Unexamined Metanarratives, or The Problem with Privilege

I’ve talked about the concept of metanarratives at length before in the general context of postmodernism and specifically when applied to superheroes and Star Wars. Today I want to highlight what I believe the positive impact of deconstructing metanarratives are through a metanarrative commonly employed in modern fiction. While postmodernism deconstructs metanarratives because it believes they are a power play – an attempt to control the thinking of others by forcing their minds into preconceived patterns – I believe most metanarratives arise out of a person’s general philosophy and, while fiction can reinforce these philosophical preconceptions, it can also be used as a way to measure these preconceptions and see what about them makes sense and what doesn’t.

Metanarratives are rarely – possibly never – without some foundation in reality. The mostly happy homes of Home Improvement or The Cosby Show do exist, for example, but the constraints of their fictional setting prevent them from being explored in depth, so a number of clichés and tropes built up around these fictional families until The Simpsons came along to deconstruct them. While The Simpsons is no longer particularly relevant to sitcom formulas; for years it was ascendant and its deconstruction of the prevailing metanarrative did open up new avenues of storytelling to explore. That didn’t invalidate the old metanarratives, even if many people acted like it did.

There are a lot of metanarratives in modern fiction that could use this treatment, like the “trade in your birth family for one you build yourself” metanarrative (conveniently ignoring that if you can’t make your birth family work the odds you can build a function one are pretty small) or the “sell guns to both sides and reap huge rewards” metanarrative (a good way to get shot and, as near as I can tell, never something that’s happened historically). And perhaps this will become a recurring spot as other post ideas have, there’s certainly fodder for it. But for now, I want to look at Privilege.

The concept of “Privilege” I want to talk about is not what we normally think of as a privilege. It’s not permission to use the computers at the school you attend – unlike a member of the general public who does not have that privilege – or the privilege of using motor vehicles on government owned roads – which is basically what your driver’s license grants you. In much of modern fiction there is the notion of unearned benefits conferred to you by circumstance, particularly circumstances that favor one group over another. And that notion is encapsulated in the term “privilege”.

Let’s start our deconstruction of this notion by mentioning that the ideas behind Privilege are not new. When circumstances convey benefits no one earned there have been a host of terms for it. “Luck” is one, suggesting that sometimes the world just seems to like you more than others. “Blessing” is another, conveying the way people or, among the religious and/or superstitious, supernatural forces will give something of value to another as an expression of affection or to cement some kind of personal bond. “Bias” is a third, denoting the preference of one group over another.

And here we come to the first major construct of Privilege that must be taken apart and examined. The very use of the term marries blessing and bias. Not all blessings imply a bias. For example, my sisters and I were blessed with a homeschooling education. My parents blessed me with a social study curriculum that emphasized understanding philosophy and ideas in ways that profoundly shaped the way I think and who I am today. But they didn’t choose to bless my sisters with the same curriculum. In many ways their social studies were easier or more engaging, but they did not develop the same perspectives. And, looking back on it from a distance of some years, I can see that the curriculum I studied did not suit their personalities and interests as it suited mine. Yes, my parents exercised their good judgement in making these choices, but good judgement is not the same as bias. Nor do I feel the different educational blessings my parents shared with their children were inferior or superior to each other. They were simply chosen to best fit those receiving them. The Privilege metanarrative leaves no room for this kind of nuance.

But perhaps you are thinking to yourself, “This is a bad example. The Privilege metanarrative applies to groups, rather than individuals. Of course an education as highly tailored to individuals as homeschooling would rule Privilege out.”

If you were thinking that, then you’re correct. The second construct the Privilege metanarrative brings to the table is group based evaluation. In the Privilege metanarrative my parents’ decisions must be understood through group identity. Thus, the choice to give me an education full of philosophy must have been a result of my male privilege, as the job of men is to run the world and make sure all the other people are unprivileged (the term for this is oppressed in the view of the typical postmodernist). The fact that my parents might have looked at each of their three children’s interests and temperament individually is not relevant to the metanarrative any more than Chicago style political dramas are relevant to a Home Improvement style sitcom metanarrative.

Which is to say, they can be made to blend but one aspect will bend to the other – either the corrupt politicians must be shown as fools by the sitcom crew or the sitcom cast will become unwitting tools of the corrupt politicians, either my parents must have been driven by unconscious bias towards the favored male gender or their decisions being what they are is just a result of my being in some way stereotypical. There’s nothing wrong with this blending on the surface, by the way, but culturally predominate metanarratives tend to win out in the blending and right now the Privilege metanarrative saturates our culture. The tendency to let it win out will be strong, but a good writer must still carefully evaluate whether that metanarrative blend is what’s best for your story.

