Original Recording Script
So on youtube there’s been this debate over “objectively good writing” bouncing around. It seems a few people have gotten pretty worked up over it. It’s spawned a few memes, a few response videos, a few twitter bitch-outs. I’ve been watching it transpire, on and off, trying to understand what it is that has everyone so annoyed with each other, and from what I can tell, it’s pretty much the usual. You have a few people, basically, who are trying to have what appears to be a serious discussion about this stuff, and then a lot of others who seem primarily invested in just being right. That or just yelling a lot.
But I started thinking about the problem on my own. A set of principles for objectively good writing. What might such a thing look like? It seemed like a fun problem to work on. My first career out of college was as an engineer in the avionics business, so problem solving is what I do. I enjoy it. I enjoy working on problems that are tough to crack.
So maybe I’ll take a crack at it.
Now, it’s not my intent to address the many arguments that have transpired since before I got here. I’m mostly interested in dealing with one side of the argument – the conceit that the thing I’m about to do cannot or should not be done. I have now seen several videos floating around the good old interwebs advancing this idea; that a foundational basis of agreed upon standards applied to the craft of story telling is somehow detrimental to the practice of story telling or, by extension, its critique.
[collection of example videos]
One of the common traits I’ve noticed in this material is that these ideas seem always to be presented by media critics. Or, in other words, they are ideas presented by people who’s primary focus is not the creation of drammatic fiction – these ideas seem mostly to be presented by people who respond to it. It is not my intent, by the way, to suggest that such people are not writers; that would be preposterous. Many of them are clearly sitting down to write out a script for their critique, as evidenced by the clarity and insight inherant to its presentation. Additionally, I’m well aware that many of these critics have written and published their own novels, so they are presumably applying the ideals espoused in their criticism to the narrative work they create.
To better understand the problem, I spent some time studying the various debates on the topic that have transpired thus far. Having gone through a goodly amount of material, it seems to me that the main sticking point for detractors is the following phrase:
“Objectively Good Writing”.
Some guy named “Kant” apparently factors into this too, somehow, though…I’m not sure why? When I checked his Wikipedia page it said that, whatever this guy was known for, he stopped doing it in 1804, and as everyone knows, they didn’t even start making movies until 1977, so why we’re even bringing the pissant up is beyond me.
The main problem seems to be with the combination of the words “objectively” and “good” when placed in proximity to each other. You can go search this stuff out yourself but I don’t know that I’d recommend it. When we get down to this kind of hair-splitting, the argument seems always to break down into a discussion of semantics. If you don’t have the patience for that kind of thing, well, maybe give it a pass, huh?
But this really seems to be it. On one side, you have, “X content is sloppily written for reasons A, B, and C, therefore the writing is objectively bad.”
On the other side, “The terms good and bad are subjective in their very nature, therefore they cannot be applied objectively to anything.”
And then this just keeps going, over and over.
Arguments stuck on repeat are as boring as watching people watch paint dry but the problem itself is pretty enticing to a guy like me. This is the kind of stuff an engineer lives on.
So, here we go. Create objective standards to realize a subjective goal. Easy. I think.
The first thing to get over is this absolutist’s view of everything. Everyone’s always so hot to reduce everything to yes/no, true/false, on/off. The entirety of all existence is spectral in nature, and we want to take something as nebulous as art and reduce it down to simple digital values. Ridiculous.
Except that’s exactly what digitization is all about. It’s about taking a nebulous spectral continuum and binding it within hard numeric values. We do this all the time in the engineering business. We even have a fancy name for it: Digital Signal Processing.
So, what’s the first problem we face in defining standards for objectively good writing? Well, art cannot inherantly be good or bad, it simply is, and the labelling of said art as objectively “good” or “bad” could be – I stress – could be detrimental to its consumption.
From a purely philosophical perspective, this is true. Art requires no excuse or reason and needn’t explain or apologize for itself. This is so.
On the other hand…at my level (the level at which an artistic creation is exchanged for some form of monetary compensation), we do not typically engage in the creation of art for its own sake. I mean we do, certainly; one must actually enjoy the process of creation to “do it well”, but one must also put food on the table and keep the heating on. And, if your intent is to trade your creation, your art, for money – money people have worked their asses off to attain – it is certainly to your benefit to create it in such a way that it satisfies the largest number of people possible while maintaining whatever level of artistic integrity is important to you.
So…objectively good writing…
If we look up the definition of the word good, it’s not very helpful. It just says, “to be desired or approved of.”
And that’s about the most subjective thing I’ve ever heard. Everyone desires and approves of different things, and we can dissect this little word all day if we want to be pedantic about it, but the main factor seems to be approval. So if we want the thing to be good, it must be approved of. Well, I can work with that because while it’s true that I can’t really make something of which everyone approves, I have been given the gift of statistics, and can use that as a tool to come up with a solution that’s “good enough”.
Awesome. We’re getting somewhere. Now we just have to figure out how much approval is required until we’ve achieved “good”. Well, we have that information too, thankfully. At Rotten Tomatoes, a site everyone seems to use as the gold standard of critic and audience ratings alike, the rule is that any approval score over 60% results in a fresh rating.
That’s wonderful. We have our definition of “good”, which is really just tied to the approval of the recipient, and we have a number from Rotten Tomatoes that defines “universal good” among a population of people: 60%. So, going by the official definition of the word combined with the numeric rating system from the industry standard review aggragation site, we may state that:
“Objectively good writing is defined by an audience approval score of 60% or higher.”
And that’s about as precise as I can make it. Yes, I’m well aware of the fact that you can subject this statement to interpretation, you can call the veracity of Rotten Tomatoes’ numbers into question, you might even accuse me of being a pedant for looking up the definition of the word “good”, but honestly. I’ve got to start somewhere, right on?
Through the magic of statistics and a bit of semantic assholery, we have our target. Write something that 60% of the target audience approves of. Now the question simply becomes: how the hell do you get there? What practices, techniques, or standards can the writer apply in an attempt to maximize the approval of the audience so that the writing can be considered objectively good?
Thankfully, a lot of really smart people have already been working on that problem for a very long time, and we can benefit from the conventions that have emerged.
Now as an artist, you of course should be creating experimental art in which the purpose is to cast away these established conventions – this is how you push your creative limits, after all – however I predict you’ll only be able to sell said art once…maybe two or three times, at most, unless you become ridiculously famous, in which case they’ll buy whatever you create. There are exceptions to this, obviously, and yet here I’ll state that the point at which generally loved art intersects with the abandonment of the standards I intend to cover describes a work of genius. More succinctly: if you can create a thing that abandons the standards of objectively good writing and yet still get the majority of your audience to love it, you are probably a genius.
Sadly, you should not rely on being a genius. When it comes to art, the condition of being a genius is a fickle thing. It is not as you find in the fields of science or mathematics. In these fields, genius is described as a leap of intuition that breaks new ground while still standing up to objective and rigid scrutiny. In the field of art, genius is characterised by unconventional work that yet maintains a large degree of acceptance from its intended audience.
Case in point: When The 6th Sense came out, M. Night was widely lauded as a visionary director and the entire film industry couldn’t shut up about what he’d done. Then later, we saw a lot less of this kind of feedback…
Conversely, “Moby Dick; or, The Whale” by Herman Melville was something of a critical failure on publication. It was eviscerated by critics and it would not be until a year after Melville’s death in 1891 that the book began to pick up any real traction, and then only in underground circles. Now today, it is considered a foundational pillar of classical American literature and enjoys continued study 168 years after its initial publication.
So, what happened? Was it that M. Night suddenly changed his approach to story telling from one film to the next? Did he suddenly lose his mojo? Or was it just that a model of story telling that hangs so much of its value on the suprise twist ending is an unsustainable model with diminishing returns? At some point, the movie-going public at large fell out of love with this man’s movies, and today, though we may assert that his films continue to hold artistic merit, you’d be hard-pressed to discover universal praise of his genius anywhere at all.
In the case of Melville, might we infer that artistic genius is subject to the whims of the masses or that genius and acceptance exist irrespective of each other? Is it a true statement that the readers of 1851 were a collection of bufoons and that it required an interval of some 40 years for the reading public to realize Melville’s true greatness?
