The T-Virus: (p)Resident Evil Makes Sure It Doesn’t Miss You

1447738-1024x576-desktopnexus-comby Ed Anger, opportunistic occasional contributor

Trivia.  Americans can’t look away, like a car wreck.  Since when did a tweet–ANY tweet–become newsworthy?  This is an avenue specifically designed to carry information Too Trivial for Traditional media.  If you missed it the first time, by definition it wasn’t important!

Twitter, or as I like to refer to this bottom of the social media barrel, Twerper.  After all, who but a Twit or Twerp would exchange insults through a means that cannot possibly have repercussions other than a 140-character counter-insult?  You think anyone’s gonna stand toe-to-toe with Arnold Schwarzenegger and tell him he was a lousy governor, no matter how many secret service agents he’s got at his back?

Apparently TV and Taxpayer money (the two dominant consonants of “TriVia” uncoincidentally lurking there as well) aren’t hip enough anymore.  Just what we all needed, the Maury Povich show with semi-literate politicians!

The entire culture, having apparently run out of real topics–the trials and heroics of mere mortals don’t generate enough interest–has been inoculated (like that free flu-shot they give you at the supermarket that gives you the flu) and thus addicted to trivia.  Imagine yourself as the Texas Ranger who gets assigned to the case of Tom Brady’s missing Super Bowl jersey.  “Hell, it’s not bad enough this fella makes 300 times my salary for playing ball, now I get to track down his dirty laundry.  So this is what my career has come to. . .”  Let’s hope nobody robs a bank or kills somebody while he’s not at his post.

Newspapers have already become as thin as Target flyers. Once they start reprinting tweets, we’ll have hit the Trifecta of redundant, useless information that distracts us from the latest global warming evidence or how the debt-ceiling got hiked today.

So T-Rump (how does one type with hands like a T-Rex?) goes after Schwarzenegger, and the Governator shoots back a better one.  What a pair of Trumps.  Ad nauseum.  Then we tune in to the 6-o’clock news to witness how the leaders of our nation have devolved to antics that most of us outgrew as 11-year old children.  Quite a Trip.

I’ve had enough of this Twaddle.  I think I have a case of the D.T.s.  Need a drink. . .

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Go, Thief! Writing as Collaborative Piracy

 

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“A thief who steals from a thief is pardoned for one hundred years”—Eli Wallach as Calvera (Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai remake soon in theaters near you)

As a grad student taking creative writing classes, I did a lot of workshopping, but received little practical advice.  Most everything learned is earned, not given.  However, the best counsel I got was as an undergraduate toiling away in my Intro to Fiction course: “If you see something you like, steal it” (the professor/novelist who uttered these words will obviously not mind my failing to attribute to him here.)

There’s not much stealing of money by novelists, short-fictioneers, playwrights, and poets going on (we leave that to the publishing houses).  On the other hand, the best and worst of us do steal material pretty liberally from each other.   Some of this is unconscionable laziness, but I think those who take their craft seriously do hold themselves to a few self-imposed rules, which I’d like to codify here by supplementing my old professor’s advice with what I call the “Rule of Three O’s”: “By all means, steal: but try not to steal too often; nor too obnoxiously; nor too obviously.  Penalties exist for each.

  • Too often. No one likes to be labeled an unoriginal hack.  I mean, if you do this daily, you might as well become a television journalist and get paid well.  None of them seems to have recognized that Donald Trump has lifted most of his campaign platform from Adolf Hitler (“Make _______ Great Again,”) but you know that if one did, they’d all be parroting it.  Because there is no honor among thieves: they turn on each other.   Genre writers are in greatest danger of returning to the well too often, killing the golden goose, choose your cliché (a word-level version of this crime).
  • Too obnoxiously. You wouldn’t carjack a Corvette and then drive it around the same county without at least a re-paint, would you?  That’s just not right.  A plot, for example, needs to be sufficiently re-dressed to make it palatable.  Some recognize that the story of Jason Bourne is a retelling of Frankenstein, just as Blade Runner was (and to some extent the Wolverine and Deadpool tales): Scientist manipulates human limitations; scientist gets re-visited over and over by the subject of his experiment (“Why would he come back now?”)  It’s a good story with much psychological depth and breadth, as well as moral/ethical implications, which is why it gets told every five years.  Another version of obnoxious theft is a too-clever playing with familiar phrases.  Some writers get so good at this, they’re dangerous:  “Code of Dishonor,” “Twice Bitten,” “Can’t Stand In Heat.”  Seriously, why would you even crack the cover of a book entitled “For a Few Zombies More?”  Do you expect the writing to improve after that?
  • Too obviously. If last week’s marquee title is The Terminator, and you rush-premiere a B-movie called The Decimator, The De-resonator, or The Decaffeinater, even the trolls on the forums will crucify you (now there’s a story worth retelling,) without even watching it. And you deserve it.

