. Later on it is also joined by "Will she get back together with Wesley?" and "Will Inigo get revenge on the six-fingered man?" which of course all resolve at about the same time, in the climax. Right after that, the very first question resolves as we find out that the kid not only enjoyed the story, but learned to tolerate kissing scenes. The end!
Note that between scene tension and long-term tension, the audience is never left without at least one question to wonder about; each plot point pulls you right along to the next. Which is one of the reasons this is such a perfectly paced movie. (Variety in the type of tension is also a factor, but that's a whole nother article.)
So to create tension, you have to have:
- Two (or more) different outcomes coexist in the audience's mind
- Both outcomes seem possible and plausible
- The audience cares which one will happen
On the scene level, tension comes from the audience imagining different possible outcomes for the scene. On the whole-story level, tension comes from the audience imagining different possible endings for the story. Of course the tension will fail if the alternate outcomes aren't plausible or if the audience just doesn't care.
For instance, it's pretty obvious that Wesley and Buttercup have to end up together, because that's what happens in fairy tales. The only way to keep up the tension is to introduce obstacles that tilt the scales the other way by making it seem impossible for them to get together, like the fact that Wesley is Mostly Dead, or that the clergyman already said "Man and Wife". Without these obstacles, the bad ending is implausible, thus no tension.
Or, the other way to fail would be if we just didn't care about the question. For instance, if Inigo hadn't been such a cool character, and hadn't been so driven, and if the six-fingered man hadn't been such a sneaky bastard, then maybe we wouldn't have cared whether Inigo got revenge or not, which would have sucked the tension out of that whole subplot.
Storytelling failure is when your story spends time answering questions that the audience wasn't asking and didn't care about!
Finally, resolution and endings: Answering a question resolves the tension, by turning one possibility into reality and destroying the other possibilities. When the last source of tension is resolved, your story is over! (And if there are still pages to go, the audience is going to wonder why.)
Therefore, the question that you make the audience ask at the beginning of the story establishes what the story will be about. Either you have to end the story by answering the same question you originally asked; or else you have to pull a switcheroo: introduce a new, *bigger* question as you resolve the original one, and end by resolving the bigger question. There's an axiom I read somewhere: what a story is about is defined by the biggest unanswered question asked so far.
Fists of Fury as a Jiang Hu scenario
I watched Bruce Lee's first movie, Fists of Fury, with Sushu recently.
(Fists of Fury is not the same as Fist of Fury, an entirely different movie also starring Bruce Lee. Fists, plural, is also called The BIg Boss, and is also known by its Chinese title 唐山大兄 (Tang Shan Da Xiong) meaning "Canton Big Brother". Of course neither movie has much to do with fists anyway, since Bruce Lee mostly kicks people to death. Confused yet?)
Anyway, whatever you call it, Fists of Fury is a really well done movie. The dub is TERRIBLE (and such inappropriate background music!) but the kung fu action is great; except for a few fake high jumps, all the fighting is entirely believable and convincing. More importantly, the plotting is excellent. It's very tight, tense, consise, and well-structured.
I've been thinking about what this movie can teach us for Jiang Hu - that's right, I've started thinking about Jiang Hu again! - not so much in terms of the kung fu fighting, but rather in terms of how to set up a situation that gives people a lot of interesting things to fight about. The scenario creation rules, if you will.
Spoilers follow, but the movie's 40 years old so whaddya want?
Bruce Lee is moving to a new town to work at an ice factory along with some of his family. Dialogue reveals that he got into a lot of trouble by starting fights in his old town, which might be why his family had to move. He's made a Very Serious Promise to his grandparents not to get into any fights.
Gee, how long do you think that promise is going to last?
There's an early scene where honorless thugs beat up and take advantage of good honest people. Because of his promise, Bruce Lee has to watch and do nothing about it. There's a closeup on his face so you can see how bad he feels about that.
Lessons already: Promises are very serious. We can put characters into dynamic situations right out of the starting gate by creating them already enmeshed in a web of promises to important relationships. You get interesting internal conflict when such a promise goes against a character's sense of justice. As the audience, we know that of course he's going to fight eventually! So the question on our minds is: what's going to be the thing that makes him so mad that he breaks that promise? Even though we know what's going to happen, the situation creates tension because we don't yet know why or how.
Continuing with the plot:
The existing power structure (in the form of the ice factory management) is thoroughly corrupt. In fact, they're using the ice factory as a front for a drug-smuggling operation. The factory managers play the same role as a corrupt provincial magistrate or an occupying foreign power might play in other time periods: the initial situation is one where bad guys hold all the cards. We see how bad they are, and we want to see them taken down a peg so that justice can prevail. But since the political power is in their hands, justice can't be restored just by talking to people or by appealing to legitimate authority. A hero has to arise to restore justice with his fists. And we get to root for the underdog, which is always fun.
The bad guys have a hierarchy, with the Big Boss at the top, some henchmen under him, and an endless supply of nameless thugs at their command. The Big Boss is the greatest both in political power and in kung-fu power. There's a scene early on that establishes this by showing him practice-sparring with some of his men. (We see him hide some long, nasty daggers in his boots, which of course we know we'll see him use later.) Is it realistic that the factory leader also happens to be a kung-fu master? Probably not. But it sets the stage for an epic showdown at the end, so we go along with it.
The good guys have their own hierarchy of sorts, with a benevolent big brother figure named Hsiu (or Xu) Chien watching over and protecting the poor, honest, hardworking factory men. These men make up a group called, in Chinese, a 帮 (bang) - like a labor union but not as organized; such groups are a staple part of the Jiang Hu world. Bruce lee is a newcomer to the situation. These relationships are established in a few short lines of dialogue before the plot moves on.
The workers discover quite by accident that their factory is a front for a drug-smuggling operation when Bruce knocks a big chunk of ice off of a railing, and it breaks on the ground, revealing a bag of white powder hidden inside. This is the spark that sets off all the potential conflict in the situation. It's the "Bang" - this time in the Sorceror sense, not the labor-union sense.
