Pay the Piper – Chapter Twenty

Previous Chapter

The nice thing about concrete is, while you can try and sterilize it with an EMP, since it’s not conductive you won’t get very far. The science on psychometry is still mostly out, but we do know it’s somehow related to electromagnetism. Conductors retain psychometric imprints poorly – especially when you hit them with an electrical current – nonconductors retain it well. So concrete is one of the best candidates for long term retention in modern life. But impressions can also be covered over by new layers, so a person walking down a sidewalk will leave traces of his passage but other people crossing the same stretch of sidewalk will quickly wipe them away.

It’s really a lot like other kinds of forensics in that respect.

The FBI was already swarming over a half a dozen parking lots and public parks inside the theoretical launch zones they’d established for the crop duster attacks. They’d started in those areas because the drones used in to spray the peanut oil required a fair amount of clearance for a safe liftoff and were on the large side – larger than the drones used in the previous two attacks – so the working theory was that they were brought in and out via a truck or large car.

It was a solid theory based on the logistics and timing of the crime. It was also turning up exactly zero.

Each of the two overlapping sections of map that they were checking was about a mile square and that covered a surprising number of parking lots or similar suitable launch zones. Eugene told me as we left headquarters that they’d covered most of them and were beginning to look at rooftops and other more inaccessible places the attack might also have been staged from already.

Four hours later, standing in parking lot number five, I was tired, irritable and hadn’t found anything more on my side of things. It was full dark and Eugen had gone to get something for us to eat, leaving me surrounded by normal FBI agents who hadn’t been read in on psychometrics and were clearly wondering why the Asian guy in beige was wandering around and poking at the concrete with ungloved hands every so often.

At least they were polite enough not to give me a hard time about it.

Unfortunately most of them were wondering if I was some kind of psychologist or similar profiler brought in to waste taxpayer money as they did the hard work of collecting evidence that could actually be taken to trial. At least, that’s what I assume the suspicion, annoyance and contempt signified. I couldn’t blame them. I wasn’t getting anything they couldn’t have gotten on their own and it’s not like they knew I could pick up on their inner emotions. Normally I’m good at tuning that kind of flack out but the last couple of days had wrung me out pretty good and I was well on my way to total exhaustion today, too.

I pulled my gloves back on and crossed the street to the low railing running by the boardwalk. Below it was a quaint little marina full of sail boats and other personal watercraft. Gingerly I rested my forearms on the metal railing and stared out at the moonlight on the Pacific.

The ocean is a fantastic psychometric insulator. Unless water is very pure it’s an excellent conductor, plus it’s a liquid so it’s always in motion even in a sealed container so even in distilled water psychometric impressions tend to break up quickly. Young psychometrics are told to imagine waves on a beach as a basic exercise to help them insulate themselves from psychometric overstimulation as one of the first mental disciplines we learn. Some days you just have to go back to the basics.

With eyes closed it was easy to imagine myself on a boat far out on the ocean, rocking along quietly, with no FBI or homegrown terrorists making demands of my time or energy. Adrift on the waves I was even insulated from the constant demands of my own Gift, free of the dozens of types of mental “noise” that bombarded my synesthesia addled brain day by day. If you really wanted to hide from a psychometric forget about EMPs, you could just –

I snapped back to reality with a horrible realization, touching the SIM card in my pocket just long enough to send a text to Eugene. And Natalie and Hennesy for good measure.

This wasn’t a copycat attack. It was the same group but using a new method of attack. Assuming our terrorists did know about the existence of psychometrics, they couldn’t use EMPs to sterilize every attack site they operated from. The collateral damage from a pulse strong enough to suit their purposes would highlight the staging area they used like a spotlight. A half a city block losing power would be all it took for the dozen local and Federal agencies looking for them to zero in on their location in seconds. San Francisco police response times weren’t the best in the nation but they wouldn’t have to be.

And that was before taking in to account that someone had apparently set up a satellite to observe the area for the foreseeable future.

