Adaptations: Values Dissonance

What is values dissonance? This article from TV Tropes does a great job explaining it in long form (really long form if you wind up wiki walking) but the short version is, values dissonance is what happens when the structure and/or aesthetic choices of a work are presenting themes that fight against each other. It doesn’t always mean that values are directly opposed, but there’s only so much space in a given work (and the mind of the audience) for each story. When the themes of a story are too many or just don’t work well together it creates values dissonance.

The phenomena of values dissonance occurs most often when a story is a collaboration or an adaptation and the various parties involved don’t agree on what the major theme or purpose of the work should be. This doesn’t always have to be an open disagreement, they may just be trying to fit all their shared ideas into a package that isn’t equipped to deal with them or, as is often the case in adaptations, they may just have too much respect for the original work to want to change “sacred writ” and just try and shoehorn their own ideas into a story. And, of course, it can be any possible combination of those things plus any other number of circumstances such as studio/publisher interference or just not having enough time to work everything out.

What I want to talk about today is not values dissonance per se as it is adaptations and what makes them so difficult. It just so happens that the number one killer of adaptations in my personal opinion is values dissonance.

But wait! You say that I recently did another post on adaptations where I explicitly said thematic material was changed resulting in an adapted work that was just as good as the original, if not better? You’re right, I did. Edge of Tomorrow made huge thematic shifts to the story of All You Need is Kill. But more importantly, it then carefully extrapolated those thematic shifts to every aspect of the film, transforming characters, dialog, situations and plot to fit while, at the same time, producing a visually arresting film with a solid plot that would be more comprehensible than the original to it’s target audience.

Reread that sentence a few times. It boils down what the scriptwriting and production team did over the course of a year or so to it’s bare basics, the execution was much more complex – and that was not a simple sentence to begin with. Edge of Tomorrow was a phenomenal success in adapting a book to screen in part because it was so conscious of the changes it was making and their impact on the work as a whole.

Let’s look at two adaptations of the same famous work that strive to be faithful to the original work. My original urge here was to go with Shakespeare, since he’s pretty well known and his stuff has been translated to screen more than once. Problem is, I’ve only read a few of his plays and I’ve only ever seen them on the stage. Plus, theater translates more readily to film than books, so it might not be the best choice for this purpose. And I didn’t want to bring modern day reinterpretations into the mix, as good as I’m sure West Side Story is.

The solution? Do a work by a different author that has been reinterpreted for the screen more than once which I’m already familiar with in all forms! So today we’re going to be talking about Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

The two most well known adaptations of Pride and Prejudice are probably the 1995 A&E TV miniseries staring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth and the 2005 film version staring Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfayden. For purposes of clarity, since both share the same title, we’ll use their years of release to differentiate them.

This is not a review of Pride and Prejudice so I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the work – and I’ll wait if you need to go out and read/watch it before we continue. It really is worth your time, as all Austen’s work is, although I think my favorite adaptation of her work will always be Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. (Yes, even though there’s no Colin Firth. Though Mr. Darcy is still my favorite male character of hers, largely due to Firth’s superior performance.)

Most of the caveats of my last post apply here as well – this isn’t about actors or costuming or any of that other stuff, just the way the story is presented.

So let’s get down to brass tacks! There’s three categories where I feel the 2005 version suffers from values dissonance which results in the film being slightly weaker than the 1995 miniseries. And they are:

Elizabeth Bennet 

Our main character. In both versions and the book Lizzie is a woman of solid upbringing, good character and strange family. With four sisters and eccentric parents Lizzie is bound to be something of a character herself but fortunately it manifests in nothing more damaging than strong opinions and the guts to stick by them, generally admirable character traits. But Lizzie’s strengths are often her weaknesses and her tendency in the story to make snap judgments about a person and then carry them forward causes her to misjudge the characters of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham in spite of mounting evidence that contradicts her opinions.

Elizabeth is the perfect flawed protagonist for a morality play. She’s a great person, much better than many people we know, in just bout every respect but one – her tendency towards prejudice. This, much like Mr. Darcy’s high regard for his own station in life, leads her to bad behavior that causes her grief, first in failing to recognize Mr. Darcy’s good qualities beneath his antisocial behavior and second in failing to recognize Mr. Wickham’s caddishness under his guise of geniality.

Austen very carefully shows Lizzie’s brilliance in a number of ways. She spars with the dour and acerbic Catherine de Bourgh in a way that is both meticulously formal and correct but still slyly irreverent and witty. We can tell she isn’t intimidated by this so-called personage before her but rather confident in her own position and more than capable to use the mores of the times as both shield from Lady Catherine’s attacks and sword to prod the lady back into place.