From this point, the whole movie is nothing but an ever-escalating series of reprisals. The men who saw the drugs are brought into the manager's office, where he offers them bribes and offers to bring them on board the operation in order to secure their silence. They refuse, and so they get "disappeared". The rest of the factory workers try to find out what happened to them, and they get stonewalled. They protest, and management clamps down on them. These reprisals can't end until one side is thoroughly defeated in one-on-one combat.
I can see just how this would work in gaming - a scenario would be created before play that set up the relationships between the groups involved, with plenty of potential conflict; then at the start of play, the GM throws out the Bang with the drugs; and from there on, the GM needs only to play the bad guys as they respond to the protagonists' actions. You'd need a system that encourages escalations; then the rest of the story flows out naturally as a sort of chain reaction.
Some of the fights in this movie start with a series of show-offy displays of kung-fu awesomeness and flashy tricks. They're not intended to do damage, but to intimidate. They're warning shots. (It's like bucks locking horns in mating season -- they don't want to actually fight, they just want to prove that they could win so that the other deer will back off.) I wonder how this could be made to work in a game context? Narrating them would be tons of fun, but does it somehow give you an advantage over just attacking immediately? (Maybe if the opponents' actual kung fu power levels were in fact concealed from each other? like poker hands? And so you do a move that shows some of your cards, in order to convince the other player to fold... but you might be bluffing... )
A big contrast is shown between the character of Hsiu, who is a real wuxia, and Bruce Lee, who is more of an ambiguous anti-hero. Hsiu is completely dedicated to his bang from the beginning, and always willing to fight to protect them. Bruce is reluctant to betray his "no fighting" promise, but he's also just not particularly heroic.
At various points, the bad guys try to bribe various good guys with money, power, liquor, and sexy prostitutes: things that a true hero is unmoved by. We get to see what people are made of by who refuses the bribes and who takes them. Hsiu is unmoved; he sees dishonorable behavior being rewarded with money and power, and he is merely disgusted. Bruce Lee, on the other hand, totally gets drunk and sleeps with the prostitutes and makes friends with the bad guys and is pretty much ready to sell out.
There's pretty fixed ideas about honorable behavior, what a man must do to maintain his honor and how he must avenge it if insulted; I imagine the code of honor could be hard-coded into the game. Like, "A true hero is unmoved by money, power, and sex" could be a rule. Not the kind of straightjacket rule that prevents a player from doing something, but rather a guideline that helps players know when they're living up to the ideal and when they're failing it, so that they can explore motivations and situations on both sides of the line.
In the end, Hsiu, the original Big Brother, pays for his unflinching honor with his life. He did the right thing at all points, but his kung fu is simply not strong enough to overcome all of the bad guys, and he is killed. (This movie is slightly on the cynical side.) Bruce Lee is not as morally upright but has much stronger kung fu. (Why? It's never really explained why his character is so strong, other than "he's played by Bruce Lee").
So the real climactic conflict of the movie is about when Bruce's flawed character will find the moral courage to step up and fill the Big Brother's shoes. The people cry out for a champion to save them; their champion has fallen; Bruce Lee is the only one who can do it; yet he is reluctant.
In the end, he goes and fights the Big Boss only after his entire family has been killed in a reprisal by the Big Boss's thugs. It's very sad. He steps up too late; and when he does, he steps up for the wrong reasons - when he finally does kill the Big Boss in the final battle, it is an act of mere vengeance, and not of protection. (And the very end of the movie shows him being taken away by the police, arrested for all the bad guys he killed; he wasn't a hero, so he didn't get a hero's ending.)
So there's an interesting theme in this movie that the most morally upright people are not always the strongest in kung fu. But you better have somebody who's both strong enough and good enough to fight the big bad guy! A community ultimately needs someone who is willing and able to use violence to defend their values: as Winston Churchill or possibly George Orwell put it, "We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm."
In a game, as I see it, Hsiu and Bruce Lee would both have been player characters. The meaning of the game emerges from the choices that each of those players makes about who and what their character is willing to fight for.
Game design, music, and storytelling
Games: We start by telling the players the win condition, so they understand what they're trying to do. Each player forms a strategy which they think will take them to victory and then chooses moves according to that strategy. But their desired moves are blocked by the opponent's moves, or are stymied due to random factors, or hidden information, so the player has to rethink their strategy on the fly. This increases the tension as the players are forced to make difficult choices, with the chance of victory riding on the outcome.
Music: The initial notes establish the key of the piece, letting the listener hear the tonic and the root chord. The melody and chord progression take us farther and farther away from that starting point, while creating a tension that can only be resolved by returning to the tonic / root chord again. E.g. the chorus of a typical rock song might have chords C -> F -> G -> G7, setting up a tension which makes the listener desire resolution. Then it goes back to the C chord at the end of the chorus, satisfying that desire.
(The listener doesn't have be able to consciously identify the chords or even know what a chord is - it still works. It's magic.)
Storytelling: Exposition in Act 1 introduces the protagonist and sets up their motivation, so the reader knows who to root for and what's at stake; they expect that the resolution of the story will see the protagonist either getting the stakes or not. Act 2 increases the tension, using complications to challenge the protagonist, put the resolution in doubt, and force some character development. Each complication raises new questions in the reader's mind. Act 3 has some sort of climax, the moment of maximum tension, where the protagonist faces some life-defining decision and whatever was motivating them finally gets resolved.
I'm sure you can think of exceptions to these simple schematics: non-western music may not have a root chord, some computer games deliberately obfuscate the goal in order to create more of a feeling of discovery, etc. Whatever. I'm not going for comprehensive definitions right now.
What I'm saying is: see a parallel here? The ending gives meaning and direction to everything that comes before it, so the game designer/musician/storyteller must hint at the ending. But it's the tension that makes things interesting, and the tension comes from the frustrated desire of the player/listener/reader. To create tension the game designer/musician/storyteller must tease an ending but deny the obvious path to that ending.
We even use the same language - "tension" and "resolution" - to talk about all three art forms.