Metanarratives that operate without question quickly run out of control. Humans tend to push ideas as far as they can, usually running right of the edge of a cliff in the process. The history of the Privilege metanarrative is an interesting expression of this. The basic pieces of the modern take on the metanarrative were put in place during the Civil Rights era, when Privilege was rampant in culture and law. Recognizing it was a very important step in human progress and resulted in good things for the nation as a whole and many ethnic minorities in particular. This fact is a big part of why the idea of Privilege is so widespread in culture today. However, the idea of Privilege has far outgrown its starting context.

We frequently hear of “white privilege” in culture today. In summation this is the idea that generations of cultural expansion, tight knit families, careful investments, inheritance, emphasis on education and ethnic loyalty have catapulted white people to the forefront of the world and given them a stranglehold on the wealth and power of the modern world. In turn we see the Privilege metanarrative used to justify any number of actions to disrupt this supposed deathgrip. This has been true in pulp and pop entertainment for a while and has crept into daily discourse as well.

Again, this metanarrative is not new. The clearest example in history is how, for over a thousand years, the inherited wealth, excellent education, ethnic loyalty and powerful family ties of Jews was used as an excuse to persecute them.

This is the final aspect of the Privilege metanarrative that must be deconstructed. Like all flawed, human concepts, metanarratives can drive great evil as easily as great good. The current Privilege metanarrative casts Privilege as an evil and those that oppose it as a force for good, a direct extension in its origins in the Civil Rights movement. While this can be true, and again has been true in recent memory, it is not always the case – again, in recent memory. By the same token, Privilege is viewed almost as a universal, underpinning every situation, when sometimes a blessing is without bias, or luck is just luck. There’s no reason to say my education was a privilege over that of my sisters, as we all turned out equally well and, some might say, they are doing somewhat better than I am.

I’ve been very hard on postmodernism in the past and I stand by my belief that its approach to metanarratives is silly and leads only to confusion. But I hope I’ve shown today that the process of deconstructing a metanarrative and looking at its component parts and how it’s played out across history can give us a deeper understanding of a metanarrative, what its strengths and weaknesses are, and how it might be used in innovative ways. At the least it lets us put aside popular metanarratives for a metanarrative with less cachet at the moment but better suited to your needs.

Metanarratives are just one of many tools in the writers arsenal. Use them wisely and you get good stories. Sometimes that means breaking them down and seeing what each part has done, is doing, and could do.

Now. The throughline of this blog has been nonfiction for far too long. Come back next week and we’ll kick off a new dose of fiction with a spicy double posting followed by an exciting (hopefully) new sci-fi tale from yours truly!

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Star Wars and the Road to Nihilism

We’re going to talk about The Simpsons in a moment. But not yet.

Also, be warned that this post does contain spoilers for both The Simpsons and The Last Jedi.

Now that you’re intrigued by the notion of a cartoon series nearly a quarter century old tying in to a sci-fi franchise approaching twice that age, let’s turn to talk about The Last Jedi and why Disney decided to stop making Star Wars movies and start making Spinning You Wheels in Space.

I’m not going to lie. I really enjoyed watching The Last Jedi, more than I actually expected to based on the last two films in the franchise. It’s got some really fun and exciting ideas packed into it and the film hits a bunch of really high notes during its two hour plus run time. But it has a lot of really bad moments, too, and those can easily ruin the experience for viewers. But my biggest problem is that the nature of the Star Wars franchise has veered off course. For all his flaws, George Lucas kept his eyes firmly one idea – he wanted to tell a story about the fall and redemption of a man. The theme of seeking redemption runs all throughout the first six episodes of the Star Wars saga. Qui-gon seeks to redeem an aging order of Jedi when he brings in Anakin as fresh blood. Jango Fett seeks redemption for a life of violence when he asks the cloners to make him a son. Leia seeks to redeem the altruism locked away in the selfish heart of Han Solo. R2-D2 seeks to redeem C-3PO from his own cowardice and myopic worldview. And, of course, Obi-Wan and Luke seek to redeem Anakin from Darth Vader.

The Last Jedi, in contrast, seeks to destroy the franchise. By its own admission.

Throughout The Last Jedi there’s a theme of destroying your attachment to the past to move forward. There is a time and place for this lesson but Rian Johnson has transformed this from a conditional step to be entered into with extreme caution into a necessary step for every aspect of life. In point of fact, the movie takes it so far that it endorses book burning as a good thing. Sure, when Yoda burns the tree the Jedi texts weren’t there – we find out later Rei had taken them. But Luke sure thought they were. And this book burning is supposed to be the good thing that triggers his final character evolution and his appearance at the climax.

