What I Learned From The Unwritten (Part II)

Last time, I took some lessons from the first four volumes of The Unwritten. This time, I’m going to look at volumes 5-8. These volumes encompass some interesting turning points in the series. The heroes seem to have defeated the “bad guys,” even if it does come at a high cost. The mysteries deepen, a few new major characters are introduced, and some old characters come back.

What really makes these volumes great is that they don’t just continue the story that was started in the first four. They take it in new and unexpected directions. Each question that gets answered introduces yet more questions. All in all, it sets up the last three volumes so that you really have no idea what to expect as the story comes to its conclusion.

Moving the Goalposts Can Be Exciting

The first few volumes set up a shadowy cabal as the villains who cause all sorts of trouble for the protagonists, especially their chief henchman, Pullman. All of the bigwigs in the cabal are largely interchangeable and never characterized in much detail. It’s Pullman who is causing trouble on the ground for the heroes while the leaders of the cabal are safely hidden, and he’s the one they have to worry about. But Pullman is also the one villain who is given a back-story, revealed in drips and drops.

When the heroes actually have some success bringing the fight to the shadowy cabal, it might seem obvious that Pullman is just a Man in Front of the Man trope. But his motives turn out to be quite different from a “standard” villain. Almost exactly halfway through the story, the entire direction of the plot turns in a new direction.

Tropes are dangerous. If the reader thinks you’re just retelling a story they’ve heard before, they’ll quickly lose interest. However, tropes can be useful building blocks if you want to subvert expectations.

Tropes are just story elements that show up over and over again. They’re the canyons gouged by the flow of stories over the centuries, the comfortable shapes that stories like to fall into. A savvy reader will see parts of a trope and anticipate that the rest is forthcoming. However, you can make them a little less certain by including some elements that break the trope. Eventually, you can tear the trope apart in some unexpected plot twist, and it can be immensely satisfying. 

Sometimes these twists seem obvious in hindsight, but as a reader it’s very easy to get pulled into those deep currents that tropes provide. It’s a great way to disguise where the story is going.

Exposition Can Be a Reward

The Unwritten is great at introducing characters right in the middle of something. Tom Taylor’s dull life is turned upside down within the first few pages of the first volume. Lizzie sets those events in motion, but not in the way that she hoped. And Ritchie meets Tom in a French prison right before it explodes into chaos. The story forces the reader to hit the ground running. First, it shows you who the characters are and makes you care about them. Only then, and slowly, does it start to reveal their back-stories and the paths they took to get here.

By making you care about the characters first, the story makes exposition exciting. We want to know more about these people. How the heck did they get in these situations?

If these parts of the story were told in sequential order, they would be less interesting. They’re the lead-up to the exciting action that makes up the bulk of the story. But by withholding them for a while, they become a reward for the reader. Even better, they offer an opportunity to understand why the characters are the way they are. Learning about the events that shaped them provides new context to everything they’ve done so far in the story.

Epilogues Can Be Prologues Too

Almost every volume of The Unwritten, each major story arc, ends with a seemingly unrelated episode. After seeing the latest exploits of Tom, Lizzie and Ritchie, we might be transported to the Winnie-the-Pooh-inspired Willowbank Wood, to meet Pauly the lovable rabbit, who sounds a lot like a New Jersey mob thug and seems a bit out of place. We might be taken back a century or three to see the exploits of various famous storytellers and how they became entangled with the cabal. Or we might meet Daniel, a directionless young man with a degree in literature who finds himself taking a job that involves reading books all day with hundreds of other people in a featureless underground bunker.

Each of these little stories is an abrupt jump to a new time and place, with new characters. Each one eventually ties in to the main plot, but when the reader first encounters them, they seem like non-sequiturs. In this quiet lull at the end of an arc, when the story has just answered some questions and provided a small, satisfying conclusion, a brand-new big mystery is introduced. Namely, “who are these people and what the heck is going on?”