On Writing Webcomics
1. I'm not good at this.
The main reason I stopped working on Yuki hoshigawa was frustration at my inability to get the story moving. I didn't want to write a plotless slice-o-life comic where Yuki comments on society and feels depressed and nothing else happens. I wanted to write a science fiction story, emphasis on story. But what I wrote instead was thirty pages of meandering introduction, basically.
I made a classic mistake. Combine an initially passive protagonist with a distaste for arbitrary forcing events (aka a desire to have story emerge organically) and you have a recipe for inaction. It's exactly like a role-playing game where the players make characters with no intrinsic motivations and the GM refuses to railroad. Yuki had no reason to do anything besides mope around.
Plot doesn't come real naturally to me. The inspiration for Yuki Hoshigawa (starting almost ten years ago!) has all been about theme and character development and setting, not plot. That's how writing fiction goes, I think: sometimes the plot comes to you and you need to fill in the characters, soetimes the other way around. Ultimately you need all the pieces working together to build an interesting story. I've got this swirling nebula of related themes and character issues in my brain, but I have great difficulty expressing it as a linear series of events, or even describing it to close friends.
Years ago I figured out an ending for what was supposed to be chapter 1. I'd been refining it ever since. But sometime around last summer, I decided to get serious about writing a solid plot. I re-examined my planned chapter 1 and realized it sucked big time. It was an accumulation of scenes that I liked but that didn't have much to do with each other. (I would tear it up and throw it away, but to do that I'd have to print it out first.) I started over.
In January I wrote an outline of a ~20 pages standalone story. But that one wasn't good enough either. It was too goofy, and the action too contrived. Fun, but it didn't feel "Yuki" enough. Writing it was good practice, but it's worth the time I would have to spend drawing it. I filed that one away too, to plunder some of its better ideas later.
Now I'm working on yet another draft, from scratch. My biggest problem is that when I try to think of a climax, most of the scenes that come to mind don't fit the buildup. I know the shape of the hole and now I'm searching for a peg that fits there.
But I'm pretty excited about where it's going. I'm looking forward to drawing again, when I can work from a plot outline that I love.
2. The advice out there for writing comics sucks.
I started reading a lot, looking for advice about story structure and how to craft a plot. There are people out there who make a living doing this and they know how to do it. But good advice is hard to find -- especially for comics.
If you just search for "writing" you hit a lot of articles that assume you're writing a novel, so they're all about paragraph breaks and how to write descriptive sentences and "he said", "she said". In other words, they're about the surface-level presentation of a text format. Completely useless for comics, which have an entirely different surface-level presentation. I want to know about the deeper structure, the stuff that comics and novels have in common -- pacing, character development, dialog, etc.
OK, so I search for "writing comics". Now the results are even worse! Now all the articles you get assume you're submitting a script to Marvel or DC. They're all superhero-centric, they assume a 32-page format, and even worse: they assume that you're writing a script for somebody else to draw. So there's a ton of stuff about the right way to format a script and very little about how to tell a story. A ton of stuff about describing panels and none about laying out panels.
Finally, if you search for "story structure" you get a lot of stuff aimed at people who are trying to break into Hollywood script writing and are looking for the right formula to use to sell their script to a studio. They'll tell you that you need to hit a certain plot point by a certain page in your script and a lot of other rigid, formulaic stuff like that. Frankly a lot of it sounds like superstition - follow these rituals exactly, or else you will anger the script gods!
I've found some helpful material in resources aimed at playwriting and screenwriting. Both of these media have a much more well-developed body of theory and analysis than comics do. (Going all the way back to Aristotle, in fact.) And they're more similar to comics than novels are. Stage plays are all about dialog; screenplays are all about telling a story with images; lessons about either of these things apply directly to comics.
One of the better books I've found on the subject is Story by Robert McKee, an infamous and curmudgeonly teacher of screenwriting. Boring, shallow, cliched, lazy writing offends him on a deep moral level, and he will not tolerate it. Nor will he tolerate people looking for shortcuts to fame and riches. Reading the book is kind of like hearing a grouchy old man rail against the degeneration of modern society. But I learned a lot. And apart from one chapter about script formatting and written description, all the rest of the book is applicable to comics as well as screenplays.
3. Why writing is hard
I had an epiphany today: the space of everything you could possibly write is the real numbers, the space of stuff that's interesting to read is the integers. They're both "infinite" but if you pick something at random, the chances it will fall in the latter category is infinitesimal. (And, um, the fact that I had to use a math metaphor to understand writing tells you a lot about why this doesn't come naturally to me.)
The hardest part of writing isn't having ideas or getting motivated or finding the deeper meaning or making characters believable or polishing dialogue or any of that stuff. The hardest part is deciding what things are going to happen in your story, in what order. Yes. That sounds kind of like "duhhhh" but it's surprisingly hard and nobody wants to talk about it. It's easy to have lots and lots of ideas but hard to know which ones fit together and which ones don't.
You've got infinite combinations to choose from, but your choices must satisfy a gauntlet of contradictory requirements: The chain of cause and effect must be clear, logical, and internally consistent; the pacing must be good, with rising action and tension and relief and no boring stretches; the reader must get enough exposition to understand the situation, but without infodumping; setup must come before payoff, payoff must be worth it; characters' motivations must make sense and character development must be beleivable; it must be the protagonists' choices that drive things and those choices must express the character development and the results of those choices must express the theme; and we should try to do all this without falling back on cliche or being too predictable. Oh, and since this is a comic, the events have to be drawable, visually interesting, and expressable via panel flow.
It's a tall order, all of that together. I used to think that you could just start drawing a comic at page 1 and keep drawing until you got to the last page and the story would emerge as a spontaneous outburst of creativity.
That's... not really how it works. (At least not for me. Maybe there's some insane genius out there who can do it that way.)
Drawing a story that's more than a bunch of random stuff that happens is craft. It doesn't happen by accident. It's a lot of work and planning and rewriting. It takes deep understanding and a willingness to kill your darlings. You don't work from the first page to the last page; you work from idea to outline to rough draft to script to thumbnails to pencil sketch to inking. You try to catch and correct problems as early as possible, because it's much "cheaper" to fix them early, e.g. fill a plot hole or cut out a boring dialog scene before you've spent time drawing anything. The reader never sees any of the work you did prior to the inking stage; what they read is the last stage of a long journey, but if you did it right, it has the illusion of spontaneity.