Rian Johnson has fallen into the classic postmodern trap we discussed when talking about – you guessed it – The Simpsons.

A quick refresher if you don’t want to go back and read the full post. Postmodernism breaks down and subverts the metanarratives that define a cultural landscape, in this case the Star Wars franchise. The problem with it is that it doesn’t set any limits on what must be broken down and subverted, and thus when it finishes with all the other metanarratives in the cultural landscape it inevitably starts subverting itself. We see this in The Simpsons with its origin as a satire of the existing sitcom formula and its eventual self-destruction beginning in the episode “The Principle and the Pauper” when a well understood character and his all-important relationship with his mother was destroyed for the sake of a throw away gag. This slow decline has continued from that episode until today.

The Last Jedi marks the beginning of this kind of subversive decline in Star Wars. While there’s nothing wrong with subverting expectations – it’s the basis for humor, for example – it has to be done with purpose. As an end goal it serves very poorly and tends to result in bland, uninteresting stories that (ironically) all feel the same. Ask any Simpsons fan. But maybe you’re not convinced. You may be thinking, what things were so subversive in The Last Jedi?

I’m glad you asked.

The most significant sign of subversion in the story is Luke himself. We were expecting a sage and a teacher, one with the skills he honed in years of battle and the wisdom of decades of Force mastery. Luke barely teaches anything and wisdom left him long ago. The endless force for optimism, the man who recovered from losing his surrogate parents and his mentor in one week, who confronted Vader twice and learned to accept the fate of his father, who faced despair and in it found he had a sister, who could run the Death Star trench and remain humble – that Luke Skywalker is subverted into a man who screws up once in training a boy and runs away for the rest of his life, who can’t look past the flaws of the Jedi Order, who can no longer put together any kind of meaningful vision for the future and so seeks to take all he’s ever stood for to the grave. He can’t even decide if he should be the last Jedi or not. Yes, there are hints he might be turning up to tutor the Force sensitive slave kids on the planet with Casino Blando but that actually makes it worse – the subversion is already set up to be subverted again.

Luke isn’t the only thing subverted in The Last Jedi though. The story also introduces the very first incompetent commander for the heroes in the form of Vice Admiral Holdo. Now this particular subversion actually has a lot of potential. The Star Wars movies have never spotlighted a truly incompetent heroic leader before – at least, not one that didn’t bumble through by dumb luck like Jar Jar. Holdo flips the script. Her bad leadership causes growing discontent among her staff and results in their taking actions that waste time and resources not to mention triggers a mutiny. Pretty poor command performance. But she heroically sacrifices herself to ensure the rest of the group gets away and redeems her failures in a noble death.

Except not. See, nothing about the script suggests we’re supposed to see Holdo as incompetent. Instead, Poe’s actions are presented as silly and irrational, as if it makes total sense to sit on a ship in the middle of the least exciting chase in Star Wars history and wait on some kind of miracle save to materialize. We shouldn’t expect script writers to have a flawless grasp on military strategy but some research into leadership isn’t unreasonable. The full details could fill a book – and have! – but suffice it to say that leaders who share the details of their plans with followers tend to get better results than those who keep secrets and Holdo’s decision to withhold details from Poe thus makes no sense. Plus, Poe had the respect of the Alliance – you can’t lead a mutiny if you’re not respected by your peers – and would be the natural candidate to carry on the plan if something happened to Holdo. The fact that she doesn’t seem to have made any allowance for something happening to her before they reach their goal is another major moment of incompetence but, again, we’re not meant to see it as such. Instead, we get a lesson about trusting dear Leader. Leaders who expect blind trust in their dictates from followers aren’t leading military operations, they’re leading messianic death cults, which is exactly what Holdo’s gamble proves to be. The Last Jedi has unironically subverted good leadership with Jim Jones and that isn’t even the worst subversion in the film.

That honor belongs to Finn’s aborted self-sacrifice at the end of the film. The build-up to this moment is very well done and emotional and, in fact, if it hadn’t been interrupted I feel it would have been the moment in the movie people talked about whenever it came up. But instead Rose crashes into Finn’s speeder and nearly kills him trying to make sure he stays alive, then delivers a confused speech about how they need to fight for things they love rather than things they hate. This is the most blatant subversion of the film, replacing the heroic self-sacrifice we expect with a confused and meaningless rescue.

