Writing Tip: Frustration of Goals

  • by Gitabushi

I’m currently reading some stuff. Yes, my parents are very proud.

I’ve been reading some science fiction by some aspiring writers, but at the same time, I’m also working my way through Jin Yong’s “The Deer and the Cauldron” in Chinese.

Jin Yong is the Grand Master of Chinese martial arts pulp. To give you a sense of what I’m reading, the martial arts heroes of his genre are probably closest to our comic book superheroes.  They were considered garbage literature as he wrote it, widely popular among the less-educated, not as illuminating or uplifting as the Four Great Novels or Lu Xun (the Mark Twain, perhaps, of Chinese literature).  And yet, it was Jin Yong’s books that have inspired dozens of movies and television adaptations. His characters and stories are still found as pop culture references everywhere. And in retrospect, many consider Jin Yong’s books (and those he inspired) to actually be literature.

That’s why I consider his writings to be the Chinese version of pulp.

As such, I have multiple reasons to read the books: 1) they are good. 2) it’s great practice for my Chinese reading and general language ability. 3) they are well-structured stories of adventure and heroism.

One thing struck me in my last reading session: I haven’t even finished the introductory chapter, and the framing characters are still just discussing the back story, and yet, the villain fails twice in his attempt to create mischief!

The villain is an official who has earned the just desserts for his corruption: fired and penniless, he’s begging for money to get home. He flatters a rich man about his son’s manuscript in hopes of getting increased charity.  The rich man realizes the official has never read the book, and tries to provide a financial incentive for the official to read and be transformed. The official, however, finds the gold leaf slipped into the pages without reading. And yet, the trick works, in a way: the official actually reads the book, but only in hopes of wheedling additional gold from the rich man.  However, upon reading, he is not educated or enlightened, but actually recognizes the text of the book provides him with an outstanding opportunity for blackmail.

So, rather than using the gold leaf to return home and start his life over, he prepares his blackmail gambit by mailing the book and his accusations to a local administrator, and uses the money to remain in the area to wait for his plot to come to fruition. He waits a year.  Nearly out of money, he discovers that the rich man was tipped off and sidestepped the blackmail peril by editing and republishing the book.  The corrupt official scours all possible locations for the original book across the entire province, and can’t find a single one.  Since he sent in the book with his accusations, he has no proof to continue the scheme, so finally heads home.

Nearly home, he stumbles on someone who has an original copy of the book.  Without enough money to offer to purchase it, he steals it.  Although he was nearly out of money, he economizes his life to stay in the area longer, and re-tries the gambit, but at the nation’s capital.

The rich man was ahead of him, however, and bribes the higher officials to only review the revised editions.

The corrupt official economizes once again, and puts everything into a public display of all his denouncements, so that it can’t be covered up by allies of the rich man at the right government positions.

I haven’t read far enough to see how it turns out, but since the blackmail has to work for there to be a story, I’m assuming this is where he finally succeeds in his nefarious schemes.  I’m also fairly certain he doesn’t profit by it.

There is so much good here.

First, human nature: Good people do good, expecting there will be good results; they never realize that the evil will always find ways to turn good intent to serve their selfish urges.  The evil people see goodness as weakness.  And yet, the evil is simple, human-sized, and believable: love of comfort. The evil man could have taken the gold concealed in the book and lived the rest of his life at a level beyond the dreams of the multitudes of poor people.  Or he could have economized his lifestyle fairly early and lived decently, although not terribly comfortably, for a few years while he improved his abilities or reputation for his next career opportunity. Instead, he lived large in expectations of future windfalls, for as long as he could, until he no longer could.  And then when he realized the need for change, it was only to endure longer to bring about the windfall.  He worked harder on a blackmail scheme for a big payoff than he would have to earn that same amount through hard work and diligence.

This makes the story more believable.

But the most important lesson to me here is obstacles.