Which leaves us with the question of how to do stealing right.  There are perhaps a hundred ways, so let’s “borrow” a few from the greats:

Allusions. Usually at the word level, these nuggets are on full display for those in your audience who may have read more than three or four books.  When John Steinbeck cribbed his novel’s title, In Dubious Battle, from the proem of John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, it was more than a pretty phrase he admired.  He wanted to signal, perhaps, that workers in contemporary America (the many and weak) were being warred upon by Satanic forces (the few and powerful).  Steinbeck, in fact, grifted several of his titles from Biblical or semi-biblical sources: The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and other writers (Of Mice and Men).

Homages/parodies. In Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks wasn’t trying to get away with piracy, but instead to rely on the audience’s familiarity with both the story and previous remakes from Hollywood.  The result is wonderful: How I did It is the title of the Baron’s journal. The great danger I see, today, is that in a semi-literate culture, exposure to 2nd, 3rd, and farther-removed parodies takes the place of reading the originals, rather than supplementing it.  Children, of course, will claim they can survive on candy; and so it’s no surprise to hear twenty-somethings argue they can distill the important news from The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live.

Shakespeare, yes even he of the cranium enormous, raided the Plot and trappings of Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and probably Othello and Romeo and Juliet from earlier sources. Now, given what he accomplished with them, and the relative scarcity of masterplots, this is forgivable.  How many people recognize that The Terminator is a thematic retelling of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (by attempting to avoid predestined events, one can actually bring them to pass)?  Cameron simply converted prophecy to time-travel (two sides of the same coin).

Update/Remake for a modern audience. Emerson said that every generation had to reinvent its stories (here I’m paraphrasing—at least I’m giving the guy credit!)  Especially the out-of-copyright ones (wink to the publishers and movie studios there.)     I suspect 2016’s Birth of a Nation will not much resemble the original.  You did know that was first made by D.W. Griffiths in 1915, adapted from Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansmen (1905,) didn’t you?  Film and literary critics fascinate themselves with analyzing how remakes tell us much about the culture that produced them, by emphasizing and deemphasizing certain elements of the ur-story.

Recasting from a different perspective. Euripides is perhaps the most prolific of western writers here.  He recast much of Greek mythology from the point-of-view of “the other,” the marginalized characters: Medea, The Trojan Women, The Bacchae.  A very neat and risky trick.  How many Americans do you know that would enjoy a film about how the Russians sacrificed twenty million souls to defeat the Nazis in World War II?  And yeah, that did happen.

Which brings us to pseudo-history. Spielberg’s Amistad, Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, Stone’s JFK, anything by Michael Moore in a more documentary mode, are all masterful narratives.  They are not history, by any serious definition.  BUT, they weren’t meant to be: they ARE meant to raise the spirit of inquiry in the audience, to challenge them to learn more and seek the truth themselves.  Poe did this with his unreliable narrators, but the solutions lay within his stories themselves.  Here, the facts lie outside the story, in other accounts one would have to research.  Sadly, this is all too infrequently done, and the pseudo-history stands as the somewhat-removed Truth.

So writers, don’t worry so much about books getting stolen, in either analog or digital form.  One way or another, it’s all in the public domain, there for the taking–isn’t it?  Put it this way–no one ever promised to pay you, anyway.  Given the choice, you’d rather give it away than keep it to yourself.

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“Avengers Resemble. . .”: Marvel’s Mega-Series, What the Kids Are(n’t) Reading, and Political Allegory

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Review by Google“>Shawn Stjean

Marvel Studios has achieved something almost frighteningly big with its 21st-century film releases, Avengers: Age of Ultron only the most recent: not merely a franchise, but essentially an ongoing TV-type mega-series, with a cast of hundreds and a monetary value inestimable.  No longer content to re-boot and re-hash origin stories, filmakers can now rely on a continuity that allows story and character arcs to develop over years.  And that grandmaster of the long game, Joss Whedon, as he has done with all the other shows he’s run, has got all the pieces in motion and can pass the baton to whomever shares the vision.