While the 1995 version largely keeps this dynamic (something of a theme for this version) the 2005 version chooses to have Lizzie react in a more defiant fashion, more directly putting Lady Catherine in her place. While this is a very modern and fully understandable reaction it’s very modernity puts Lizzie at odds with the rest of the story. It creates values dissonance between her and the rest of the characters, including her own romantic interest and, at times, her own character.

Worse, the 2005 version chooses to focus on the reaction Elizabeth and her family have towards Mr. Darcy’s handling of Lydia’s elopement as the catalyst for their changing opinions of him when, in truth, it was Lizzie’s realization that she had misjudged Wickham that caused her to reevaluate all her other snap judgments in Austen’s book. Only when confronted with her own character flaw could she begin adjusting her understanding to take it into account. (In Lizzie’s own words, “Until that moment I never knew myself.”) Where the 2005 Lizzie is carried away by an emotion of gratitude the 1995 Lizzie can say that she has come to know and appreciate Darcy’s character better. One of these is engaging character growth the other is pure sentiment.

(That’s not a contrast, by the way. Engaging character growth creates sentiment, the reverse is only true at times – and those times are pretty rare. When sentiment from character growth and plain old sentiment compete, the former always wins out because it’s founded on something solid.)

Themes of Class Warfare 

This is one of modern Hollyweird’s favorite themes and at first glance it seems a natural fit. After all, there is a sort of class difference between Lizzy and Mr. Darcy, isn’t there? Well, sort of.

As Elizabeth tells Lady Catherine, “He is a gentleman, I am a gentleman’s daughter.” Or, in other words, the difference is one of degree rather than one of kind. Darcy’s own feelings of superiority to the Bennets come from his feeling that he is better behaved than they are when Lizzie serves to show that he is just as offputting in his own way. The problem is not that there is a difference in wealth but rather in how people react to one another, difference in wealth being just one aspect of that (embodied not by the main protagonists but by the relatively minor character Catherine de Bourgh.)

This isn’t to say that class conflict never occurs or that it has no place at the storyteller’s table. Neither is true. But it wasn’t the story Austen was trying to tell nor is it something that seems to have even been on her radar. Pride and Prejudice was a story of self discovery amidst social mores with romance as the result of the journey. Romance was not the cause of self discovery nor did the process cut across the standards of the time (much). This was in part because that was the time and in part because Austen was writing about the life she knew, a strong trait in an author. The introduction of class warfare as a theme creates values dissonance between Austen’s original work and the 2005 version that is sidestepped in the 1995 version by, again, hewing to the original story. Granted it’s not much, but both works were of good quality and so ever little shortcoming shows.

Treatment of the Bennet Family 

Let’s be honest – this is not a fully functional family in any version of the story. However Austen’s version and the 1995 version portray this largely as a result of the parents being less than ideal. While funny and intellectual, Mr. Bennet is also condescending and a little mean to his younger three daughters. He feels they lack sense but never seems to try and teach it to them, even though it is clearly his opinion (and that of most everyone else who knows her) that they will not learn sense from their mother.

And Mrs. Bennet… lacks sense. Sense of people, sense of propriety, sense of the moment, just about every kind of sense it’s possible for a person to have, Mrs. Bennet is without.

Never the less, the Bennets are a whole unit, supporting one another as best they can in all eventualities and forming a tightly knit family that stands in stark contrast to the nearly-solitary Mr. Darcy who, although born to excellent parents, now has no family to speak of save a much younger sister who he is in no position to confide in. It is in part the contrast between this family with its grudging solidarity and Mr. Darcy’s aloofness that leads to his own process of self discovery.

In praise of the 2005 version almost all of these family dynamics are left in place… except one. As Lizzie’s relationships with Wickham and Darcy become more twisted she lets the secrets pile up as well, rather than confiding in her sister Jane and thus giving herself an impartial mirror to view herself, in as well as cutting herself off from the support that so mystifies Mr. Darcy. In short, she behaves like a teenager of the modern day, once again creating values dissonance between the supportive Elizabeth, who fights for Jane’s happiness as well as her own, and the much more self absorbed character portrayed by Keira Knightly. On top of that, it runs counter to the original them of self discovery that permeates Austen’s original work, as Lizzie has fewer ways to see herself clearly since she has no one she can trust to give her an outside view of herself.

