Creativity is a Muscle

I’ve had a lot of time to myself lately, due to various circumstances. When word first came down to stay home and keep to myself I thought, “Great! I need lots of me time to do my writing and art, so let’s put all this down time to good use!”

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried very hard to do just that. I’ve invested time in writing projects, I’ve more than doubled my output on the art projects I have ongoing, I’ve worked on outlines, I’ve researched editors who can help me take my projects to the next level. I’ve put irons in the fire and stepped on the bellows – I’ve got a lot I want to do before I die and not the greatest amount of time to do it. But I’ve found that I also have to stop for breaks far more than I anticipated.

Creativity is a muscle, and  the more you use it the more tired you get.

That’s something I’d always known, at least intuitively, from my time in college when classes with heavy writing elements would leave us with “writing burn out” for a week or two after the semester ended. I hadn’t suffered as much from these burnouts, at least it felt to me, as I’d always had some writing project stewing during the semester and sometimes I just had to replace personal projects with school projects. But what I rediscovered in the past few weeks is that devoting large chunks of the day, every day, to creative work takes a pronounced toll. So whether it’s the result of a global disaster or just your next writing retreat, here’s some things I’ve found that really helps the mind clear and reset after the creative fog rolls in during your next prolonged burst of creative work.

1. Cook a meal. 

Writing and drawing both require engaging the mind, as I’d assume most other forms of serious creative work do, and the brain demands more calories than any other single organ in the body. Doing a lot of creative work can leave you feeling more than a bit peckish. A lot of people will just keep a snack at hand while writing, so they can munch on nuts or chips or something when they start to feel hunger pangs. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it does fill the stomach. But it can get unhealthy very quickly and doesn’t really give your creative muscles a chance to bounce back. Holding out a little longer then stopping to cook a real meal for yourself – and anyone else interested in it – can go a long way to letting yourself relax and reset your creative energies while allowing you to eat a little healthier food in more controlled portions.

2. Clean up your workspace. 

Clutter in your area is actually very taxing on your mind. Constantly having that novel or magazine at the edge of your vision causes a part of your subconscious to dwell on the plot of that story or the article about hair dressing you were reading last night. Not ideal. Taking ten minutes to clear up your workspace, putting things away, dusting, vacuuming and generally making things more pleasant to be in, not only lets your brain relax it makes an environment more conductive to your work in the future. Depending on how dusty it was, it may be healthier for you, too.

3. Take an exercise break. 

Balance that hard mental labor with a little hard physical labor. Getting your heart rate up and the blood moving moves oxygen to your brain and helps it reset and the intense focus on simple tasks will let your mind relax and get ready for another round of intense creative work. Aerobic exercise works better for this endeavor than muscle training, at least in my case, but it couldn’t hurt to try both until you find one that really works for you.

4. Socialize. 

Not so easy to do right now, but a quick check in with family or friends can go a long way towards clearing the cobwebs and energizing your mind. Give your mother a call or hit up a Discord forum and chat about something with your friends there. After twenty or thirty minutes you should be refocused and ready to go.

In general, even experienced authors cannot sit and write all day. They tend to break their work into two or three large chunks, with meals, errands and chores to in between to clear their heads. So if long term writing has your brain wearing out, give some of these things a try and find what works best for you and don’t be afraid to take a break if you can’t focus during long creative bouts.

Joe Exotic and the Dangers of Story

Like many people these last few weeks, I’ve had more time than normal on my hands. So I took a moment to flip on the Netflix machine and skim through the titles and what do I see? A little thing called Tiger King, a true crime documentary about big cats and the big personalities that work with them. I figured, sure, why not? Tigers are neat and I’ve enjoyed some true crime podcasts in the past (also, This Sounds Serious which is definitely not true crime but more on that next week). And it was number one in the most watched list so it must have some redeeming value, right?

Not necessarily.

