How Has Covid Changed Our Stories?

This weekend, while mowing the lawn, I listened to Asphalt Meadows, the new Death Cab for Cutie album. I am a horrible screen addict who has to constantly fight the urge to inundate myself with multiple streams of content at once, Back to the Future-style, so mowing the lawn is a great time for me to actually listen to music while part of my brain is focused on the simple task of driving in straight lines.

Marty McFly watches six channels at once in Back to the Future.

Upon initial listen, I really liked it. It’s clearly recognizable as a Death Cab album, but it also feels like something very different from the band. There is considerably less slick production. The sound is much more raw. Out of the quiet parts, they blast you with almost violent noise.

Death Cab has always had an emo melancholy streak, but it’s amped up here. And yet, there are still glimmers of hope in the face of tragedy. I’m hardly an expert music critic, but it feels like a Covid album.

Trends and Tectonic Shifts in Storytelling

The last few years have had such broad effects on society and on most of us personally. I’ve been wondering for a while just what long-term changes this will wreak on the world at large. It’ll take decades to begin to understand how these plague years have changed us.

As a writer, I think one of the most interesting lenses to view society through is our stories. There are always trends in fiction, like the waves of zombies following The Walking Dead, the vampire romances following Twilight, and the myriad dystopias post-Hunger Games. But there are bigger trends too. These meta-trends can show something about our collective sentiment or what we’re seeking in our imagined worlds that we feel lacking in the real one.

The optimistic science-fiction of the post-WWII era reflected a society that thought it could do anything. This was a society that believed technology could be harnessed to solve any problem and overcome any obstacle. This was the Jetsons-style future of sleek silver spaceships and moving sidewalks and personal robot butlers.

Is Cyberpunk the Present Day Yet?

When this blog was young (a whopping 1.5 years ago), I wrote an article inspired by a tweet by William Gibson, and asked, is cyberpunk retro-futurism yet? Looking back, I think that while the aesthetics of cyberpunk have been reused and recycled extensively, it’s the deeper themes of cyberpunk that really seem to be oddly on-point in our current day and age.

The futurists of the 1980s looking toward a world dominated by mega-corporations and invasive technology seems almost quaint in our modern era of Amazon and Facebook, of ad-targeting and bot-farms and Cambridge Analytica and wondering whether Alexa or Siri is listening in on our conversations. In a lot of ways, we’ve out-cyberpunked the genre of cyberpunk with our own dystopic reality.

But looking beyond these surface-level themes of cyberpunk, I think there is an even more resonant core. Cyberpunk is about vast, uncontrollable systems. Rogue AIs, mega-corporations, and legions of near-human replicants all represent systems so big and so complicated that the average person on the street has no way to even understand what’s going on, let alone take it in a fair fight. Cyberpunk is about survival in a world of vast, incomprehensible, world-controlling systems that are completely indifferent to you.

Surviving in a completely indifferent world. Boy, that sounds familiar.

When Dystopia is Too Optimistic

What about the last few years? What has changed in our stories? Again, this is something that will need the space of another decade or two to really understand, but I can look at the anecdotal evidence of the stories I’ve been reading and watching recently. A lot of these stories are about found family, about belonging, hope and love in a world of hate and nihilism.

Covid, along with the political and cultural fissures that have developed and deepened in recent years, have left many of us feeling…brittle. The world is made of glass these days. It feels like so many things are just barely holding together, and it would only take one or two well-aimed blows to shatter. This is what I heard in Asphalt Meadows while I mowed the lawn.

If the era of The Hunger Games and its dystopian facsimiles was about fighting back against authoritarianism, this era of fiction feels like an all-out fight against nihilism. Only, back in The Hunger Games days, there really wasn’t anyone rooting for the authoritarians. (If anything, people were awfully glib about the message of that series, which seemed to be that it’s not actually that easy to make things better through violent revolution.)

Today’s question seems to be whether or not to give in to complete nihilism, and I think the jury is still out on which way we’re going.

Nihilism and Its Opposite

One of the best movies of the past year was unquestionably Everything Everywhere All at Once. If you haven’t seen it, go see it right now. If you have seen it, go watch this great analysis on Movies With Mikey (one of my favorite channels about movies), and feel those feelings all over again.