No, it would obviously be much safer to simply do the operation from a boat and let the ocean do all the work sterilizing the environment for you. Then you could sail a ways out and finish the job with an EMP far from potential collateral damage. Assuming you were even worried about scrubbing the trace evidence from your boat. It’d be a high bar to clear just to get a warrant to search the thing.

A high bar, but not impossible. A new idea occurred to me and I pushed off the railing and started towards the marina’s main office, scanning the railing and light poles until I saw what I was looking for: A dingy metal sign that said, “Protected by video surveillance.”

A few of those cameras had to look out at the ocean, and the FBI probably wasn’t going to get the video from them unless they asked for it specifically. I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask for it. That was my second mistake for the day.

The main office was locked but I saw an intercom that I was willing to bet would let me talk to a security switchboard. I was fishing through my pockets, looking for my magnetized rod to push the intercom button with when they knocked me out from behind.


Psychometrics don’t react well to violence.

I know that sounds absurd on the face of it. No one reacts well to being bashed in the head. But psychometrics react poorly to causing violence as well. Not just killing each other and sparking a chain reaction, like I’d described to Natalie. Causing violence demands a certain level of detachment take place in your mind. Most psychometrics who cause violence of any kind have a very hard time recovering from that detachment, one of the many quirks of our psychology we don’t really understand. My personal theory is that this is similar to the way higher level math or religion also disrupt our thought processes. Like those unhealthy influences, violence is not something we experiment with, choosing to keep a certain distance from it instead.

Of course, that doesn’t keep violence from coming to us on occasion. As with all human mental states, the mind of a violent man or woman is something the Gifted pick up on and is influenced by. So we can wind up in a state of permanent mental detachment even when we’re the victim of violence rather than the perpetrator of it.

All this is to explain why, when I woke up and found myself lying belowdecks on a rocking boat, listening to the waves, I thought maybe my mind had finally imploded in on itself and shut itself away from all the depraved thoughts I’d found in my career as a forensic. It certainly had all the hallmarks of a delusion. It was focused on something I’d been thinking about right before being clock in the back of the head. It didn’t follow directly from where I’d been before. And it had a certain dreamlike quality to it, right down to the ridiculously dressed man sitting on the bunk across from mine.

He was wearing a black suit and cowboy boots. His trademark aviator sunglasses hung from a strap around his neck, revealing mirthful, intelligent eyes beneath. He had graying, curly hair cropped close to his head and laugh lines around his eyes that most of the public probably never saw though his mirrored eyewear. He was the one puzzle piece that didn’t fit in the whole fiasco and I’d been trying to cram him into place since he first came up, so clearly my finally getting to meet him had to be the final touch on this fancy delusion I’d crafted for myself. It was almost as good as the fugue trap from earlier, I told myself, but still every bit as unreal.

That was my third mistake for the day.

When he saw that I was awake he clapped his hands on his knees and said, “Good to meet you, weakArmor. Do you mind if I use your working name?”

His voice was radio smooth and surprisingly deep for what look like a thin man. I stared for a moment and snorted a laugh, weakly looking around at my environment, surprised I wasn’t restrained at all. At least, not directly. The room might be locked.

“Do you know who I am?”

I focused back on the other person down in the hold with me. “Well, I know who you look like.”

“Oh?” That seemed to amuse him. “Who’s that?”

“A.J. Jackson.”

Pay the Piper – Chapter Nineteen

Previous Chapter

On day two of waiting for word on the elusive Arizona trio of Gifted something new got dropped on us. Again. “They targeted tech firms again,” Hennesy said, looming over me at my crowded workspace as I analyzed some bit of drone hardware recovered from somewhere in the case. The shape of his thoughts left no doubt about who he was talking about. “Very surgical this time, they’re learning that public opinion isn’t with them.”

“What did they do?” I asked, only partially relaxing from the sudden feeling of dread. Whatever it was, at this point they had to know they were only digging themselves deeper. So surgical must mean precise, not necessarily harmless.

“They crop dusted the employee parking lots at four major firms as the dayshift was leaving.”

“Crop dusted?” I raised an eyebrow. That could be harmless or a major escalation. “With what?”