If you’ve watched Tiger King already you’re aware that it’s basically a slow motion trainwreck as the titular tiger collector, who goes by the name Joe Exotic, got so wrapped up in a rivalry with another big cat collector, one Carol Baskins, that he nearly went bankrupt and got himself entangled in a murder-for-hire scheme that would eventually see him arrested, tried and convicted. Pretty grim stuff for a man who ostensibly just wanted to bring beautiful and exotic animals to the public. And if that’s all he was, I’d probably be pretty sympathetic to him.

The problem with Joe Exotic was one I see playing out over and over again in modern life, one I’ve spent a long time thinking about myself and one that culturally Westerners are very, very vulnerable to. Joe Exotic got caught up in his own story, so much so that he lost the plot.

I don’t intend to break down the nuances of Joe vs. Carol in their approach to conservation of wildlife or the nuances of how they cared for animals under their charge. Nor do I intend to delve into the quite torrid details of their personal lives and the various accusations that can be leveled against either of them. Tiger King does that quite effectively itself, if that’s what you want you can watch it. What fascinates me is how far afield Joe went while ostensibly defending big cats and other specimens of exotic wildlife from extinction.

We often say that everyone sees themselves as the hero of their own story. While the accuracy of that truism is debatable in some cases, I think it’s more accurate than not. Of course, accuracy is not the point of the saying, the point is to try and inspire a little empathy for others. But in the case of Joe and Carol that was not the effect it had.

Both Joe and Carol were in the process of trying to help out big cats. If the things they said about their efforts are even partially true they both saw themselves as heroes in this endeavor. But they wound up fundamentally at odds, even though they were not located near each other and their methods were not radically different to the outside observer. This opposition seems to have come from the need for a heroic character to have an easily identifiable villain.

Now it is possible for a hero to face stiff opposition without a specific face to put on it, as in some disaster movies. And the opposition doesn’t have to be a villain per se, many sports heroes compete against honorable and admirable men, as we see in the rivalry between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed. However humans generally react the most strongly and vividly to a battle between good and evil. So it’s no surprise that, as Joe and Carol grew more and more firmly opposed to one another, that’s the tenor their conflict took. Each wanted their supporters firmly set against the other and strove to expose what they felt were hypocritical and evil actions on the part of the other. That’s not wonderful, and it really didn’t help the cause they espoused, but in and of itself it’s not enough to hire a hitman over.

Where Joe went particularly off the rails is when he tried to pivot to politics.

On the surface it seems like a natural progression – Carol was trying to change the laws, Joe tried to become a lawmaker. The problem was it wasn’t – as really would have made more sense for Joe to lobby as well, rather than take a job that would have removed him from his animals and his zoo entirely. That’s much the same reason many other high profile members of niche causes don’t go into politics. Politicians have to consider the desires of a broad range of people, special interests want to remain focused on their… well, special interests. But by this point Joe was fixed on being the hero of the hour and riding off to Washington, then later the state capitol, to wage war for his cause must have seemed like the next logical move. But instead he nearly bankrupted himself and wound up vulnerable to a series of lawsuits over the next few years.

While those lawsuits were quite avoidable, Joe would not have gotten pushed to the point where he basically lost possession of his zoo, a lifelong project, and spiraled to the point where he could get arrested for hiring a hitman if he’d kept track of the priorities. Instead he fell into the story where he was the hero, battling the villain trying to undo his zoo. Now he’s just a supporting character, keeping America entertained as we suffer through trying times.

I suppose Joe isn’t the only writer to lose track of where his story is going. It’s a tough balance to walk for even experienced writers. But that’s the problem of looking at your life like you’re the main character. Whether the story is good or the story is bad, at least you have control of all the variables, at least you know everything that’s going on. You can make judgements about the parts characters are playing with full information and with the knowledge that things will turn out how you want, whether other people like it or not. In real life, you don’t have the information and you can’t foresee how things will turn out and it’s very easy to go from the king of the cats to another dog in a cage. Maybe sometimes it’s better to play the supporting character and let others decide if you’re ready for the spotlight.