The next volume invariably jumps right back into the story of Tom et al., leaving these epilogues hanging unresolved for a while. Later on, when they tie back into the main story, there’s an “aha!” moment. These parts of the story are made more exciting simply by being told out of order. They’re also a great way of keeping up the tension in the parts of an episodic narrative where tension has just been relieved (at the end of an arc).

But Wait, There’s More…

The Unwritten is a big series, and I have one more post in me before we get to the end. Next time I’ll be covering the last few things I learned from the final volumes: 9-11. See you then.

What I Learned From The Unwritten (Part I)

The Unwritten is a Vertigo comics series published from 2009 to 2015, written by Mike Carey. I picked up the first few trade paperbacks by sheer chance, when my wife found them at a garage sale and thought they looked interesting. After devouring those four, I bought the remaining seven books in the series.

The Unwritten takes place in a world similar to ours, and follows Tom Taylor, whose father published a massively best-selling series of books starring a boy wizard named Tommy Taylor. Tom makes a meager living on the convention circuit by virtue of being the character’s namesake. Early in the story he becomes the target of a secret society that uses stories to manipulate and control the world, and finds out that his father was somehow involved with them as well.

The Unwritten is a modern comics masterpiece that intertwines its own original story with real history and dozens of famous works of fiction. It starts with the classic idea that stories have the power to change the world, and then asks what would happen if that were literally true.

This is a big series of books, so I’m going to cover it in a couple posts. First, volumes 1–4.

Everything is a Gun on the Mantle

Callbacks are powerful, and The Unwritten makes liberal use of them. Characters  are often introduced in short scenes where it’s not entirely clear what’s going on. The story steps away, only to revisit them later and explore them more deeply. Scenes from the Tommy Taylor novels and from other works of fiction are shown early in an episode and become relevant later on. And some ideas keep coming back again and again, like the vampire, Ambrosio, never quite being dead for good.

These callbacks use the principle of minimum necessary information to pull the reader along without bogging down the story. But they’re not just one-and-done. In Damn Fine Story, Chuck Wendig calls this “echoing.” The gun on the mantle need not be thrown away as soon as it’s fired. It can be fired again and again. It can turn out to have historical significance and emotional significance. This layering of narrative makes the reader feel rewarded for simply paying attention, seeing these through-lines keep building and building.

The Unwritten covers a lot of history, back to the very first stories and ahead to the end of the world. But that history is doled out carefully, in small helpings. It takes most of the series for the reader to finally see the whole picture. Each new plot twist seems inevitable, because the groundwork was laid for it by the elements that came before.

Leave Breadcrumbs

I skimmed through the books again as I was writing this, and I immediately discovered several tiny references that I had missed the first time around. These were little clues about what was going on, and which mysteries would become important later. Missing them didn’t hurt my enjoyment of my first read-through, although I’m sure they’d add to the experience of a reader who caught them. Perhaps it’s even better to catch them on a re-read, and discover that I can still find new things in a story whose shape I already know.

Breadcrumbs like these also give the reader an important sense that the author knows where the story is going, which is particularly relevant in episodic media like TV and comics. Many of us have been burned by stories like Game of Thrones or LOST where the authors threw down exciting mysteries and conflicts, but couldn’t come up with commensurate payoffs because they didn’t have a clear plan for the end. Breadcrumbs and callbacks let the reader know that the author is leading them somewhere. It’s hard to enjoy a story until you trust that the author is going to bring you somewhere interesting.

Form Follows Function

The Unwritten plays with a variety of different forms. News broadcasts show up in several places as a series of small TV stills with a ticker along the bottom of the “screen” and the voice-over text just below. There are also times when the characters are browsing the web, and pages of various sizes and shapes are shown shuffled and overlapping, to give the sense of time passing in a jumble of scattered information.

Stories from ancient and recent times are interwoven into the narrative, and are illustrated in different ways. The medieval Song of Roland has washed-out colors and heavier line work. The Tommy Taylor books-within-the-book are slightly more cartoony. Dickens looks like woodcut. The Winnie-the-Pooh-inspired fictitious Willowbank Wood is all pastel watercolors. The Nazi propaganda Jud Süß is black and white, with the red of swastikas providing the only color.