“Whatever it was it had peanuts in it. Over two dozen people had allergic reactions of varying degrees.” Hennesy snorted. “If this was supposed to be a joke then I don’t think people will find it very funny. Lots of people are allergic to peanuts.”

It didn’t sound like an escalation at first blush but Hennesy was right. A lot of people would probably see it as such. Maybe that was what they wanted, maybe they just hoped the ambiguity would buy them a little more time before they were seen as really malicious. I wasn’t sure who they were hoping wouldn’t see them as malicious if the later was the case, the news hadn’t been kind to them and we were already pursuing them as hard as we could. “Any obvious connections between the companies?”

“I’ve been digging into Silicon Valley firms since before you were licensed to practice, Armor,” Hennesy said. “Every company here is connected to all the others. It’s a terribly incestuous place, kina like Wall Street. And yes, all these firms also have connections back to Company A as well. I don’t know how they all shape up yet, but we’ve got people working on it so we should know soon.”

“Are they looking into connections with A.J. Jackson?”

Hennesy hesitated for a moment. “You’re really invested in that line of investigation, aren’t you?”

“His name has come up pretty much since moment one.” I shrugged, knowing just as well as Hennesy did how little that often meant. “I get it, he could just be Silicon Valley’s whipping boy of the week. Still, I’d rather run it down than leave it to chance.”

“I get you,” Hennesy replied. “But we don’t have the manpower to follow every lead. I’ll try and get someone looking at it. On the bright side, the folks in Arizona can keep looking for your missing sisters and their dad without impacting things in here. I’ll let you know if we hear anything.”

“Do you need me at any of the crime scenes?” I was pretty sure I knew the answer but I was also curious to see what a place looked like after a malicious crop dusting.

“No.” He answered without hesitation. “There’s not much in the way of physical evidence to look at other than residue from whatever it was they misted the places with. And we don’t want anyone touching that until we know what it is. There’s a bright side, though.”

There was a clear tinge of malicious satisfaction behind that simple declaration. “What’s that?”

“This time we caught them on satellite.”


Actually we caught their drones on satellite, not the perpetrators themselves. It was a step in the right direction but not nearly what I’d originally hoped for.

“There’s a formation of four at each location, pretty standard agricultural machines,” Eugene told me, pulling the image up on his screen. “They swoop in, make two passes over people as they come out of the building, then leave. There was no attempt to pursue anyone leaving the building or avoid empty portions of the parking lot so our guess is they were preprogrammed, rather than piloted.”

“How did we even get these shots?” I asked, visions of military spy satellites dancing in my head.

“I don’t know, and I don’t think we’re going to find out.” Eugene’s mind was going to much the same places as mine but nothing in his thoughts pointed to him actually knowing the answer any more than I did. “I’m not an expert but the files looked like they’d had all info on their source scrubbed. But this is a really high profile case, so maybe they got the military to move some resources into geosynchronous orbit. Not our problem.”

“But what does that really tell us?” I asked, straightening up and moving away from his desk a bit. Eugene’s naturally antisocial personality permeated his surroundings and radiated off of his workspace like it was asphalt on a sunny day. I’d need to move the conversation out of his cubicle soon or I’d get a serious headache.

“Two things. First, they’re using a different type of drone, one that looks like it matches one of three commercially available models popular in the northern part of the state.” He clicked over to a different image that showed three different models of drones, the mismatched background showing they’d been pulled from different sources. Probably advertising materials. “We’re trying to see if anyone’s placed a large order from any local dealers recently.”

“Wouldn’t farmers want more than a couple of these?” I asked. “We could wind up with a lot of dead ends…”

“Trust me, at what these things run most operations aren’t wanting more than three or four. More importantly, they have a top speed of fifteen miles an hour and a maximum flight time of half an hour.” Eugene pulled up a map showing the four attack sites in relation to each other with large red rings showing how far the drones could have travelled with their flight capacity. The two southern locations had overlapping rings, as did the two northern locations. “And just like that we have launch zones. Standard forensic teams are already combing these areas over with a fine toothed comb. If they find anything it’s definitely coming back for a psychometric evaluation.”

“Why did they change pattern?” I wondered aloud.