This is backstory.  This is a minor character who we will never see again. This is the key issue that will launch the oppression that forms the backdrop for the main story.

And yet the author *still* thwarts plans multiple times before finally allowing the realization of goals.

This is, as I said, a backstory, but it is very nearly a full novel of developments in itself…merely shrunk down into a condensed narrative that spans a handful of paragraphs.

Too many times I read stories where everything the heroes attempt, succeeds.  Sure, we want to read stories where the heroes win.  But it shouldn’t be direct.  The Sci-Fi book I’m reading simultaneous to the “Deer and the Cauldron” has a *few* twists thrown in, but when they get a new mission, I know they’ll be successful at the mission, pretty much as planned. As such, in contrast to the “Deer and the Cauldron,” it comes across as too predictable for me.

One rule of writing I absorbed somewhere was: if you tell the readers the plan, it can’t succeed.  If you want the plan to succeed, don’t tell them the plan.

Consider Ocean’s 11.  They make you *think* you know what the plan is.  Then so many things go wrong.  It looks like they have no chance.  And then they reveal that you never knew what the plan was at all. It actually worked to perfection.  But that’s what made it good.  If you were told what would happen, and then it happened exactly like that, you’d be bored.

What Jin Yong did here is closely related.  But the writing lesson here is: nothing ever goes as planned. Nothing is simple, and nothing is straightforward.  Even the bad guy will have most of his attempts thwarted.  What makes him a bad guy is he persists at being bad until he succeeds. And therefore, what makes the good guy good is he persists at being a good guy until he succeeds.

Too often, I think, writers want their good guy to succeed, and they lack the patience (or insight into humanity?) to put them through very much.  Early Edgar Rice Burroughs actually suffers from this, but within a few years, he’s doing a great job making his heroes’ plans fail the first few times they try.

But most writers, just like ERB, let their villains have it too easy: whatever scheme they hatch works fine, right up until the good guy defeats it.  And that’s okay, I guess. You have opposition, you have suspense. But you know the good guy is going to win.  You know the good guy is better/smarter/stronger than the bad guy, so the result is inevitable.

Jin Yong shows us another way.

The bad guy has it rough, too. The bad guy has to work for his goals, too.  Life and perversity of people gets in the bad guy’s way, just like it gets in the good guy’s way.

And now, it really is a battle of equals. Anything can happen. Both are determined, persistent, and skilled enough to work past the normal obstacles of life. Now they are clashing in the final struggle.  Who will win???

The good guy, of course.  But now you have no idea how they will win.  You want to see how, you *need* to see how. You have no idea what new wrinkles will be thrown at both the bad guy and the good guy, because both will encounter adversity.

It adds complexity, but requires more patience.

I need to be more patient as a writer to let my story develop, and not just skip over events and narrative details to get to the good parts. Even the background should have tension and good parts.

 

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Paradigm: Topology

  • by Gitabushi

 

At one point in my schooling, I was introduced to the idea of topology. “The properties of space that are preserved under continuous deformations, such as stretching, crumpling and bending, but not tearing or gluing.”

Topologically, a coffee cup looks like a donut.

Topologically, I look like Harrison Ford: I have a pierced left ear, and a scar on my chin, just like him.  Although there may be other differences I’m not aware of that make us different.  Probably healed surgical holes disqualify that. Whatever. It sounded good at first.

Anyway, there are different aspects by which topology can be applied to life, thinking, and philosophy.

For instance, I first encountered the concept of “skins” with WinAmp.  Change a skin, and it looks like you have a whole different program, but it is functionally the same.  Your character plays the exact same way regardless of which skin you choose (Yes, yes, in one of the recent Zelda games, your abilities change as you change your clothes. I don’t care).

But it can go farther than that.  In some ways, the first Jagged Alliance game was not much more than a skin of XCom: UFO Defense.  Sure, the missions were set up and executed differently.  The weapons were different, movement and obstacles were different.  The bad guys in XCom were much tougher than Jagged Alliance. But play one, and you really understand the game mechanics of the other.