And it’s this last subversion that really proves that Johnson had nowhere to go with all his subversions, he just wanted to subvert. See, when subversion is done with a purpose the subversion makes sense, as in the hypothetical arc I gave Holdo just a moment ago. She makes bad decisions but still finds heroism at the end. A peerless war hero is replaced with a failed but still noble commander. (This idea is at the core of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Valiant”, see that for more details.) But the subversion of Finn’s sacrifice is muddled and incoherent.

Why would Rose “save” Finn only to put him in a situation where they should have been killed mere seconds later? They were still under the First Order’s guns. If self-sacrifice is so foolish after all, why was Holdo’s sacrifice portrayed as noble? And how was Finn not fighting for the things he loved in the form of his friends among the rebels? He already fought and killed the things he hated when he tangled with Phasma earlier on the flagship. Rose didn’t seem to object to it then.

These aren’t the only cases of subversion in the film but they are definitely the most prominent and most clearly indicative of how confused this script is. They deconstruct the heroes, leadership and heart of the original films and replace it with purple haired messiahs and book burning puppets bent on destroying the past so they can replace it with muddled platitudes they clearly haven’t thought through. Some of these ideas are actually pretty good. I loved it when Luke said that the notion of the Jedi equaling hope for the galaxy was arrogant. But even these good ideas have the legs cut out from under them by a failure to think them through. After all – Luke’s so worried about the Jedi causing evil in the universe by their existence, but the idea that letting the Jedi die out equaling an end to those evils is equally arrogant. Disappointment all around, it seems.

It’s not that the film wasn’t fun. For all the cracks forming in the franchise’s foundation is hasn’t collapsed yet. But while I enjoyed The Last Jedi the whole time I could hear the franchise collapsing. No, none of the old films were perfect. But they told a tale about how, no matter how bad things looked, some good could be found and built into a new day. But now Disney asks us to put all that aside and trust blindly that, once they’ve burned away everything, bad and good, they’re make something new.

Well, frankly my faith in the Mouse is not strong enough to trust that Kool Aid and I’m not that interested in stories that prefer scorched earth over redemption either. Star Wars isn’t beyond saving but the path it’s on leads to very dark places. Just as any fan of The Simpsons.

2017 wasn’t a great year for scifi fans but it did mark the 50th anniversary of one of the genre’s landmark shows – a high point in the genre that could use revisiting. So come back next week and join me as we start a look at Gene Rodenberry’s vision of the future.

The Limits of Superman

The core problem of Superman is that few people seem to understand what makes him interesting. It’s not a question of what he’s capable of, as Superman is defined by his ability to meet any challenge the future will bring. Nor is it the morality of what he chooses to do. Clark Kent’s reputation as a boy scout is undeserved, as no one I knew in Scouts was as well behaved as he is – living up to the highest moral standards is something he strives for every day and, even if he doesn’t succeed every time, he still serves as a high bar to confront. The core conflict of Superman is what he won’t do. What limits Superman will set is, and always will be, the thing that define him.

This is why the Superman of DC’s New 52 was so uninteresting. They took away his relationship with Lois Lane and made his love interest Wonder Woman. You can’t do that. Lois and Clark aren’t inseparable due to some deep spark of chemistry between the two. They’re inseparable because the nature of their characters complete one another. Lois Lane and Clark Kent are devoted to Truth and Justice, concepts that each pursue in their own ways with their own skills. For a long time Lois’ sense of moral and intellectual superiority blinded her to Clark and even now that they’re married he’s a constant reminder of the importance of the simple truths that undergird human nature. Superman may be able to do anything he wants but Clark can’t constantly watch over Lois’ shoulder or keep her from chasing truth in her own way without destroying everything he loves about her. The character dynamic there is deep and fascinating, in fact it’s at the root of some of the best Superman stories ever told, but the most important thing about it for our purposes is that the very fact that Lois puts a brake on what Superman will do is part of what makes Superman, the character, interesting.

Lois is not the only limit on Superman in the life of the character. Jimmy Olsen and Perry White both filled that role as well, offering a kind of friendship and mentoring respectively. Moreover, the very real responsibilities of a normal job and civic responsibilities kept Superman a character with dilemmas to confront, driven not by what he could or couldn’t do, but by what would be best for those he cared about. Too many modern superheroes are driven by abstract things. Tony Stark works for the future or progress but can’t hold a relationship together long enough for those concepts to have personal meaning. He stands aloof in his tower, making the calls he thinks are right, but when they go wrong the only skin he has in the game is the guilt trip that will come after him.