More thoughts on writing comics
There was a Q&A session at a comic book signing i went to once. Sushu pointed out how you can tell the fans from the aspiring comic authors: the fans ask about the fictional characters, the aspiring authors ask about the writing process. Fans ask questions like "what was character X doing between the end of part 1 and the beginning of part 2?"
From an author's perspective, questions like this make no goddamn sense! Do fans think these characters really exist somewhere, having adventures, that the author observes and reports on? No! It's made up! The characters don't exist outside of what the author has written about them, and if the author chose to leave something out the book, it's usually for a good reason: that part of the character's life is boring and unimportant!
Trying to write fiction for real forever changes the way you relate to it as an audience. I used to get swept up in a story, forget it was imaginary. Now I'm always thinking about "why is this character in this scene" "why does this scene happen at this point in the plot" etc. The ability to get lost in a story has been taken away from me. (But in exchange, I've gained the ability to appreciate the craftsmanship in what I'm reading. It's a fair trade.)
Trying to write fiction has given me a new appreciation for cliche. That is, I still don't much enjoy reading it, and I don't want to write it, but I understand why it's so common and what function it serves. Cliches are structures that have proven themselves to work reliably.
Take the "journey to the other end of the map", favorite cliche of fantasy authors. It works because it lets you take the reader on a vicarious tour of your setting without too much infodumping. It lets you show off how the diversity of nations and cultures in your world and demonstrate how they're all suffering because of the Dark Lord, it taps into the universal human interest in exploration, and the journey across the map can be, like, a metaphor for an internal journey of self-discovery, like wow man did I just blow your mind?
One of the most common science-fiction plotlines is "Hero is the only one with a technology that can change the course of a war". It works because it gives enormous moral weight to the hero's decisions (important) while letting us explore how a new technology can upset the balance of power and change the status quo (one of the primary, central themes of science fiction). Plus it gives us an excuse to have lots of cool battle scenes.
Why do horror movies always have the phone lines get cut or cell phone reception mysteriously go out? It's so the protagonist can't just call the police and let them deal with it, which is the first thing any sane person would do in real life.
If you want to avoid those cliches you need to come up with an alternative structure that accomplishes the same things, and that's really hard. People have been telling stories for a long time across a lot of different cultures. No matter how brilliantly original you think your idea is, somebody's probably written something at least a little similar to it before, and so they've had to solve the same structural problems as you have. The problem I posed in the previous post - how to decide what happens, and in what order - gets a lot harder when you're purposely avoiding the most reliable and popular patterns!
There are easier ways. You can disguise the cliche so it's not so blatantly obvious - throw out false clues to trick the trope-aware reader into expecting one plot twist, then go with another. Or you can accept cliches in your structure and try to be original in the contents. (You didn't invent the sandwich, but you can experiment with new sandwich fillings.) An interesting cast of characters can make a story worth reading even if the plot structure is something you've read before.
I think that trying too hard to avoid cliche is a trap that beginning writers fall into. You read TV Tropes and say to yourself "I'm not going to do ANY of these things!" until you realize that ripping out all the tropes is like ripping out the skeleton -- if you don't have something to replace it with, your story will flop around on the floor and be unable to move anywhere.
My story is about Japanese computer programmers in the near future, so every cyberpunk cliche ever is readily available. Right now I'm giving a lot of thought to which ones I might want to try to put an original twist on, and which ones I want to avoid entirely.
The Proving Grounds, and other comic scripting advice
As I've complained about before, it's hard finding usable advice for writing comics.
So I was pretty excited to discover, via random internet searching, a column called The Proving Grounds, by a writer named Steven Forbes. In each installment, a reader submits a draft of a comic script, and Forbes rips their horrible ideas to shreds. I mean, provides helpful feedback!
It's aimed at people who are trying to break into the American weekly-comic-magazine market, so there's the assumption again that writer and artist will be two different people. Nevertheless, there's a lot of good, useful stuff here about panel-to-panel flow, story pacing, dialog, establishing shots, and what is or isn't drawable. Plus I find it really entertaining when Forbes calls somebody out for "white void", "moving panels", or being "magically delicious" (when something we should have seen earlier appears out of nowhere).
There's another, newer column on the same site called Points of Impact which goes through comics published that week (mostly ones I've never heard of) pulling out graphic narrative devices to talk about why they work or don't work. I'm getting some useful ideas out of this one, too. The rest of the site is not so relevant to my interests.
Sushu's been working on scripting a new comic project of her own. She wrote a good post about killing your headcanon, among other things.
Guess what! Apparently the really, actually finally (posthumously) last book in the Wheel of Time series is nearly done and has a release date of January. So that's good, I guess! I'm glad the fans who were dismayed by Robert Jordan's untimely death will finally get the conclusion they've been waiting for.
I wonder if I should read the series now?
I have some friends who were big fans, but I never got into it because it looked like it was never going to end. I didn't want to get invested in such a long series without some promise of resolution. But now that the end is in sight, maybe I should give it a chance? (perhaps skipping Book Ten, "Crossroads of Twilight", which is infamous among fans as the book where the plot progression slows down so much it actually moves backwards.)
Oh hey what's this? It's a chapter-by-chapter re-read of Wheel of Time, recapped by mega-fan Leigh Butler. I will read a bit of this recap and see if it seems interesting enough to pick up the first book.
And... wow. The recap of the first book is enough to confirm my suspicion that the series is Not For Me, after all. Even in summary form, the plot moves too slow for my liking!
It's not just the endless traveling scenes, the scenes where characters describe stuff we've already seen to other characters, the angsty interior monologues, or the constant prophetic visions of doom. (If you read fantasy, you get used to dealing with a certain amount of padding.) It's not even the cornucopia of Tolkien-esque high fantasy cliches. I can deal with those.