Fans of Buffy and Angel would have to be dim not to recognize Whedon’s trademark setting of the “Big Bad” behind the scenes, scheduled to emerge 2/3 into a “season” as a major threat to the small group of heroes, while discreet episodes detail the rise-and-falls of minor bad guys all witlessly advancing a grand scheme.  Themes are also put into place, some of which resonate indefinitely (see the excellent final season of Angel), and some of which seem abortive or merely fun.  Avengers 2, for example, deploys a consistent but confusing array of Judeo-Christian religious allusions.  Perhaps a Jim Starlin could suss them into something coherent–recall he’s the creator credited with the Thanos/Warlock death-and-resurrection mythology that Whedon has anticipated–so I’ll leave that task to him or others like him. And the Avengers is also a family drama.  More pertinent today would be to trace some political implications of the elements in this latest sequence of films especially.

Students in first-year college English courses become familiar with Jonathan Swift’s method in “A Modest Proposal,” in which he bitterly attacked both the British and Irish gentry, nearly three centuries ago, for their roles in the starvation of the Irish working class.  In outlining a plan requiring the Irish to eat their own children as a solution, Swift employed enough levels of irony to take a four-hour night-class to unpack, and Whedon follows suit.  Keep in mind that the point of political allegory is not only to insulate the social reformer/artist/critic from counterattack by distancing her from the social criticism (“It’s just a kids’ movie,”) but to tell two stories at once: on the literal level, the Marvel Universe contains a host of “enhanced” individuals who struggle with their abilities, each other, and their enemies; on the figurative level, these characters face the moral ambiguities that we all face every day, of living in the most politically and technologically powerful nation on the planet.

Turns out that the small-screen extended narrative structure works well for social criticism, which has always been deplored as “bad art,” going back to ancient Greek tragedy.  A series of interlocked stories allows the social critic/artist to diffuse the attack, both time-wise and target-wise.  Marvel’s favorite theme is government abuse of power, and SHIELD stands in for whatever agency you like to hate, or all combined (FBI, CIA, NSA, ATF, and so on.)  In Whedon’s Firefly, they called it the Alliance.  Character mouthpiece for these attacks has by default become Captain America, a man frozen in ice at the end of WWII and awakening to a world where technology threatens constantly to supplant human values of liberty and justice.  “This isn’t freedom,” he insists to Nick Fury in The Winter Soldier (a subtitle hearkening back to investigations into Vietnam War crimes in which American veterans testified,) referring to SHIELD’s hovering platform that murders “hostiles” from orbit, in a clear nod at the US unmanned drone program.  Cap will complete that unfinished statement in Age of Ultron, as Fury’s helicarrier rises to evacuate the imperiled civilians of a floating city: “This is what SHIELD was meant to be.”

The reform agenda may be as mystifying to some as the religious elements.  Subtle touches like casting Robert Redford (who portrayed Watergate investigative journalist Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men and the betrayed protagonist of Three Days of the Condor, among other anti-establishment vehicles) as the puppetmaster World Councilman, though a neat bit of irony for those in tune, will be lost on the young.  Mark Twain, a virulent social critic in the late 19th century, was deplored by some contemporaries as “selling out” by covering up his artistic reform with low humor.  Above all, these films chronicle action.  And let us never forget that mega-corp Disney pulls the strings, to the tune of billions of dollars.

At times, though, Whedon’s/Marvel’s criticism becomes pointed, as when Ultron himself declares “Men always create what they fear. . .Invaders create Avengers.”  Aside from a cheeky reference to another of Marvel’s super-groups, I can’t help but hear in that the director referencing the unending cycle of violence that has come with America’s involvement in the Middle East.  Though the reference could apply, for all I know, to the destruction of the Alamo–endless revenge cycles are a very old story.   But not a subtle one–nor is the free-fall collapse of a skyscraper visually linked to the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center.