Or the GURPS and D20 role playing game systems: Once you learn the underlying rules, the only difference is what skin you put on it, to be able to play a dungeon crawl, or a 20s Gangster game, or an Old West game.

One could also consider Clarke’s notion that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” to be a topological notion.  If you create a stream of fire by saying some magic words, or press a button to create the same effect, is it any different to the charred remains?

Okay, here’s the payoff, and it probably wasn’t worth your time:

The problem I have with most of the pulp I’ve read is it is topologically identical to the “story” I made up in this post.

To me, most pulp just doesn’t have any real tension.  You know the hero is going to win, and there isn’t even any real tension in seeing how he is going to win.  ERB, at his worst, is just Unique Setting and General Badassery. Even REH, at his worst, is nothing more than that, but maybe with some extra-lush descriptions thrown in.

To me, a story isn’t a story unless there is development of some kind, something to be learned, an idea to be shared, a concept to be taught or explored.

Have you ever watched a replay of a sporting event?  Perhaps at the time, it was so exciting to watch as your team came back and won. Or exciting to see them come back and just barely fall short at the end.  In the replay, though?  While you can evoke some of the feeling of tension and excitement, you really are just remembering what you felt at the time.  The outcome is set in stone. It already happened. I doubt you make a habit of re-watching old games, unless you are looking for some specific information, like how well the OLB handled coverage duties.

That’s what many pulp stories read like.  The hero has been given abilities to overcome whatever the author can throw in their way, so it becomes as drama-filled as watching someone else play Pong.

Sure, every story follows the same few plots, but what makes a story good, memorable, and worth sharing and re-reading is conflict: the main character wants something, and there is someone who opposes him.  They use their abilities to vie for who will succeed.  Or the main character has a conflict within themselves about what they really want and/or really need, and there must be a struggle to see which desire will win out, and if it will be to his benefit or sorrow.  Or the main character wants something, but if he gets it, he loses something else, and must decide how to handle the trade-offs, and see if he can minimize the trade-offs.

For this, a writer must understand human nature, must understand motivation, must understand how different people think, how they pursue their goals, what their priorities are.  From this understanding, good stories arise.

Star Wars is not topologically the same as Groundhog Day. Ghostbusters is not topologically the same as 13 Hours: the Benghazi Story.  A good story, with conflict, is unique.

Wrap up: Sometimes I think it helps to think of things from a topological standpoint: are these two things that look different, actually just the same thing with different skins?  Or are these two things that look the same actually different in nature?

Let me know if you ever use this sort of thinking in your analysis of life, books, games, etc.

 

What about snake swords…?

This one goes out to Georganne.

The other day I finally got around to watching The Road Warrior. It was time, given the maledictions of my peers. Make no mistake – the censures were meet and just. Every SFF buff should watch the second installment of the Mad Max series.

I won’t do a deep dive here, as I’m almost 40 years late to the party, but a few notes:

1. Ah, so that’s where the dog companion (especially in post-apocalyptic wasteland setting) trope comes from!

(Update: Nope.)

 

2. Great mix of low and high tech and interesting flavor choices. Gun ammo seems to be a rare and valuable commodity, so some firearms but not a ton. Flamethrowers, crossbows, gyrocopters? Yessssss.

3. Characterization wasn’t very strong, but it didn’t need to be. The main villain was kinda cool and mysterious. The sidekick was amusing. The townsfolk included a hot Amazonian chick. Mad Max was Mad Max (though his departure directly through the bad guys’ camp was a head-scratchingly dumb-ass move; would a survivor like him really do something so brazen and foolish?). The world building makes up for this.

 

There were a lot of cool fights and much violence, but my favorite element may have been the weaponization of snakes by the gyrocopter pilot dude. When I reflected upon this brilliance, a couple of Twitter friendlies pointed out that it was also done by Thulsa Doom.