Now it’s not my intention to sit here and bash on the work of Deborah Moggach and Joe Wright in creating the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice. What they did was very impressive from beginning to end. The things I’ve pointed out aren’t the most important details of the story. But at the same time the difference between good and great, a strong impression and just vaguely memorable, is frequently in those details. Adapting a work, particularly a well known and popular work, only adds to the difficulty of getting all those details right because there’s an added layer of complexity, namely audiences already expecting certain things from your adaptation.

Where Edge of Tomorrow prospered was in completely reimagining the original premise, whereas the 2005 Pride and Prejudice (and so many other similar movies) stumbled when it tried to shoehorn in viewpoints that didn’t mesh with the story they originally set out to tell without that level of reimagining to make the new material work.

Cool Things: Dominion

I’ll admit it – I’m a card game fanatic.

Board games are fun but card games have this special appeal. It comes from the mix of available and hidden information, the randomness of the shuffle and the feel of the cardboard. Card games can run the gamut from something that you can play with your typical 52-card, four suited deck to an absurdly complicated, 12,000 plus card monstrosity that’s been growing for the last 20 years. Finding a card game among all those with depth and replayablity that won’t break your brain or your budget can be a real chore.

One game that I’ve found scratches the itch well is Dominion (specifically the Intrigue card set, but either version of the game is good.) The basic purpose of the game is easy – score the most points and you win!

Of course the real trick is in scoring those points. Dominion is what is known as a “deck building” game, a kind of game where everyone starts with the same basic cards but picks new cards to add to their deck every turn. Some cards are used to buy cards, some cards score points, some cards do other special actions. Easy, right?

Well, the real challenge of the game is long term planning. See, the vast majority of cards that score points don’t do anything else – you can’t use them to buy cards (and point cards have to be bought), you can’t do special actions with them, in short they’re dead weight until the end of the game. This means you have to spend time amassing resources to buy points with, and find ways to do it faster than everyone else. Each game is a race to find something that works well, rack up resources with it and then score points fastest.

Adding another layer of complexity is the fact that Dominion offers more cards than you can possibly use in a single game. The basic resource and point cards stay the same but you can change the special action cards every time you play, making the game fresh and different for a long time. And if you finally use every possible combination of special cards in your games you can always pick up additional card sets to keep things changing. While it’s not exactly a collectible card game the basic format makes expanding your game very easy to do.

Dominion is a game with a lot going on. There’s time management, resource management, opportunity management. It can be used to teach critical thinking, long term planning and the significance of opportunity cost. Like the best games, it can teach valuable life skills in a simple and engaging way. Or you can just play to show your friends who’s boss. Either way, win or lose, you’re probably going to have a good time.

Thunder Clap: Hot Beats

Helix

This is how a typical disaster starts at the Project Sumter offices. First, I get back in town from another trip to DC. While checking my e-mail it becomes clear that it’s been a slow week and it might be a good time to try and catch up on some of that business that’s been on the back burner as I run around the Midwest region supervising stuff and consulting with the Senate Committee on new regulations for talented people in the workplace. So I decide I’m going to try and ask Teresa out. Again.

Cue disaster.

My pal Jack Howell, once my tactical team leader and good natured butt of a lot of rhyming jokes, leaned into my office doorway and rapped on the doorframe. “The Senior Talent in today?”

“I hate that title and can’t believe they made it official,” I said, reminding Jack that I would continue to ignore him until he called me something sensible.

“It could be worse,” Jack said, ignoring my hint. “You could be the Talent Agent. Or the Senior Talent Agent.”

I kept reading my e-mail. It’s amazing how much builds up in just three or four days.

Finally Jack sighed and said, “Sanders has something he wants you to handle, Helix.”

“Is it a good something or a bad something?” I asked, selecting a batch of files and hitting delete. “With Sanders I never know what to expect.”

“Amp’s band is doing one of those PR concerts again tonight, Sanders wants you to go and put a face on it.”

“Amp’s got a face already and most people think it’s better than mine.” Ever since we’d officially gone public a couple of years ago the Project had been scrambling to put what the relations experts called a “positive face” on us. Being a secretive government branch with minimal accountability to the public at large usually being considered a strike against you. Amplifier’s garage band, a group we had initially wanted her to pull out of, had proven really useful in that regard and she was starting to grow a really enthusiastic fanbase. I wasn’t really sure why they kept sending other agents to her events when there were already two talents in the group and everyone there was more interested in them than us. “Still, if that’s what he wants maybe Al Massif would-“

“He’s already going,” Jack said with a grin. “Taking Cheryl, from what I understand, but it sounds like that’s a lot closer to being a date than official business.”