Maybe that’s all it should take. But it’s not interesting for very long. When the Man of Tomorrow made a bad call there was a nation, a city, and a small group of newspaper reporters who would feel it. At least, that’s how it was for a long time. But at some point the focus of Superman stories drifted to the Justice League, or alien invasions, or Lex Luthor. Superman renounced his U.S. citizenship so he could better represent the world, or something. He drifted from the Daily Planet more and more. Then they took away Lois Lane and everything that made Superman a man was gone. He was just a force of nature the DC editors constantly tried to slap a meaningful face on.

It was dreadful.

For the last year and a half the world’s first superhero has come into focus once again. Ever since the DC Rebirth event Clark’s marriage has been restored and he’s slowly returned to his job at the Daily Planet. The Justice League is still a part of Superman’s calling but once again his family is a part of that equation. But more than anything else, the thing that has defined Superman the most in the last two years is Jonathan Kent.

Not Clark’s adopted father, but his son.

Yes, Superman is a dad now. And he’s not a superdad. After countless years saving the world, earth’s first hero has to confront a new and disturbing notion: That he now serves as an example not for the abstract crowd of people that are humanity but rather a single boy who’s depended on him for everything from food and clothing to a moral code and the mindset to live it out. Clark can’t let Jon run wild, he has to respect the boundaries his wife wants put in place, he has to keep his son safe even as Jonathan tries to take his own place in the world. And Superman has to do it all while preventing natural disasters, fending off old rivals and keeping a day job. There’s never been more to do or more expectations to live up to while doing it.

There’s a charming moment in the Action Comics title where Superman actually dozes off while flying home one evening, summing up the character’s dynamic in a simple scene. This is Superman the workingman, pulling long hours and running himself ragged in the hope that the things he does and example he sets will make his family stronger and the world better. It’s all any of us can hope for, whether they have superstrength and laser vision or a normal job in a normal office. That shared limit we have on what we can hope for makes Superman a perfect character to lead DC’s heroes into a new age.

Arrow Season Six – Changing a Franchise Done Right

Over the past few years Marvel Comics has caught a lot of flack for changing its flagship characters. The title of Iron Man is currently in the hands of RiRi Williams, a teenaged girl genius with all the tech savvy, people sense and situational awareness of boiled parsley. For about a year Captain America was replaced with an evil HYDRA counterpart due to cosmic shenanigans. And, in a move that felt much like a demotion to many fans, popular characters Falcon and X-23 were shifted into the roles of their friends and mentors, Captain America and Wolverine. The most galling thing for many fans seems to be the way these changes came out of left field, with little attempt to build them up in narrative or make them look like the actions of normal human beings.

In their ongoing attempt to prove they are better than Marvel at anything other than making movies, DC took their very popular CW show Arrow and took main character Oliver Queen out of the Arrow suit – at least for most of the first half of the season – and replaced him without any fan batting an eye. What happened? Why did it work when Marvel’s attempts at switching leading roles didn’t? Let’s take a look.

Reason number one is John Diggle. No, not the Anglican Bishop, Oliver Queen’s bodyguard, portrayed by David Ramsey. There’s been a natural friendship built up between Diggle and Oliver over the last five years, aided in no small part by the natural chemistry between Ramsey and Steven Amell, and cemented by countless saves in myriad life and death situations. They trust each other’s judgement, moral fiber and skills. That makes the passing of the torch from Queen to Diggle quite natural and believable.

Furthermore, while Diggle does have his own hero identity as Spartan it’s not as well established or deeply seated in the public’s psyche as the Green Arrow is, and I’m not just talking about the show’s audience. The Green Arrow is a symbol for Starling City in ways no one else can rival – though the Flash is just as powerful in Central City – and preserving the power of that symbol means someone must wear the hood. The Spartan can’t just step into those shoes. Diggle giving up his own superhero identity isn’t a random demotion forced on him by the script but rather a sacrifice he makes for his city and his friend.

Which brings us to point two. Oliver’s struggle with being the Arrow – green or otherwise – has been ongoing, a constant thread since the end of the first season of the show. This issue was forced to a head when Oliver’s son, introduced two seasons ago, loses his mother when she’s used as a pawn in a battle with one of the Green Arrow’s rivals. With his responsibilities as the Mayor of Star City added on top of his new responsibilities as a father and his son’s deep dislike for the Green Arrow persona which is tangentially responsible for his mother’s death, Oliver’s decision to step back from the superhero life is not only understandable, it’s admirable. The press to be in the thick of things weighs hard on Oliver but he’s not the right man for the job right now. His reasons for stepping back are well established, believable and meaningful, to the point where we’re glad he’s made this call, rather than resenting it.