Contrary to Cap, Tony Stark would like to see machines take all work out of human hands, whether it be robotic weapons for the military, or the Avengers themselves: “I see a suit of armor around the entire world,” he announces in Age of Ultron.  Naturally, he’d hold all the codes, because at bottom he’s a fascist who doesn’t believe in deciding by referendum.  Instead, he keeps his own counsel and custody of the tech–which makes him and Nick Fury uneasy allies–and relies on personal charm to persuade Bruce Banner to help him create Ultron (in the future, watch for him to work his seduction on Peter Parker.)  Echoing Neville Chamberlain’s doomed vision of “peace for our time” after his 1938 meeting with Hitler, Stark can’t see his own God Complex, creator of a Frankensteinian metal army in his own image.  Opposing him, temperamentally and verbally, is Steve Rogers, extending his deep misgivings about secret agendas into this episode:

“How can you beat that?” challenges Stark, implying some threats are too imposing to be met with anything less than equally destructive force.

“Together,” affirms Cap.

Stark scoffs openly.  “We’ll lose.”

“Well then, we’ll do that together, too.”

From the audience’s perspective, it’s hard not to align with Cap’s self-reflexive naivete, his belief in democratic principles, and he has the right of it.  If we really do live in a republic, then we can’t relinquish moral decisions to machinery, whether of government bureaucracy or armed soldiers; “Ultron thinks we’re the monsters.  This isn’t just about beating him–it’s about whether he’s right.”

Ultron (Iron Man’s doppelganger) insists we should, as humans, evolve.  Is he right?

After all, we’re willing to let the supposedly better-informed tell us who our enemies are, direct evidence be damned; we’re willing to allow them to kill them for us, a few civilian casualties be damned; we’re even willing to let machines execute the so-called criminals without charge or trial, and our leaders brag out of television screens about it.  Never mind all the thousand little tasks machines daily take out of our hands, so that we may do worse mischief with them, or let them lie idle, or tap endlessly on cell phones.

The trouble with mechanistic thinking is that it can’t account for certain equations.  As Dostoevsky wrote, “2+2=4 is a very fine thing, but sometimes 2+2=5.”  And that’s Humanity for you–illogical, emotional, idealistic, cynical, intuitive–at our best, more than the sum of our parts.  But Stark’s robot AI, as obsessed with building ever-more-powerful anthropomorphic bodies as Iron Man himself with upgrading his armor, can’t see such distinctions.  “Ultron can’t tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it.  I wonder where he gets that from?”  Yes, abandoning freedom in defense of security–it would be as pointless as eating one’s own children.

Artists like to play disingenuous or directly disavow the political implications of their work, of course–a more famous case being J.R.R. Tolkien denying that The Lord of the Rings was not a re-(pre-?) telling of the nuclear denouement of World War II (his stated defense was that his good guys didn’t use the Ring of Power.)  Joss Whedon, famous for his Whack-a-Mole interview responses, would no doubt evade likewise.  But, in a sense, readers matter more than artists.  The values of Marvel Comics and films still make it through to the kids, however clothed: It’s disastrous to keep secrets from your friends, or to do a bad act in a service of a good ideal;  people can change, albeit painfully; and loving someone sometimes means having to push them off a cliff.

We might anticipate where all this is heading–we’ve witnessed, in spite of a visible concern for civilians in the way, a vast amount of property damage follow in the Avenger’s wake, especially the Hulk’s.  In 2016, the next Captain America fim, entitled Civil War, will likely dramatize the governmental response to this, with Stark and Rogers’ antagonism boiling over: “I don’t trust a man without a dark side.”  “Maybe you just haven’t seen it yet.”  The theft of Wakanda’s vibranium stores (stripmining of natural resources) prepares us for blowback from Wakanda in the upcoming Black Panther film.  I also wonder if the Scarlet Witch’s addition to the cast might bode some shades of House of M and Avengers Disassembled.   Asgard only knows that Marvel has an embarassment of riches in macro-event-mythology, to draw from.

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Issues for Indie Authors: Combating Writer’s Block; or Diving Into a Corner, on Purpose

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By Shawn Stjean

If you can’t solve day-to-day challenges creatively, what chance will your characters, with their high-stakes conflicts, have?

Many articles exist on this topic, and suggested solutions (“Seven Ways. . .”) range from the gimmicky to the sublime.  I’m here to suggest only one–it works every day for me–but it is more like an ounce of prevention than a pound of cure.  After all, it’s better to never catch the disease in the first place, especially if you occupy the position of treating writing like a job, or better yet,  a vocation.

That’s a good position to be in.  Above all, you must remember that, as rewarding as it is to finish, publish, hold a book in your hands, and cash a royalty check, those days come few and far between.  The vast majority of your hours will be spent drafting, thinking, revising, taking sips of coffee, heaving heavy sighs, scratching your head, and typing.  And this is the FUN part.  (Fun at least compared to formatting, proofreading, promoting, and all the associated networking).