I drummed my fingers on my desk for a moment, trying to think up a new dodge. To buy time I said, “Are those two officially dating now? Or is he still holding out for a yes from Amp?”

“I keep my mind off that kind of thing, Helix. Nothing good comes of meddling.” He waved a pair of tickets at me. “All I know is Sanders wants somebody with more than three years experience at that concert as the public face and that means you, Massif or Broadband. Further meaning either you have to talk a near-septuagenarian into going to a rock concert, make Massif change his plans or go yourself.”

I massaged my temples. “Jack, remind me again why I hated never being promoted beyond Special Agent?”

“You hated the low pay, lack of benefits and being ignored whenever you had a good idea.”

“What exactly have I got now that I didn’t then?”

“Good benefits.”

“Right.” I sat back in my chair and held out my hand for the tickets. “Does that make you my sidekick for the evening?”

“Not me, boss,” Jack said, holding his hands up in a ‘no way’ gesture. “I got plans with the better half. But you know…”

He trailed of and I waited for him to finish. Except he was clearly waiting for me to prompt him and enjoying every minute. So I did. “No, I don’t know. Enlighten me.”

“Well, I hear Herrera doesn’t have any plans for the evening.”

“Oh?” I stared at the tickets for a moment, then back and Jack. “Exactly ow many people were involved in this little conspiracy of yours, Agent Howell?”

Jack did his best innocent look, which is surprisingly good for someone who spends a lot of his time looking like a blonde grizzly bear. “Not sure what you mean, Helix. Concert’s in two hours so if you want a hot date rather than the alternative you better get moving!”

He ducked out the door and hurried away before I could say anything else. With little else to do I picked up my phone and started dialing.

——–

Izzy

One of the weirdest things about having most of your social circle be people you work with is, when someone who technically outranks you invites you to go somewhere, you’re never sure if it’s a suggestion or an order. While Teresa Herrera is more like the older sister I don’t have – by virtue of being the oldest – the fact that she’s worked with my father and might also kinda sorta be dating my boss makes the chain of command less than entirely clear.

Of course, papa seemed to think it was a good idea and he’s the expert on that part of the business, so Jane and I agreed to go along.

Another weird part of my social circle is the superpowers. My papa is half strongman, half preacher, so it’s no wonder Project Sumter called him Samson back in the day when real names were something that happened to other people. My friend Jane is some kind of ex-supervillain, or as dad would insist we call her, a reformed talent. Personally, I think she’s just filled out a little bit since dad took her on as part of Project Sumter’s new parole system last year. She may be a year older than me but she sure doesn’t have sense, if you know what I mean.

Case in point. Ever since papa introduced them, Jane and Amp have been best buddies. Sure, Amplifier has a cool job and a nice apartment but she’s always seemed kind of aimless to me. Still, that’s probably part of the appeal, Jane doesn’t like people getting too close and Amp’s certainly not the clingy type. So what I’m trying to say is, Jane’s a good person for hanging out with but I’m not sure I would’ve relied on her in a pinch.

Amplifier and Jane Hammer are a funny picture and I’m surprised the tabloids haven’t spent more time chasing them when they go out to parties. One’s tall, lanky and thin, the other is short, blonde and cute. They make quite the pair. That night they agreed to meet up early at the concert venue and spent half their time back stage tormenting the roadies and the other half checking on the equipment. I don’t know anything about sound stuff so I couldn’t tell which was which but I’m pretty sure they only had the speakers rearranged because they like watching the guys on the stage crew move them around. Like the name implies Amplifier has the ability to boost sound and make herself heard under just about any kind of circumstances and part of her gimmick is that she sings without a mic. As far as I know she didn’t usually take an interest in the stage setup. And Jane was definitely flirting with one of the crew in-between whispering with Amp.

For my part, I was hanging out with papa by the stage door. “I’m still not clear on how this all is good publicity for Project Sumter.”

“Basically, we show we’re here and doing things the community likes.” Papa shrugged. “I know it doesn’t sound exciting but it’s the foundation of any outreach.”

“I guess. Why did you want to be here?”

He gave me a knowing smile. “Because I knew Jane would want to go and it was better to invite myself along than leave you to running around on your own. Did you not want to come?”

It was my turn to shrug. “Amp’s brand of music isn’t my thing. Jane was going and I thought maybe I’d tag along – just didn’t think it was your reason, too.”

“Don’t all kids your age listen to punk?”

I laughed. “Sure, because you have to on the bus at the very least. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it. I mean sure, it’s got a beat but you can’t really dance to it.

“That’s basically my problem with it, too.”

I jumped and spun around. “Sifu! Hi.”

