Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Buried Treasure of Common Sense

I don't have a lot of rules when it comes to fiction. I've actually been mistaken a lot of the time for hating everything because of the way I choose to express myself when the latest Hollywood failure is released. I can't help it. Even in some of our Cannon Cruisers episodes, I tend to come off as more of a downer than I actually am. To better explain myself, and why I am so hard on certain types of fiction, let me give you a short bullet point list as to what ticks me off.

This isn't a long list. It's not a complex one. All it contains is the bare minimum any piece of fiction needs to contain to satisfy the smallest portion of an audience. It's all I need to at least enjoy the piece on a base level. There are no hidden secrets or impossible standards to meet.

When I was a teenager I went to the movies almost once a week. Considering the quality of movies at the time, it isn't a ringing endorsement for that era. It doesn't take much to please me. This year I willingly went and paid for exactly one movie. I even reviewed it on this blog, and bought the DVD because it was that good. But it was an exception, and it was the only movie in 2017 that I willingly indulged in.

So what happened? Well, let's get into that.

These four points are literally (in the actual sense of the word) all you need to do to get me to nod along and consume your story without it giving me a stomach ache. It's not hard or baffling to comprehend. I'm actually a very easy person to please and my standards are not all that high. I am a proud fan of Samurai Pizza Cats after all.

All I ask, aside from general technical competence, are four very simple things.

1. Do not spit in my face

General rule. Whatever you're writing, you're writing for a general audience. You are not writing for a niche audience, even if it is a niche genre.

Now before my fellow authors come in here screaming that I'm wrong and that you can't sell to "everyone"--you are misunderstanding my point. I'm saying you're writing for the general fan of whatever your story's genre is. The general audience. You are writing for all erotic romance fans and not just furries. You are writing for all Star Trek fans and not just Voyager fans. You are writing for all free verse poetry fans and not those who dislike poetry. You are not writing for a subset of that particular audience but for all of them.

This means I don't expect characters to stop the story in mid-tale to tell me my religion is for idiots or that folks with certain political opinions should be euthanized. The immersion is broken. Even if I agree with whatever opinion it is, it doesn't matter. You are stopping the story in order to talk down to me. You are calling me stupid.

You are writing for a general audience. Your audience does not have the same beliefs you do on every issue, and they have no obligation to share them. This means you are risking chasing away potential fans and customers every time you engage in an enlightened sermon. And no, it doesn't matter how clever or "obvious" or right your point is. The story comes first and if your story "needs" a lecture to throw me out of it then it is a garbage story.

If you do not understand this point, do not write fiction. You are an ideologue and part of the reason no one goes to Hollywood movies anymore.

2. Do not burn down your own universe

Your story has metaphysics and a way the world works. It is given to the audience from the word go. This means you are giving them expectations that you are obligated to fulfill. You owe them a complete story.

This means you can not introduce a new origin for a previously nonexistent race in your fantasy series that overwrites an important anecdote your side character gave in a previous story. The former is obviously of more import than the latter on a narrative level, but in terms of audience investment it is the latter that trumps it. The audience comes first. You are clearly shoehorning in new material at the expense of a character and story they were already invested in. You are insulting me by thinking I will not notice your idiotic sleight of hand.

This is why retconning (retroactively changing continuity) is objectively terrible storytelling.

You lay ground rules from line one and you follow them to the bitter end. Break them because you want a new race of aliens that explain a psychic power away that was previously revealed to be magic and I'm done. You cheated. I know you cheated. And I can't trust you not to cheat again.

This also applies to characters. Execution is everything, and I can get behind tragedy and irony when that is the point of the story, but a character should never willingly undo the reason he started his "quest" at the story's start later on in the tale.

This means when a character goes on a quest to find the magic chalice because it contains the mead of immunity to save his dying friend, said character should not then decide to murder his friend because he is "suffering" and "would be better off dead" or some such. You are negating the entire point of the journey in multiple ways.

All sequels fall under this rule, as well. Films are usually the worst offender. If you make a movie thirty years after the original that tells me everything the protagonist accomplished meant nothing, then I am finished. You have lost me. I do not owe you kudos for spitting on a story I am invested in.

Note that this is why I loathe most time travel in stories (outside of comedies) because there is never a time where the logic doesn't fall apart after three seconds of thinking. It is also why I hate alternative universes in comics as excuses to bring "new" versions of characters in to replace old ones. It is a lazy way of expanding the universe without doing any heavy lifting.