There’s the key: this is your working life; it’s FUN.  Not like a roller coaster ride, but in the way a watching a great movie or engaging in spirited debate or contributing to a difficult class period is fun–it grows your brain, makes you recall there’s more to existence than_________(insert your various modes of drudgery here).

So, this strategy involves optimizing the fun that’s in the work, in a non-logical way: through creation of anxiety (so a bit like a roller coaster,after all.)

I draft my characters into trouble, and confront them with difficulties, that I most often cannot see the solution to, myself, in advance.  This may sound risky, but consider this: if you can see the answer around the corner, how far behind might your best readers be from doing the same?

These difficulties need not necessarily signal major plot events, though they might:  I’ve used everything from a protagonist trapped in a plummeting airplane, to simply agonizing over whether to lie to his wife, and what to convincingly say.  This unsureness about what’s coming next lends the narrative verisimilitude it might otherwise lack.  Also, of course, you might be telling a story with familiar archetypal or historical outlines.  Everyone knows the Germans lost WWII, so the climax is not in doubt–it’s HOW your little squad of misfits is able to pull together, despite their differences, to contribute.  So the dramatic tension of your fourth chapter might simply consist, not of how to win a battle, but of how to simply get along with each other.

But does this strategy cure (or avoid) writer’s block?  Aren’t you simply substituting one problem for another (perhaps greater)one?

Yes, and no.  NOW you’re moving, and your neurons are firing, and your fingers are typing, where before they weren’t.  The first solution, or several, to a problem may not be the ideal one, or even a plausible one, but you can worry about that later, in revisions.  You’re now in challenge mode, but not blocked.  You’re only running, scrambling, juking to get over, under, around, or through the current obstacle, even as you’re moving forward.  It’s a lot like playing a sport.  Living in the now.

See, what professionals in any field know is that you can only think and prepare and research for so long, but the time comes when, as the slogan says, you “Just Do It,” for better or worse (But recall that Nike means Victory, in Greek.)  Much of what you accomplish goes on the scrap pile, later.  Every bit is not gold.  In short, pros know enough to get over themselves.  Amateurs treat every move like it will be the last, caught on tape, memorialized in stone, as if their time and effort is too valuable to waste. It ain’t, man.  Next week’s another game.

True, it also helps if you have a rough outline, like a coach has a gameplan–written down–of the overall plot structure.  It’s flexible.  This could be a line graph with labels, a Harvard outline, or post-its–whatever works so you can keep the big picture in mind.  Then you’re in a position to see whatever you’re working on as merely an episode.  Perhaps what you write for the next hour will function only as a temporary placeholder, to be replaced by something more brilliant later.  So be it.  The character(s) are at point A; they must arrive at point C; how are they going to get there?  You are now at point B: start typing.  Don’t think.  Type.

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Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture: The Wicked Witch Versus the Wonderful Wizard

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He looks the part–but can you trust him?

By Shawn Stjean

We return to this series, as we often do in October, to devote a little analysis to the better understanding of commonly seen (and often misinterpreted) figures and events in storytelling.  Or, as I prefer to call it, our cultural mythology.

Entire blogs and books are devoted to the subject of witches, so I’m treating them here in a special circumstance: when appearing as half of two lesser-known figures that function together as a pair.  Other examples, beyond the familiar Oz universe,  of this pairing include:

-the Oracle and the Architect from The Matrix films

-Morgan Le Fey and Merlin of Arthurian legend

-Eve and Adam

-Pandora and Prometheus

Sometimes the witch-figure is masculinized, though the specific male-witch character will often exhibit feminine traits of nurturing and guidance:

-Gilliam and Wilford from Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer

-Gandalf and Saruman from Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

-Arioch and Donblas from Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga

-Even Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader  function this way.

The fact that these two figures often covertly conspire together, or at least operate with a tacit understanding of the need for the other’s existence, signals their true nature at the archetypal level.  On the surface, the two might be bitter enemies–“Bring me the broomstick of the Witch of the West,” commands Oz–but perhaps “rivals” might be more accurate.