This brings the weirdness of my life full circle. My hand to hand combat instructor – and how many college freshman can say they have one of those – had just popped up beside me. Built like GI Joe, born in the Polish part of town, trained in Chinese martial arts since the age of six and semi indestructible, Aluchinskii Massif is quite possibly the quintessential American superhero. On top of all that he’s polite, considerate, thoughtful and tonight he was accompanied by a busty redhead. Most of my time around him has involved getting swept off my feet in a very literal sense.

He is apologetic about it, though.

“Hello, Isabella,” he said with a smile. Then he nodded to papa and said, “Samson.”

And there’s the problem in a nutshell. To me, Al Massif may be very nearly perfect but to him, I’m just part of the job. If papa’s ever noticed that byplay he’s never said anything; then again he’s not dense either. But just like he usually did he held out his hand for a quick shake and said, “Hello, Massif. You look well. What brings you out here tonight?”

“To be honest, I’m really not sure.” He glanced at the woman with him. “Cheryl and Jack have some kind of bet going with Sanders and I’m apparently helping them win it.”

“Technically Jack made the bet,” Cheryl said. “I’m just conspiring with him.”

“That’s a lot of work for a bet,” papa said, waggling his eyebrows. “What are the stakes?”

“He didn’t say what they were, actually.” Cheryl shrugged. “Or what they were betting about. I’m not sure I want to know what those two are up to, to be honest.”

“Um.” The other three turned to look at me.

Al shifted a hand behind his back, as if he was using it to push his already upright posture even straighter. Jane calls this “the sifu pose” and says he does it whenever he’s trying to decide whether to be professional or not. Like when he’s putting us through a drill and is doing his best not to bawl us out for bad form. Except this time he just asked, “Um what?”

The correct answer was that Jack and Sanders had a standing bet over whether Helix would ask Teresa out before the end of the year but, once again, this is not exactly the kind of thing you can just up and say about somebody who is kind-of sort-of your boss.

And if you’re wondering how I can be unclear who my boss is, exactly, then you’ve obviously never worked in a government office that’s undergone a recent structural overhaul. I think, technically, Helix is the supervisor for all fifty or so field trained talents in the Midwest and the other dozen that are going through training, myself included, and that’s enough for me to want to stay as far away from poking my nose in his personal life as possible. The man’s scary when he’s mad.

So I played Obvious Excuse Number One and said, “I think I’d better check on Jane before she gets herself kicked out for hassling the staff.”

“If you see Helix tell him I want a quick word with him sometime tonight,” papa said. “No hurry, though.”

“Right.” So the real reason he came with us was work, probably something related to the parolees he’s in charge of. Not surprising, that kind of job doesn’t exactly keep regular hours. I headed off to try and find Jane and hoped I hadn’t made myself look like too much of a dork.

Amp and Jane weren’t back stage anymore so I figured they’d probably headed around to the bar out on the floor. Jane’s two years older than me, Amp’s three, and both can drink legally, so I wasn’t really worried about that. Neither one tends to get drunk and being at the bar put distance between them and the stage crew, so that was a plus. I never actually got to the bar, though, because as I went out into the hall I caught sight of Teresa and Helix coming in the main entrance.

Since I didn’t want to forget to pass on papa’s message before I forgot I cut through the growing crowd and met the two of them about two thirds of the way.

Teresa looked glad to see me there and, after a brief scowl, so did Helix. I had a hunch I knew what that was about but again, not about to pry. Then Teresa pinned me down with questions about life – school, testing for my field qualifications, family, stuff like that – and before I knew it the show was starting.

A Broken Sword show isn’t a whole lot different than any other, so if you’ve been to see a band in your life you know what happened. There were warm up acts, words from management, breaks to hit the restrooms and the occasional grabby drunk that event security dealt with quickly and quietly. It’s hard to keep track of everyone in crowds like that and I found and lost track of my papa, Jane, Teresa and Helix and Al and Cheryl a couple of times each. And that was all before Amp and crew took the stage.

The thing about Broken Sword, what I think is why Sumter likes to use them to generate good press, is that they’ve been together since before talents came out and they’ve functioned as a group the whole time. On top of Amp one of the guitarists, codename Gearshift, is a talent and has worked with the Project on and off. There’s apparently some kind of special certifications he needs to finish with before he can get full field licensing – something to do with his talent and architecture – and he’s taking his time getting through college while he works on them. Beyond those two out of the five being talents, Clark Movsessian on the drums moonlights as an analyst for the Project.