What's frustrating me about this recap is the constant backing-down from conflict. Every time conflict starts building up towards something interesting, just as it looks like things are going to get good, somebody backs down or sneaks out of town, or some powerful magic woman shows up to rescue the heroes, heal their wounds and make everything better. The resolution is pushed off for later. It's a constant tease: "This is going to be a really cool confrontation when it happens! ...but it's not time for it to happen yet, not in this book anyway." Things revert to the status quo and the journey continues.
Contrast with Game of Thrones. Though I've got problems with GoT too (especially the last two books) -- at least it's a series that gets shit done. Conflicts ignite, escalate, explode, somebody wins, somebody loses (and probably dies) and as a result the balance of power in Westeros is transformed. Several times per book, at least. And no magic lady shows up to rescue the heroes. Everybody has to live with their mistakes. Every choice has consequences, and the consequences are usually deadly.
In Wheel of Time, the bad stuff is mostly teased - warnings about what will happen if somebody fails, prophetic dreams, various characters angsting about their dark fates, etc. But it seems like a safe bet that all the main characters will make it to the end to play their assigned roles in the final battle. In Game of Thrones the bad stuff happens to people, brutally, on-screen. Sometimes with build-up, sometimes by surprise. Sometimes you cheer, sometimes you curse. Either way, something changed. The plot has irrevocably progressed. Things at the end of the chapter are different from how they were at the beginning.
I'm not saying nothing happens in Wheel of Time. From the summaries, there's some parts that sound pretty cool. Obviously things happen, or the fans wouldn't have stuck with it; but nothing happens without hundreds of pages of buildup first. It's a certain type of fantasy that I guess appeals to a certain type of reader - people who really enjoy immersion. If your primary enjoyment comes from just spending time in your favorite imaginary world, with your favorite imaginary characters, then maybe you don't need the plot to move forward at a rapid pace.
They're two very different approaches to plotting.
Oh, one more thing I gotta point out. Wheel of Time has this concept called "ta'veren". I find it absolutely hilarious. "Ta'veren" are people who are sacred to destiny; their lives are the most important threads of The Pattern of fate, which is "woven" by The Wheel of Time. Their very presence causes improbable coincidences to happen around them, in order to make stuff work out the way fate requires.
The Pattern pays no heed to human plans, Siuan. With all our scheming, we forgot what we were dealing with. Ta’veren. Elaida is wrong. Artur Paendrag Tanreall was never this strongly ta’veren. The Wheel will weave the Pattern around this young man as it wills, whatever our plans.
(The Great Hunt, chap 5)
Let's try replacing a few key words:
Pattern Plot pays no heed to human plans, Siuan. With all our scheming, we forgot what we were dealing with. Ta'veren The Main Character. Elaida is wrong. Artur Paendrag Tanreall was never this strongly Ta'veren a Main Character. The Wheel Author will weave the Pattern Plot around this young man as it wills, whatever our plans.
Yeah... these characters are basically admitting that they're trapped in a fantasy novel plot, and complaining that the main character is a Mary Sue. Terry Pratchett plays this kind of stuff for laughs; in Wheel of Time it's SERIOUS BUSINESS.
In early drafts of Yuki Hoshigawa I had a conceit that she was a "weirdness magnet" who would attract strange events. I dropped this idea when I realized it's redundant -- every fictional protagonist has the "weirdness magnet" ability just by virtue of being a fictional protagonist. No need to hang a lampshade on it.
Wreck-it Ralph, and why I love smart kids' movies
I was afraid Wreck-It Ralph would be all pandering to the nostalgia of 30-year-old video game grognards (hello) but I was happily surprised.
The writers kept the cameos from famous games mostly in the background (Ralph's in a villain support group with Bowser, Dr. Robotnik, and M. Bison; they meet in the ghost rectangle in the middle of the Pac-Man board) and kept the focus where it belongs, on the original characters. The three games invented for the movie -- a racer, a first-person shooter, and an old-school single-screen action game -- are believable and fully realized in a way that tells me the writers know and love video games.
I'll nominate Ralph as the best movie about video-game characters yet made. Remember the flood of video-game movies in the 80s? Remember how much they sucked? I know this is geek heresy, but I thought even the original TRON was unbearably boring; the characters had no personality. Maybe a generation had to pass before the culture could absorb video games enough to make a good movie about them.
I think I realized something about myself. I've got a reputation as a guy who hates all movies, but that's not true. Turns out I just hate movies aimed at grown-ups. Most of my favorites - e.g. the works of Ghibli, Pixar, and Jim Henson - are movies aimed at kids.
Why is that? Because I'm an emotionally-stunted man-child who refuses to grow up? Probably. But also because I want two things out of a movie. One is meaning: themes, character development, a coherent philosophy. The other is fun stuff: cool visuals, dynamic scenes, originality, humor. If your movie has cool fight scenes but no themes or character development, if it's just about colorful dudes punching each other (ahem, Avengers), it makes me bored. If it's got Big Themes but it's dour and dreary, all talking heads and long meaningful pauses and rain, that makes me bored too. Most grown-up movies fall hard on one side or the other.
And OK most kids' movies are dreck (previews for some truly atrocious ones were attached to Wreck-it Ralph) but smart kids' movies are one of the few genres that allow themselves to be fun and meaningful at the same time. Kids lack experience, but they're not dumb. Smart kids' movies, by treating kids with respect, tell stories that are relevant for everyone. I dare say that some kids' movies get at things about the human condition that "grownup" movies are afraid to tackle. Contrast, say, the opening sequence of "Up" (still chokes me up just thinking about it) vs. the wanky wish-fulfillment of "Avatar". One of these is telling us the truth about life and it isn't the one supposedly aimed at grown-ups.
Wreck-it Ralph is about self-discovery, finding your place in the world, the meaning of heroism, the emptiness of material rewards, seeing people as more than their job description, trying to break out of the box that other people use to define you... there's a lot of good stuff in there and it holds together really well on repeat watchings. Ralph isn't the only dynamic character; Vanelope is hilarious and has a decent character arc of her own, being almost a co-protagonist. The movie is a whole lot better on the female-representation front than most of its source material (unfortunately) is.