Beneath the local storytelling level, the couple are really two parts of a whole: the “witch” is an agent of the primal, universal force of Chaos, and the Wizard a custodian and operative of Order.  This fundamental addiction to dualism in storytelling results from the inability of mortal human beings to reconcile existence into its transcendent reality as One, as Joseph Campbell once told Bill Moyers.  However, this working together for balance, a yang-and-yin harmony, is the storyteller’s acknowledgement  of the need for both. One without the other?  You may as well ask for an ebb without a tideflow, a moon without a sun, female without male.

For westerners, this primal level can be hard to penetrate because of our cultural bias against Chaotic forces, identifying them as “wicked” or “evil.”  The original inhabitants of our American continent held no such biases.  Whatever was useful was good; otherwise, try to avoid it.  For example, in Lakota  mythology, Iya (the Eater) and Iktomi (the Spider) are siblings.  The Native Americans instead prefer a “Trickster” figure (a la Hermes among the ancient Greeks, as opposed to brother Apollo,) who sows disorder in a Boethian way–through ignorance, selfishness,stupidity, and accident, but without intent to harm.

(By the way, this shift in emphasis is not be taken as a philosophical argument that evil never exists.  Clearly, Hitler stood for fascistic order, and the Allied forces opposing him stood for a more tolerant, democratic order.)

How, then, to spot these figures in a story, and recognize that the story of “good vs. evil” is often really our cultural shorthand for a tension that exists in each human being, even at the biological level–every pump of the bellows of the heart, inhalation/exhalation of the lungs, every emotion and countering bit of logic?

Science and Technology are manifestations of Order as a force; Magic/”Powers” are manifestations of Chaos as a force–wherein the laws of physics, biology, mathematics, are voided.  Characters with command of magic don’t “play by the rules.”  A spell or enchantment violates space, or gravity, or free will; a prophecy violates Time.  But when a machine is built to accomplish these same feats?  Everybody wants one.  As old as the antagonism between reason and mysticism, is this divide.

There’s a complicating factor in the West: gender.  Cries of “Witch” at first glance signal acknowledgement of the presence of a powerful woman, but really mean a woman beyond control–and the use of the slur is a final desperate attempt to regain that power, to call in the force of the collective against the relatively vulnerable individual.  The parallel gender slur “Bitch” is a variant, defining the woman as merely a female, at the animal level.

Women have been villainized because they are unconsciously identified with Chaos–lack of control, emotion, a lure to sexuality, even insanity.   “She” embodies the human inability to understand (“Weird,” we say–as in Macbeth‘s Weird Sisters–as a placeholder for that which we have yet to comprehend.)  Recall that Circe–the most powerful female antagonist of Homer’s Odyssey–was denigrated from her proper status of goddess to a mere “witch.”

Often, agents of Chaos appear as Oracles–a brilliant trick, as it appears to sort things out–reveal the future.  But prophecies are riddles that are subject to, and often are, misinterpreted, a storyteller’s way of warning us against too-slavish devotion to Order.

And the Wizard?–well, let us not forget one thing: he’s a fraud.  Oz hides behind a bombastic projection of technology, Vader is half a robot, the Architect retreats to his room of computer screens.  Order is at least as artificial a construct as Chaos, and as tenuous–as anyone who has ever experienced the danger of over-reliance upon technology–a flat tire, a dead cell phone battery, a corrupted hard drive–can attest.  We crave order, routine, solidity beneath our feet, and we resist change, dynamism, and unpredictability–and yet these are catalysts of growth.  The struggle of losing control, regaining it, and losing again are the very rhythms of life.

Agents of Order often appear as policemen and soldiers (the Sheriff of Nottingham or Sherriff Will Teasle or Javert) versus the intrusive elements and undesirables (Robin Hood or Rambo or Valjean) that threaten the community’s authoritarian stability.  Thus we arrive at another of the tacit recognitions that Chaos is not inherently evil: the Western tradition of the rebel-hero (beginning with Prometheus versus Zeus).  Only relatively recently have women been gaining access to these non-stygmatized roles, appropriately enough as adolescents (Bella Swan of Twilight, Beatrice Prior of Divergent.)  Here, age prejudice intersects with gender prejudice in a kind of double-double standard.  It remains largely to be seen if adult and mature women of Chaos can gain heroic acceptance as anarchistic rebels, and cease being dismissed as crazy old crones.

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Scary, yes. But wicked?