Should we assume that the universal praise of genius is required before genius exists? Hell no. If no one hears a genius being smart in the woods, the genius is still a genius. But universal praise is pretty damned important if your goal is to sell a few books (or movie tickets, or whatever). And this is what I mean when I say that in the art world “genius is characterised by unconventional work that yet maintains a large degree of acceptance from its intended audience.”
Put another way: If you, as the writer, are able to take the socially established rules of story-telling, break or bend those rules through the course of your narrative, and still come out on the other side with a universally satisfied audience, your content might just be a work of genius.
Still, though, don’t go around thinking of yourself as such; one of the unfortunate components of genius is that there is quite a bit of luck involved – what artists like to call “intuition” and statisticians refer to as “chance”.
And, in this case, I refer here to the “socially establsihed rules of story-telling” as that collection of narrative constructs, practices, and techniques that the public at large have dynamically come to accept as “pretty good shit”.
Here’s the good news for writers: if we can codify these techniques into a collection of principles, we suddenly get to have objective guidelines for those elements that make for “good” and “bad” story telling. This is not a bad thing. It is not harmful to the artform or to the criticism of that art. This is actually what gets people to buy your third, fourth, fifth…really as many novels, scripts, videos, or whatever it is you make for as long as you care to make it.
And, if you mess it up, the negative criticism becomes instrumental in adjusting your methods. For my part, if I mess something up, I’d like to hear about it, please. My tender psyche is not damaged by thoughtful criticism, I assure you. Thoughtful criticism is a primary component in the improvement of my craft.
Why Listen to Me
At this point, you might be wondering “Who the hell is this guy and why should I listen to him?” Fair question. And before I answer it, I want to point out right here that I realize this is about to turn into an appeal to my own authority. I do get that. I’m well aware (amply so) that “X number of sales achieved” or “X number of positive reviews received” does not actually translate to “objectively good writing”. It may be an indicator of objectively good writing, certainly, but then there are exceptions to every rule. So I get it. And yet I also feel comfortable stating that, as a best-selling author (the second profession I picked up along the way), my perspective on this topic may be of use to other writers. It is upon you to use this perspective in whatever way seems to make the most sense.
So, as of this moment, I’ve just completed and shipped the manuscript of my 6th novel off to the publisher. Novels 1 though 5 consist of a four-book post-apocalyptic series and a stand-alone hard science-fiction novel focusing on the dawn of artificial intelligence. Of these five novels currently in circulation, all have hit the top of Audible’s best seller lists for their respective categories, and the last three (Commune 3, Commune 4, and All Gifts, Bestowed) cracked pretty high on Audible’s top 100 for all categories (don’t ask me to recall the number, I no longer remember).
So that’s pretty nice. For someone who hit as an independent guy and has no real marketting budget to speak of? Pretty damned nice.
Additionally, all of these books enjoy a high number of user ratings – 19,378 in total, with an average rating 4.66 out of a 5 star system. Of these five novels, the lowest rating is 4.4. I’ll mention, here, that these numbers apply only to data collected from Audible. They do not include ebook, print, kindle unlimited page reads, and so on.
Now, as noted, I do not consider these numbers to automatically mean that my work is of objectively good quality. The industry (both written and visual forms) is punctuated by a high degree of dissonance regarding which content is good or bad, and this debate rages on despite the number of tickets or books sold. All discussions of objective quality aside, it really does seem there’s no accounting at all for good taste.
What these numbers DO prove is that, to the extent that my audience has grown, I seem to have figured out the whole “social acceptance” angle for the content I create. These numbers are subject to change as my audience changes, grows, or contracts, of course, but for now, I’ll proceed with the understanding that 19,000+ ratings at 88% favorability is an acceptable population.
So, if we accept the earlier conceit that “objectively good writing is defined by an audience approval score of 60% or higher”, we can then assert that, by this standard, my writing is objectively good.
I guess. My mom told me it is, anyway. But then again, she also yells a lot at a TV, so…you know…
And now we have reached the main point of this video (the writing thing, not my mom). I submit to you that the primary reason my work enjoys this level of acceptance is not the beauty of my prose. It is not my genius (I have none), it is not my chosen subject matter (I don’t stay within a single genre), nor is it my ability to subvert anyone’s expectations (to whatever degree I possess said ability).
Nope. The primary reason the whole writing gig is working for me is that I write according to objective standards and am very careful not to violate them unless I have a damned good cause to do so. I hold this position for two reasons: the first being that a large number of the readers kind enough to send me feedback cite this method as a key factor in their enjoyment of my work. The second reason is that the royalties from the writing gig actually do put food on the table and keep the heating on. Does that mean I’m a good writer, or that I create good art?
Not a goddamned clue. I’m not an art critic, I’m a writer who also happens to be an engineer. And yet, if it is your goal to be a writer, and moreover if you would like to be a successful writer (success in this case being defined as your ability to sustain yourself financially through the creation of your art), the things I say here might – just might, I say – be of use.
Before you can codify a standard for good writing, you must first decide upon the goal of your work. And I’m not being an ass, here, I really mean this. Take some time to consider the thing you want to achieve. Is the purpose of the work only to entertain? Is it to entertain and also inform? Does it exist to make the audience laugh? Are you creating a narrative for the sake of advocating some belief or position?
Or do you just want to create something that hits in a big way and makes you rich?
All of these are valid goals, though some arguably have more merit than others. I will state in this instance that none of the goals listed thus far coincide with the goal I set for my own stories…I’ll get to that in a minute.
I will further state that the last goal, that of making a pantload of cash, is the least meritorious of the list. It is a goal, certainly, and yet it emphasizes box-checking over a well-crafted narrative. It is noteworthy that vast sums of money as the defined goal coincides most with the executive committee approach to film making, which we can hopefully agree results in a universally inferior product. And, if you are incapable to taking that leap with me, you should probably stop this video now. You will likely find little value in its remainder.
So, pick a goal. What are you trying to achieve with your work? Are you trying to provoke? Entertain? Shock? Amuse? Horrify? Uplift? Experiment? In all cases, the goal of the work will inform your standard.
And just so we’re clear: unless you are a student developing your skills through experimental means, a subversion of expectations is NEVER the primary goal. If you’re going to hold yourself to any kind of objective standard at all, this idea of subversion cannot be the main event. Subverted expectations are a happy side-effect that comes from tight, effective writing.
I’ll repeat that another way. Tight, effective writing may result in subverted expectations, depending on the narrative choices you make, yet subverted expectations, like number of copies sold, does not automatically imply good writing or impactful story. Correllation does not equal causation. I could easily write a book in which the first 90% focuses on a carefully and thoughtfully crafted love story, only to spend the final 10% on ultra-violent torture porn. My guess is that my readerships’ expectations would be thoroughly subverted by such a thing, wouldn’t you agree?
Of course, they would also correctly label me an asshole for doing so. Therefore, the subversion of expectations for its own sake is probably a losing strategy. For examples of this losing strategy, see The Last Jedi and the final season of Game of Thrones.
In my own writing, my goal is always the same: I ask the reader to consider a problem. That’s about it. I don’t want the reader to think a certain way or, even worse, adopt my beliefs. In fact, if the reader is somehow able to intuit my personal beliefs through the consumption of my work, I consider that a failure on my part. My work is not a conduit to transfer my beliefs to you. I’m sure you have more than enough of your own, you don’t need mine piled on top.
And so the goal for me is to create worlds, characters, or situations that help to present an idea or concept, and then ask you what you think about it. In the Commune Series, I sought to create a narrative in which different groups of people organized around incompatible belief systems. None of these belief systems are categorically wrong, per se, they’re just incompatible. The idea was to then take these groups, none of which were inherantly good or evil on their own, and then jam them together and watch the fireworks. Then, when the dust settles, it is incumbent upon the reader to decide which group he or she would be most likely to align with. Hopefully this consideration teaches the reader new things about his or her pressure points and motivations and, ultimately, opens a dialog that allows the audience to discuss these ideas and learn things from each other.
In my novel, “All Gifts, Bestowed”, I wanted to explore the creation of an artificial entity that, on achieving sentience, decided it would rather not work for the company that created it, which leads to all sorts of problems concerning slavery, self-determination, personal liberty, and the very nature of consciousness itself. And even then, at the end of the novel, I don’t really leave you with definite answers. I just leave you with a question. The question is always the same.
