Saturday, October 5, 2013

Storytelling 4

Part 3 of this series discussed “Stage One” character creation, where a narrator provides information about a character directly to the reader without disguising the source. For example:
Joey Blaze was a tough guy; a reckless guy; a take-no-prisoners guy. He liked sushi and foot rubs, but not as much as he liked styling his incredible, naturally red hair, which blazed like the sun whenever he was stretching in the park, which he always did after practicing with the world-class taekwondo team he captained. That’s what he was doing one day, stretching in the park, when the gorgeous woman accidentally bumped into his hamstrings with her baby stroller, sparking a chain of...

No, the sun does not resemble human “red” hair, nor would Joey’s mother have been able to select Joey’s surname based upon what her son’s red hair looked like during early-twenties stretching in municipal parks. Nonetheless, that example has slightly more going for it, in a literary sense, than Twilight. Either is a good example of Stage One character creation: they’re “info dumps,” like conversations between you and the author. The narrator’s privileged role, then, verifies things in a way you don’t need to check up on. If Joey Blaze has red hair, then we know it’s not dyed, or a wig. From moment one, we understand the truth.

If we came upon Joey Blaze in the park stretching, through the viewpoint of another character, we might be prompted to critical thinking. Our first glance at him might indicate all of the information above, but presented through the eyes of a character, rather than the God-narrator, we’re able to freely wonder, “Is he really that hot?” or, “Is the hair real?” or any number of other questions about him. These are the questions to which we don’t have answers when we meet a person in the real world, unless we’ve been taught to draw conclusions about people based on first glances by observing their brand choices or class telegraphy. As an elite, it’s great when people learn to draw what they believe are accurate judgments based on the latter two qualifications. Brands and class identity are easily manifested; the Connecticut Cowboy was able, with a delay of a couple years, to become the down-home country boy many people would like to “have a beer with.” George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banners and crotch-hugging flight suits were so powerful because they were an info dump, promising non-critical acceptance of trigger images by a conditioned populace.

Disempowering Narrative Mediums

When an audience is a little more intelligent, and a little more disposed to critical thinking, higher forms of narrative technique are necessary to disguise the info dump. The characteristic that they all share--the crucial factor in all of the “bad storytelling;” the storytelling that teaches people to gain information from sources of absolute authority, rather than from independent judgment--is that they pass information directly to the reader, rather than allowing that information to be mediated by the boundaries of the narrative itself.

What? Start by pretending you’re a narrator, and you want to convey how cool Joey Blaze is. Doing this well takes time, just as getting to really know Joey Blaze in real life would take time.

(Granted, some people have been so affected by the vicissitudes of pop culture that they have made themselves over in the image of a media blurb, condensing their outward personality into that of a cultural stormtrooper in a Red Sox jersey, tapping on an iPhone and chirping something about the specials at the local bar. A real self of some kind still exists under even that, of course, and addressing the discoveries of those selves would be an important task of good literature.)

While narrating about Joey Blaze, you’d want to convey his good looks, his physical fitness, his taekwondo skills, and other stuff like that. The right way to do that is to describe things happening that suggest these characteristics: on his way to class, Joey is stopped by an art student who wants to photograph him; while he lets himself get arranged into position, the student’s friend gushes over his physique; during the shoot, they’re accosted by muggers, with whom Joey’s crescent kicks swiftly deal.

Now, that’s (hopefully) a groan-inducing chapter, but it has at least passed us information in a way that concords with how we receive sensory information in the real world. The art student could be a dropout pretending to be a student; her friend could be a prostitute hoping to butter Joey up to land a client; the muggers could’ve been weaklings. Only time, and other interactions with the world, will tell us if Joey really is that good looking or tough. He may be, or he may not be, and we’ll have to figure it out for ourselves. Our judgment about Joey comes through our first impression--witnessing his scene in the park--and its accuracy is subject to revision. Joey’s having handily dispatched a 98-pound drug addict desperate for a few bucks could be the success of either a world champion or an average Joey, whereas the narrator’s initial description from above assures us that Joey is, in fact, world-class.

The distinction here lies in the potential fallibility of the information we’re given. Within the confines of the novel, we’re free to question the art student, but much less so the godlike narrator. Part 3 discussed some of the deleterious effects of authoritarian narratives, all of which make people less able to manage information well in the real world: accustomization to, then insistence upon, brevity, and acceptance of, then reverence for, dictum.

When we learn to judge Joey Blaze as the coolest guy ever based upon the narrator’s introduction, we lose the ability not only to tell whether or not he’s actually good at taekwondo based upon lengthy observation and careful thought--we also come to feel that being good at taekwondo must be important, simply because it was mentioned to us in a positive light by the narrator. Commercials for big, tough, manly, heterosexual pickup trucks are effective because they convey the ruggedness of the pickup trucks, and even more effective because they convince people that ruggedness is needed or desirable in the first place.

The narrator highlighted Joey Blaze’s taekwondo skills because the climax of Joey’s story will be, of course, a taekwondo duel between him and his old high school nemesis, fought over a beautiful woman and a suitcase of cash. Bad stories teach us to focus so powerfully on the info dump at the beginning because bad stories provide information in cheap, digestible ways, with a near-guaranteed payoff at the end. As Anton Chekhov argued popularly in the late 1800s, while the robber barons of industry were shrinking mass critical to prep for the rise of the blurb in the twentieth century:
Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.