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True! I almost forgot about that!

Two things, though. In Mad Max, Gyro uses the snakes as projectiles at one point, tossing them from above onto baddies in punked-out roadsters. This is a bit different from Thusla Doom’s use – shooting them like arrows. If we had to give points here, I’d award them to Doom for style.

So far as precedent, though, it either goes to Mad Max or ends up a wash. Conan the Barbarian was released in May of 1982. The Road Warrior came to the US a few days later in the same year, but was released in Australia in 1982. So really Mad Max did it very slightly earlier.

Either way, snakes as ranged weapons: Yesssssss.

-Bushi

bushi

 

The truth about Princess Leia

The internet is teaming and writhing with hot takes on Star Wars. Personally, I haven’t seen The Last Jedi and I feel no great desire to. I only finally watched Rogue One a few months ago on Netflix, so I may catch TLJ on TV or streaming out of curiosity someday. For me it isn’t so much moral outrage, even though a lot of the people involved in “New Star Wars” do show contempt for those of us with more traditional and conservative values. It’s more that I’ve reached my Star Wars saturation point. I still love the original trilogy. Knights of the Old Republic was great, and the old Expanded Universe was hella fun. The Clone Wars animated series was pretty well done, too.

But slapping the Star Wars label onto something isn’t enough for me to like it, and I’ve seen enough of the franchise’s recent offerings to know that I’m not really its target audience anymore.

Incidentally, when you’ve lost Bishop Barron, you know you’ve taken a wrong turn. I mean, the man is an excellent critic and can throw a strong rhetorical jab, but he’s also pretty charitable when it comes to contemporary media. After all, the whole “Word on Fire” thing of his is about engaging with and finding Christ in our modern culture, no matter how buried He may sometimes be. So when he watches your movie and falls asleep, and laughs at your protagonist…

The Bishop’s chief criticism of New Star Wars and the people involved with it comes down to this:

“The overriding preoccupation of the makers of the most recent Star Wars seems to be, not the hero’s spiritual journey, but the elevation of the all-conquering female. Every male character in The Last Jedi is either bumbling, incompetent, arrogant, or morally compromised; and every female character is wise, good, prudent, and courageous.”

I don’t want to say this 3rd-wave feminist mindset isn’t concerned at all with good storytelling, but certainly it’s far more interested in intersectionalist narrative and female/minority empowerment (whatever that means) than overall quality. That is to say its agenda is not entertainment but messaging.

I noticed this apropos thread in my Twitter timeline this morning and picked out a couple pieces:

Obviously not everyone is buying into this baloney, but the whole line of thought seems to be indicative of an all-too-common reductivist false duality: Either a female character is a Strong Womyn who needs help from no man or else she is a regressive damsel in distress and of no use to us. #NotMyPrincess

For the sake of brevity, I won’t delve into the character of Rey in The Force Awakens or the chick from Rogue One (I honestly don’t even remember her name). Let’s talk about Leia and the original trilogy.

The fact is, yes, she was a damsel in distress. Quite literally – she was a princess in mortal peril (about to be executed) upon the Death Star. Whether the princess can or does physically ask the knight to rescue her from the dragon’s lair is irrelevant.

She was again saved at Jabba’s palace by Luke and Lando.

She was also a strong female character. The two facts are in no way contradictory.

The thing is, even though the characters of the original trilogy fall into certain archetypes, they were layered. They developed. They all had strengths and weaknesses. And none of them were defined exclusively by their sex, race, or any other one element of their identity.

Let’s look at some more facts about the original trilogy, with a focus on Leia but keeping the other main characters in mind.

A New Hope

Luke: A farm boy who is good at flying. He is saved by Obi-wan twice early on in the film. Not a particularly great shot with a blaster. Not particularly quick to learn the ways of the Force. He is courageous, and he helps rescue Princess Leia. He is rescued by Han at the Battle of Yavin, allowing him to score the shot that blows up the Death Star.