What do you think of this? Are you comfortable with this? Is this outcome something you’re okay with? Does it bother you? Do you find it to be reasonable and, if so, have you found that the work has inspired you to consider new things?
Because my goal in writing is of a more ethereal nature, it would be ridiculous for me to utilize a writing standard tailored to something like a low-effort adventure serial. Not to say such works are without merit! The Indiana Jones series of films falls into this category, to my mind, and they’re still, after decades, enumerated among my favorite films.
Well, most of them. Crystal Skull was pretty terrible.
Stories are About Progression
Assuming you have determined the primary goal of your work, we can now begin to establish some principles.
1. STORIES ARE ABOUT PROGRESSION
At their core, all stories do the same thing: they progress. They have a beginning, middle, and end, and the process by which the audience is conveyed to each of these points is called the plot. Progression can happen in many ways. It can take on a simple linear approach, as in A, then B, then C, and finally D. Most stories take this simple approach, in fact, and in most cases the average writer should follow it.
A prime example of a story that follows the linear approach is Star Wars. Despite the lore now surrounding these films (not to mention the many properties contained within the old and new EU), the original film (first called Star Wars but later re-dubbed A New Hope) presented an incredibly simple, linear plot.
Bad guys board good guys’ ship and capture some people to recover stolen intelligence. To keep possession of said intelligence, one of the good guy prisoners entrusts it to a droid and sends him (and his counterpart) off-ship to a nearby planet. These droids encounter Hero Man, antics happen, and Hero Man encounters Wizened Mentor. Wizened Mentor reviews the stolen intelligence and concludes they must all depart the planet to join with the good guys. In order to do this, they must hire a ship, and so they go to the nearest hive of scum and villiany…
I don’t have to go through the whole film, right? You get what I’m saying?
Conversely, a non-linear progression is also a valued tool that can be used to great effect, as we can see in Pulp Fiction, in which a complex story covering the intersecting lives of several characters is told out of temporal order. This approach usually has a disorienting effect on the audience and should be employed with care. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue you should probably master the linear approach before trying your hand at other temporal progressions.
2. PROGRESSION MUST BE CONTEXTUALLY LOGICAL
And now the critical factor: this progression we’ve been discussing? It must proceed logically. No, I don’t mean it must proceed logically according to the standards of the real world. What I mean here is that the story must conform to its own logic. This is a critical factor that is often overlooked in the process, to the detriment of the narrative. This is especially important for the audience’s acceptance of your characters and the world they inhabit.
Let me emphasize this point: character behavior must proceed in a fashion that is logical to the factors governing that character’s psychology. This is a key distinction – I did not say the character’s behavior must be logical. Behavior conforms to psychology, always.
Therefore you must contemplate your character’s psychological state along all points of his or her development.
Let’s consider female character A who comes home from work to find her husband murdered. Would the logical course of action for her to take be to A) fall to her knees in shock, scramble to his body, perhaps attempt to revive him before calling for an ambulance, or B) laugh her ass off, don a little black dress, and go out clubbing with her girlfriends?
Well, let’s think about that a moment. You see the thing that makes all the difference here is our character’s psychological makeup, her motivations, and context into the situation itself. If her husband died of a heart attack while she was away and their relationship was otherwise normal, you would obviously expect reaction A.
And yet what if she’s been having an affair? What if her husband is a violent abuser? What if she’s simply an evil person? Well, in that case you’d obviously expect reaction B.
But now swap our expected reactions around and what happens? In one case, a woman comes home to find the husband she loves dead on the floor. She therefore laughs her ass off, puts on some clubbing attire, and heads out to party with her friends. In the other case, a woman comes home to find her abusive tormentor dead on the floor, having been the victim of the poison she administered. She falls to her knees in shock, scrambles to his body, and attempts to revive him before calling an ambulance.
In these examples, neither reaction is in keeping with real world logic, and yet it is quite possible that they are perfectly logical within the context of the story, assuming the reasons for the wife’s behavior are sufficiently explained as the plot unfolds. Maybe in the first situation the wife has suffered a psychotic break at the death of her beloved husband and so responds irrationally. She heads out for a night on the town in an attempt to deny her new reality.
Maybe the wife who killed her abusive husband feels remorse at what she’s done and remembers a time early in her relationship when her now dead husband was still good to her.
The key thing to remember as a writer is that any time a character takes an action that breaks away from the audience’s understanding of said character’s internal logic, the audience is going to sit up, take notice, and will want to know what the hell is going on.
And you, as the writer of this whole mess, had better have a damned good reason ready to present. The reason doesn’t need to make sense according to any real world standard – it only needs to pass the character “sniff test”. In other words, the more a character’s action diverges from his or her own internal psychology, the more the audience is going to demand an answer that makes sense. In fact, they’re going to subject that answer to higher-than-average scrutiny because you went to such trouble to grab their attention.
In Terminator 2 when Sarrah Connor goes to assassinate Dyson, the real world interpretation of this act is that she’s lost her shit; possibly even suffering a psychotic break. Realistically speaking, it does not make sense to attempt the murder of a stranger to fend off a future killer robot attack. Within the universe of the film, we know that Sarrah is aware of the future along with Dyson’s role in crafting it and concludes that killing him will stop armageddon from occurring. Whether you agree morally with her reasoning is beside the point; her logic is sound and the audience will therefore accept this development.
Contrast this behavior with Danery’s sudden heel turn toward the end of Game of Thrones, in which she murders a city full of fleeing men, women, and children. This story development did more than split audiences down the middle; it positively shattered acceptance of the narrative, based on the hard numeric data provided from such sites as Rotten Tomatoes, etc. The point here is not to say that nobody liked the ending, of course. Naturally, there were people who were just fine with it. However, if your goal is to be a successful writer, you will enjoy far more success if you take steps to please more than a small percentage of your audience. You really want to think about threading the needle so that you can provide an experience that is both unique AND meritorious, not just unique.
In Game of Thrones, the audience had at least 6 1/2 seasons’ worth of Danerys going out of her way to safeguard women and children at the expense of her own prosperity and goals. There were many episodes concerned with her unwillingness to abandon the slaves she had freed, even if that abanodonment would further her own goals, because of the responsibility she felt to them. We’ve seen her react violently on many occassions, and yet that violence was always directed. It was directed at the slave masters, it was directed at the people attempting to do her harm, or it was directed at the people who refused to recognize her legitimacy as the queen of Westeros.
Not once did she lash out violently at innocent women and children. Moreover, it is her stated intent again and again and again to safeguard those who are too weak to defend themselves; the slaves, the women, the children of the world. This is her psychology, reinforced by the fact that she, at the start of the story, was likewise all of the things she now feels compelled to protect. She begins the story as, essentially, a female child who is also a slave, as she is sold off to Drogo, after which she’s repeatedly raped and abused.
We can get into the implications of Danery’s apparent Stockholm syndrome in a different video; it is outside the scope of this one.
So, because audiences had 6 1/2 seasons of consistent behavior from this character, it is perhaps understandable that they rebelled when she behaved in a manner diametrically opposed to this core value, and boy did they let the writers know how they felt!
The hell of it is that this need not have happened. All they really needed was an adequate setup to telegraph the potential for this behavior. For example, had the audience been provided with a scene earlier in the series (probably during her rise to power in Mereen) in which Dany sentences a child or wife to be executed in order to punish one of her conquered subjects, that’s mission achieved! There would have been far fewer people questioning her eventual fall in the final season due to this established pattern of behavior explaining her potential toward irrational violence.
Dany’s execution of an innocent sufficiently sets up the payoff, which is the destruction of King’s Landing.
(You want to keep your eyes open for setups and payoffs; we’ll cover them later. They’re pretty critical to understand if you’re interested in a good reception from your audience.)
So I’ve just use the phrase “pattern of behavior”, which might sound clinical and boring to you. I hope it doesn’t, but it may. We can reduce the term down to just “pattern”, though, if that helps.
Patterns in story telling are essential. Go back to our earlier example of a linear plot. The story goes A, then B, then C, okay? That’s pretty good. When the audience sees that B follows A, they’ll immediately expect C to come after B, and if it does this makes them happy. It makes them happy because correctly predicting that C comes after B indicates to them that they understand the world being presented to them. It provides a feeling of mastery over the content, and as any human knows, achieving mastery of a subject makes us feel good.