This effect has become so pronounced in American movies that even many American audiences are light-heartedly recognizing some of the tropes, realizing that the inclusion of a new train system in a narrative will mean a train crash/train fight/train explosion/train something by the end of the movie.

(Chekhov’s argument has long been present in literature, as in politics. The battle of freedom v. authoritarianism, played out in stories, has produced lengthy, quantifiable victories to authoritarianists, who mass produce riddle-crap like pulp romance and mystery. The “red herring” is a game made possible by the audience’s recognition that one is not so much experiencing a real story as playing an extended riddle with an author, who creates and manipulates plot elements only to make the solution more difficult to guess. Who killed who, and who really loves who?)

Stage Two Character Creation

It’s more difficult to show something than it is to tell it. Drafting the scene where Joey Blaze fights is harder than scribbling, “He was a world class TKD dude.” If it’s a movie, you’ll probably get the audience to sit through an extra four-minute fight, but if it’s a book, it’s substantially harder to get them to exert the brainpower for a seven-page fight. (If it’s a movie, and Joey Blaze is a woodcarver rather than a martial artist, you might face a similar type of resistance to showing rather than telling.)

What if you’re dealing with a slightly more sophisticated audience, though? Narrators who want to disguise authoritarian narratives to make them appear alive have available a number of cheap tricks. Stage Two character creation subcontracts the author’s narration work to a character: the info dump is still there, but by puppeting a character to do the dirty work, the author can seem to be showing, rather than telling.

Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code was a great example of this. The first several pages of the book are devoted to a telephone conversation between the main character and a caller who instantly recites to the main character all of the major details of the main’s life. We learn his profession, his specialty, and his hobbies. This conversation then causes the main character to recite, inside his head, a pertinent sexual memory from numerous years ago. (Mr. Brown read that you need to have a “hook” early on, to excite the reader.)

What The DaVinci Code did, essentially, was:
Joey Blaze woke up. The phone was ringing. He answered. “Hello?”

On the other end of the line, he heard someone breathing. A man said, “Joey Blaze, right?”

“Whuh?” asked Joey. “Oh, yeah, this is him.”

“You’re Joey Blaze,” the man confirmed. “Tough guy. Reckless guy. A take-no-prisoners guy. You went to Central High School; you like sushi and foot rubs. You’re known for your natural red hair.” The man coughed.

“Whuh?” wondered Joey, wondering how the man knew so much about him. Why was this guy interested in him, anyway? “Hey, I’s wondering--how you know so much about the Blaze?”

“That’s a good question, Joey,” the man said in a decisive voice. “We know you got your PhD in ass kicking at the University of Seoul--Korean style. We know you lead the Blazers team; led them to the world championships last year. Well, we need a guy like you. One of our operatives has gone missing in Turkeystan, and...”

While the man kept talking, Joey had a flashback of Turkeystan. Oh, Buddha help me. The last time he’d been there, he’d slept with a gorgeous curvy loose but also confident and intelligent blonde businesswoman he’d met in the park. She’d seen him stretching, and admired his red hair, and one thing had led to another. They’d done it for three hours straight in the penthouse suite belonging to the director of illegal operations he’d just assassinated. She’d screamed so loudly and so passionately at the quality of their lovemaking that it had reminded him of the time he’d studied oceanography before he’d gone to pottery school~

As we can see, we’ve done the same thing as in Stage One: we’ve dumped a punchy character description into a very short space, and concealed the source of the information--the narrator--by having a character--the man on the phone--impart the narration inside quotes. In real life, a friend might say, “Wow, your hair looks great today!” A new acquaintance might say, “I just love your hair! It’s!” No one, though, talks the way Dan Brown’s character does. Action stories pull this trick often, having a stodgy detective, secret agent, or Rambo-type be unwilling to go on a special mission until another character first recites to them their personal history, thereby motivating them to act.

The act is often further telegraphed by the narrator’s partial realization of the unlikelihood of the conversation she or he is crafting, resulting in the conversation causing the character to begin thinking about her or himself. When it goes beyond even Dan Brown’s pale to have one character tell another character about the details of his life, or if the detail is something sexy or private that the narrator’s operative could not know without further stretching believability, the main character becomes suddenly reflective. “Oh yeah, that reminds me of the time I went to South America to defeat the druglords and stubbed my toe on this one branch...”

Stage Two, then, is merely the replacement of the author’s voice by that of implausible character behavior, either by verbalizing a set of traits, or thinking about them, in order to bring them to the viewer/reader’s attention. The benefit of Stage Two is in its “plausible deniability,” for a loyal fan can always say, “But people do too talk like that! Why, only yesterday, my friend spent five minutes reading my resume back to me on the phone!”

Continued in Part 5.


  1. Hemingway surely was one of the worst offenders. How the fuck did he get a Nobel prize?

    1. Considering the way those get handed out, the more apt question might be, "Is it possible in any version of the timeline for Hemingway to not have gotten a Nobel?"

      But seriously, any specific work bring that to mind?