But the biggest thing is this change let us see new sides of both characters. Diggle struggles with being in command. He’s led other people before but never been at the top of the command chain and it weighs on him. Worse, he’s struggling with the physical toll the life has taken on him and he’s going to extreme lengths to keep it up while keeping his allies in the dark. It’s a new kind of challenge for Diggle, but one we’re sure he’ll live up to. Oliver has new responsibilities too, to a son he doesn’t really know and a city he’s not trained to manage. And beneath it all is the constant desire to get back out in the field and make a difference on the personal level, something he has to hold in check for now if he’s going to meet all his responsibilities. These struggles and opportunities are new and interesting and, if they don’t have quite the impact of Arrow‘s early seasons they’re still well written and interesting and no doubt people will continue to tune in and see what happens.

Marvel’s character swaps rarely present anything interesting in terms of new struggles or new stories and they’ve come out of left field time and time again. In setting up their change far ahead of time and driving them by story events as much as by editorial mandate, Arrow‘s writing team has managed to pull a very impressive switch that has so far eluded their rivals. There’s lessons for all to be learned in how they’ve done it.

Franchise – Expectation vs. Vision

One of the biggest struggles between translating an existing media franchise into a new incarnation is balancing what the existing audience wants and what the creator hopes for. As you’ve probably guessed, I think of this tension as a spectrum of “expectation vs. vision” and sorting it out is pretty important. In fact, avoiding it is one of the reasons I frequently express my desire not to write in Hollywood or for comics companies when people ask me if it’s something I want to do. This week we’re going to dive into what this tension is and what happens when you go too far to one end or the other.

Simply put, expectations are what audiences want when they sit down to another episode with Dr. House, the CSI investigators or the officers of Star Fleet. Vision is where the creators want to go when they set out to write a story. When a franchise is new, say no more than two or three years old, all the cards are in the creator’s hands. The audience doesn’t have too many solid ideas about what’s going on in their story and tends to be forgiving of major changes to the format, direction of the story or role of characters. Star Trek: The Next Generation has a lot of shake-ups in the cast in the first couple of seasons, with Geordi and Worf moving up in the command structure, Tasha Yar departing and the ship’s doctor changing and then changing back. No one really minded those decisions. Similarly, although Monk having to transition from the title character’s assistant going from the saucy Sharona to the prim Natalie due to difficulties with Sharona’s actress, the show survived and thrived.

But once a franchise is older it can be harder to survive these changes. MASH did it a couple of times and many people even found the show better after the changes. But each time a change takes place it can be harder and harder to please fans – the incessant bickering over each change in The Doctor when Doctor Who brings in a new lead is testament to that. The fanbase has clearer and clearer expectations of what the direction and tone of the story should be, and are going to react worse and worse if they’re disappointed.

Creators naturally feel that, as the ones putting in all the money and effort to produce entertainment and as the ones with the large scale picture of what’s happening in the franchise, they should be free to go wherever they want with their media. There’s a lot of truth in that – they do have their hands on all the buttons, they’re taking all the risks, they’re free to go wherever they want. But the audience is free to go wherever they want as well and leaving what the audience wants is a dangerous proposition because if they don’t choose to go with you then as a creator you’re sunk.

I’ve already written extensively on how Star Trek managed this in its latest incarnation but it may not be the best example of what I’m talking about as Discovery had a lot of what its audience wanted replaced with other things they typically like as opposed to things they aren’t interested in. The darker, grittier scifi that Discovery sells is a kind of scifi many Trekkies will watch. They just don’t want it wearing the skin of their favorite franchise.

A better example is the way Marvel Comics transformed it’s entire line of comics over the last three or four years or so. Since about 2014 – editorially much earlier – Marvel began replacing its existing line-up of characters with all new characters bearing the same hero names as the old. At the same time the focus of Marvel stories shifted drastically from wild action-adventure stories with clearly defined heroes and villains to murky social commentaries where heroes fought heroes and villains watched on the sidelines snarking about how silly it is.

Now there’s a place for those kinds of stories and they serve a real purpose in our cultural landscape. But the catch is that the audience for the old Marvel Method and then All New Marvel have very small overlaps. Worse, the parts of the audience that don’t overlap tend to actively dislike each other. The result for Marvel has been long time fans abandoning Marvel’s offerings in droves while few new readers have materialized, that potential audience viewing Marvel comics as a poor fit for their tastes. The result has been Marvel sales plummeting and their long term rivals, DC Comics, dominating the Top Ten in sales week after week, with Marvel usually taking one or two places thanks to perennial fan favorite Spiderman.