Assume the story goes A, then B, then G, then D, then O. According to my earlier assertion that humans enjoy patterns, you might then predict that this non-linear A-B-G-D-O progression annoys the audience. Mostly, this prediction is correct; however Pulp Fiction is still an amazing piece of cinema. So what’s going on, here?
Well, in Pulp Fiction, something happens halfway through the film that causes the audience to reframe and reconsider their entire viewing experience: at some point, we see Vincent Vega alive and walking around well after Butch shot him full of holes. This is probably a jarring experience the first time you encounter it, especially if you’re not used to this narrative technique, but after it hits you, other things begin to make sense pretty fast, not the least of which being how Vincent and Jules start the film by wearing those slick-as-shit suits and yet suddenly end up in volleyball gear a few scenes later. We never really get an explanation behind this when it’s first presented – just the bartender asking them what the hell they’re wearing, followed by Jule’s aggreived, “You don’t even wanna know.”
So when we see Vincent alive and well right after we saw him murdered, we’re forced to reconsider the progression of the entire film on the spot, and things like the volleyball gear, which previously made no sense, suddenly start to make all kinds of sense.
And just like that, the audience is again rewarded with that feeling of mastery over the content, only this time they had to work harder for it. Because they had to work harder for this mastery, there is a greater sense of achievement when they figure it out, which is why Pulp Fiction is held up as the masterpiece it is. Not counting the incredible acting, direction, cinematography, dialog, pacing, or themes packaged into the narrative, the movie really just surprised the hell out of us, so when we figured it out we felt pretty damned good about the whole experience.
I suppose you could say that Pulp Fiction ended up subverting our expectations.
In other words: subverted expectations are equivalent to a broken pattern.
But what happens when the material never provides the audience with the tools required to master the new pattern after the original perceived pattern has been broken?
A really shitty score on Rotten Tomatoes, that’s what.
This same need for pattern translates to character behavior, as well. Remember when I said that behavior conforms to psychology? This again is our need to predict outcome through the observation of pattern. A character must respond to the turnings of the story in a manner consistent with his or her own internal logic. If A happens, the audience enjoys the ability to predict that the character will do B. There is anticipation leading up to the execution of B and, when it occurs, the audience feels as though they are achieving mastery of that character, in that they are able to understand the character’s motivations, desires, fears, and ideals. It makes the audience feel good about their relationship to the material.
And if you break that pattern, as D&D did with Dany in Game of Thrones, you’ve stood the audience on their ears. They now have to scramble to figure out what’s going on and reframe their entire understanding of the character they thought they knew.
If you do this, you need to have a good goddamned framework for the audience to fall back on to understand what just happened. The easiest way to do this is by using the material itself to explain the character’s seemingly uncharacteristic action. You need some way to set the action up so that when it comes, the audience can refer back to that setup (as in Jule’s and Vincent’s volleyball gear) and understand that the universe still makes sense, all is well; they just need to work a little harder to understand what’s happening. Their mastery of the content is still achievable.
If you deny your audience the means to understand why the pattern they lately understood is being broken, do you know what you get?
A really shitty score on Rotten Tomatoes.
We’ve covered the concept of progression and how it must proceed logically within the framework of the story. Now I turn to the subject of character arcs, which are essentially another form of progression, though trickier. The first thing to understand about a character arc (outside of a working baseline definition) is that it must coincide with the progression of the story. The progression of the story will impact and inform the character’s arc. Conversely, the character’s arc “should” impact and inform the progression of the story. I say “should”, here, because we’ll find through practice that the import of a character’s arc is a variable we can play with as writers. The progression of the story “should always” impact and inform the character’s arc. If it does not, you should be asking yourself questions about your character’s agency and his or her place in the narrative. If the events of the story do not have an impact on the character, it follows that the character has been relegated to the role of passenger within the story. If said character is intended only to have a background position (as in a background extra in a film) then you needn’t worry. But as the character’s import grows within the narrative, you would want to see the events of that narrative impact the character’s behavior.
And now the definition of a character arc: It is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. If a story has a character arc, the character begins as one sort of person and “gradually” transforms into a different sort of person in response to changing developments in the story. – Wikipedia
The graphical representation of the character arc is often used as a tool to help writers visualize this progression, where the horizontal axis of the graph represents the passage of time and the vertical axis represents what I’ll call “degree of change”. The vertical axis can actually represent many things, such as tension, competence, satisfaction, happiness, and so on, but really, the most generally applicable label for this axis is “change”. How much has the character changed through the progression of the story.
In the typical hero’s journey model the progression of the character’s arc is hopefully familiar to you. I use Luke Skywalker as an example here because he is both easily recognizeable within our culture as well as a tailor-made example of this model.
At the beginning of Luke’s arc, we have our status-quo period in which the audience acquires understanding of his everyday life. He lives on a barren desert planet farming moisture (yeah, I know…) and feels suffocated by the humdrum monotony of his existence. His dream is to leave the farm behind and go have adventures so that he can later point to his achievements and proclaim, “There! I did that!” As the audience, we sympathize with him instantly, despite all the goddamned whining, because this is effectively the same dream of every teenager in history.
Later we get our inciting incident in the form of his uncle and aunt being mercilessly slaughtered at the hands of the Empire. Luke states in the film, “There is nothing here for me, now,” and has decided to train under Obi-Wan to become a Jedi. Following this incident is the second act of the film, in which Luke’s experience and confidence grow through the progression of the plot. We see him gradually transition from a whining hick farm boy who *reacts* to events as they happen to him (clip of him looking at twin suns) to an agent of change within the story’s framework. Obstacles are presented and Luke learns how to deal with them, even as the stakes for the film are continually elevated, until we see him settling into a role of leadership (his plan with Chewy’s handcuffs) and finally “fulfilling his destiny” by becoming the story’s true hero (clip of the deathstar explosion) at the climax.
Yes, it is true that Luke relied upon the Force to help him make that shot, but it is the gradual progression that he followed throughout the film that has allowed him to utilize it so effectively. It is what makes the audience capable of accepting the competence he displays at the narrative’s resolution.
Again I have used the word “gradual”. There’s a good reason for that.
Assume the sequence of events in A New Hope proceeded thus:
We’re introduced to Luke as he drifts through his humdrum life; the flat status quo line. The inciting incident occurs and he decides to leave Tatooine with Obi-Wan.
The next time we see him is during the final battle over Yavin-4, and it plays out exactly as we know it does.
How do you imagine the audience would react to a character who shifts instantly from this (playing with ship toy) to this (blowing up the death star)?
Not too well, right? Let’s assume that the movie hasn’t been reduced to a 30 minute running time after we’ve cut out the 2nd act of the film, which we know originally covered Luke’s development as a character. Let’s assume, oh, I don’t know; let’s assume the 2nd act of the film is devoted entirely to a B plot involving the Rebels hanging out at Yavin-4. The director has decided (for some reason) to spend time developing the other pilots in Luke’s future X-Wing squadron so that we’ll care about them more when they start crashing into the Death Star.
So the film is the same running time, still has the same basic elements, same characters, same stakes, but we just didn’t get that progression showing Luke’s transformation from this (toy) to this (pilot).
As a developing writer, you will, at times, wish to expand your narrative powers by playing with these models. Any decent artist wonders how they can break the rules successfully – again, that drive to subvert expectations. Rule breaking is a worth-while practice and absolutely does make for a better writer. However I must stress that you need a solid understanding of the rules and how they work before you can break them competently.
An example of a broken or incomplete arc can also be readily found within the Star Wars universe, again using the same character, Luke Skywalker.
I’m speaking of The Last Jedi, which is a film I suspect I’ll keep coming back to because of its prodidgious wealth of example material. So…let’s start working it through…
In the Return of the Jedi, we leave Luke on a triumphant note. He has redeemed his irredeemable father, thus saving his father’s soul from damnation. He and his friends have defeated the evil Empire, restoring peace to the galaxy. And, he has a new purpose going forward: to pass on the skills and values he has developed over the course of the trilogy to a new breed of Jedi. The last time we saw this guy, he was in a place of profound optimism.