Wold Building: Organic Vs. Thematic

When you read about building a world from the great fantasy and scifi writers of the modern age almost all of them agree that the best way to go about it is to begin with the foundational premises and carry them out to their logical conclusions. Are there aliens to think about? What planet do they come from, what’s the environment like, what kind of culture results? How are they physically similar or different from humans and how does that change the ways they think and act? Does your fantasy world have magic? How does it work and how will that change the culture and politics?

This approach likely goes back to the legendary Tolkien, a linguist who developed the languages of his world as he wrote stories about that world. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, which I call the organic approach. Starting with the big picture and figuring out what the backdrop to your world is like is a great way to give your story consistency, predictability and easily understandable stakes. At the same time, it’s not the only way to build a world, nor is it necessarily the most effective way.

The other form of world building is thematic – when you have a particular idea you want to break down it may make more sense to build the world around those ideas first and foremost, then do your best to create rational consequences for those ideas later. Is your story about gambling? Create a massive underground society revolving around gambling in place of more traditional commerce. Is it about the grinding nature of competition? Create a world where war is replaced with a kind of game and explore the detrimental effects on society.

In my own writing I’ve tinkered with both kinds of world building. Years ago I wrote “Emergency Surface” as a quick entry into a much larger meditation on the future that had coherent rules, a three century long timeline, concrete rule for technology from faster than light travel to microcomputing and more. I haven’t written too much in that world beyond further explorations of the New Ice Age where I started but I’ve always had plans. (We’ll see what comes of them.) One thing that did and still does excite me so much about that future timeline is all the different kinds of stories I can tell around different major events in the world and different technologies available there.

On the other hand, when I sat down to write Schrodinger’s Book I was interested in telling a story about memory, how we tell stories and the real meaning of the victors writing the history books. From the mostly abandoned and empty Earth to the mass manipulation of books for the purposes of controlling culture and memory, to the suspiciously articulate enlisted spacers who had to explain the integrity of books to the now clueless Earthlings, every aspect of the Triad Worlds and UNIGOV Earth was chosen first to cater to these thematic elements and then refined to facilitate the coherence and verisimilitude of the world. Information manipulation on the scale presented in the story is, in my opinion, impossible even given the cultural and technological realities of the time. But my desire was less to explain how such things came to be and more look at what part of our nature gives rise to the impulses that create such things.

Interestingly enough, Martian Scriptures, the sequel to Schrodinger’s Book that I’m currently working on, contains a blending of these two takes on world building. I was interested in examining how patterning ourselves and our societies on story (a very popular notion these days) is an alluring and dangerous concept. As I looked at how I might go about tackling these themes I realized there were elements introduced in Schrodinger’s Book that played heavily towards this theme, most notably the idea that the Triad Worlds had an offshoot that was deliberately trying to emulate the ideas of Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek. From there it was a very short walk to a basic conflict that led to most of the story arc falling in to place. At the same time, I had to organically extend the ideas introduced already to make sure that Martian Scriptures didn’t come off as inconsistent with its precursor and introduce new ideas to allow for the clear mechanical execution of some of the more “futuristic” portions of the story.

I don’t have any problem with organic world building, but having done quite a bit of thematic world building in the past few years I’ve found that there are some clear advantages of the one versus the other. Organic world building can often become a trap. People spend so much time building their world they lose interesting in telling stories about it, much like the overly fastidious dad in The Lego Movie. On the other hand thematic world building can leave blind spots all over your story and you can easily write yourself into a corner because you weren’t thinking about the consequences of your thematically appropriate decisions.

On the other hand, thematic world building is fast and powerful so long as you avoid the pitfalls. It makes the audience feel they’ve really experienced your theme to its fullest extent when executed on properly. Well done organic world building drags the audience into your world and lets them experience being there in a way no other story really can.

The real question is what your story needs. Many adventure stories rely heavily on organic world building to keep fun and interesting obstacles in front of the protagonists and to keep an endless supply of new and exciting locales on hand. On the other hand, thematic world building often gives the best setting for deep examinations of characters and motive or cultures and consequences.