E.E.A.A.O. puts to shame the shallow multiverses of Hollywood powerhouses like Marvel. This isn’t an excuse to trot out all the nostalgic reboots of reboots of reboots. This isn’t a story where evil threatens to destroy the world, or even the universe. This is a threat to every world in every universe. You know, everything everywhere all at once. Only, the threat isn’t evil. It’s malicious indifference. It’s nihilism.

In the absurd drama that only The Daniels can pull off with such panache, it’s the literal “everything bagel,” the black hole of indifference that threatens to absorb the sprawl of infinite universes. After all, when the universe is infinite, everything that can happen, happens. Nothing is unique. Nothing is special. In the face of everything, nothing matters. This is the argument the characters of the film are pitted against. Why care? Why bother?

Despite all the universe-hopping and existential threats, this isn’t really a movie about big stakes. Big stakes are what fuel nihilism. It’s those incomprehensibly huge cyberpunk systems that can’t be fought by mere mortals. Like Amazon and Facebook, or national US politics. This is a film about the opposite of nihilism, something I’m not sure there’s even a good word for. Perhaps it’s along the lines of the Buddhist idea that when nothing matters, everything matters: every word, every action, every choice and every moment has value.

The movie centers around the moment when the protagonist begins to understand this. She stops worrying about the fate of everything everywhere, and starts paying attention to the people around her: her husband, her daughter, her father, her IRS auditor. She stops worrying about the incomprehensible systems and the vast universe that seem like the overwhelming problem, and focuses on what she can do in the here and now. She fights nihilism with hope, and (perhaps because it’s a movie) that’s what saves the multiverse, and more importantly, her family.

“All or Nothing” Fiction

Even as I write this, I have a hard time taking myself seriously. Determined hope vs. nihilism, what a unique and clever new idea, right? Spoken plain, it feels a little too simple, even childish. But then I look at the fragile world around us, and at my own perpetual temptation to look at no less than two screens at any given moment, just to avoid having to think too much about what’s going on out there.

We are, collectively, tired. There’s a real temptation to just stop caring about…everything. I think the fiction of the moment is all about this fight, this question. Do we actually care? Or do we just look away and let it all happen? Do we give up because the problems are too big to solve? Or do we each do what we can do, in our own infinitesimally tiny corner of the multiverse?

Does nothing matter? Or does everything?

Dissecting Influences — Sci-Fi From My Childhood

If you’ve been around here for a while, you might remember that my favorite writing podcast is Writing Excuses. In Episode 17.7, the team discussed dissecting your influences.

We all have stories we love, whether they be books, shows or movies. The idea of this episode was that it can be useful to take apart our favorite things and figure out why we like them, because it guides us toward things that matter to us. The themes and ideas that draw us to these works will often be fertile ground for our own writing. And while it may seem obvious that we all know exactly what we like in media, the truth is that we often leave those stones unturned. It might even be surprising to dig into what really brings us joy in a favorite movie or book.

After listening to this episode, I started compiling a list of my own favorite media. It wasn’t hard to start. In fact, it was hard to stop. The things closest to mind were mostly books I had read recently or old favorites that I’ve been re-reading with my kids. But I soon started to remember books from childhood, poetry, and even influences outside fiction altogether.

With this list in hand, and continuing to add to it, I thought it might be fun to dissect my own writer brain in public. I have to limit myself to a reasonable size for a blog post, so I’m going to pick a somewhat arbitrary classification to pull out a handful of entries.

The Grown-Up Sci-Fi of My Childhood

That’s right, it’s some of my first loves in science fiction, way back when I was still in school. The actual dates of publication vary quite a bit, from 1965 to 1994, and these are all novels aimed at adults. One of the things that drew me into these books was the faintly illicit idea that I, as a child, could read stories intended for grown-ups. It felt like a window into ideas and worlds I wasn’t yet allowed to enter. Going from “Choose Your Own Adventure” and Goosebumps to heady books like Dune is a real shock to the system.

On that note, let’s start with Herbert’s masterpiece.

Dune

Having read this book at least three times—and one of those times quite recently—I have a hard time going back to the headspace I was in when I read it originally. I think I was in high school, and I’m pretty sure the reason I started reading it was because I saw a mention of it where someone said it was as influential in science-fiction as Lord of the Rings was in fantasy.

I think Dune is a pretty great book for young people who are starting to get into science fiction. On the one hand, it reduces the many political and economic complexities of the far future into a feudal culture where the only thing that matters are the machinations of a handful of powerful factions. The protagonist, Paul, is a ducal heir with adult responsibilities, but he’s still not quite an adult. Interestingly, the whole feudal system and it’s quasi-European royalty end up falling apart by the end of the book, with young Paul engineering their downfall at the hands of colonized people.