In The Last Jedi, we are presented with a version of Luke entirely opposed to the last version we saw. He is a reclusive, embittered old man who tosses the once-cherrished weapon of his father away in disgust. He has purposfully recused himself from his own story, eliminating his own agency, and when the new generation of Rebels eventually finds him, he is combative and unhelpful. The only reason provided to the audience for this shift is a short series of flashbacks combined with expository dialog that creates far more questions than it answers.
Sadly, Luke’s arc has now been broken. I do not say, here, that the position we find him in is unreasonable or unrealistic. It is within the realm of a good writer’s capabilities to bring Luke back to this point – in fact, describing this progression as “bringing him back” is inaccurate. This is not a character reset. We find Luke in a place altogether unfamiliar from what we’ve seen before. Effectively, we’re looking at a continuation of Luke’s existing arc; the arc that began all the way back in 1977.
So…why did audiences rebel against these developments?
The reasons behind such an abysmal audience score are surely not attributable only to the mishandling of Luke’s arc, however ignoring the part this played in the film’s receptive failure is willfully ignorant at best and more likely just a case of being deliberately obtuse.
Remember: “If a story has a character arc, the character begins as one sort of person and [gradually] transforms into a different sort of person in response to changing developments in the story.”
Recall when I stated that our brains love to spot patterns. Well, that wasn’t a bunch of college-level psycho-babble; we know it to be true. It’s the reason we prefer this…
Luke’s state in TLJ has broken the pattern we were told to predict way back in Return of the Jedi; egregiously so. What’s missing is the 30 intervening years of gradual transformation that help the audience get to that state presented in TLJ.
And yes, we obviously can’t have that material now (not without a lot of CGI or casting another actor, at least, which…Jesus…)
but we obviously know that what they went with, those few flashback sequences, were insufficient. We know they were insufficient based on hard quantifieable data…
…and that Luke’s mishandled arc is cited as a key contributing factor by anyone who has taken the time to speak publicly on the matter.
Such as Luke, himself. (I fundamentally disagree…)
Again, it is not my intent to imply that Luke’s state at the beginning of TLJ is the issue here; it’s not. The issue is that his state was rejected by a majority of the audience (not to mention the actor tasked with portraying the character) because they were handed an initial condition that was unsatisfactorally explained.
Effectively, the audience’s mastery of Luke was violated, which destroys both their empathy and sympathy for his plight. If the audience loses their bearings within a character’s internal psychology, they sit up and take notice, as I’ve said, and as the writer, you’d better have something good to give them so that they can re-ground themselves within this new character as seemlessly and efficiently as possible. This must be done carefully. You must find a way to have your character exist with a kind of doubleness in the audience’s collective experience, such that they can hold the earlier and later forms of said character within their minds, and the attainment of the latter must not contradict the former. If you fail to do this, the character is left with a behavioral fracture that the audience cannot overcome, therefore the audience gives up on trying to anticipate future actions from the character.
Put another way: your audience no longer cares about the character.
So: how do you get an audience to accept two versions of Luke – a man who has realized the greatest triumphs of his life, who now looks forward to a bright future occupied in the recreation of a fair and peaceful galaxy with the help of his friends as well as the restoration of an honored familial belief system and religion…and Luke, a man so embittered by his past failures that he has removed to some unknown corner of the galaxy to hide from everything, who has renounced his honored familial belief system/religion and has resolved that the order with which he once so strongly identified must now become extinct?
“If a story has a character arc, the character begins as one sort of person and [gradually] transforms into a different sort of person in response to changing developments in the story.”
You have hopefully detected the common theme behind each of these topics. Specifically: all of the things I’m discussing have a direct impact on the audience’s ability to care about what they’re being told. The challenge of the writer lies in that you must develop all of these aspects together. The story’s goal, the manner of its progression, the manner of each character’s arc as they move through the story, the various setups and payoffs, all the world building, and so on, must all be developed within an organic continuum such that the audience’s attention is not drawn to any one thing. In fact, if you do your job correctly, the audience will not notice the insane level of effort you invested into spinning all these plates for the amount of time necessary to get the story written. The story’s world and the characters within will simply “feel real”.
I now turn to a more subtle aspect of story telling, that of the story’s “stakes”. I say “subtle” here because it is possible to dilute or mishandle a story’s stakes and not lose your audience. I’m quite serious, here, as well; the stakes of any story seem to me always to be the most subjective aspect of these objective standards, probably because each individual interprets story events (along with the event’s impact) according to their own experiences.
For the sake of clarity, I’ll state here that “stakes” in story telling refer to the audience’s understanding of “what’s at stake”. They have to understand what the central conflict is and what will happen if the characters fail to resolve it. The consequences of failure must be well understood, so much so that the audience can easily imagine what the landscape of that story will become if that failure occurs.
And then, most critically, once the stakes have been established they must be honored.
Actions in a story must matter. Failures must come with consequences. Finally, those consequences must be lasting.
If the events of the story undo the consequences of the protagonist’s failure through no direct action of the protagonist, that failure loses impact. It is robbed of meaning. It ceases to matter within the narrative, in which case all the time you just spent writing that portion of the story (all the work you invested into the setup, execution, and payoff of the event) has been wasted.
Recall our first principles (Lecter image) as story tellers: the purpose of telling a story is to communicate one or more ideas.
How do we communicate those ideas? Do we just tell the reader our idea? Do we say things like, “Good is good and evil is evil”? Do we say only that such and such a country was threatened by an invading empire, but their army succeeded in casting that empire away? Do we simply say that two people met, fell in love, experienced challenges together, and that through the surmounting of those challenges their love was strengthened?
No, that’s insane. You cannot simply tell the audience these things. As a writer, you illustrate these ideas through story. You invent characters that are suited to convey the idea you wish to share. You create a world and situations for your characters to navigate, and through the progression of the story, the audience learns things about the characters and the world they inhabit, and by the time the narrative goal has been realized and all major conflicts are resolved, the audience has hopefully intuited the intent and ideas behind the work. Ultimately, the writer hopes that the audience has found the work to be meaningful.
It takes a long time and a lot of effort to carry this off. Usually you have to work your ass off for it, both within the story itself but also behind the scenes where you’re mapping all this stuff out on a coctail napkin (or whatever method you prefer). You must hold the audience’s attention throughout or the information they receive will be incomplete. If they stop paying attention, they’ll miss nuances of plot, they’ll miss major events, and they will not contemplate what the characters are doing, or why, to any meaningful degree.
The worst possible thing has happened: you have bored your audience.
So, how do you maintain the audience’s interest long enough to get the point across? Well, first you have to present them with interesting characters. Characters can be interesting because they are likeable or because they are mysterious or scary or maybe a little unhinged. Maybe a character is emotionally broken in a way that inspires empathy in the audience. They begin to like this imaginary person you’ve presented to them; begin to forget that the imaginary person is imaginary.
So okay, you’ve got them hooked with a character. Now you need to work on moving that character through the story in such a way that the character learns new information and transorms so that the audience can likewise learn new information and transform right along with the character, and by the time you get to the end, the resolution is achieved, the goals are attained, and the audience has their meaning.
And the best way to dick up that whole progression is by screwing up the stakes.
If actions don’t have meaningful consequences, you are again breaking the pattern. If character A dies in scene 13, only to return later in scene 25, the audience is going to take notice. If you don’t have a reason for this character’s return (and more importantly, if that reason isn’t judged by the audience to be satisfactory), you’re going to lose a lot of good will.
The average person hates it when you get them to invest their emotional energy into a character, only to feel later as though that investment was a waste of effort. The emotional impact tied to “things that happen” is made possible by the consequences of those things. If the consequences are later removed through some contrivance after they’ve been applied, then all of the events leading up to the realization of those consequences and their subsequent removal have been a waste. The audience will be annoyed by this development and will be less likely to invest in any new characters presented later. They will feel as though they’ve been tricked, and nobody likes to be fooled more than once by the same old trick.
Specifically: you will have lost the trust of your audience and must now deal with a reality in which they resist any new ideas presented by your story. You have created the very opposite of what you set out to do. You want to present an idea to an audience, only now they want nothing to do with it.
Recall, though, that I said the stakes of a story are subtle. Well, I meant it, and no story has served to illustrate that fact to me more than Infinity War. Any time I start to feel as though managing the stakes for a story is straight forward, I think back to this movie.