In contrast DC, who started a new style of storytelling with their New 52 some six or seven years ago and abandoned it with their DC Rebirth event last year, has pretty much solved the storytelling problem. Superman and Batman are their old familiar selves and their flagship titles, Action and Detective Comics, are pushing up to their 1000th issue. But new takes on old characters are also strutting their stuff and winning over audiences. There will be a discussion of great stories like Super Sons and the truly staggering work that is Mr. Miracle at some point in the future but suffice it to say DC has managed to expand the kinds of stories it tells and the way it tells them while still appealing to their core audience.

There are two real problems with writing a franchise. One is believing the franchise can tell any kind of story and keep its audience. Franchises come with things about them baked into the crust. They were originally the vision of a handful of creators and that vision caught on with thousands or millions of people who loved the vision of those creators enough come back to it again and again. If you try and use that original vision as a way to draw attention to your own, different and unique, vision then you show that you don’t have confidence in your own vision and have to slip it into something with more cultural weight in order to have it succeed. This is going to be most obvious to the core fans who resonated most strongly with the original creator’s vision. Now you can build on existing visions to expand them but if you try and supplant them with whatever you find most appealing then don’t be surprised if the old audience turns on you and no one else is interested in the ideas you couldn’t make stand on their own.

The other is letting the franchise get stale. You can’t always be topping yourself. Either your franchise will go over the top and jump the shark or get stuck in a loop with any new story you tell stuck in the shadow of older, better loved stories that were much the same.

There’s no solid solution to this paradox. But it’s easy to tell when you’ve gone too far one way or the other. If your franchise hasn’t picked up a new landmark story in five years you’re not innovating enough. If huge parts of your fanbase rebel you’ve innovated too much. Learning to keep your finger on the pulse is part of learning to be a franchise writer.

The Art of the Unexpected – Humor and Writing

Humor is one of humanity’s unifying experiences. Nothing draws a group of people together like a good joke, laughing actually alters brain chemistry in ways that makes people more friendly, more enthusiastic and less stressed. Even people who are not particularly funny still tend to have one or two good jokes they can share with others to break the ice in new situations or just keep a conversation moving when it’s stalled. But original humor requires a great deal of intelligence and social awareness to pull off and, even then, it’s very subjective, so what leaves one audience in stitches will leave another bored and restless. Any stand-up comedian can attest to this.

Most writers try to have some humor in their works. Getting that humor to land can be very difficult for all the reasons above but when it does the benefits it provides in getting and keeping your audience is immeasurable. Humor isn’t a formula or a set of tricks but instead a fresh perspective combined with penetrating understanding of the world in general and human nature in particular. The two basic keys to good humor tend to be honesty and surprise. The first, honesty, is very simple. You cannot get a laugh if it’s not founded on some truth of the world that your audience recognizes. There’s a lot of nuance to that, cultures and limited perceptions playing a huge part in it, but that’s the core of it.

The harder part is being unexpected. We laugh because our expectations have been violated but not badly violated, or violated in a way that is very harmful. People in stressful situations often say that they laugh because the only other option is to cry, a testament to the fact that the biggest difference between humor and trauma is how deeply the wound cuts. Another way to look at it is the difference between being tickled and rubbed with sandpaper – one causes laughter, another tears.

Unsurprisingly, this means that a failed joke often causes some kind of emotional distress. Anger, sadness and general discomfort are the outcomes of a failed joke, which means using humor in your writing carries a great deal of risk with it. More than just breaking immersion, a bad joke can actually turn audiences against your story if it really rubs them the wrong way. It’s true that you can chalk this up to part of the audience being thin skinned or overly stodgy. But at the same time, it could be that your use of humor didn’t suit the story or audience you were trying to find. These kinds of judgement calls ultimately rest in the hand of the author but, as always, are also things you must be aware of in order to make those calls effectively.

There are three basic ways to violate expectations for humorists. The first is to cross societal bounds, the second to set up non sequiturs, the third is to construct running gags.

Crossing societal bounds is touchy stuff, the kind of humor most likely to cause offense and, naturally, the funniest when done right. The most famous example of this is probably George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV”, although the modern masters of the art are undoubtedly Bill Burr and Dave Chappelle. Beware strong language – Here’s a great example of Bill Burr explaining why there’s always a reason to hit a woman (but you shouldn’t).

So yeah. That kind of humor is potent, potentially destructive stuff. I’d say it’s for advanced users only but, honestly, it’s probably impossible to master that kind of biting social commentary any way other than going out and doing it. But, for the aspiring writer it might be wise to practice this kind of humor a great deal in less permanent venues before immortalizing it in writing. Test it on trusted friends first, then maybe writing groups and, if you have access and can speak in front of people, at comedy clubs. Get really good at judging this kind of thing and exactly where it’s funny for most people because once it’s out there in writing it’s never going away.

