Thursday, May 19, 2016

The shortcuts that kill the storyteller

When I was young I occasionally wrote short stories that were moderately well received by my friends, but I have never attempted to do anything "real"; I would just get some weird idea in my head and it would materialize after an afternoon of furious writing. There was nothing to it in terms of technique or studying the classics or anything, just telling a story. In fact, trying to rewrite it afterwards would ruin it, betraying the underlying lack of craft. After a while, I just stopped, but I held tight to the belief that some day I might actually do this well, like write a novel. Not for money and fame, but because I would like to "be that guy".

Recently I have revisited that belief and decided to take it further: actually plan the novel, write it, see what I am truly capable of. So far, it has not been going well, but I've learned a lot. Hopefully I will retain the level of interest required to carry it through. However, in this post I want to explain some of the things that I have become to understand about writing stories and one in particular: the shortcuts.

Many a time the story needs to go somewhere, but in real life terms getting there would be boring or be prohibitive in terms of time. In that case a shortcut is taken, either by some gimmick, by montage or, as is more often the case, through camera work. How many times didn't you watch an actor looking intensely for a threat, their face or person taking over the whole screen, only to be caught off guard by someone or something that suddenly comes out from outside the camera angle? And if you think just a little bit about it, it would have been impossible to be blindsided by someone coming from there because, even if we don't see them, the person the camera is pointed at would! In a typically evolutionary way, someone tried it, it worked, it caught on and now finding it irritating is seen as nitpicking. "Well they needed to make it happen, it doesn't have to make sense".

That thing, right there, when common sense is sacrificed for expediency, is killing - a tiny bit - the story. And while it works on camera, it is much more complicated in writing, because what you don't realize while going through the motions of empathizing with a character and joining them in their adventure is that the writer needs to know and understand everything that happens, not only what is "in the scene". If the murderer suddenly appears next to the victim and kills her, the writer might decide to not explain how he got there, but they need to know! If not, the story gets hurt.

To build my experience, I've decided to practice on writing something that seemed easy at the time: a Star-Trek novel. I love Star Trek, I've watched almost everything there is, including fan made videos, and most of the time I've felt like I would have made the story a little better. In fact, I was acting like a tester, considering that every single error the developer makes is an affront to common sense and anyone would have done better. I've decided to put my writing where my mouth was, at least give all those screenwriters a chance to get vindicated (and, boy, did they!). My thinking was that Star Trek has a constraining mythos that would force me to use already existing concepts - thus restricting me from thinking of so many things that I would never start and also allowing me to not need to reinvent or explain them - as well as a positive vibe, that would force me from writing depressing "everybody dies" stories. Well, guess what, in my story almost everybody dies anyway; take that, Star Trek!

My point is that trying to write that way revealed the many flaws in the Star Trek storytelling. Every time there is a "problem" someone comes up with a device or algorithm or alien power - usually termed somewhat like "problem remover", that just takes the pesky technical aspects away from the narrative and helps the viewer focus on the important part: the characters and the plot. I mean, while people still debate the limitation of phase cannons - that at least attempt to appear grounded in science - no one says anything about stuff like "inertial dampeners" which pretty much means "that thing that removes that kink that no one actually knows how to get rid of". This is just the beginning. Let's stick with Star Trek Enterprise for now, the one that put Star Trek back on the map and had the most compelling characters and storylines. Think of your favorite characters there: Picard, Data, Worf, maybe Deanna Troi. How did they get there? What was their childhood like? What are they doing when they are not on duty? The show has tried to touch on that, but just with the "whatever is needed for the story" approach. A more direct and obvious way to demonstrate this: there are no toilets in Star Trek. No one needs one, either - have you seen how the brig looks?

As characters go, everybody on that ship comes from the Starfleet Academy, but what do they learn there? What are the paths that they need to take in order to graduate? How do they reconcile vast differences in culture, language and learning speed for all the races in the Federation? I mean, they are all human with some stuff on their face and some extra makeup, but the background story, as something different from merely what you "see", needs all that information. The Star Trek universe survives in these loose network of stuff that taken separately and given some deeper context might make sense, but taken together they just contradict each other. And again comes the nitpicker label to stop you from ruining the experience for everybody else.

This brings me to the shortcut side effects. As a reader and especially as a viewer, you enjoy them because it takes you faster through the story. They remove what is not relevant to you. Well, emotionally relevant, but that's another can of worms altogether. As a writer, though, as a storyteller, these things are slow acting poison. After decades of watching Hollywood films, trying to write something feels like stepping barefooted on glass shards. You feel dumb, not only because it is impossible to write what characters do without a deeper understanding of who they are, not because you realize that even the smallest attempt at writing results in way to many questions to answer on paper - although you need to know the answers, but also because you start seeing how shallow was your interest in all those characters you actually loved watching on the screen. It's like that moment when you realize your lover has a secret life and it hurts because you know it's you who didn't notice or take interest in it, it's all you.

That's not bad. It makes it obvious that you casually ignore some layers of reality. It can lead to getting to appreciate them in the future. The difficulty I feel comes from not ever having trained for it. In fact, I have been taught to avoid it, by passively watching just the surface of everything, never attempting to infer what the depths hide. And when I try, at my age, to change the way I see the world, my way of ... being me, it's fucking difficult. Even simple stuff like mentally trying to describe a place or a person when you first see them, in terms of senses and emotions and comparisons with common concepts and - hardest of all - putting it in actual words... all of this is hard! It feels like an operating theater in which I perform while others watch me and judge. I feel anger and frustration because it conflicts with the original story, where I was good at writing.

There was a very stupid movie where Kate Beckinsale would be Adam Sandler's girlfriend (I mean, impossible to suspend disbelief, right?) and he would be annoyed with all the touchy-feely aspects of their relationship and instead use this "problem remover" remote that would fast forward past it. And then he comes to regret going through important bits of his life like a senseless robot and what it does to him. The movie might have been bad, but the underlying idea becomes very real when you attempt to write stories. Your characters are your lovers, your children, your spawn. Ignoring them is a crime to the story.

Think of the classical iceberg metaphor: just the tip is visible. It also applies to stories. The writer needs to have all that cool stuff hidden under the surface of the book, just in order to show to the reader the content. Characters need backstories that you will only hint at, but that you must know. Stuff that is excruciatingly boring to discuss in real life, like what the light in a room makes you think of - if you take the time to do it, which is never, you must put on paper because you know how it feels, but how do you translate that to another person, with another mind, culture, references, upbringing?

There is no real end to this post, I could write a lot on the subject - I am writing about how hard writing is, I know: ironic - but I will be stopping here. Probably readers have done that a while back, anyway. To the obstinate who got to this part, I salute you. Who knows, perhaps not taking the short path while reading this post has somehow enriched your story. I am not a writer, these insights have come to me just from attempting to do it. Perhaps that is the best reason to try new things, because besides feeling like a complete moron, you gain new valuable insight every time you do.