Eugene turned in his chair to give me a skeptical look. “It was a drone attack targeting Silicon Valley. How is that a break in pattern?”

“Based on the hardware we found in the car wreck right before the electrical grid attack I’m certain that was done using custom drones under remote operation. Same for the initial attack, based on how delicate positioning a drone in the loading dock door at the exact moment that delivery truck entered must have been-“

“The drone didn’t show up on security cameras around the dock so we think it must have somehow attached itself to the truck before it arrived,” Eugene interjected.

“Either way, an operation that you can’t just program into it,” I pointed out. “And all those attacks used custom drones, not commercially available ones. Do we know what they sprayed?”

“Officially? No. Unofficially, it looks like it was just peanut oil diluted with something to make it mist better.”

“On the other hand, if I understand the other two attack properly, they were both at least partially facilitated by pinpoint EMP use.” I tapped my gloved fingers thoughtfully on my chest. “They were symbolic.”

Eugene was used to my thinking out loud so he just motioned for me to go on.

“The first two attacks were technological attacks on firms that have created some the most influential technologies of our time and, arguably, were misusing the resulting influence. A reminder that they shouldn’t get too full of themselves – there’s always someone better out there.” I paced out of the cubicle, moving away from its headache inducing atmosphere. Eugene got up from his chair and trailed along behind. “But today… none of those threads. New companies, new attack method, no symbolism. Unless it’s agricultural versus service industry? No, that doesn’t seem likely…”

I stopped short and swiveled back to Eugene. “Looking at evidence won’t cut it. I need to go and look at one of those staging ones myself. Have you seen Agent Chase?”

“Not this morning.”

I titled my head, tapping my sim card and calling her phone. I let it ring for a minute, then hung up. “No answer. Eugene, I need to get out there before any trace impressions left behind fade.”

“You think this might be some kind of misdirect?”

“Or a copycat attack.”

Eugene sighed and doubled back towards his cubicle. “I’ll get my keys. Meet me by my car.”

“Want me to let Hennesy know we’re leaving?”

“I’ll do it,” he called back, his surface thoughts clearly indicating he wouldn’t. “This had better not get me in trouble, Armor.”

He was hoping nothing would come of it and so he wouldn’t catch any flack for doing something technically another Agent’s job. For all his pessimism about human nature, Eugene’s remarkably optimistic about events working out the way he wants. I could have told Hennesy we were leaving myself, but I decided to humor him and let his little white lie stand.

That was my first mistake of the day.

Noise to Signal

The noise to signal ratio is, roughly speaking, a way to refer to how much of what a sensor picks up is significant and how much is random. Old time radios picked up a lot of static from random interference between the radio and the broadcasting tower – that was the noise. Frank Sinatra crooning into the microphone – that was the signal. A lot of the random static that used to creep in to radio and broadcast TV has been cleaned up these days thanks to technology, but at the same time that selfsame technology has introduced whole new vectors for noise to creep in.

Social media is the obvious go to. Now we can all broadcast our inner thoughts to the world at the drop of a hat. But, as a wise man once said, they were too busy seeing if they could, they never stopped to ask if they should.

Every person must grapple with important questions in order to take their place in the world. What is right and wrong? How do we determine it when circumstances are murky and what do we do if we can’t determine where the line is drawn? What do we want out of life? Out of family? Out of the next twenty four hours?

Answering those questions is a deeply personal thing – or it was before seemingly every person on earth decided to broadcast their journey of “self-discovery” across Instagram. Suddenly, questions about who we are and how we’re going to take our place in the world are carried out not in study or thoughtful discussion with trusted confidants but in the middle of a screaming mob. A person with well-formed principles will have a hard time keeping hold of himself in the middle of that confusion, a person still struggling with principles is sure to be lost.

It gets worse.

People of good will with strong principles, reached after careful contemplation and held in firm conviction, will never agree on exactly what the best principles are or how to live them out. In order to reconcile the differences between them vigorous, and sometimes acrimonious discussion is essential. If we are to reach our full potential as people and live together in peace we must be able to try and work out the meanings of our principles with one another.