I remember this book being interesting because it sets up a world where people and decisions hundreds of years previous can have profound and complicated effects on the present. It’s a world of complex, interrelated systems that nobody can completely understand, and even a single person putting a wrench in the gears in just the right way can totally change the universe.

I also genuinely love Paul’s relationship with his own psychic powers. He hates them. He is constantly vacillating between seeing the future and being unable to steer it, or losing that sight and the fear of not knowing. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that handled that kind of power in quite the same way.

I have to at least mention the other books in the (original) Dune series. I read them all, although not right away. I don’t think any of them quite measure up to the original, but I appreciate how strange they are, and Herbert’s audacity in choosing to set them thousands of years apart in far-flung futures that are less and less similar to our own modern lives.

Ender’s Game

Another book with a child protagonist? Possibly a theme. Ender in this book is much younger than Paul is at the beginning of Dune, but he deals with some comparable drama. This is another book that I re-read recently with my kids.

This book was astounding in a few different ways. Firstly, while it’s not exactly dystopic fiction, it does depict a world where war with aliens has resulted in hardship for average people and a government with dictatorial power. We learn early on that Ender is special because he’s a “third.” In a world where the government limits how many children each couple can have, he is a rarity.

All of the main characters are children: Ender and his siblings, and all of the kids at the battle school. Parents and adults are present, but they have little time “on-screen.” Like the dictatorial government, they show up periodically and force some seemingly arbitrary and often cruel new rules onto the children, but it’s the children and their relationships that matter. This is a book that understands what it feels like to be a child, to feel like adults don’t give you all the information and many decisions are left completely out of your hands.

Ender is bred to be a soldier and a leader. He’s trained for it. He is subjected to insane cruelty, to the point where he ends up having to kill other children to defend himself, all because it’s part of the program. But the ultimate cruelty happens at the end of the book, when he discovers that the supposedly wise adults who forced this horrible life on him didn’t even understand the enemy that they trained him to kill. The entire war is nothing more than an interspecies miscommunication, and he finds out by accident.

And then he leaves. He finds the one person he loves and who loves him: his sister. They get on a spaceship and fly away. He leaves behind all the systems of abuse and control that defined his entire life. Maybe a metaphor for growing up.

The “Ender” series continues on. Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind are all great books, but again I feel like the original is still the best. The series is similar to Dune in the way it jumps large spans of time in a wildly changing galaxy. The Dune series eventually had a bunch of new books written much later, by Herbert’s son. I heard they were terrible and I never read them. The “Ender” series, on the other hand, had more and more books still written by Orson Scott Card, but I got to the point where I just wasn’t that interested by yet another rehash of the same story from a different secondary character’s perspective.

Before we move on, it’s worth mentioning that I’m still disappointed that Orson Scott Card turned out to be a homophobe and the sort of person who politely states their deeply held and hateful beliefs. Card was one of my early writing heroes, and I still hold his books on writing in high esteem, but as a person, he really bums me out. He kind of did the whole “J.K. Rowling” thing before Rowling.

The Uplift Saga

While the above two entries are the first (and I would argue, most important) books in a series, David Brin’s “Uplift” books are inseparable in my mind. There are six of them, in a pair of trilogies:

  • Sundiver
  • Startide Rising
  • The Uplift War

…and…

  • Heaven’s Reach
  • Brightness Reef
  • Infinity’s Shore

I suspect this series might be the most influential set of books in my childhood, but I came at them in a very weird way. I’m honestly not sure if I even remember it correctly. I know I read them out of order, because I bought one of these books at a garage sale, completely unaware that it was part of a series. I can’t be sure, but I think it was The Uplift War, the third book in the first trilogy.

That might sound a little insane to some readers, but it’s something I did multiple times as a kid. I even read through the fifth book in a series once, and didn’t realize it was part of a series until the ending completely failed to resolve the plot. One of the crazy things about being a child is that the world makes no sense. Every time you open a “grown-up” book, it’s like being transported into a completely new universe. Of course it’s confusing. Everything is confusing when you’re a child. It’s the ultimate introduction to the concept of “in media res.”

