Look Upon My Works and Despair

It’s been a busy month here in the Gravelands. Finishing “Corpses and Cognac,” planning what I’m going to write afterwards, starting a new job, preparing for the holidays, and somehow finding time to be social all in there. It’s a lot to juggle, but it comes with a feeling of progress, the knowledge that this is the way things are supposed to be going. The outline of life falls into place.

The outline for “Corpses and Cognac,” on the other hand…well, let’s just say we’ve reached that stage of the draft where you question everything. I’m doing my best to set those doubts aside, get the book done, and leave all major edits for Draft 3. Doing a complete rewrite for Draft 2 has fixed most of the problems I was having with the book, but a complete rewrite does come with the price of introducing its own problems. Especially when the first draft took 2-3 years to write, and Draft 2 is almost complete at about 6 months or work—about the time it took me to write the space-fantasy novella. That’s pretty good time for me, even if it doesn’t feel that way!

What I want to talk about today is something I’ve been struggling with in this draft—and every draft of every story I ever write. It’s figuring out how much of the logic and mechanics of the world I explain to the readers.

Yes, it’s important to create the rules of one’s universe. To know how things are supposed to work, and the fallout of what happens when a wrench is thrown into those inner workings; as I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, consistent internal logic is key to keeping the plotholes away. I also talk a lot about building the details for one’s world, and that falls in here too. I’ve got documents and charts detailing how Arcadia functions and its connection to our world and “Moonworld” in the Deadly Drinks series, faux-scientific notes on magic and culture overviews for other series. I can even say I’m proud of these ideas. They’re unique, and once some of the facets are realized, the implications it casts on some of the characters are…well, in typical me fashion, rather wicked. Mwahaha.

That’s where the balance comes in. What I may think of as evil genius, a reader may find dull or confusing. What I would cast as a revelation in the plot may actually distance others with all the talk of theories. And even if I find a fascinating, exciting way to pull back the curtain and reveal the inner machinations of my work…what do I sacrifice by removing that sense of mystery?

We’ve all seen it in stories, where we suddenly break from the plot for a lecture on the rules of magic or how a strange monster can be entirely explained by science, or even just a whole chapter on the history of Special Noble Family we’re never going to see again. Heck, it’s the trap many prequels fall into, trying to explain how the world-state of the original came to be instead of letting the viewers’ minds wander. (Solo, you were fun, but why? Fantastic Beasts…just, why?!?) People like to poke holes at mysteries. It’s the fuel for numerous head-canons and fanfics, and it allows everyone to cast their own lens on a story. Not that everything should be done for sake of fandom, but sometimes, it’s the mystery more than the reveal that leaves people thinking afterwards, like those twist endings that imply a fate but never confirm it.

I’m sitting at my laptop, staring at one scene in particular. It’s a big reveal conversation at a diner, metaphorical action placed in the food and movements of cutlery like all those literary short stories that get paraded around in English classes. There are fun metaphors involving barracudas too, because I can’t let things get too drab and droll. It reveals a key facet about the universe, one that changes how the protagonists interact with a certain group they’ll continue to encounter throughout the series.

I’m torn between throwing it at my beta-reader and sobbing “How do I make this work?!” and just taking a blowtorch to the entire conversation. It’s a big reveal. It changes a lot of dynamics. There are also a lot of nitty-gritty particulars. But is it right?

If worse comes to worse, we’ll see where Draft 2 leaves me once I’m finished. Then I can look back and determine if the reveal strengthens the story, or leaves it weak under the pressure of me heaping my ideas onto it and shouting “But isn’t this COOL?!” into the wind. Maybe it’s the doubt talking.

Or maybe, dear readers, I’m longing to hold onto mysteries too.

~Dorian

Laugh it Up

Like many others, I rushed to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi in theaters this past weekend. Now, I’m not going to spoil any plot points, but one spoiler-free element of the film surprised me: it had a sense of humor. That isn’t to say that Star Wars is a series without humor, but instead of dry humor and droid jokes, there are conversations that were genuinely funny, and a few moments where a combination of timing and unexpected reactions caused the whole theater to erupt in astonished laughter.

Thanks to Star Wars and other pieces of media I’ve seen recently (such as Thor: Ragnarok, finally playing through last year’s Ratchet and Clank game, and so on), I’ve been thinking about the use of humor in stories and genres that aren’t necessarily comedies. When you’re fighting bad guys in space in order to save your home from destruction (which actually describes all three examples above, coincidentally), why should humor be included amidst the action and drama? Actually, when used correctly, humor can actually be used to enhance the mood and tension of the narrative!

Humor can help strengthen the narrative in a number of ways. It can be used to highlight what your universe defines as normal; if your character can crack jokes about killer robots that look like crabs, the audience learns that either crab-bots are normal in this universe, or at least fitting in with the rules this universe has set up. Funny moments can help give characters (and the audience) a chance to breathe and collect their thoughts between action beats. It can also be used to betray expectations, such as Star Wars: The Last Jedi mentioned above, or in reverse where something seems to be funny but turns out to have a shocking consequence.

For an example on how this can work, I’m going to discuss an eccentric video game, Disgaea 4. It’s a comedic tactics game where a fallen-from-power vampire decides to overthrow a corrupt regime in order to fulfill the promises of fair treatment he made to his disenfranchised employees. Such a premise could make for a gritty, supernatural political thriller, but the humor is what makes the story—such as the vampire getting upset at a newspaper, not for running a smear campaign against him, but because of its atrocious spelling mistakes. Or the fact that he thinks sardines are a proper source of food for himself and payment for the series’ trademark exploding penguins.

We're serious about sardines here.

Just like any other vampire…?

Part of this humor comes from the reactions of other characters, such as the vampire’s resigned werewolf butler, which helps explain which aspects are normal (the exploding penguins) and which are uniquely the vampire’s eccentricities (his commitment to eating sardines instead of drinking blood). Tough attacks on a demonic overlord’s regime gets broken up by a teenage girl teaching her adopted younger sister/world-destroying weapon in-training, a breather moment that also serves as a subplot about humanity and sisterhood. And when the humor takes a backseat to penguin-exploding vampire revenge schemes, the risk of that being lost to our protagonist forever helps us realize the stakes in place.

My stories tend to face dark concepts, such as a demon collecting her first soul or a paranormal mercenary trying to save his brother from 20+ years of possession. Dark can be fun, but if a story stays dark for too long, it can become an emotional drag for readers. The demon child may be all-powerful, but she can still be confused why Earth canines are so much smaller than her hellhound Huckleberry. The possessed brother may occasionally try to take over the world, but sometimes the spirit possessing him just really wants dibs on his favorite breakfast pastries.

In the end, humor works much like a good story, wherein the punchline is the plot twist. The unexpected answer to the audience’s question catches them off-guard, be it revealing the identity of the protagonist’s lost parents or why the chicken crossed the road. Laughter and joy can be as memorable as any other emotional reaction to a plot twist—and in today’s world, couldn’t we use just a little bit more laughter?

~Dorian