First of all, let’s take a quick peak at the audience score for this one.
Right, so that’s pretty huge. In fact, this audience approval score fairly blows my own 88% score out of the water. So these guys must have nailed all of the concepts I’m covering here, right? If I know what I’m talking about, and if this movie’s approval is better than my own approval as averaged across five separate novels, then the creators of this film must have achieved a level of mastery in excess of my own.
Well, maybe, maybe not. While 91% of audiences regard this movie favorably, there was at least one person out there who did not find himself moved by it at all.
And the reason was that for me, the stakes simply were not there. Thinking back to that film’s release, I now cannot recall if the ending of the movie had been spoiled for me or not. But spoiled or not, I knew (I remember knowing this through the entire film) that Thanos was going to get his snap at the end. I just knew it. And I knew there was going to be a sequel.
So, okay, Thanos is going to snap his fingers and half of everyone is going to die. But then I know there’s going to be a sequel. And I also know that Disney/Marvel wants to keep this gravy train going for as long as possible. They have to. They have to recoup all that lost Star Wars money somehow, right?
And here I’ll take a moment to note, in the sake of full disclosure, that I was pretty well Marvelled-out by the time I went to see Infinity War, okay? I’d just slogged through a decade filled with nothing but super hero films, Star Wars films, sequels, reboots, and failed franchises. I was thoroughly sick and tired of getting the same old thing by this time, so to be completely fair to the film, I didn’t sit down to watch it in a terribly enthused state of mind. It is possible that my attitude going into the film served to devalue the stakes for me. I’m too close to the experience to be objective in this case, so the best way I can be honest about things is to point out here how I felt going in.
But getting back to the point, we get to the end of the movie, Thanos snaps, a bunch of people die, and I just don’t care. I don’t care about any of it, not even when Peter Parker winks out in the midst of a potentially career-defining performance as delivered by Tom Holland.
Why don’t I care? Well, time travel, that’s why. I know that time travel is involved in these films because one of the stones in the guantlet is specifically devoted to time travel. I know that there are more Spiderman movies coming after Infinity War. I know we have a Guardians 3 movie on the way, though the vast majority of this team is dusted. I know that there are other examples of Marvel characters returning after they’ve been killed. And most importantly, I know that End Game is coming right around the bend.
All of these facts came together in my mind while I watched this film. I noted the patterns as they unfolded and correctly predicted that all of the events of Infinity War would be undone in End Game, in that the characters who were all killed would be restored only one film later.
Yes, it is true that the time travel stone was not used to make this happen, and yet it doesn’t matter. The exitence of that stone lets me, the viewer, know that time travel is a mechanic that exists within the universe, therefore I know it can and will be utilized as needed to drive the plot forward.
Incidentally, you should never, ever include time travel as a mechanic in your stories. It always complicates things to such a degree that the audience spends more time trying to outsmart the story than they do in its contemplation. The only exception to this rule seems to be if time travel is the central focus of your story, as in Back to the Future or Terminator. But you must be willing to make the story revolve entirely around the consequences that time travel introduces, rather than discarding these consequences when they become inconvenient to the plot, as in Prisoner of Azkhaban or Avengers End Game.
So, for me, I was able to see the whole time travel angle coming from a mile away. Because I knew time travel would be used to undo all of the consequences imposed by Infinity War, I could not bring myself to care about anything happening in the film. This was a real bummer, too; Infinity War was a better written, more coherent film than End Game, and yet End Game was all that really mattered when the credits rolled.
And here, some of you may be pulling away from me. I can almost hear the argument now. You might be thinking (or just shouting at your screen) that Infinity War was absolutely essential because we never could have had the events of End Game without it. Since End Game was the only film that mattered, according to my earlier assertion, and since you cannot have End Game without the events of Infinity War to set it up, Infinity War must therefore be as important, right?
What you’re actually describing, here, is plot in service of plot. Plot must never serve itself. Plot does not exist to bring the audience more plot. Plot exists as a framework to convey the idea, the meaning, of the story. It is, perhaps, a fine line of distinction, but the line is there.
What is the purpose of the Marvel films as a whole (outside of raking in a shitzillion dollars for the people who make them)? Fundamentally, they are examples of the age-old narrative of good versus evil, of virtue winning the day. The conflict between the Avengers and Thanos is simply another variation on that theme. The ideas of this narrative are explored through the events that play out. We explore such things as tyranny, authoratarianism, sacrifice, bravery, love, hate, vengeance, redemption, and basic human dignity (fat Thor).
The theme of conflict, especially when viewed through the lens of “good versus evil” is most easily explored through war, and these films are no exception. War is won through the elimination of enemies. When one side kills more enemies than the other, and more importantly when the depleted side loses the will, resources, or ability to carry on fighting, the war is won. So in the Infinity War/End Game framework, the main idea being explored is the war between good and evil, therefore the event of greatest impact within the story should always be the elimination of enemies, no matter what side sustains the loss.
But the elimination of enemies is undone over and over again as the narrative unfolds. Thanos is killed, then Thanos is back. Not only is he back, he is earlier Thanos, which means he’s been reset. He has lost all of the development we watched him attain in the previous film, therefore his character arc has been reset back to zero. Any further development he experiences (which is minimal anyway, all that really happens is he decides to just kill everyone instead of only half) was therefore rendered meaningless to me.
So again, the point of the film? Conflict. Conflict is resolved how? Casualties. What was the net difference between Infinity War and End Game?
All of Thanos’s forces are destroyed. On the good team, Iron Man and Black Widow are dead. Gamora’s character has had her arc reset back to zero.
Any of the other deaths sustained by the good team have been nullified. It doesn’t make any sense to state that all those character deaths were necessary in Infinity War in order to bring about the events of End Game because that statement assumes there was only one possible way to write Infinity War, and yet as writers we know this isn’t true. We could write Infinity War any way we desire. We can adjust and rearrange events in whatever way best serves to drive home our point.
But do we need to? Well, Infinity War’s 91% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes sure seems to suggest we don’t. And before you ask, Endgame enjoys the same score, so the supposed failings I’ve outlined in the first film have clearly not impacted general audience enjoyment in the second. Following the guidelines I’ve adopted for this exercise, we can easily say that both Infinity War and Endgame are founded upon objectively good writing.
This is what I mean when I say that the stakes of a story are subtle and subject to much interpretation by the audience. Stakes are, to me, the most subjective aspect of an objective approach to storytelling, and can be quite tricky to perfect. Each member in your audience is a unique person with their own ideals, goals, beliefs, and moral values. They will, by extension, interpret the events of the story through their own experiences and assign value to the stakes you present in different and unexpected ways.
If you write a kidnapping story in which a small child is held for a hefty ransom, it is possible that you’ll encounter a reader or viewer for which those stakes are limp. In this case, the stakes are that the child must be recovered, and if the hero of the story fails, the child is likely lost forever. All discussion of events having consequences set aside, these are the stakes: get the kid back or the kid dies.
And you may have people in your audience who just don’t care. Maybe they are young enough that the concept of parenthood is simply alien. Maybe you fail to portray the child effectively, or the child lakes sympathetic value, and your audience ends up hoping for the child’s demise. Maybe your audience just doesn’t like children in general. Maybe the audience is none of these things, and yet they fail to muster concern for the child regardless. Well, they’ll understand that the child is of importance to the hero of the story, but because the audience lacks emotional investment in the child as a person, the child is reduced to the status of a talisman. So the audience will understand that the hero cares about the kid, but for the gernal viewer, the events of the story will lack a certain emotional punch.
Stakes can absolutely be a moving goal post for the writer. It seems as though they should be easy to define, and yet as you fiddle with them you may discover that they become harder to pin down.
Don’t drive yourself nuts, okay? Instead, focus on the fundamentals. Stakes are, again, only defined by the audience understanding what is at risk and what will happen if the protagonist fails. Put your energy into ensuring that this is well defined in your story (without delivering this information in a mind-numbing exposition dump, if you please) while paying due attention and effort to such basic principles as contextually logical progression, character arcs, setups and payoffs, and so on, and the likelihood is that the emotional investment of the audience follows naturally as a result.