Sadly, this process can become part of the noise, rather than the signal. And in this analogy, the person with unformed or unsteady principles is like the primitive radio, less able to filter out signal noise and more likely to miss the useful information being broadcast. In the great confusion that reigns, it’s tempting to step back and be quiet for the sake of reducing the noise.

As a writer, I grapple with the culture and my own place in it by writing. Earlier this year, as I weighed the issues of Big Tech and social stratification, I stumbled on a story. Naturally, I began writing it down and putting it here, on this blog. My own little broadcasting tower, adding to the noise to signal ratio. But I didn’t like what I was seeing around me and a few months ago I stopped, wishing not to clutter up the radio waves without a firm message in mind.

I have to admit, I still don’t have a good handle on what the outcome of the issues I’m wrestling with might be. But I’ve reached the conclusion that I can’t, in good conscience, stop asking them just because the noise might be going up without much being added to the signal. The discussion of principle and conviction is not like radio waves. As we sort through the good and bad we can hone in on the signal and slowly turn more of our time over to it. At least, that was the process I was raised with and it’s the process I still believe in. Others might want as many people as possible to sit down and be quiet, to get the noise to signal ratio they desire. But I’ve never been one of them, and it was foolish of me entertain the notion that silence might improve things when it’s the signal that I’ve always wanted to find. I can endure a little noise until then.

All of this is a bit of a roundabout way of saying Pay the Piper will return next week. Thank you for your patience.

Characters are Not Enough

Many stories are carried along by the strength of their protagonist, or the combined strength of their protagonists and supporting cast. Forrest Gump is a great example of this. Forrest’s good natured innocence and straight forward attitude make him endearing and his devotion to Bubba, Lieutenant Dan and, of course, Jenny prove the strength of his moral fiber. Forrest is a great character and his story is a simple and straight forward one, to the point where the character seems to be the only part that matters.

Walking away from a story focusing only on the part that brought the largest emotional reaction is a mistake. But when it comes to characters many people seem to make that mistake.

Discussions about modern media are rife with talk of characters and how the decisions and growth of those characters drive stories forwards. That’s good, those kinds of discussions are vital to the understanding of stories and how they speak to us. Characters are what we relate to in stories and the agents of that bring about all the events and circumstances that provoke reactions from the audience.  We absolutely need to have solid understandings of those character in order to properly appreciate stories and especially to create engaging and satisfying stories of our own.

But characters don’t make a story.

Stories have a plot for a reason. That reason is, in short, to drive events. See, your characters should take actions consistent with their background, their personality and their circumstances but at the same time you cannot expound on these facets of every person in your story. Sometimes they just aren’t going to be around long enough to make it worth the time, sometimes you just need to keep moving to hold the audience’s interest and sometimes there are just forces at work that are too big to fully explore. Forrest Gump gives us many examples of all three but Forrest’s time in Vietnam wraps all three into one convenient package.

Forrest winds up drafted to fight in Vietnam, like many people of his era. Most of the characters in his unit turn out to be fairly unimportant to the plot, and they’re just glossed over. Even his Drill Sergeant, a fairly important character in most military stories, is really just background noise in this tale. In fact much of his military service is just glossed over. The story could expound on all of them but that would drag the narrative away from its purpose, which is to show how Forrest’s military service built bonds between himself, Bubba and Lt. Dan, three very different characters who would never have met or bonded under any other circumstances. Expanding on all the other characters involved in the drama of Vietnam would have detracted from that.

Now, this may seem confusing as I just focused on a character based outcome while emphasizing the importance of plot, but this is simply because characters cannot thrive without plot. It doesn’t mean characters are unimportant. The ideal plot is simply the series of events that allow you to say what you wish about your characters in the most impactful way possible.

Vietnam presents the events that create the connection between Forrest and Lt. Dan, and break the bond between Forrest and Bubba. A weaker version of the story could have gotten sidetracked by the dynamic of Forrest and his Drill Sergeant or other members of his unit but that would have stretched out how long the narrative took to return to one of its most central points – the relationship between Forrest and Jenny. By sticking to its plot and focusing only on the events that are necessary for us to understand Forrest by the time they reunite the movie comes out much stronger.