While Dune imagines a sci-fi future with no aliens whatsoever, and Ender’s Game has only the buggers, who seem to be mindless insectoid killing machines, the Uplift books are absolutely chockablock with all sorts of aliens. They are not your usual little green men. They are crabby things with 360° vision or energy creatures that live in the corona of the sun. They are varied and logical for the environment they came from.

The Uplift books depict a humanity that has just made contact with a galaxy full of aliens. There is a galactic culture. It is full of aliens who are much more advanced and powerful than humans, and we are forced to very abruptly change our own assessment of how awesome we are.

Humanity has started the process of advancing the intelligence of chimpanzees, dogs, gorillas and dolphins through genetic manipulation and technology. It turns out this is a pretty damn important concept to all the aliens, who call it “Uplift.” In fact, it’s the glue that binds all these different cultures together, as the uplifted races are forced into millennia-long servitude to the race that gave them the gift of sentience, and the races providing “Uplift” have a higher social position. Of course, the top dogs of the galaxy aren’t excited to see the newcomers, humanity, get that kind of respect, let alone the servitude of multiple freshly uplifted species.

Again, we have a fictional world that is too big for its characters. Hell, even the entire human race (and super-dogs/chimps/gorillas) is just trying to keep from drowning in a galaxy where almost everything is out of their control. I think, as a child, I was fascinated by the idea that everything we know and have ever known on planet Earth might be utterly inconsequential in the wider universe.

Overtime?

I have to admit, when I started writing this article I thought I might not have that much to say. Now I’m almost 2,000 words into this, everyone has probably stopped reading, and I only made it through half the books I intended.

I’m going to call it here. I found this to be a really fun exercise, but I’m curious if anyone else will be interested. I got more out of it than I thought I would, not the least of which is the desire to go and re-read the entire Uplift series. If anyone enjoys this, I might make it a regular feature. I have a lot of books, shows, and movies on my list.

What I Learned From Locke and Key

I was on vacation this week, and along with some other vacation reading material, I borrowed the first three volumes of Locke and Key from my local library. It’s a suspense/mystery/horror comic series. As I’ve done in the past, I’ll be reviewing from the angle of useful writing lessons I took from these books.

The story of the Locke family begins with a murderous attack in their own home. Rendell Locke, the father, is killed, and his three children and wife Nina are left severely traumatized. To get away from it all, they move to the ancestral Locke house, in ominously named Lovecraft, MA.

In the new house, the children soon discover that there is some kind of paranormal creature lurking around who seems to have a vendetta against the Locke family, and the house is filled with strange keys, each with their own magical powers.

Don’t Raise Stakes Too Quickly

The very first scene in the story is a home invasion and murder. There are a couple problems with this. Firstly, we don’t know any of the characters yet, so the situation loses some of its punch. It’s obviously a bad time for everyone, but the characters are still strangers to us, so I didn’t sympathize with them as much as I might later on.

Secondly, the stakes are immediately sky-high. It doesn’t get much worse than being chased by a crazy murderer. Later on, when the kids are worried about classes, making friends, or relationships, it all feels small and unimportant in comparison. How do you ramp up the tension from that beginning?

I think it might have been better for the story if the entire incident had happened “off-screen” and only been revealed in flashbacks.

Make Characters Likable in Some Way

All the living members of the Locke family are traumatized. Nina becomes an alcoholic, while the kids try to take solace in relationships, and later, in the powers of the keys.

However, in these first three volumes the characters’ relationships with one another steadily deteriorate. They are all unhappy and everyone acts selfishly most of the time. Only when there’s an immediate threat of physical harm do they work together.

In recent years, there has been a sharp uptick in TV “anti-hero” dramas like Breaking Bad or Ozark. These are shows where the main characters do bad things, and they escalate by transforming the characters into worse and worse people. I’m not a big fan of these shows. Why would I root for someone who shows no positive qualities?

The Lockes are hardly anti-heroes, but they have the same problem. Why should I root for these characters when I never see them in a positive light?

A Good Mystery Keeps You Reading

What kept me invested in the first three volumes of Locke and Key is the mystery. What is the origin of the keys? How are they tied to the house? Who is this villain, really, and what is their ultimate goal?

Even when I wasn’t that invested in the characters and their troubles, I still kept reading to find out more about these mysteries. Wanting to know more is a powerful way to keep the reader engaged.

Vacations Are Great!

I don’t know if I’ll read the rest of Locke and Key. I borrowed it from the library to try before I buy, and it hasn’t compelled me to keep reading.