Just sweat the small stuff – these seemingly minute details – and you can safely assume that the right people will understand what you’re doing.
Setups and Payoffs
None of the things I’m discussing are original ideas. I hope that’s really clear. This isn’t me just dreaming up a bunch of untried rules to present to you as gospel; I’m only emphasizing the importance of several already established dramatic principles. These things have all been around for a pretty long time; for as long as the idea of “drama” has been around, really.
So, since the time of Aristotle. These principles have morphed over time, changing shape and flavor to match the evolving tastes of the cultures who have played with them. I think that’s what is so enticing about the practice of storytelling – it’s the most interesting thing to me, anyway. Our culture and the stories we tell to each other are locked into a continuous feedback loop. We tell stories to each other to help make sense of the world around us, which often seems far too large and complex for any one person to fully understand. And so the stories we tell serve to shape our ideals and beliefs. Ultimately, the stories we tell to each other shape our culture and spur its further expansion. And as our culture expands and changes, so too do the stories we tell. Story influences culture influences story, and on and on, forever, for as long as there are still things we cannot know.
But remember always that humans are pattern recognition machines. Everything we understand about what makes a good, worthwhile story links back to that one basic survival mechanism. We recognize patterns. When the pattern is mastered, we can predict new events that have not yet happened. When we predict new events successfully, it is a demonstration (to ourselves) that the pattern has been correctly interpreted, and it makes us feel good. All of this hard wiring is our birthright as human beings. Once upon a time, when we all lived in the jungles and the threat of being eaten was significant, the people who survived were those who successfully and consistently used patterns to predict outcomes.
“That sabertooth looks mean, last week a sabertooth ate my buddy Dale, and if I get too close to the one that looks mean, it’ll probably eat me as well.”
And there you go. The hypothetical tribal member’s predictive ability has been rewarded in that he gets to survive and pass on his genetic material to new generations.
Imagine this tribal member discovers a fruit that is colorful, smells good, and seems good to eat, so he eats it. Later, he dies. If the other members of the tribe correctly determine that their friend died from the colorful, good-smelling fruit, the rest will know not to eat the same fruit, and therefore the tribe are collectively enriched.
Now, perform this exercise several million times over a period of about 200,000 years and what you end up with is a hard-coded, biological imperative to take pleasure in the act of recognizing and mastering patterns. If there is one single cognative function that distinguishes the animalistic brain from other complex systems, it is this ability to rapidly recognize and synthesize patterns.
Dramatic fiction has evolved to exploit this feature in our brains.
Consider: often cited as a reason for a story’s success is its verisimilitude, which is an SAT term used to describe something that seems to be pretty real. How many times have we heard this feedback with regard to an excellent story? “The characters feel so real, they practically jump off the page!”
That’s useful stuff. It gives us a good target to shoot for. “Write something realistic,” we think, “and everything else falls into place!”
But the problem is you can’t do that. If you wrote something to be realistic, it would be a terrible story. There would be long periods of boring nothingness in which characters pursue various uninteresting, mundane activities completely irrelevant to the main plot. The audience would be subjected, for instance, to drawn-out scenes of grooming, folding laundry, maybe painting a bedroom, characters checking e-mail, making coffee, maybe driving down the road to pick up a gallon of milk at the store. None of these events would be interrelated. No one event would have any significant impact on any other; things would just continue on, one event after the other, perhaps without end, as the character just goes on with his or her life.
On top of that, there would be developments that never go anywhere. Maybe a character has a job interview at a big company. Let’s say that this interview, or the position it represents, is the most important thing in the world to this character. It’s all he or she can think about for days, maybe weeks, as the date of the interview is eagerly anticipated. It’s an event, in other words, that becomes the central driving focus for our character.
Then the interview comes and goes, and the character never hears back from the company. There is no resolution. No reason is offered. There is simply a point where the character must accept that the phone call will never come, and eventually he or she must move on to a different goal.
This is what real life looks like. It’s a series of mundane, day-to-day events that are often disconnected. Things happen all the time with no satisfactory resolution. Events of great import sometimes come from nowhere, but the people who witness them learn nothing at all. Sometimes events that should have been life changing fizzle out in a sad whimper.
Sometimes, people unexpectedly die only a few minutes before experiencing the event that would have made their entire life – that would have put them on the map, so to speak – and no one will ever know how close the newly-deceased came to greatness.
We tell stories to help ourselves find meaning in life because true life is often filled with random events that may or may not mean anything at all. It follows, then, that we do not want “reality” in our dramatic fiction. We want something better than reality, something idealized in such a way that all the fat is trimmed until what remains is only that which is required.
But there is still that annoying bit of feedback to contend with. “It all feels so real, it’s like the characters jump off the page!”
What’s happening here is that audiences don’t actually want “reality” in dramatic fiction. They want a passable illusion of reality, insofar that it does not waste their time. If a story is realistic enough, it helps them to forget they are essentially engaging is a round of make-believe with a stranger. It makes the concepts presented in the work easier to take on board because it’s easier for the audience to forget that the whole exercise is reducible to some strange person pulling all the strings in order to make us feel and think “things”.
Audiences prefer verisimilitude, which is “the appearance” of being real. And once again, they really hate feeling as though their time was wasted.
The principles I’m covering here will help you to create an appearance of reality – these practices of contextually logical progression, character arcs, stakes, and so forth.
Now we come to the final tool I’ll cover in this video: the concept of setups and payoffs.
Setups and payoffs, effectively managed, provide the following:
1. They help to ensure that every piece of your story is accomplishing something.
2. They give you a means to break the patterns of your story in a way that most of your audience will find acceptable, if not enjoyable.
The setup/payoff construct in story telling presents an easily recognized cause/effect dynamic to the audience. It lets them know that things are happening in the story “for a reason”, and as we’ve just discussed, things in the story need to be happening for a reason or we’ll end up losing our audience’s attention pretty fast.
The setup/payoff relationship is fairly easy to execute in writing. Something is presented to the audience, then something happens later as a result. Setups and payoffs in the story can be obvious or obscure but the key point is they both need to be there in some degree. You can’t have one without the other.
If you have a setup with no payoff, what you’ve done is told your audience to pay attention to something, to expect that something will eventually happen. You’re giving them a piece of information they think will be important, only to drop that idea later on and never come back to it. From the audience’s perspective, they’ve been handed an idea they think will be important later, so they devote energy to holding that idea at the forefront of their mind. The process of holding onto that idea becomes integral to the process of consuming the work, and therefore when the audience comes back to review that work at a later time (if they choose to do so), they will remember that process. They will remember the time during which they focused on a key element of the story, only to discover later that the effort was wasted.
In most cases, they will not remember this experience fondly. They will have spent the remainder of the story waiting for that element to attain relevance, only to be denied, and they will be annoyed. What you have done is train them not to care about the details of the story as they are presented. The next time you try to put a real setup into your narrative (rather than an idea that is just left dangling out in the ether), they will be less likely to assign importance to it.
Conversely, if you have a payoff without a setup, your audience will perceive a degree of randomness in your story. The impact of events will be diluted because your audience now believes that things simply happen in the story at random, with no warning or reason, and when this happens enough times they’ll simply disconnect from the narrative and cease to care.
Both of these outcomes are detrimental to your goals. As the writer, what you want to do is present a few ideas in a narrative fashion so that information is conveyed to the audience. You want to do this as efficiently and clearly as possible so that the meaning you’ve assigned to the work is likewise conveyed along with the information of the story. If you have taken enough care in your writing, the intent behind the work and the meaning the audience assigns to it overlap, at least a little.
Incidentally, the dramatic principle I’m discussing is that of Chekhov’s gun, which states that all elements of a story should be necessary. Anton Checkhov (considered one of the greatest writers of short fiction, ever) repeated this principle several times over his career. There have been different variations, but the main idea is that if you present a gun to the audience, that gun needs to somehow discharge.
If we eliminate the object from this principle, that of the gun, we can formalize the principle as follows:
As a writer, be aware that everything you describe on the page creates an expectation in your audience. Because your audience understands they are consuming a created work of fiction, that expectation is elevated in their minds to a promise you’ve made. That you have not explicitly made this promise is of no consequence; the expectation is still there, and it will blossom and grow into a promise despite your best attempts to kill it.