Ultimately discussions of whether character or plot are most important to a story seem foolish to me. The point is to allow both to collaborate to produce the best result possible. But if you focus exclusively on characters while formulating your story then you are bound to miss out on the best way to present them to your audience and if you focus entirely on analyzing characters and ignore the events you will miss how to best blend them.

Surprise is Not Enough

When it comes to media, our culture is obsessed with surprise.

I get it. The moment when Darth Vader announced he was Luke Skywalker’s father was a watershed moment in cinema for an entire generation. Very few people saw it coming. The surprise was part of what made it stick in the mind so strongly. But it’s not like “I am your father” is a weak moment on repeated viewing. Even if The Empire Strikes Back is my least favorite of the three original Star Wars movies, I recognize that it’s a very strong film start to back and works well even on repeated viewings. There’s nothing wrong with the twist at the end, I just don’t think it had to be a surprise to have its impact.

But our culture hates knowing things ahead of time. “No spoilers” wasn’t even a meaningful phrase when I was younger but now most eight year olds could tell you what it means and provide examples of things they don’t want spoiled. Perhaps most interesting, a great deal of psychological research suggest that surprise isn’t even that important to a person’s enjoyment of a story. Spoilers change a person’s enjoyment very little to none at all in surveys done on the topic.

Some of our fixation on surprise undoubtedly comes from the rise of social media and the exponential explosion in the ways we can encounter spoilers. Some of it is probably rooted in the desire to be first to do a thing, or at least feel like you’re the first. The new and novel is a necessary part of the human experience and today, when so much of our world is mapped, settled and tamed by the hand of humanity media is one of our primary was to find new things. New people, places we’ve never been and ideas we’ve never considered. So surprise in story is a valuable thing, to be sure.

But surprise alone is not enough.

There’s a movement among media critics to simply praise anything that is surprising, especially if that surprise comes through subversion of expectations. In our increasingly media savvy world, achieving surprise in stories is harder and harder. To combat this, some creators chose to deliberately play in to tropes for a time, then suddenly replace the expected conclusion of those tropes with something different – they subvert expectations. The Darth Vader scene I cited at the beginning is a good example of this.

Vader was presented as an irredeemable villain for the entirety of the first Star Wars film and most of The Empire Strikes Back. But the revelation that Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father cast him – and everything we had learned about Luke’s father – in a new light, and forced us to reevaluate what we thought about the story so far. Our expectations for the climax of the story and what would happen afterwards were completely avoided and new outcomes were now possible. That’s the subversion of expectations.

What’s important to note about this particular subversion is that it worked so effectively because it didn’t directly contradict most of what we knew – the only real point of contradiction was Obi-Wan’s statement in the first film that Vader killed Luke’s father, an understandable lie to tell the son of the Galaxy’s most brutal villain. Add in the way it fit with Vader’s behavior in the rest of The Empire Strikes Back and the revelation made a horrifying kind of sense.

The problem is, subversion for the sake of subversion rarely takes the time to set up this important ground work. Take another moment in the Star Wars franchise, in The Last Jedi when Luke Skywalker takes his father’s old lightsaber from Rey and tosses it over one shoulder in an act of casual disregard that in no way matches the attitude of Luke or any other Jedi towards lightsabers at any other point in the franchise. This is a visually funny moment and we’re not expecting it, in fact I laughed on first viewing. But the dissonance this creates is off-putting and the moment probably doesn’t hold up to repeated viewing (I’ve only watched the film once) as its entire value is in surprise. We can’t appreciate it for what it says about the characters or their parts in the saga because it doesn’t fit with anything we know about those characters up to that point or, really, that we learn about them afterwards.

Audiences love novelty but, at the same time, you can’t take away what they’ve come to know just for the sake of novelty or your story runs the very real risk of losing its audience. Media cannot be strictly formulaic but one way the craft of storytelling is much like mathematics is that both require one to show your work. Subversion is fine, but without careful thought and patient crafting to make that subversion consistent with everything else you’ll get a failing grade. Don’t just go for surprise – make sure your characters and plot hold up when the novelty is gone and you’re well on your way to a classic.