All in all, it’s a great PR to show that we’ve had groups working together both in and out of the field to make art, or at least something like it, and protecting the citizenry from evil. Or something. At least I’m sure it’s a nice contrast to the way most people usually see shadowy government organizations and helps play down the fact that, until two years ago, what half the band did was not only unheralded but was actually illegal to talk about.

So Amp was doing her Hello Midwest bit, introducing the band and doing trick with the crowd noise like making it swell to stadium levels or pushing it down to whispers, stuff that’s pretty cool to experience and, I’m told, very hard to actually do. Whether or not that’s true, the audience usually loves it and tonight was no exception. Amp was leading into the band’s first song of the night when the lights and most of the sound suddenly died and the hall disappeared in total darkness. I didn’t know it but it was the start of a very, very long day.

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Genrely Speaking: Aesthetics and Characteristics

So I promised to talk about Aesthetic and Characteristic genres today. For starters, so far as I know, this is not any official literary distinction; it’s just something I’ve noticed as I spent the last year or so working on this segment and started organizing the genres I’ve covered into something like a comprehensive list. So what exactly prompted me to start breaking genres into two groups?

Well, basically it was the fact that genres get mixed and matched a lot. “Scifi thriller” or “paranormal romance” just to name a few. Look at either of those and you can break them into component parts. The scifi in the first is usually some kind of space opera or maybe just twenty minutes in the future hard scifi. The thriller is something else (that is not related to Michael Jackson.) Paranormal probably means urban fantasy while romance is well… romance. Each of these “genres” is actually two genres – one governing the aesthetics and themes of the story, the other governing the kinds of characters we see and the pacing and focus of the actual plot.

While on the one hand you can mix and match aesthetic and characteristic genres you can’t really combine two aesthetic or characteristic genres. Take the detective story and the police procedural, for example. Each of those genres demands totally different focuses for character development and plot structure. Likewise you can’t combine steampunk, with it’s heavy emphasis on progress and examining the standards of society, with the high fantasy themes of upholding law, rightful rulers and the destruction of the depraved – or you could, but your story would be jumbled, confused and lacking in impact.

Unlike the genres themselves, these protogroupings (ur-groupings?) have no real pros or cons. It’s just another way to take the expectations of your audience and your literary form and analyze them. I’ve been wondering if I should even bother making the distinction here on the blog since it adds so little to how I look at them – but then, there’s no telling what the Internet will make of things so there is that.

One of the most interesting things about aesthetic and characteristic genres is that they can stand on their own just fine. Thriller is a perfectly serviceable genre without adding scifi or paranormal overtones to it. So are hard scifi, space opera, detective stories, you name it. The whole point of fiction is to give us a reflection of real life with which we can form a deeper understanding of ourselves and our world. If there’s one particular part you want to focus on without wasting time building up added layers of complexity, go for it. That’s a real strength for a writer and you should not shy away from it. Genres are tools for understanding, not requirements of it.

So write whatever you want. But if you’re having trouble getting your themes focused or your characters to flow the way you want them don’t hesitate to use genres to help you find focus. That’s a big part of what they’re there for.

Original Art: Thunder Clap

So I love drawing and I love writing. It’s inevitable that I would try and illustrate the cover to one of my books, right? Even though it’s more a collection of blog posts than a book right now. In fact, it’s basically just one blog post. But still, I doodle. So here’s what I think the cover of Thunder Clap could look like:

ThunderClap0001

See? Isn’t that cool?! Is Helix throwing that shadow? Is it Circuit looming ominously over him as he channels lighting to his nefarious will? Did I just use nefarious in an unironic fashion? Who knows?!

Well, okay I do but I plan to explain that as Thunder Clap unfolds over the next several months. In the mean time, hope you enjoy!

Thunder Clap: Rude Awakening

Matthew Sykes snapped awake, aware of three things almost at once. His wife was not in bed with him. But then, she was at one of those charity networking things, out of town for the weekend. He’d gone himself in the past but this year he just hadn’t had the energy the trip. Rather than back out his wife had offered to go in his place. Sykes found he missed her being there even though she’d only been gone a day.

The sky was still dark out, which surprised him. It was mid summer and the sun rose early. He was not the type to sleep restlessly so waking up before the dawn was not a usual part of his life. Then again, there was that vaguely musical jackhammer sound that might be what had woken him. A moment’s groggy though placed the noise.

His phone was ringing.

Not the public line, which didn’t even have a receiver in the bedroom and mostly went straight to voicemail, so his secretary could screen the messages, nor the direct line to the office of Sykes Telecommunications, the tristate company he remained sole owner and operator of. It was his private line, the one only a small handful of people knew the number for. To make sure it stayed that way he changed the number every six months, something he’d done only three weeks ago. Anyone calling that line was important enough to warrant a little lost sleep.