Beyond the visual style, the prose itself changes between these different types of stories. Even more interesting are narrative jaunts, like the issue that reveals Lizzie Hexam’s past. Rather than give the reader a definitive version of events, we get a choose-your-own-adventure story, and different branches paint the characters as sinister or sympathetic, in their own control or manipulated by others. The result is a character whose back-story exists in a quantum superposition of different states.

Sometimes, the way the story is told is what makes the story worth listening to. Memento just isn’t a very interesting story if it’s told linearly. House of Leaves would lose its punch without the multiple frame stories and the parts where the text starts wandering around the page and turning back on itself. The ordering of the narrative and the presentation are the layers of the story that the reader directly interacts with. Even if they aren’t the “meat” of the story, they are responsible for a lot of the flavor.

More to Come

Next time, I’ll dig into volumes 5–8.

The Read/Write Report

These past two weeks I’ve been reading a wide variety of things and doing more thinking about writing than actually writing.

Finishing Dune

First up, I finished reading Dune with my twelve-year-old at bedtime. His reaction to the conclusion was something like, “Wait, that’s the end?” It’s a fair reaction. The book does wrap up the plot quite nicely, destroying or subjugating all the villains while the heroes essentially take over the galaxy in a massive gambit. But this is also a book that is constantly looking into the future. Paul has his visions. The Bene Gesserit have their centuries-long plans. And nearly every chapter begins with quotations from a character who is only introduced near the very end of the book. It sets you up to want more.

Dune remains one of my favorite science fiction books. Its feudalism-in-space style gives it a timeless quality, and it addresses certain themes that still feel pretty fresh today.

Guards! Guards!

Moving on from Dune, we’re now reading “Guards! Guards!” at bedtime. This is one of Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” books. There are 41 of them total, and I think I’ve read about half of those over the years. This happens to be one that I haven’t read, and I was excited to discover that it seems to be the first book to focus on the Night Watch of Ankh-Morpork. The books tend to follow a few different groups of characters, such as The Witches, The Wizards of Unseen University, and the Night Watch. I’m looking forward to reading the origin stories of a number of characters who show up in many of the later books.

Pratchett is truly a treasure, simultaneously creating an amazing fantasy world and also infusing it with brilliant British humor. My closest comparison is Douglas Adams, although he wrote science-fiction comedy. I always find it sad how few books we got from Adams, and I take solace in the huge number that Pratchett was able to write before his death (which still felt too soon).

Reading a new Pratchett book is comfort food. The only sad part is that someday I will have read them all, and I won’t get to have that experience again.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

Weeks ago, while cruising around writing Twitter I saw some recommendations for wuxia-inspired novellas. I bought the e-books on a whim, and now I’m working through them.

The first one I finished was The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water. Although it’s a book that includes several fights and a little bit of magic, it is mostly a story that focuses on the tribulations and relationships among the members of a group of outcasts in the Tang Dynasty. It’s lighthearted and even funny in places without being straight comedy. It’s a fun read.

The author, Zen Cho, uses a fantastic trick that I plan to steal. Whenever the tension rises to a peak—an illegal sale goes awry or the group gets attacked by bandits, for example—Cho reveals one of the characters’ closely guarded secrets or a bit of their back-story, to the reader and to the characters. Not only are the characters in trouble, but their relationship is thrown into flux by this sudden addition of new information.

I think this is tricky to do in an organic way, but when it’s done well (like it is here) it takes an exciting scene and kicks it into an even higher gear. It also ensures that the characters have some new problems to work out as soon as they manage to resolve the mess they’re currently in.

I was a little disappointed by the end of the book; not because it was bad, but because it was short and it felt like it was only just getting going. The stakes never felt very high for the characters, and they never seemed to be in very much danger for very long. I was left wanting more of these characters and this setting, driven by a bit more danger and excitement.

What I’ve Been Writing

Not that much, if I’m being honest. I took a mini-writing-break, both from the blog and from my fiction.