Han: A somewhat greedy, roguish smuggler. He’s got tricks and skillz. Doesn’t want to bother with rescuing Leia until enticed by wealth. He’s gutsy and somewhat impetuous in a fight. He helps rescue Leia. Ultimately does the right thing and comes back to rescue Luke.

Leia: A princess with a lot of moxie. She’s got attitude and is willing to die for a righteous cause. Pretty good in a blaster fight (she might have even nailed a few more stormtroopers than Luke). Not a pilot; not a gunner; not a brawler; not a Force sorceress. She is rescued on the Death Star by Luke and Han and crew.

The Empire Strikes Back

Luke: He’s coming along. Does some jedi training. Rescued by Han early on on Hoth. Tries to rescue his friends on Bespin. Gets rescued by Leia when he’s hanging from a wire.

Han: Rescues Luke on Hoth. Shows some brains to match his fighting and flying skills. Woos Leia. Gets carbonited and his friends try to save him.

Leia: Does the courtship dance with Han. Admits her love for him. Kinda sorted rescued by Luke on Bespin, then rescues him. Tries to save Han from Boba Fett.

Lando: Put in a tough spot, he sells out his friend but in the end he decides to try to atone and make good.

Return of the Jedi

Luke: Helps rescue Han (and Leia). Instrumental in recruiting the Ewoks native to Endor to the cause of the Rebellion (and shows mercy in resolving the capture of him and his friends peacefully). Finishes his character arch as a space knight/wizard. Redeems his evil father. Still not insanely powerful in any regard, though the guy’s a man with his own skillz now.

Han: Rescued by Luke, Leia, and crew. Now he’s all-in with the Rebellion and with Leia. When he thinks she loves Luke, he’s even willing to step aside for the sake of their happiness. Quite a bit of progress from the selfish smuggler from the first film.

Leia: Helps rescue Han, then is rescued by Luke. Slays Jabba the Hutt personally. Fights alongside Han (and Luke) on Endor.

Lando: Helps save Han (and Leia). Plays an instrumental role in destroying the second Death Star, along with the heroic Nien Nunb.

So for the original trilogy, here’s my rough count:

(I’m not counting Lando here and only really listed him above because yes, there was a major black character in 1980 who did heroic and cool things. Finn was not the first.)

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See, the thing is, in Star Wars a bunch of friends and comrades help each other out. They are all rescued at some point. They all need help. And they all reciprocate. Unless you give Luke an extra credit for blowing up the Death Star, Leia’s actually got a better ratio going than him! So yes, she needs rescuing! She also helps save her friends!

The pitting of the sexes against one another is idiotic. Luke, Han, and Leia are all brave. Luke and Han are men, and they show it. Leia is a woman, and she shows it.

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There’s nothing shameful about this at all. She was a great character and a strong woman back when the men of Star Wars were strong and great, too. Before they were forced to compete and lose by inferior, agenda-driven writing. Back when she was Princess Leia and not General Leia. And the greatest sin here isn’t the incorporation of certain values and beliefs into the new Star Wars stories; it’s that it’s become so central as to render good storytelling secondary.

-Bushi

bushi

King Lance

This morning I was listening to the Midnight because they’re the best.

For some reason I then felt compelled to Google this scene from Terminator.

Hey – who’s that at the 1-minute mark? It’s Bishop from Aliens! Who is that guy, anyway?

Google.

Hey, he’s been in a lot of stuff. Mostly bit parts, looks like. But hey, as recently as Into the Badlands. Cool. He also did some voice work in the Mass Effect games.

Wait. Hold on a sec.

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Oh snapola – he was the King in the Super Mario Bros. movie!

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Time to go home. This has been a productive day.