Sykes sat up in bed and fumbled for his glasses and phone. Once he was fully equipped he checked the number on the screen. It wasn’t familiar but it was in state. That could just mean someone was calling him from an unfamiliar location. Or it could be his number had wound up with someone he’d rather it didn’t. No way to find out but answer it, so he slid his finger across the touchscreen and said, “Matthew Sykes. What can I do for you?”

“Good morning, Mr. Sykes. I’m sorry to-“

“No amount of apologizing is going to make me less tired but it might bore me into drifting off again,” Sykes said, using the grousing to buy time to try and place the voice. It sounded familiar he wasn’t having any luck putting it to a name or face. “Just tell me who you are and what this is about and I’ll decide if I’m letting it go then.”

“Very generous of you,” the voice said dryly. “My name is Alan Dunn, although you might be more familiar with the code name Double Helix, which the media still likes to use.”

“Yes! I’ve seen you in the papers.” Sykes struggled around until he was sitting up in bed. “Is this about the Enchanter business? I heard he was trying to have his sentence overturned again and my office was contacted by the Project about the threat we received from him a few years ago.”

“Actually, no. I think if the Enchanter case was a problem we would have waited until office hours to try and contact you.” Helix sounded apologetic and more than a little tired himself. “You may not remember this but we actually met in person shortly after the Enchanter’s arson spree. I was operating under a pseudonym at the time, so that’s probably a part of it. We were following up some properties that you and Mr. Roger Keller had been investing in.”

“Oh yes!” Sykes scratched absently at the stubble on his chin as he thought. “Hoffman, wasn’t it?”

“That’s the one. Mr. Sykes, are you at home right now?”

“Yes, I am. Why do you ask?”

There was a muffled sound on the other end of the line, like someone was talking with one hand over the receiver, then Helix was back. “We’re sending someone over to pick you up. I’d like you to come in to our regional office… or at least somewhere close by. We’re still working on that part.”

“I’d be happy to, Agent Dunn, but I can drive myself, condition not withstanding.” Sykes slapped one of his useless legs and said, “There’ve been cripples longer than there’ve been cars, you know.”

“Yes, I didn’t mean to imply anything about your ability to get around. Mr. Sykes, I suspect you just woke up and haven’t watched the news yet so I’ll give you a condensed version. The Waltham Towers, one of  the buildings you and Mr. Keller collaborated on, has been taken over by insurgents. We believe they somehow influenced the remodeling of the structure and have been planning this move for years, if not longer. We’re hoping you can give us some insight into what was done during the time the property was in the possession of Keller Development and Restoration.”

“Well we did redo the LAN and some of the infotech in most of the remodeling jobs we’ve done but…” Sykes shrugged, although Helix couldn’t see it. “Really, Roger could tell you more about the details. I’m not even sure I remember which building Waltham Towers was.”

“We’ve tried to contact Mr. Keller but haven’t been able to. And his house has been broken into.” There was something that sounded a lot like someone on the other end of the line being slapped for having a big mouth. Then, “That’s why we’re sending a team to pick you up. They have this number and will call you when they arrive. Do not answer your door until they do. If someone tries to gain entrance to your house before our agents arrive contact me immediately at this number.”

“That… sounds like good advice, Agent Dunn. Thank you for notifying me.”

“Stay safe, Mr. Sykes. I hope to see you when you get here.”

Sumter’s agent hung up without waiting for a goodbye but Sykes supposed he was busy enough that the rudeness could be forgiven. The businessman stared at his phone for a moment, putting together a new morning to-do list. First things first. He called the office and left a message letting them know he wouldn’t be in. Then he made a few other phone calls to make sure things would run smoothly. Then he levered himself out of bed and into his wheelchair.

Before his parents had died TV had been a kind of family vice. They would all gather around and watch it while eating dinner, laughing at whatever silliness was on that night and generally enjoying not having to work at getting along for an hour or so. But after prescription drugs wore out one parent and depression another, and he wound up in the group home, fighting over the TV had turned into a game only the older, meaner kids could win. Then the Sykes had taken him back out of there, and they didn’t believe in TV. In time, Matthew had become a convert in most respects.