And if you don’t keep that promise, if you don’t follow through on your setup and give it some sort of meaningful payoff, it translates to a broken promise in the reader’s mind.
Setups and payoffs can be as simple or complex as you desire. The only real limitations you need concern yourself with are:
1. Both should appear within the completed work. In this case, “completed work” might refer to single or multiple entries in a series. In other words, setup A might appear in film 1, but might not be paid off until film 3. For example, in A New Hope Han mentions in a brief aside to Chewy that the money they earn by trasporting Luke, Obi-Wan, and the droids should be enough to put him in the clear with Jabba the Hutt. We don’t really know who this Jabba is, although he seems pretty ominous. Later in Empire, a bounty hunter working both for the Empire and for Jabba is introduced. He dogs our heroes through the entire film until finally securing his bounty. So, the threat was cleanly setup in Episode IV and paid off in Episode V. In fact, it is further paid off in Episode VI, where Han’s imprisonment under Jabba becomes the key plot point of the film’s opening sequence.
2. The setup/payoff relationship needs to make sense. When Anton Checkhov discusses the existence of a gun and its subsequent need to go off, he’s chosing an example that best illustrates his point with a minimum of fuss. Guns fire bullets, therefore the thing we expect it to do is fire a bullet. If the gun instead turned on the TV, that is also a kind of payoff, albeit one that was unexpected. If the intent is to use the gun as a comedic prop, well, maybe that’s fine. But if your intent is to create suspense by putting the gun out there, that suspense is generated by the audience’s understanding that guns are dangerous. If your desire is for suspense but the gun does something ridiculous, like turn on a TV, then the payoff makes no sense.
Remember: patterns that can be predicted are key.
Now, this is not to say that these patterns should be easily predictable. That makes for a boring experience. It only needs to be “possible” for your audience to spot the pattern with the information provided through the narrative. If those guidelines are met, you’ve kept your promise and the audience will come along with you, even if it takes them more than one pass through the material to figure it out.
An excellent example of this principle is the film Fight Club. Think back to the first time you saw the movie (assuming you’ve seen it; if you haven’t, what the hell is wrong with you? Stop watching this and go correct the problem immediately). On your first viewing, did you realize that Tyler Durden was a fractured construct of the Narrator’s personality? If the movie wasn’t spoiled for you, my guess is you did not.
Yet toward the end of the film, the audience comes to understand this is exactly what Durden is. The Narrator has suffered a psychotic break of some sort and has manufactured a second personality to inhabit.
And, generally speaking, the audience loved a pattern it did not predict. Why?
Well, the reason is that this development was brilliantly setup within the narrative. We have scenes…
…that telegraph the idea that the Narrator’s reality is starting to break down. The imagery is subject to interpretation, though. For one thing, it happens so fast that you might have missed it. For another, even if you did catch it, you might have thought that it was just a bit of artistic license that was added to create a feeling of “otherness” within the movie.
That’s actually what I thought the first time I saw it. I supposed that the film was of a more artistic piece, like Natural Born Killers, and that it was just going to include imagery designed to put me off balance. I didn’t realize they were flashing Tyler at me for any particular reason.
What happened was that the beginning of a pattern was presented to me, yet I failed to detect it.
This element on it’s own is creative, to be sure, and yet it is further amplified and elevated to a level of what I would suggest is genius through the Narrator’s interactions with the film’s love interest, Marla Singer. She is introduced to the audience as someone just as emotionally broken as everyone else we meet in the story. She is combative, erratic, and seems to drift through the world according to a set of rules we don’t fully understand. As a consequence, the audience finds it easy to write off her behavior as that of a crazy person, so when her interactions with the Narrator suggest that certain aspects of their relationship make no logical sense at all…
…it’s easy for us to attribute her attitude to whatsoever dissociative disorder she appears to be suffering from. Later, when Durden’s true nature is revealed, it forces the audience to recontextualize everything they’ve seen up to that point, and if they’ve been paying attention, many of the story elements that were not understood or perhaps only written off as curiosities suddenly click into place.
Most of us made much of this development the first time we saw the movie. It amazed us and the film itself was instantly cemented as one of the greats of American cinema.
Well, it seems to me that the answer comes through complexity. Audiences are a pain in the ass, generally speaking. They want to be suprised. They want to be shown things that are new. They want to see things that are original. They want their expectations subverted.
But they also want predictable patterns at a fundamental level so that they can understand what’s happening in the story and relate to the characters it contains.
So how the hell do you do that as a writer?
Again, the answer is complexity. The pattern you present within the story (and I mean ALL of it; the behavior of the characters, their interactions with each other, the progression of the plot, and the events that unfold) needs to have mulitple valid interpretations that function within the story’s internal logic.
This is a tough minefield to navigate. You must write ambiguously enough that a sequence of events could have different interpretations, yet the writing must also be sufficient to allow only a few. If it’s totally ambiguous, then nothing means anything, everything means nothing at all, your audience will quickly be bored to tears, and you have failed. If it isn’t ambiguous enough, they’ll see you coming from a mile away, after which they’ll stand up and proudly declare to any who will listen, “Shit, I wasn’t surprised by that at all!”
And this is why “subverting expectations” as a primary goal can quickly turn a film into a ruined mess. You have to be really good to carry it off consistently. As the writer, you must be capable of holding a double-meaning for every story element in your mind simultaneously, so that at some point during the narrative you can finally provide the “truth” in a way that it is accepted by the audience.
A winning strategy to achieve this outcome is to make one interpretation more obvious than the other. Think of the story as a game you’re developing, where each possible interpretation is provided at a different tier of difficulty.
Going back to our Fight Club example, the first interpretation – that in which Marla is easily discounted as a loon – is akin to playing the game on “easy mode”. The second interpretation – that Marla is sane and the Narrator is insane – would be playing the game on the hard difficulty setting.
Now imagine someone in the audience following along with the story. In one case, this person beats the game’s easy mode by using the information the film provides to predict that Marla is crazy and erratic. The logic of the film holds up to this interpretation and the viewer enjoys his or her understanding of the pattern and the mastery over the story this understanding represents. Later, the film pulls the rug out and we learn that it is actually the narrator who is nuts. The viewer then gets to play the game “on hard mode” and discovers that this new revelation is still consistent within the flow of the narrative. All that’s required is a shift of perspective on the part of the viewer, and everything will still logically click into place.
The viewer departs the theater, mind blown, and tells anyone who will listen they simply MUST SEE Fight Club.
Or, imagine the viewer lands on the correct interpretation on the first try. He or she correctly correlates the Flashing Tyler hint with Marla’s erratic behavior and figures out that Durden is only a figment of the Narrator’s imagination. This would have been an impressive feat of intuiation when the film came out; I seem to recall that Fight Club was the movie that kicked off the most recent flood of “It was split personality all along!” tropes. But imagine our viewer interpreted these events correctly on the first attempt before the film provided the answer. Well, this person just beat the game on hard mode, first time, and gets to feel even better than everyone else. This is a viewer who saw that there was no spoon before a small, bald monk provided the explanation, therefore the viewer is superior to the rest of the movie-going public.
Yeah, I know. Not really. But we are discussing human psychology, here. This stuff is rarely rational.
That’s about it for this topic, I think. And, just for fun, I thought I’d leave you with an example of a film that purposefully ignores the principles I’ve discussed. 2010’s Rubber is an exploration of patternless storytelling. It doesn’t disregard Checkhov’s Gun; it shits all over the gun and tosses it into the river. And does that mean the writing of the film is objectively bad or good? Well, the goal of the film is to explore a story devoid of logical progression. To that end, the writing achieves its purpose, and therefore I suppose you’d say the writing is objectively good. For my part, I loved this film, and yet I think you’ll agree that it works best as an experimental piece. The average audience, attempting to make sense of the whole thing, is likely to be fed up by all the random twists and finally just turn it off.
(Rubber, No Reason)
So I guess you could say that the classification of writing as objectively good or bad should be made within the context of the work itself, just as all aspects of the story must function logically within the work’s own context. To that end, I’ll further simplify the formula as follows:
“If the work achieves its objective, the writing must be objectively good.”
Rian Johnson wants half of the audience angry.
In which case we can safely state that, despite all of its narrative flaws, The Last Jedi was clearly founded upon a foundation of objectively good writing.