Of course, there are many much milder ways to play on societal expectations for humor. Consider the punchline of this gag from Girl Genius. The setup is when General Zog hears Dimo was listening at the door like a great big sneakypants and he says, “Dimo, I am shocked at this behavior!” And the payoff is when we realize he found it shocking because it was smart, not rude. Our understanding of shocking behavior is violated by the general’s. Puns are another great example of a very mild form of humor relying on social norms.

It’s important to note that this kind of humor can fail for reasons other than being offensive. Someone from a culture where listening at doors is normal and accepted, for example, might immediately conclude General Zog was shocked at Dimo’s display of social awareness in knowing when to listen at doors rather than the fact that he did it at all. Humor based on social conventions needs to be placed in a story that will appeal to an audience that will understand those social conventions or it won’t play.

The second kind of humor is the non sequitur. As the phrase implies, this is humor that violates our expectations simply because the punchline does not follow directly from the setup. All absurdist humor follows under this banner, as does a good bit of sketch comedy and improvisational comedy. Fish out of water humor is an interesting blend of non sequitur and societal norm humor as it revolves around people taking actions that make perfect sense to them but no sense to the audience (see Demolition Man’s three seashells gag), or taking actions that make sense to the audience but produce absurd results.

One of my favorite examples of a non sequitur gag is demonstrated in Dr. McNinja on this page and the next.

No explanation is ever given for what happened in that missing third of a page, if you’re wondering. Christopher Hastings is a master of non sequitur humor in addition to great plot based storytelling but cutting out a typical encounter in the middle of a typical adventure story and using that absence to remind us that the Doc is, in fact, a ninja is delightfully absurd. He violates both our expectation to see the Doc manage a cop quickly and easily and our expectation to learn something new about what’s going on at the same time and he does it so skillfully we don’t hold it against him. And we get to see Doc fight the NASAghasts that much faster.

Non sequiturs also have their weaknesses as humor devices. You have to present the audience with something surprising in order for it to really work and that gets harder to do every day. There’s a sequence in The Orville episode “About A Girl” where a Mexican standoff turns into a dance-off because one of the officers has been tinkering with the holodeck programs. It’s supposed to be funny but it flopped, first because Guardians of the Galaxy already attempted that gag and flubbed it but secondly, and more importantly, because going from Mexican standoff (an exotic and unusual situation) to dance off (not particularly exotic, and still less unusual than a Mexican standoff) is a poor non sequitur joke. The sequence of events started us someplace more in violation of our expectations than where we wound up, which is not funny.

Finally, there is the running gag.

It may seem strange to say that a thing that happens over and over again is a violation of our expectations. But the secret of a running gag is not that it is the same thing over and over again, but that we keep seeing the gag in places where it hasn’t shown up before and doesn’t make sense. The best examples tend to come from long running media or entertainment careers that have the time to really find the best use for these gags, things like the black cat in Trigun or the way Harpo Marx never speaks, in spite of take the roles of many people who would have to be excellent public speakers. Even Bugs Bunny’s “What’s up, Doc?” is a running gag of sorts. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine found nearly infinite uses for self-sealing stem bolts, and the accompanying reverse-ratcheting routers. And the Nostalgia Critic’s relationship with the Bat Credit Card is the stuff of legend. But one of the greatest running gags of my childhood has to be the Noodle Incident from Calvin and Hobbes. The less said about that the better.

There tends to be a danger that running gags become overused. They can’t turn up constantly because then they stop being unexpected and funny. But if they’re forgotten completely or only mentioned once or twice then they can’t build up the force of a good running gag. Of course, repeating a gag that is naturally funny, as often happens on Who’s Line is it Anyway? helps make reusing it easier, but even these gags can wear out their welcome. The best part about running gags is that they’re easy to set up and bear little of the risk of other kinds of humor – basically, the only two risks are setting up a running gag that isn’t funny at all or running one to death so that your audience loses interest whenever it comes up instead of laughing. Of course, the opposite side of the less risky coin is that few running gags are exceptionally funny. Typically they just are. People like them but don’t love them.

Humor brings a lot to a work but it’s also important to know what kind of humor best suits what you’re writing. Running gags rarely fit commentaries, for example, while social humor is going to completely miss with younger audiences, who don’t get puns and don’t fully grasp the contexts that make other forms of social humor funny. Learning what humor goes best in what situation is just another part of sorting out how you’ll use it in your writing. Sorting it all out is half the fun – for you, if not your audience. But once it works the payoff will be more than worth it.