3. Do not make the main hero weak

Modern heroes are weak. It's not entirely by design despite what you might think.

The obsession with shades of grey in morality has diluted both the power of heroes and villains, but especially heroism. I'm not against morally grey characters, but your protagonist has to be someone I can root for. He cannot be "just as bad, if you think about it" as the villain just because you want to feel clever as a writer.

You can have a lousy main character who is indistinguishable from a villain--at the beginning of the story. He has to grow and learn what true objective good is and strive to achieve it. He has to at least try to become a white hat.

By making your character a pussy who mews and whines as things happen to him, you are creating a character that does not deserve to win. He does not deserve to win the audience's respect (and he won't) or the confrontation in the plot.

Your hero, despite anything else in the story, has to be a good person at a fundamental level, or he has to strive for it. If he is not, no one will care.

And he can't have everything handed to him. He has to work for it, he has to suffer, and he has to bleed. He has to make amends and make sure things are put in order. We have to want the character to win, which means they have to want it as badly as we want to see it.

They can't be handed everything simply because they are the main character. You have to show us why they deserve to be the main character.

But Hollywood doesn't do that anymore and that is why there are no new memorable main characters coming out of them.

They have forgotten these simple points.

4. Do not make the main villain weak

Modern villains are also weak. This is actually entirely by design.

Look at stories like Wicked or Maleficent. What did these tales do? They destroyed the source material in an attempt to reform the villain and make them seem like a victim and the hero like the bad guy.

Now this might seem very clever and creative, but it's shallow. Simply swapping white hats and black hats is hackery. It's weak. There's nothing at all to it, and there's nothing actually being created. This is subversive storytelling at its most vile.

Your villain is the mirror of your hero. He is what stands in your main character's way of achieving their goal. You do them a disservice by clipping their wings and filing their fangs in order to spit in the hero's face.

By taking the wind out of your villain's sails, you also destroy any satisfaction the audience gets when they are finally toppled. There is no payoff or relief. The plot just sputters out.

Why do you think Hollywood hasn't created a memorable villain since Hugo Weaving in The Matrix?

But this is what happens when you live in a world that tries to change what the definition of words mean all the time. You start to believe that there is no such thing as evil, and that clearly there has to be a reason people become bad. Surely they are just misunderstood.

Well, no. Bad people exist because they choose it. No one forced Ted Bundy to hunt and murder his victims. No one told Stalin to starve his own people. Those are conclusions they came to on their own.

And your villains are the same. They have reasons, but they aren't controlled by outside forces. They chose to become what they are. So let them be it, and show us why they should be stopped.

No one had to make excuses for Darth Vader, after all. At least, in the old films.

And that's it. That's all I'm asking for. It's basic Storytelling 101 stuff here. It's simple garden variety competence.

Now look at that list and pair it with what Hollywood and traditional publishing is pushing out and tell me who are accomplishing these simple points that have been the bread and butter of stories since cave paintings were thought up. You won't find much.

I'm not asking for every story to blow me away. I'm asking them to deliver a pleasant experience. As you can tell by sales from major publishers and Hollywood, they no longer offer either.

And that is why I hate most modern stories.

If you are interested in a good modern tale, I have engaged in creating my own.


  1. Excellent breakdown and advice, JD.

    #4 is a big pet peeve of mine.

    Not only do we have a lot of stories trying to turn villains into objects of sympathy, but it seems that many creators are incapable of dealing with strong villains.

    What I mean is, they can create a seemingly strong villain, but they cannot think of a way for the hero to overcome them without the villain suddenly becoming an idiot.

    Latest Wonder Woman movie is an example. I discussed that in detail on my blog, so I won't spoil anything here, but it is extremely unsatisfying to see an otherwise good plot undercut by a weak climax because a writer cannot be bothered to earn a heroic victory.

    I want the Hero to beat the Villain, not the Villain to beat the Villain.

    Again, good thoughts on the subject. And congratulations on your book!

    1. Thanks!

      I also dislike weak villains that, for all intents and purposes, basically do themselves in. They can have things not go their way, but it has to be the hero that is the ultimate reason they fail. The story is fundamentally about the two of them and their clash, after all.