Even if you’re not creating an entire world for your story you still have to populate the environment around your characters with businesses, subcultures and objects from the real world around you. Learning to world build will give you a better feel for what these choices mean for your characters and story. And an oft-overlooked part of that is the balance between the organic outgrowths of your choices and the thematic implications of them. So no matter what kind of writer you are, consider your world building from both sides of the coin.

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.

Avengers: Endgame – Hitting the High Notes With No Tune

I’ve been mixed on the Marvel Cinematic Universe for most of its existence. As a Johnny come lately I started with the original Avengers film, went back and watched the films leading up to it and then kind of drifted along watching most of the MCU films as they hit their home releases. Aside from Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange the only MCU films I watched in theaters were the Avengers line. Other than the original Iron Man and the Captain America trilogy, along with the first Avengers, I didn’t really feel like any of the films cross the line from good to great and there are a couple of clunkers mixed in there.

That said, it’s not like I didn’t enjoy a large chunk of the MCU when I was watching it. Infinity War was a pretty strong film in the MCU cannon, managing to show the fallout of Civil War and build up a pretty strong villain all in one go. Watching the Avengers get defeated in detail was pretty intense, and the fact that they lost in part because they were divided was not lost on me. More than anything, the scene of Thanos taking his ease, watching the sun rise on an altered cosmos was brilliant from both an emotional and storytelling standpoint. The problems begin with what happens directly after that.

And, of course, from this point on there will be spoilers for Avengers: Endgame but it’s been out for nearly six months so hopefully no one will be reading this without seeing the film first.

Endgame starts pretty much where Infinity War left off, with the Avengers scattered and trying to process what happened. The story cuts a few corners in pulling the surviving cast together but quickly restarts things by sending them after Thanos which is better than beating around the bush. Everything up until Thor executes Thanos and the Avengers return to Earth empty handed is pitch perfect. Even Thor’s parting line, “This time I aimed for the head,” is excellent.

Things go downhill rapidly with the introduction of the five year time jump.

I could really dig in to my problems with Endgame, the treatment of Thor and the Hulk, the general weakness of a time travel plot as a way to basically magic the cast out of a problem, the way the time travel in the story doesn’t even hold to its own rules, the dissonance of the Avengers defeating a Thanos from the past who wasn’t even the one who wronged them. There’s at least two thousand words on those subjects alone.

Then there’s all the things that I really loved in Endgame. Thor, Tony and Cap vs. Thanos, Tony talking to his father, the Portals, Hawkeye and Black Widow fighting for the Soul Stone. And Tony closing this chapter of the MCU as he opened it, by claiming the mantle of Iron Man once more and proving his heroic mettle by giving of himself for the sake of the rest of the universe created the perfect note for a generation of heroes to depart on. That, too, could support thousands of words of analysis.

I’m not going to dive in to any of that. Other people have done it better, and I don’t know that I have a whole lot to add. Instead I want to look at the aspect of Endgame that does interest me, and that’s why the story as a whole doesn’t satisfy me. Endgame was written to be the cherry on top of one of the most successful movie franchises in history. Almost every major emotional moment it seeks to hit, it hits. And when it hits those notes it is pitch perfect.

The problem is, those notes do not make a melody.

As a writer who often begins with a number of scenes in a story and a vague idea of the plot points that will tie them together this is something that speaks to me, and not necessarily in a good way. When writing Endgame the Russo brothers clearly had dozens of ideas about what they wanted to say about their characters and how those ideas would speak to their audience. They clearly loved the characters they were working with and knew their audience would go with them to those moments, no matter how flimsy the connecting tissue was, and they decided to just go for it and grab as many of those powerful moments as they could.