On the other hand, I enjoyed all my extra vacation reading time, and I feel rested and energized to get back to my writing projects!

What I Learned From The Unwritten (Part III)

Having gone through the first four volumes in Part I, and the next four volumes in Part II, I finally arrive at the end. Just when the heroes seem to be at their strongest, rescuing a whole host of characters from Hades, Tom gets whisked off to another world entirely, leaving the others behind on an Earth that’s rapidly falling into a chaotic maelstrom of stories and reality.

Sometimes a Crossover is Less Than The Sum of Its Parts

The ninth volume of The Unwritten is a crossover with another (and arguably bigger) Vertigo series: Fables. I have only read a couple of the Fables books, so I know the basics. The Fables are castaways from fairy tale worlds, with the main series focused (at least initially) on a group living in modern day New York. Having not read the whole series, I had to make some assumptions about what’s going on in this crossover.

From what I can tell, Tom finds himself in an alternate version of the Fables universe where pretty much everything has gone to shit. One of the protagonists has become an antagonist here, and another is imprisoned. All the Fables are on the run from an evil that has nearly succeeded in taking over all of their worlds, with his seat of power in the hollowed-out shell of New York city.

Of course, this could also just be much further down the O.G. Fables timeline than I have read. I don’t know.

This illustrates an inherent problem with crossovers. Your target audience is people who enjoy both of these stories, but many people will only be fans of one. They will have little or no background in the other story. You can’t make assumptions—you have to explain everything that matters to the crossover story, and ideally try to avoid boring your core audience who already understands.

However, an even bigger problem than not knowing is not caring. I haven’t read all the Fables books because the ones I did read didn’t make me excited enough to go buy more. I was excited about The Unwritten. All I really wanted out of this story was to see what happens to Tom. However, Tom spends a good chunk of the crossover storyline stuck in his wizard alter-ego, Tommy Taylor, which was always intended to be a Harry Potter pastiche. The story is mostly a Fables story, where the “real” Tom gets one big confrontation and one big revelation at the very end.

As a result of all this, I found Volume 9 to be the least interesting to me, personally. Everything Tom got out of this storyline could be summarized in a few paragraphs in the next book. In fact, it is. I have no doubt that die-hard Fables fans find much more to enjoy, but for me it was one big aside to the main story.

Don’t Give Characters a Breather

As authors and as readers, we sympathize with well-written characters and often want them to be happy. But they can’t be happy. They always have to be in a tug-of-war; they always have to be struggling. Whenever they succeed, there has to be a new challenge waiting in the wings—preferably a bigger challenge, or the momentum of the story begins to peter out.

As Wilson Taylor says, “Nobody ever lives happily ever after, Tom. If that were to happen, the story would have to stop. Because it’s sustained on the endless agonies and exertions of the hero. The twists and turns of the plot resemble a maze. But they’re the very opposite of a maze. There are no wrong turnings. Just one way through, and one end point. At the close of each book, we promise…a respite. A moment’s peace, and a moment’s all it is. But believe me, lad—that’s as close as you’re ever going to get to a happy ending.”

The End is Never Really The End

And on that note, the very last page of The Unwritten is a title page. It has the credits listed, like the start of any other issue. And then you turn the page, and it’s done. Armageddon has more-or-less happened, and nearly all of the mainstay characters have disappeared. Only one is left. But rather than end on this note of “victory, but at what cost?” we get a title page. The tantalizing expectation of something more. Our last character is heading off in search of the others. It’s the beginning of a new adventure that we don’t get to see.

It’s a bold move, and one that clearly annoyed some people, going by the reviews. It worked for me, because I don’t mind ambiguous endings. In stories and in real life, the beginnings and endings are all a matter of where you choose to start and end the story. The characters were around before the first words, and at least some of the characters, the world…something…will continue on after the last words.

As authors, we tend to think a lot more about the backstory, the bits that happen before the first words. Those inform everything that happens in the story itself. But it’s also worth thinking about the post-story, the epilogue, even when it doesn’t get written. The trajectory of the characters and world after the events of the story inform the story as well. The real world didn’t magically appear the moment you were born, and it won’t disappear into the void when you die. A good story will feel the same way, like things are going to keep happening, whether the reader is there to see them or not.