Themes are Not Enough

A recent trend I’ve noticed in media criticism is to appeal to the thematic core of a work rather than the quality of the work. There’s value in examining themes, of course, looking at them gives us a baseline for analyzing techniques, progression and results. But just presenting themes is not in and of itself a merit of a story. Let’s step back and look at an example.

Jordan Peele’s Us is a horror film. It has themes of examining consumerism and corporate attempts to control American life through advertising. It executes on these themes (so I am told) in clunky, odd and poorly explained ways. Now, I’m not a fan of Jordan Peele, horror or Us. In fact, I’ve never seen the movie and I don’t have a particular dog in any fight about the quality of the film or the execution of its premise. I’ve chosen it particularly because I am about as neutral as it is possible to be regarding the story and its themes, and because it is a good example of the phenomenon I’ve noted before.

Discussions about Us all seem to revolve around, on the one hand, the nonsensical nature of the events it portrays (but come on, guys, it’s a horror film, none of them make sense) and on the other hand the weight of its thematic core. Most critics who are down on the film want the thoughts of the characters to make sense, or the mechanics of the world to be straight forward and sensible. Again, this second element mystifies me since it’s a horror movie and things that make sense kind of undercut the horror part but I can definitely agree with characters having sensible, consistent thoughts. So when a critic presents a series of moments in the film that show characters contradicting themselves for no reason, or the behaviors of the characters duplicates defying the limits and boundaries that supposedly define them, I understand where they’re coming from.

On the other hand, when people appeal to the strength of the themes in Us they tend to simply present the theme as relevant to the culture we live in. Again, I understand this. Us is poking at social stratification and consumerism, problems that exist in our culture . However, defenders of the film rarely do more than point out the elements that play up these themes. In particular, they never point out how playing to those themes necessitates, or at least excuses, the flaws in characterization or consistency that critics constantly harp on. They seem to think that the thematic levels Us works on justifies its failures in execution.

This is wrong.

Understanding and appreciating a work’s themes is fine. Conveying those themes is one of the responsibilities of the creator. But it’s far from the only responsibility. In fact, it’s the barest beginning of competent art. The artist also has a responsibility to clear away any and all obstacles that might obscure the message of their work, and that means creating character consistency, clear cause and effect in the narrative and making sure all other elements of good storytelling are in place. You cannot simply set good themes down as a foundation then throw your plot up in the air and hope it all lands fine. That is sloppy and lazy storytelling.

Let me take a small example from a story I have watched, where a thematic element was actually undermined by its execution. In The Dragon Prince Amaya is the general of the Katolian forces and she’s deaf. Thematically her story is about overcoming obstacles, both those presented by her disability and those that stem from her grief at the loss of her family. That’s a solid theme.

The problem I have is that Amaya is deaf. Being deaf creates all kinds of problems for a person in a leadership position, especially one that has such dire, real time constraints getting information across as military leadership. Amaya needs to be looking at her people to communicate with them, something as simple as a heavy fog can make it impossible for her to pass her orders to anyone who isn’t right next to her. And she lives in a world with magic where fog can appear on command. Add in the very important role of sound in providing situational awareness and making responses to danger possible – very important to the average soldier or general alike – and Amaya is badly in need of some kind of seriously unusual justification for her position. Yet she’s never shown with any more resources on hand to overcome her disability than the average deaf person on Earth.

It’s jarring and, frankly, more than a little pandering. And it feels more like Amaya has her position because she’s the Queen’s sister (or the writers wanted it that way) rather than a competent general. It’s bad storytelling stemming from a failure to think through the characters limits and it undercuts the thematic component of Amaya’s character.

Storytelling is hard, and in part it requires a storyteller to blend clear, mathematical cause and effect events with a strong emotional sense in ways that most people cannot quite achieve. Themes are an important part of that emotional sense but when decoupled from the clear cause and effect themes quickly begin to falter. If you’re dealing with both author and critic who are acting in good faith, pointing out when cause and effect lapses isn’t intended to ignore the strength of those themes, but rather to bolster them. When you stop using themes as a shield against criticism and instead look at themes through the lens of criticism you may even find they come in to sharper focus. Don’t be afraid to put the ideas at the heart of your story under that lens.