Issues For Indie Writers: Complicating the Plot Structure of Your Story / Novel

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By Shawn StJean

Shakespeare inherited from the Greek tragedians a 5-part plot structure, which functions to keep the writer on track concerning the overall trajectory of the work, and from getting lost in the details.  English teachers know this structure as Freytag’s Triangle or Pyramid: Act I—Exposition, II-Complication, II—Climax, IV—Catastrophe (Reversal), and V—Denouement (“Unraveling”).  In today’s faster paced, Hollywood-aligned writing environment, the formula is often shortened to the left half of the pyramid, or simply three components: Exposition, Complication, and Climax.  Credits roll.  And although crucial elements can be lost in this truncation (reducing the pyramid to a two dimensional line, as it were), that’s a concern for another time.  More important for the moment, is that in its short form, the Complication (often oversimplified in diagrams as “rising action”) assumes even greater importance—in fact, it can truthfully be called the “guts of the story.”

Even so, not enough modern writers understand the pivotal function of Act II.

Reviewing briefly:

Act I—Exposition.  The best narratives begin “in media res,” (in the midst of things)—at an interesting point in the overall action.  This requires that the audience be briefed, by means of flashbacks or dialogue, on the conflict that brought the characters to this high pass, and quickly introduced to the individual characters themselves.  In a film, this act consumes the initial 30-40 minutes of viewing time.

Act II—Complication.  30-40 more minutes.  Many folks intuit that, here, we’ll “get to know the characters better.”  They’ll make friends and/or develop antagonisms, either against each other, themselves, or the environment (in the case of Hamlet, all of these).  But a complication only deepens plot, by mixing the element of characterization with it, so to speak.  Think of it this way: Things go from bad to worse.  Example: A soldier’s gash on the foot at first causes a mere limp, but left untreated, induces sepsis.  How do the characters react?  How does action lead to reaction?  What ironies and motifs and themes begin to emerge?  Does the narrative take on a tone of inevitability, or are choices still available?

Act III–Climax.  Second hour.  A sad truth about contemporary storytelling, whether oral, filmic, written, or graphic, is that Act II gets short-circuited and far too much attention gets lavished upon the action of climax (recall how much of the finest elements of Tolkien’s work have been jettisoned by Peter Jackson in service of gory spectacle).  People say “it picks up,” as if this equates to “gets better.”  True, this presents a mighty problem for the chronicleer: how to present a high significance of action, and not just a high and unsustainable level.  But the truth is, a finely wrought set of complications will dictate the climax to a large extent, and no artificial resolution should be needed (such as a deus ex machina, aka miracle ending).

As ever, pop culture provides a ready resource for illustration.  As a contained–hopefully visual and entertaining–example of structure and the energizing role of Complication, I’d like to use an unusual text–a performance of the Rolling Stones’ iconic song “Gimme Shelter.”  Lyrics, naturally, form our primary, but not exclusive, focus here.  To simplify matters even further, we need only examine the chorus (a term aptly take from Greek drama,) of the song, which not coincidentally divides itself into three, similar couplets:

 

1-War, children,

It’s just a shot away.

 

3-Love, sister,

It’s just a kiss away.

I’ve intentionally left out Act II here, to dramatize its effect later.  Taking the first and third parts, we see the speaker has created a parallel structure, at both the local/grammatical-sentence level, and the overall plot level.  And while technically speaking, it’s hard to say this is “plot,” so much as allegory, it certainly becomes one when we add the aural and visual elements of a performance:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ctrC9FtkmYA

If you’ll invest five minutes watching the video, you’ll see not only a great song performed by its creators, but even its flaw serves a wonderful purpose.  Dividing it roughly into thirds, we initially see Mick Jagger and the boys doing professional, if run-of-the-mill, work—not exactly phoning it in, but doing what’s proven, in a fairly uninspired way.  But what follows changes everything (Act II): an unfamiliar element, Lisa Fischer, for whom the term “back-up singer” would be a gross injustice, descends from the background, takes center stage, and electrifies the performance, raising not only the audience’s interest level, but galvanizing the other band members: Watts’ drums, Richards’ and Woods’ guitars, and Jagger’s vocals.  And now we’re in a position to hear those lyrics Fischer is responsible for:

2-Rape, murder,

They’re just a shot away.