The problem is, while the Russos hit a staggering number of high notes, they don’t tell a good story. Don’t get me wrong, the story is okay. But in sitting down to write this post I found I could recall the story and plot points of Civil War or Winter Soldier much more readily than I could Endgame, even though it’s been more than a year since I watched either of those movies. Even with all the high notes in Endgame I struggled to recall them because they didn’t make a story. Cap fighting himself doesn’t play in to his character arc in Endgame, nor does most of the other things that happen in the time travelling sequences bear on the characters who do them. They are there because this is the sendoff for the franchise. That’s a shame, because many of these moments were quite good, and would have stood on their own much better with a story that was designed to maximize them, rather than just being shoved into what almost felt like an anthology film and being presented to the world as the climax of the MCU.

It’s tempting to just try and present all the best moments you can think of to your audience. But you serve those moments best by putting them in a story that your audience will love just as much as those moments. They may still go with you on the journey – and that’s certainly something to be grateful for. But they’ll actually remember them better the more effort you put in to it.

The Sibyl’s War – Good Ideas Alone Are Not Everything

One of my favorite science fiction authors is Timothy Zahn. I’ve raved about his many accomplishments in the past but today I’m going to take look at his shortcomings through the lens of his latest original series, the Chronicle of the Sibyl’s War. At a glance, this should be another dose of great Zahn storytelling, beginning with an interesting premise and setting up interesting conflict. However, as big a fan as I am, I have to confess that I haven’t been as interested in it as I could be. Since what makes good writing is very important to me, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out why that might be and I’ve arrived at some conclusions.

First, let me set the stage. Nicole Hammond is a low rent gang kid from Philadelphia who is abducted by aliens and dragged away to the alien ship Fyrantha to serve as a Sibyl, a human with the ability to telepathically hear the ship giving repair orders when she takes a specific drug. Unfortunately, on top of the whole abducted by aliens thing, taking that drug slowly poisons her and ensures she’ll die in a year or so. To top it off, one of her old gang members was abducted with her and is intent on raising a ruckus through the decks of the ship, getting her and her work crew into trouble. Nothing’s easy for Nicole but when she discovers there are prisoners on board being forced to fight in death matches for reasons unknown even Nicole’s jaded heart is forced to take an interest. Soon she’s doing her best to make peace, both in the death match arenas and the ship at large.

Now, this premise is fine and dandy. It has a protagonist, plenty of hurdles for said protagonist, lots of people for her to cross paths with along the way and so on. The ideas are solid. The problems come in execution. Zahn is not the best character writer in scifi. Now, as a genre more invested in ideas that’s not a major hurdle to overcome and Zahn has always brought strong plots, world building, mysteries and puzzles to the table. On the surface, the Sibyl’s War should be able to stand on its ideas.

Down on her luck girl gets a chance to save city sized starship from the hands of slavers? Great! Ancient battleship of incredible power teetering between the hands of villains and the common folk? Great! Kidnapped gladiators fighting for their freedom? Academy award winning premise! The problem is what happened when all those ideas got jumbled up together.

You see, Zahn’s character writing really shines when we spend a lot of time with a small group of people against the backdrop of a large, colorful cast who come and go but – and this is important – who are with the cast for most of any story they appear in. In short, Zahn can write very good characters, but he needs to spend a lot of time with them to do it. He does not have the gift or technique to sketch compelling characters quickly. But with all the ideas fighting for time in the Sibyl’s War series, characters appear and vanish quickly, sometimes appearing for only a couple of chapters a book, and even those that do receive development get it at a pace too slow to really feel like they’re paying off. This even goes for Nicole, one character who should absolutely not feel like she’s static, especially in the first book of the series (she gets more growth in the second).

Again, this isn’t a flaw in the premise of the series or in Zahn’s abilities as a writer. It simply feels like he has mismatched his talents with the demands of his story. Perhaps Zahn wanted to challenge himself as a writer. Perhaps he’s never attempted this kind of character writing and didn’t realize he would be so lackluster at it. Perhaps he just wanted to tell this story regardless of how well he did at it. Whatever led to it, the Sibyl’s War just doesn’t stack up very well against most of the rest of his work. Everyone has a bad project or two, and it’s better to over reach your grasp than never take risks. Still, a part of me will always wonder if the story would have been more satisfying if the ideas were pruned down, or tackled by a different writer.