-Bushi

bushi

Worth a Watch: The Babysitter (2017)

Despite my growing fondness for weird tales and Gothic fiction, I’m still not really that much of a “horror fan.” A lot of modern horror movies are too reliant on cheap scares (oh shit something popped out and there was really loud string music!) and also I like being able to sleep at night without dwelling on dark and terrifying alternate realities.

But I do make allowances, particularly for horror movies that some might not even consider real horror. Netflix’s teen horror comedy The Babysitter is such a one. The trailer looked kind of goofy in an Evil Dead kind of way and gave off a sort of late-80’s-early-90’s camp flick vibe.

I gave it a viewing last week and on the Bushi Binary Watch Scale, I give it a 1 for “Watch.” Without saying too much about the plot, it’s able to successfully build and maintain tension while scattering in plenty of humor. While there are certainly a few gaping holes should you make the mistake of taking the story too seriously and there are silly moments, I wouldn’t call it a silly movie.

A word of caution – there’s a bit of dirty language, and that girl-girl make-out scene featured in the trailer does carry on a little bit longer in the film. It doesn’t get much more graphic than that, though, with the exception of a very brief scene with a couple in bed and a rather unsexy handjob apparently going on under the covers.

Aside from that, of course there’s gratuitous blood and violence. But in a fun way.

Evil Dead II
Pictured: Bruce Campbell as Ash Williams

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Kaiju commented that it is definitely an homage to classic slasher films like Halloween. Personally I can’t point to any of that, but it did feel like a throwback to growing up in the 80’s and 90’s. The wardrobe and the cultural references were dead-on. There’s even a “hot girl getting in the pool” scene!

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If any of this sounds up your alley and you’ve got a Netflix subscription, go check it out! There are definitely worse ways to spend an hour and a half. Like watching Mazes and Monsters.

Oh, and Bee’s SF Dream Team kind of sucks. Picard is a waste of a slot!

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-Bushi

bushi

Mazes and Monsters

There is a film from 1982 called Mazes and Monsters, starring a young Tom Hanks. What? You’ve never heard of Tom Hanks starring in a fantasy Dungeons and Dragonsy movie? That’s because this isn’t really a fantasy movie, and it isn’t a good movie.

Mazes and Monsters is about a group of college kids who play the titular game. Tom Hanks takes on the role of a transfer student looking to make a new start after becoming too absorbed in M&M to the detriment of his grades. Almost immediately he meets a young (and unconvincing) genius who also happens to be the Dungeon Master Maze Controller for a small group of players on campus. Hanks initially declines, but is eventually pulled in after meeting one of the other players, who happens to be a girl. The fourth member of the group is a hunky blonde dude who apparently can’t find love because nice girls are put off by his good looks.

The movie kind of crawls along. Things happen. There’s an inconsequential romance. The genius MC convinces the group to graduate from tabletop play to LARPing in a dangerous nearby cave.

For some reason Tom Hanks has some kind of psychotic break in the darkness, and he takes on the identity of his “holy man,” Pardieu. Somehow he’s living with this new personality for weeks and his friends don’t really notice anything other than him acting “a little weird.”

Then he disappears. His friends eventually track him down to New York City, where he’s gone to seek “the Great Hall,” some crazy fantasy version of his long lost and probably dead brother. Some punks try to mug him and he knifes one of them, seeing a lizard beast.

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His friends wind up saving him before he takes a dive off one of the Twin Towers, but the film ends on a bleak note. Despite his mother saying that he’s much better, the group discovers that he’s trapped thinking of himself as Pardieu. He tells them that the inn he’s been staying at (his parents’ house) is a good place and asks them to accompany him on an adventure to the dark forest beyond the enchanted lake, just off the family’s property.

So this isn’t a fantasy story of magic and adventure. It’s the story of a stressed out kid who goes crazy and retreats to a game world. Shame. I was hoping for something like Dragonslayer but with Tom Hanks instead of the guy from Ghostbusters 2.

If for some reason you’ve read this and still want to see it, it’s currently on Amazon Prime.

-Bushi

bushi