On the fun-stuff side, Wreck-it Ralph captured what I love about my favorite video games -- the worlds you can explore, the characters you can be, the friendships and rivalries with other players, the thrill of honest competition, the quest to get farther than you've ever gotten before, the innocent joy of an activity that has no purpose except to be fun. I would play the hell out of Fix-it Felix Jr. and Sugar Rush if they were real games. (Hero's Duty not so much - I hate rail-shooters.) The plot has some great twists, the environments are wondrous, and we get to laugh at characters from wildly different genres trying to interact despite their divergent expectations about game mechanics (and equally divergent bodily proportions).
There is also a pretty cool visual, during scenes where a certain character hacks the source code of his own game (!) which does a decent job of visualizing what programming feels like.
This was a good year for smart kids movies! Besides Ralph, I was surprised how good Paranorman was. It's a stop-motion animation by the makers of Coraline, about a boy who can see ghosts; sadly it seems like almost nobody saw it. I loved Paranorman's portrayal of a creaky New England town (much like the ones I grew up in) and all the little extra touches they put into the animation. I thought the gradual reveal of the central mystery was well done, and I approve of its message - don't want to give spoilers so I'll just say it's a story about how fear turns people into monsters.
Also saw Brave last week. It's not Pixar's best, but middle-of-the-road Pixar is still really good relative to most studios' output. It has amazingly gorgeous backgrounds, but at first I thought it was going to be boring because it seemed to be following the typical Disney Princess "no mom I don't wanna marry this bozo I'ma run away" narrative. But then it takes a different turn. No handsome prince character rides in to resolve everything; in fact all the male characters are background. Instead the story is all about repairing a broken mother-daughter relationship. It's weird how rare this is a subject for a fairy-tale movie. (How many Disney character moms are even alive and present, let alone get their own character development?) It made me think a lot about my relationship with my own mother (who has been going around saying "it's yerr FATE" in a fake Scottish accent ever since seeing the movie).
Plus there's a cool bear fight!
Things that "We Can Regrow That For You" Taught Me About Comic-Making
The thing I'm least happy about with the finished story is how cramped it feels. Honestly, the idea that I picked was a bit too complex for ten pages. But I didn't have time to think of a simpler one, so I had to go with it. As a result, some pages are overcrowded. Pages 2 and 3 are both nine-panelers, which is seriously pushing it.
Working under a length limit was good for me, though. Spilling over to an eleventh page was not an option. (Good thing, too, given how long ten pages took.) It helped me learn to think of dialog as a limited resource -- you can only squeeze so many lines into a page, and only so many words into a line. But there's so much that needs doing! Backstory exposition, character development, plot advancement, expressing conflict, telling jokes, etc etc. Spread that duty across the limited lines of dialog and every line has to be carrying a lot of weight. Double or triple duty.
I don't think my dialog in this story is particularly great, but at least I've eliminated all needless lines. Dialog is almost always better when it's shorter.
Finish Your Shit
It's not good to go through life with one "master" story you're perpetually "working on". Because then every idea you have wants to get into that story. They have nowhere else to go. All those extra ideas clinging on to the sides of the story like refugees on the last bus out of town, making it unweildly, weighing it down. The story becomes too big to finish, so you're always doing it but it's never done.
Cough, Yuki Hoshigawa, cough. (The irony is that Yuki Hoshigawa was itself originally supposed to be a quick project to do for practice before I got into the big story I really wanted to do, which was my Epic Space Opera.)
It's better to have multiple smaller stories so ideas can go into each one as they fit and no one story gets overly bloated. I only thought of "We Can Regrow That For You" a few months ago, and now it's done! That's a good feeling. I haven't had to give it years of rent-free lodging in my brain.
Me and Sushu are still figuring out how we work together on creative projects. We've tried to do some before which kind of fell apart. But I think we're starting to figure out what it takes to make it work: We have to know which one of us is in charge of the vision. The other one just helps with the execution. In this case, the comic was my baby and Sushu helped me execute. The Chinese learning game got a lot easier to work on once we accepted that it's Sushu's baby and I'm just executing.
Sometimes collaboration creates something mysterious. Sometimes Sushu saw something in my sketch while inking it that I didn't mean to put there. I didn't mean to give the waitress on page 8 a huge ridiculous bow tie, but Sushu thought she saw one, and somehow it works, so there it is. Who created that bow tie? Neither of us did! It's spooky.
Fiction Is Just A Fancy Word For Lying
Like, duh, right? Fiction is made up. But it still surprises me how fake everything about my story is.
Most of the writing I've done in my life has been nonfiction -- blog posts, argumentative essays, lab reports, expository technical writing, etc. There's a set of facts which are the fixed stars in your firmament; your task is to put them in order and explain them in a coherent and maybe entertaining way.
And when you read fiction, if it's any good, you experience it like a true thing. Like you're peeking into another world where all this stuff is really happening. It seems like there's a fixed set of facts there, and the author is just guiding us through it. And fanfic writers sure do care about getting the "facts" of their canon right.
So there's a misconception I had when I started trying to write fiction that it would be like this: there's a world in my imagination, I open a channel to it somehow, observe events there, gather a set of "facts", and then guide the reader through those "facts" in a logical way.
But no. Everything about telling a story is artificial. Everything. There's no facts. There's no alternate world. There's just me, drawing a bunch of lines, and making a bunch of decisions about what I want my lines to express.
Nothing is sacred. Every time I catch myself thinking of a certain plot point as fixed and necessary, I'm wrong - there's always something else could happen instead. The order of events is flexible. Characters' personalities are flexible. Basic assumptions about the setting are flexible.
It's like sculpting with mist. There's just nothing solid there.
If the end result resembles naturalism, if the reader believes for a moment that the markings on paper represent a consistent alternate world, it's only because the magic trick worked.
This means that the writer's experience is never going to match the reader's experience. The writer doesn't get to have the reader's enjoyment of discovering this world - no more than a a magician can be fooled by a trick while they're performing it.