I’ve got two short stories percolating in my head: one about using time travel for performance art, and one about the annoyances of reincarnation. I’m planning to work on at least one of those by the end of this week.

Of course, I also need to keep working on Razor Mountain, which remains my highest writing priority. Maybe I’ll try switching back and forth to stay fresh and motivated.

The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe

I wrote about The Stanley Parable a while back, as an exploration of the strange, non-linear storytelling that can be done in games, and how experience and participation can affect the player’s perception of a story.

I’m bringing it up again, because The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe has just released on PC and consoles, and I’ve had a chance to play a bit of it. Now I just have to figure out how to describe it in a way that doesn’t ruin all the fun.

What Is It?

First, let’s talk about the name—Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe (which I can only assume was purposely crafted for the abbreviation, SPUD). In a landscape plagued by remakes, remasters and sequels, SPUD has been cagey about exactly what it is. Something wildly new? Or a bare-minimum cash grab and excuse to release an old game on new platforms?

I fired up the game and discovered that it starts out exactly the same: the original experience with updated graphics. It gave me time to acclimate before I found anything new (or conversely, to wonder if the new content was really so paltry). I found myself squinting, asking myself, “Was that like that before?”

When I found the new content, there was no question about what it was. The game hit me over the head with it. “Look at this new content!” it said. “Isn’t it amazing?” It helpfully labeled doors “NEW CONTENT.” But was the new stuff very good? No, not really. Even the narrator was pretty let down. And then the game started over, because Stanley Parable is a game about

Rabbit Holes

What starts off as a little joke just keeps expanding. The game turns gags into running jokes into elaborate set-pieces, leaving you wondering whether you’ve seen the end of that particular through-line, or if you might turn another corner and pick up the trail again. It rides the line between absurdism and seriousness.

The silly bit about carrying around a bucket for comfort opens up storylines about addiction, murder, betrayal, and demonic possession. A standard video game scavenger hunt for pointless collectibles first gets a thorough mocking, then becomes an actual feature, then goes a little bit out of control.

SPUD is more of what was good in SP. As far as I’ve played, it doesn’t introduce anything radically new, but everything new fits right in. It’s happy to make fun of itself for being an expansion to a decade-old game. It realizes that its history comes with baggage, from awards and accolades to literal shipping containers full of negative Steam reviews. Eventually it shrugs it all off with a nihilistic sequence that seems to say “given enough time, the world will be ground down to dust, so maybe none of this matters that much.”

SPUD also brings some of the generic game sequel features like new achievements, while simultaneously making fun of those things. (The old game gave an achievement if you didn’t play it for five years. This one ups it to ten.)

Is It Worth Getting?

If you’ve never played The Stanley Parable, Ultra Deluxe is the perfect opportunity to play it. If you played the original and enjoyed it, you’ll likely enjoy this new iteration. And if you hate the game…well, now there’s even more to hate?

Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe is available for pretty much every major game-playing device. (To be specific, that’s PC, Mac and Linux, Nintendo Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S)

What I Learned From Scott Pilgrim

I recently re-read Scott Pilgrim, a six-part comic series by Canadian author Bryan Lee O’Malley. It’s a silly slice-of-life about video games and indie music and trying to figure out how to be an adult. I’m pretty squarely in the target market for this nerd-comedy masterpiece.

As usual, rather than do a traditional review, I’m going to look at what we can learn from the series to use in our own writing.

Tell Your Audience What They’re Getting Into Right Away

You can’t please everybody. If you’re writing something that hits home for you, chances are it will work for somebody else, but there will also be readers who just aren’t interested in what you’re putting on the page. The clearer you are up front about what the thing is going to be, the sooner your reader will know if it’s for them or not.

The first few quick scenes of Scott Pilgrim introduce nearly the entire (sizable) cast of the first book. The very first words encapsulate the inciting incident. It starts with dialogue that is pretty representative of the banter throughout the rest of the series.