A Tiny Bit of Review

As I’ve said before, I’m not very interested in writing traditional reviews. Instead, I prefer to look at a story and see what useful ideas I can pull from it. But I’ll indulge a little bit here.

I really liked The Unwritten. I read through the entire series, and then I went back and skimmed through a lot of it as I was writing these three posts. Even on cursory examination, I picked up on things I had missed the first time. I look forward to letting the story rest for a while and giving it a thorough rereading in a year or two.

It’s not without its weak points. It dragged for me in the Fables issue, and there were definitely a few plot points that worked on an emotional level and made a nicely-shaped story, but didn’t make logical sense for me when I stopped to think about them. Overall, they don’t detract much from the work. This is my second-favorite Vertigo series, after the incomparable Sandman, and in my top five favorite comics series of all time.

I guess I’m just a sucker for a “Power of Stories” narrative. I already think that stories have the power to shape the way we see the world, and in The Unwritten, stories have that power literally as well as figuratively. The universe bends to the story and the ways we interpret it. It’s a sort of mass hallucination. One that I’m happy to partake in.

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.

The Read/Write/Watch Report

No storytelling class this week, so I’m here with the low-down on what I read and wrote, with a bonus of what I watched.

What I Read

I’m still reading through Dune, out loud, with my oldest child. We’ve finished part two, and moved into the last third of the book. While “feudalism in space” can sometimes seem a little silly, it does lend the book a timeless feel. I think you could change the setting to the middle ages (or a fantasy world based on the middle ages) and very little about the plot would have to change. And there’s no retro-futuristic technology that makes it obvious that the book was written half a century ago.

Of course, that is a pretty good indicator that Dune isn’t very “hard” sci-fi, but that doesn’t bother me. I appreciate sci-fi that really incorporates the scientific elements and futurism into the plot, but I don’t mind a little space fantasy. And sometimes, I think the fetishization of hard sci-fi by a certain readership just results in books that are full of exquisitely detailed technology and populated by dull cardboard characters.

Keeping up the comic book kick I’ve been on lately, I also started rereading Scott Pilgrim. It’s such a weird mix of nerd culture and awkward young people and goofy fourth-wall breaking fun. It surprises you with the semi-serious arc of the titular main character thinking he’s a pretty great guy, only to slowly realize that he’s poisoned every romantic relationship he’s ever been in. Plus, it has a movie adaptation that actually works in spite of all that weirdness, thanks to the genius of Edgar Wright and his close collaboration with the author, Bryan Lee O’Malley. I might just watch that again once I’m done with the books.

What I Wrote

I finished the first draft of a short story, “The Incident at Pleasant Hills.” It’s about rich teens trying to rebel in an over-populated and under-resourced future, and the moral complications of pursuing your own happiness instead of actively sacrificing to make the world better.

It’s been a while since I wrote any short stories, and this one just flowed right out. As soon as I finished, I started thinking about some cleanup that needed to be done, including the removal of a couple side-characters that ended up not really having much purpose. I’m going to let it sit for a few days though, so I can come at it with fresh eyes for the edit.

What I Watched

I’ve really cut back on watching TV and films over the course of the pandemic, and I honestly didn’t have much to cut back on in the first place. However, my wife and I had a date night, and we went out to see an actual movie in an actual theater. It’s quite the thing. All of the theaters in our area seem to have converted into the kind that are a fancy, big-chaired, liquor-and-food-serving extravaganza. Which is a big improvement over the cheap, sticky and uncomfortable theaters of my youth.

We saw the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once, and it was the strangest and most enjoyable thing I’ve allowed into my eyeballs in quite some time. I wish we could cut 50% of the superhero movies, sequels and reboots and just fund deeply weird, lovingly-made things like this.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but the basic premise involves a middle-aged woman who is not having a great time in life, who finds out that she has the ability to connect her brain to other versions of herself across infinite universes. This lets her tap into her alternate-selves’ life experiences and skills, which is pretty necessary because she also finds herself in a fight against a big bad evil that’s rampaging across all these universes.

A lot of the fun of the movie is that it doesn’t shy away from the “anything is possible” aspect of infinite universes. You are going to see. some. things. The story also does a great job of tying the really big story of war across infinite universes with the small and personal story of this woman and her family relationships. It’s a fantastic illustration of one of the principles Chuck Wendig talked about in Damn Fine Story: the stakes can be incredibly huge, but it doesn’t matter unless they are also something personal to the characters, something we can all relate to in our own lives.