The Character Just Took Over, Man
Speaking of magic tricks: Sometimes authors talk about a character having a mind of its own and telling the author where the story should go.
I'm not sure what's going on there, man. Maybe if you're writing a new entry in a series and have some long-established characters and you need to stay true to them. But when you're writing a character for the first time? You decide who the character is. Whatever you make them do, that's who they are. For any given character there are infinite possible interpretations, which you narrow down with each word or action you give them.
I do think that sometimes you write a line for a character and suddenly the character clicks, like you just discovered who they are. That's happened to me a lot. With role-playing game characters especially. But the character still doesn't have "a mind of their own". It's just that you discovered a characterization that works for you.
That said, consistent characterization is really fucking important. Nothing ruins a story faster than character motivations that don't make sense, or that are plain missing. Bogus science can be hand-waved, but if your people don't act like people, nothing can save your story. So out of all the magic tricks, "this character has a mind of their own" is the most important illusion to create.
Most of Writing is Rewriting
The reader experiences the story beginning to end, as a series of fictional events. The writer experiences it first draft to last draft -- as a series of decisions to be made, blanks to be filled, plot holes to be fixed, etc.
The story would ALWAYS be better with another rewrite. But at some point you have to call it good enough and start drawing. One good thing about working under a deadline is that the deadline forces you not to be a perfectionist about the rewriting.
My original idea changed a lot in the development. Like, the first draft was just Zach and assorted background characters. Julia and Pedro didn't exist yet.
I rejected my original ending for being all talk with nothing interesting going on visually. I think this was the right choice. Repeat it with me: Comics are a visual medium. If you have a whole page of talking heads to draw, something is wrong with your script.
After I wrote a better ending, I realized I had some empty roles to fill, so Julia and Pedro were invented to fill them. I think it's a way better story with them in it.
The original idea, the inspiration, is what gives you motivation to start working, but don't cling to it. You'll have other ideas. Sometimes the original idea is just a stepping stone to something better.
A lot of story problems are the result of seams between different drafts -- this page will be at revision 5 and this other page at revision 6, as it were, and they don't quite line up. Sometimes a page is full of holdovers, stuff that was needed in revision 5 but doesn't matter in revision 6. Sometimes the holdovers stay in for a while before you notice them. It really helps to have someone else read it over and point out the seam for you.
Like, in the first draft, it was important to show Zach interviewing for the job and getting hired. That took up page 1 and part of 2. The interview stuff stayed there for several revisions before I finally realized that it was a relic. There was no need to see the interview: I could tighten things up a lot if Zach wasjust already part of the company when the story opens. Several panels on the finished pages 1 and 2 were originally drawn for the interview scene and then repurposed -- that's how late in the process I figured this out.
An unexpected benefit of drawing comics is that it makes you look more carefully at the world around you. Because you might need to draw anything. Random everyday objects you've never tried to draw before, that would not usually be a subject of art: there they are in the background of a panel! Better find one and figure out how to draw it.
Walking around town when my brain is in "comics mode", I see things I wouldn't normally see. A person with a cool hairdo that I want to swipe for a character. A neat old building that would look good in the background of a panel. The shape of a tree. Etc.
On Science Fiction
The science fiction that interests me most is what-if stories about social change. Which means you need four parts:
- the what-if: the new technology or whatever and the rules for how it works
- the society: how does this new whatever do to affect the tangle of unspoken rules and assumptions we call culture
- the characters: what do the changes to technology and society mean for the characters
- the themes: what are you trying to say about, you know, the human condition and stuff. Hopefully something more interesting than just "oh no, this technology/social trend is really bad". Write a blog post if that's all you want to say
The themes and characters are what the story's about. The what-if and the society belong in the background.
A lot of really shitty science fiction has been written by writing the what-if and the society and ignoring themes and characters.
Balancing themes, characters, and world-building is really hard! It's hard enough to get one of those things right, and when you try to do them together, sometimes they fight each other. Science-fiction fans, including myself, love to nitpick stories where the world-building isn't quite consistent. But trying to do it myself has given me a newfound sympathy. I'm starting to think it's a valid artistic choice to favor the emotional impact of the story over the consistency of made-up science if the two are irreconcilable. Nerd heresy, I know.
Will The Audience Get It?
There were a lot of things I wanted to say in "We Can Regrow That For You". Themes and ideas I didn't have space to explore in depth. So I just hinted at them. I have no idea how many readers will pick up on the hints, but they're there.
Readers hate being bashed over the head with something obvious, right? I figure it's better to hint at things and let the reader feel smart when they figure it out. Instead of telling the story directly, you describe the edges of a story-shaped hole and let them fill in the blanks.
That's what "Show, Don't Tell" is about, right? It's really more like "Show them one thing by telling them another thing"
The story, in my head, is a cloud of marvelous possibilities. I hope that in the reader's head, it becomes a cloud of marvelous possibilities as well. But in between, it has to be flattened to pass through the narrow, limited, linear medium of scratch marks on paper, that can only hint at the story I imagined. I can only hope that whatever story the reader creates in their head, inspired by my scratch marks, is meaningful to them.
How Cop Shows Legitimize Torture
Sushu was watching one of her crime procedural shows last night, and there was a scene where the "hero" tortures a suspect (off-camera). His daughter has been kidnapped by the bad guys in this episode, and the suspect isn't talking, and the narrative purpose of the torture is to show that the hero cares so much about his daughter that he's willing to break all the rules.
And I think about why America started torturing prisoners of war after 9/11, and why even after it was exposed the people responsible for the policy were never punished. And why Guantanamo is still open. And yeah, in my last post I blamed Congress, but there's more to it than that: there's a disturbingly large number of voters who support torture. To some degree, Congress is just doing what the people want, scary as that thought is.
Maybe it's partly because their image of torture comes from the way it's portrayed on TV cop shows: where it's something the heroes do for the greater good.