Pretty soon, we get into running jokes, like labels when introducing people (“Scott Pilgrim, 23 Years Old, Rating: Awesome), labels introducing scene changes (“The Next Day or Something”). The band starts to play, and along with panels showing close-ups of instruments, there are tiny lyrics printed in the gutters and chords in case you want to play along.

It’s clear this is going to be a goofy story that isn’t afraid to be a little weird, about a bunch of young adults whose idea of a good time is hanging out and making fun of each other.

You Make the Rules

Scott and his friends live in Toronto. Nothing special. Except in school you learn weapon proficiencies. And snacks and soda don’t have nutrition facts, they have stat boosts. Of course, America is a little different too—Scott’s girlfriend has to explain to him the standard American practice of traveling via subspace bypass (conveniently marked by doors around town with little stars on them).

Why not have a story populated by poor, mid-twenties indie rockers where someone occasionally punches a hole in the moon, or gets into an impromptu anime battle where the loser explodes into fifteen dollars (Canadian) in coins, and if you’re lucky you’ll get an extra life or power-up.

A lot of ink is spilled to talk about careful, consistent world-building in fiction. The truth is that sometimes you might just want to write something crazy, and that’s okay. Maybe it’s not entirely internally consistent. Maybe it doesn’t make a ton of sense. If it’s fun and entertaining enough, people will love it anyway.

Write What You Know

These words get thrown around a lot, but I think Scott Pilgrim is a great example of how to do it right. It’s an absurd, unrealistic comedy that borrows liberally from video games and anime. It’s also set (mostly) in very real places near where the author grew up. In fact, the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World movie went out and filmed at a lot of the exact places shown in the comic.

Bryan Lee O’Malley pulled from those real settings, used real friends and acquaintances as templates for characters, and then threw in a heaping helping of his indie rock, anime, and video game influences.

It feels like a crazy, unique mish-mash, despite pretty much all the individual pieces being heavily inspired by other things. It works because it’s the crazy, unique mish-mash of things the author loved, and we all have our own unique collection of influences that we can impart into our own works.

How to Get It

Scott Pilgrim was originally a 6-part black-and-white series (with a tiny bonus episode for free comic book day). It has since been collected into multiple box sets, most of them now the colorized version, which I would recommend. They are not that easy to find these days, and a bit expensive if you’re not used to the prices for manga-style comics. They are also available in a pretty excellent e-book format for Kindle/Comixology, including a lot of bonus material that is apparently not even available in some of the newer box sets.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 10

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.

Emotional Arc

This is the first time God-Speaker really feels like a leader. He doesn’t jump into it, he just steps up when nobody else wants to. (As an introvert, this is usually how I find myself in leadership positions as well. It just takes a small step forward when nobody else is willing.)

This entire chapter is a situation going from bad to worse. The rock slide starts it off with a bang, and then the entire landscape is set up to get in the tribe’s way. While things are looking up at the end of the chapter, the entire tribe is worn down. And even if everyone else is feeling better, God-Speaker still intuits that their troubles aren’t really over.

Making a Poultice

This felt like one of those writer rabbit holes that non-writers wouldn’t even think about. I was certainly aware of the idea of a poultice (medicinal herbs and sometimes other stuff pressed into a wound to help it heal). It’s a very old form of medicine. However, I didn’t know whether this was technology that ice-age Beringian people would be likely to have. I also didn’t know what particular plants would be available and useful.

Most of the information I found on poultices and their ingredients were Euro-centric (or at least included originally-European ingredients that were brought to North America much later. I settled on willow bark, which is fairly well-known for containing pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory chemicals similar to aspirin. Having never consumed it, I was surprised to learn that it can have a mildly minty smell. Along with that, I added Devil’s Club, a plant that apparently grows like a weed in parts of Alaska and has long been used in native medicine.

Officially a Novel?

This chapter finishes just shy of the 40,000 word mark, so while we still have a long way to go, it’s at least up to NaNoWriMo length. It also tells me I’m writing at about 1/5 of NaNoWriMo speed.

After some adjustments I made to the outline, the next God-Speaker chapter will be the last one in the first act. Everything is about to get turned upside-down for God-Speaker.