These lines complicate the basic conflict: that we’re all living, in the late 20th/early 21st centuries, under the delicate balance and precarious threat of war—just a simple misstep from Armageddon (recall the Cuban Missile Crisis of ’62.)  But there’s a choice—peace, too, that can be embraced, through an act of love, not fear and hatred.  If we ask ourselves, what structurally ought to come between the black and white, the right and left, we’ve confronted one of the most basic intellectual challenges in life.  It isn’t always as simple as “Grey,” when the choice lies between wrong and right.

Instead, the Stones have chosen another route.  Because “war” is such an abstract, monolithic concept, the 2nd stage of the chorus both amplifies and specifies what it entails: not just bloodless “killing” in defense of ideals, but the vicious and selfish ending of human life–murder–always a by-product of war, as well as the brutal stripping of the precious: land, children, women.  Rape.  These lines give the song flesh and blood, in the same way Fischer’s blood-curdling ability to hit the high notes thrill the spine and appall the senses.  In terms of the performance in the video (enhanced by the camerawork, lighting, and editing) Fischer adds an important female presence, and more than a hint of controlled sexuality, which makes her repetition of the word “rape” very resonant.

To return to Hollywood terms, then, the Complication amplifies the basic conflict, by doubling or tripling it, by raising or personalizing the level of threat, by adding a previously unseen dimension.  In Oedipus Rex, a plague has descended upon the city of Thebes, and a soothsayer reveals the gods have brought it on because a murderer roams free in the city.  The king vows to find and punish the culprit: basic conflict established.  However, we in the audience slowly come to realize, through layered ironies, that the murderer is Oedipus himself.  Thus, a complication can often be expressed through a question:  How can a man administer justice for the community and himself at the same time?  Today’s films, even comedies, as simple as they often are, are no different.  Take Jack Black’s School of Rock, for example.  In Act one, we find a N’er-do-well ejected from his band, his job, and his apartment all in the same day.  Basic conflict.  He falsely assumes the identity of a middle-school substitute music teacher in order to make ends meet.  Thus, complication: How can a man who knows plenty about music, and nothing about teaching, inspire a motley bunch of youngsters to play, appreciate, and love music?

The Complication, if well done, will rise above the Climax in its interest level.  It’s here, after all, that protagonists struggle with the details of their challenges, suffer setback and defeat, and prepare to (potentially) grow, or devolve, in the final act.  When you’ve seen enough Hollywood films, in fact, Climaxes begin to bore you, with their gunfire and car chases, somehow contriving to sell you on the dubious idea that violence always solves complex problems (try Divergent for a recent, disappointing example.)

What does this mean for writers, as a practical issue?  First, Aristotle’s famous remark that “plot is the soul of tragedy” still holds true, especially if you take a generous definition of tragedy: a struggle (often failure, but an occasional success) of human beings to reach their potential.  Western culture’s first critic insisted that events and our responses to them define who we are—we do not shape events.  This may create an uncomfortable view of free will for the modern viewer, but it helps in storytelling immensely.  Ask yourself: how is my protagonist both a representative of, and an amplified example of, humankind?  What trials will represent and dramatize this best?  How will s/he have it worse than the average person?  What bits of key dialogue will support this plot?  Which elements are worth repeating–with variations–to clarify my theme?  Most importantly, what actions will the protagonist(s) take, or fail to take, when adversity arises?

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A lot gets lost in those parentheses, but “Rising Action” or Complication provides the real enjoyment of a story or novel.

There Can Be Only One: 2014 Finalists for Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Announced in Five Categories

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By Shawn StJean

It starts with as many as 10,000, and ends with only one.  But first, over the course of several months, entrants to Amazon’s annual competition get whittled down to finalists in five categories: General Fiction, Mystery and Thriller, Romance, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, and Young Adult.

Best of all, you the readers get to VOTE on who the grand prize winner will be, based on excerpts, and you can even leave commentary–so even if it’s been a political/rigged/popularity contest to date (speculate as you will, conspiracy theorists)–this time around, it’s a democratic process–overseen by computer, natch–to determine which young novelist earns an Amazon Publishing contract with a $50,000 advance.  As for the others, well, an Amazon Publishing contract with a $15,000 advance doesn’t sound too shabby.

Of course, an advance obviously means Amazon will get Right of First Refusal on anything else the winners create in the future, so one could argue that this is merely a relatively cheap ruse for Amazon to identify and proprietize any young and inexperienced talent left undiscovered on the market.  But far be it from me to propose an argument as subversive as that ;}  No, it’s All Hail Capitalism!

So VOTE away: http://www.amazon.com/b?node=332264011

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