On TV, when the hero tortures a bad guy for information, the audience already knows the bad guy did it. Most of the time, they saw him do it on screen earlier in the episode. Because of the narrative structure of these shows, there's never any doubt that the police have the right person. So it's always like "Well, torture's bad, but this is the only guy who knows where the ticking time-bomb is, so if you don't torture him, lots of innocent people will die." So the heroes have a bit of a moral dilemma but quickly decide that saving those lives is so important that they're going to "break the rules" for it. Torture is shown as (apologies for falling back on D&D alignments but I don't know how else to describe this) a "chaotic good" action under certain circumstances.
What happens in real life, that you never see in the cop shows, is that they've captured a suspect, but nobody knows whether he's the culprit or not, and they torture him and he screams that he doesn't know anything, and they keep torturing him and he keeps screaming that he doesn't know anything, and nobody knows if it's because he's really good at resisting interrogation or because the real culprit is still out there somewhere and they're torturing an innocent person.
Or they torture him and he tells them an address, but it turns out to be wrong, because he really didn't know anything and he just made up an address to get them to stop torturing him.
Like, "innocent until proven guilty" isn't just some bleeding-heart liberal slogan; it's a good policy because police make mistakes. They're only human, and they're required to act on incomplete information most of the time. The chance that you've picked up an innocent person, and the real culprit is still out there somewhere, is pretty high.
But cop shows never end with them getting the wrong guy. They never cart someone off to prison who's still protesting his innocence. The real bad guy always confesses right after the detective explains how she saw through the one mistake in his perfect crime, so the audience can have a sense of closure.
Given that real life never gives us the certainty of a TV show, we should reject the "chaotic good" view of torture. It's not a choice between torturing a guy and letting innocent people die. Some large fraction of the time, torturing the guy gives you worthless information or no information at all, the innocent people die anyway, and you tortured a guy for nothing.. It's not a grey area, it's not a moral dilemma, it's not a difficult choice. Resorting to torture is like selling your soul to the devil for a wooden nickel.
By the way, this is why you shouldn't listen to anybody who tells you that writing fiction isn't important. Storytelling is how you create and influence culture, and culture influences values, and values influence how people vote and what people fight for, which influences history. Not to say you should set out to write polemical fiction: beating readers over the head with a political message makes lousy storytelling. But the values at the core of your work are sure as hell going to find their way into the reader's mind.
What American TV shows of the past few decades had portrayed torture as something the innocent hero suffers at the hands of a villainous government after being mistaken for an enemy of the state? Would there still be as many people supporting it?
Tai Chi Zero (Me and Sushu made a podcast)
After Taiko practice every Saturday, we usually hang out with our friend Chris in Oakland for a few hours, watching anime and kung fu movies, role-playing, or playing board games.
After that there's an hour drive back from Oakland to Palo Alto. There's not much else to do besides talk about what we just watched or played. That leads into talking about two of my favorite topics - game design and storytelling! We've had a lot of interesting conversations on this weekly ride home.
Last week, as an experiment, I decided to record us and call it a "podcast". 99% of podcasts on the internet are just an hour some friends giggling about their inside jokes anyway (people seriously need to learn to edit that stuff out). Surely we can do better than that!
This week we mostly talked about a kung-fu movie called Tai Chi Zero. It's notable for incorporating steampunk elements and comic-book-style visual effects into the story of a very dumb guy with a "berserk button" literally growing out of his forehead.
If there's enough interest in it for us to keep doing them, I'll make a proper page with an RSS feed and stuff. For now here's just a link to the raw mp3 file. Total length is about 40 minutes.
Contents with timestamps below the fold:
0:00 - What's this podcast.
1:12 - Tai Chi Zero and its incorporation of other media
- Comic-style visuals
- Connection to martial arts novels
- How ridiculous this movie is / 4th wall and trope awareness
- Literary chinese/cultural background
- Skipping through time and space, split-screen, saving time
10:50 - Comparison to Sherlock Holmes
- We don't like sherlock-vision and shakycam
- Showing the audience what's going to happen before it happens
- Time confusion
- The unspoken plan guarantee
- Jono is slow on the uptake
18:45 - Why are all the women in this movie needlessly in love with boring tophat guy?
- The mistake of making a character's backstory more interesting than the real story
- Crossdressing is "fucking hot"!
20:35 - A tangent about playing loner characters in RPGs
- You can't non-consensually involve Cyclops in your kink!
27:30 - Back to Tai Chi Zero and Top Hat Guy.
- Everybody in the village has the same name?
- Top hat guy introduced too late
- Too much brooding before we know the reason why
- What a slap in the face!
34:55 - What happened to that rebellion, anyway?
- Jono was confused by the change of plot direction.
- Jianghu prologue scenes
- In western fiction that the story is about whatever is the biggest threat introduced up to then
- Internal kung fu: a typical Wuxia McGuffin
Podcast #2 - Seirei no Moribito
Here it is: Podcast 2.mp3. (35:45, 32.7 MB) Recorded Thursday, May 2nd, 2013.
0:00 - Visiting Chris in the hospital
2:00 - Our anime "book club".
4:40 - Anime cons then and now; the fragmentation of fandom.
8:00 - Awkward homestucks; cutting-edge cosplay.
11:00 - Today's anime: Seirei no Moribito. Kicking butt; pacing.
13:00 - What's this show about? Is it set in the distant past of Japan, or an alternate history, or a fantasy world?
14:00 - Balsa's characterization.
15:30 - Role-playing games and martial arts philosophy.
17:00 - Setting development without infodumping.
18:00 - Introducing characters via their actions.
21:00 - Trying to learn how to introduce characters better in our comics, Squanto and We Can Regrow That For You.
23:50 - Making the outer represent the inner in comicking.
24:30 - What's up with these fake kanji? Is this Japan or not? (round 2).
27:30 - More about the pacing and setting. Characters who aren't good or evil, just trying to live their lives.
29:00 - Balsa's challenges are about trust, not fighting. If she was a PTA character.
31:30 - The prince's character development, and his silly hairdo.
33:30 - Other shows we might watch for anime book club.
35:00 - Robotech and stupid "vehicle" Voltron! "Lying to a child!"