Of course, anyone who didn’t share his upbringing might have more broadminded views. Like his wife. In the time they’d been together Sykes hadn’t quite managed to wean her of the habit just yet and so the only TV in the house was in her office, and that was where Sykes headed. Of course, as the owner of a multistate telecommunications company he was aware that there was news available on the Internet. But in odd ways he was a traditionalist and the one exception to his no TV policy was the news. Usually he watched it over lunch on the office lounge TV, mostly because he liked the local broadcast anchors. But at 4:30 in the morning, cable news would have to do.

“…insurgent organization has not identified itself,” the cable anchor was saying as the TV switched on. “But the spokesman who has been seen in the videos being posted has identified himself as Open Circuit. Project Sumter, the Federal Government’s agency dealing with unusually talented individuals, has confirmed that this is the same identity used by the man who first revealed the existence of the Project and unusual talents nearly two years ago. They have not said whether they believe this to be the same man or not. So far, neither Open Circuit or other members of his organization have made demands…”

Sykes muted the TV and fumbled for his phone, then made a few more phone calls, including one to a private security firm and another to his wife, telling her that the bodyguards were on their way. With that taken care of he copied down the URL for the videos the anchor had mentioned and started watching them. He’d only gotten through two and just started a third, mostly boring declarations of dominance and moral superiority and the like, when the doorbell rang. Sykes quickly rolled himself out of his office and to the front door, which he yanked open. “It took you long enough.”

The huge African American man on the other side of the door just smiled. It wasn’t a very comforting expression.

Fiction Index
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Sliding Scales: Hollowness vs Honesty

This is a two part piece. Part one can be found here.

Let’s pick up where we left off, shall we? The quintessential part of MASH, the thing that sets it apart from all the other sitcoms that came before and after, was how blatantly honest it was about its characters flaws and struggles. Hawkeye believes in nothing but being a doctor, Margaret is too scared of her situation to let go of the rules once in a while, Colonel Potter’s temper is just never quite under control. Do these people sound like cliches? Yes, of course they do.

And why do cliches exist? For the most part, because of how similar they are to real life people or events. This is what creates them and why they endure so long. It’s really only the execution of these cliches that makes the difference between good characters and bad characters, or good plots and bad plots.

This brings us back to my problem with the sliding scale of idealism vs. cynicism. You see, the overly cynical “dark” plot is itself a cliché, dating all the way back to about Oedipus Rex. Possibly earlier. The problem with it is that, just like the overly idealistic stories typical of eighties and nineties TV or any other overly idealized work you want to point to, these overly cynical stories don’t ring true. A story so determinedly stripped of joy, fellowship and contentment is just as hollow as a story without suffering, struggle or failure.

To put it in the simplest terms possible: Any story where only good things happen lacks verisimilitude. Any story where only bad things happen lacks verisimilitude.

This is why I say people who rave about how dark a story is irritate me. Let’s take the movie Man of Steel, for example. Ignoring how overcrowded and frantic the pace is, how pretentious the characters sound sometimes and how holey the plot can be the film still has the problem of being overly dark. Superman looses so much of his family in the course of the story, lives so separate from the rest of humanity, and at the end of it he even fails to live up to the ideals that cost him all that.

And do we get the feeling that he’s glad of his choices?

Does he strike you as happy in spite of his suffering?

Maybe he’s dealing with a new kind of disillusionment? A change from struggling with others accepting himself to struggling with accepting what he’s done?

In fact, can you track any kind of character arc in the character of Superman at all?

The whole film is so dark, so without humor, so without peace or joy of any kind of lasting meaning, that it makes the whole film feel flat! There may be subtle shades of variation in Superman’s attitudes and expression but with no contrasting attitudes other than grim resolve (at least I think that’s what it’s supposed to be) it’s hard to get a read on who Superman is. Yes I know we’re told the whole film who he’s supposed to be – but that doesn’t always equal what he is! His whole character just rings hollow.

Contrast that to MASH. Sure, it’s a sitcom but it’s got one of the most significant, difficult to solve problems in human existence at its heart – war, its necessity (or lack thereof) and its effect on the human condition. In their joint review of Man of Steel the Nostalgia Critic and Angry Joe point out that seeing Superman face his most intense test yet can make viewers feel that he’s that much stronger – a hero is only as powerful as the villains he defeats, after all. But the problem is Superman just seems to reflect the struggles he’s enmeshed in. He never rises above them. MASH is entirely about rising above war – the doctors fight it every day in surgery. They also fight it when they laugh and play pranks, when they encourage one another and even when they pick up the pieces after the departure of Henry Blake and try to find peace again. The characters of MASH feel honest where the Man of Steel clangs hollow.

Keep your idealism and your cynicism. Forget dark and edgy. Give me honest any day of the week.