Certainty is the Enemy of Story

“What would happen?”

It’s one of the first questions humans learn to ask in their lives. What would happen if I put these pink stubby things in my mouth? What would happen if I put the thing on the floor in my mouth? What would happen if I rolled off the crib? What would happen if I sneak up on my older sister and suddenly scream right behind her?

And, once she got good and mad at me and chased me across the house, I found myself asking the second question humans learn. Why?

Stories are an attempt to answer these two questions in ways that others understand and enjoy. One of the most important parts of accomplishing this is making sure the audience is interested in the answers to the questions we’re asking. Of course the questions we’re asking are rarely what they appear to be on the surface of the story and that’s a very important part of storytelling but not the part I want to look at today. Rather I want to talk about the way certainty undermines this aspect of storytelling.

Suspense is often overrated as an important part of storytelling. A thriller like Rear Window would lose much of its impact on repeated viewings if suspense were vital to its impact. Instead, the film is just as good, maybe even better on repeated viewings. At the same time, you can’t let certainty creep into your storytelling, at least as regards your core conflict. Let me give some examples.

Captain Jean Luc Picard is a very principled character. He has standards for himself, for the crew of his ship, for his allies, for what constitutes good behavior and so forth. He’s very certain of those principles. However, onboard a starship far from friendly faces and often in the depths of space away from any refuge at all, surrounded by undocumented phenomena and unfamiliar lifeforms and cultures, how Picard can best live up to those standards is always in doubt. Often people who the Captain trusts a great deal will give him conflicting advice about how to best uphold his principles, or will fall short of them and put his principles in conflict with his human compassion and force him to find a resolution to that conflict. These are just a handful of the uncertainties Picard and the crew of the starship Enterprise face on their adventures.

In contrast, Indiana Jones doesn’t really have to struggle to balance his principles or figure out how they apply to his circumstances. Indy knows Nazis are bad, and putting artifacts in a museum is good. What he’s never sure he can do is find the artifact, get past the deathtraps defending it and do it all without the Nazis catching him and sending him off to the Big Sleep. The uncertainty is in whether he can do what he needs to do in order to reach his goals.

Finally, Sam Spade is a hardboiled detective, he’s got fast hands and a faster mind and he is going to find the Maltese Falcon and the person who murdered his partner. What’s less certain is what he’s going to do when he finds them. Murder his partner’s killer in cold blooded revenge? Keep the Falcon for himself, give it to his client or turn it over to one of the other interested parties for more money and an easier life? When he finds out the person who killed his partner is the girl he’s sweet on, will her turn her in? These uncertainties about Spade’s moral character keep each confrontation Spade finds himself in interesting.

Take a look at a story and you’ll find the conflict hinges on the things the audience is uncertain about. It’s very hard to have conflict centered on things you are certain of. Picard is never going to turn away from the Federation and become a space pirate. In the one story where he turned up as a space pirate even eight year old me knew it was some kind of ruse (I didn’t use that word though). That story hinged on Picard’s love of history and peacemaking nature serving as the key to stopping an insurrectionist plot on the planet Vulcan, and the lengths he had to go to in order to maintain the ruse while still serving his principles. There’s just no conflict in stretching out whether Picard is a pirate or not – no one in the audience will believe that for a minute and we’d think the characters were dumb if they bought in to it as well. This is also a big part of why stories where superheroes “quit” then come back often feel flat – we know they’re coming back to the job at some point because that’s the heart of the story. There’s no uncertainty about what will happen and we’re just anxious to get it over with.

Allowing these elements that are almost forgone conclusions to seep into your story hurt it. A lot. Sometimes you can think of a clever dodge – look at Spiderman 2 for example, where Peter’s temporary retirement was driven by a loss of his power about which we were (naturally) uncertain of the cause and cure. But for the most part, focusing on the parts of your character that are givens, certainties that you have no intention of changing, is not the core of a good story. You have to put the emphasis on the uncertainties that will challenge your characters and keep the audience invested.