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.

San Sibilia

I recently purchased the Bundle for Ukraine on Itch.io, which included a number of video games, but also contained an unexpected number of tabletop RPGs and other things. One of those things is called A Visit to San Sibilia.

A Visit to San Sibilia describes itself as

a solo journaling game in which you roleplay a character chronicling their visit to the city of San Sibilia. It is a city not found on any maps—San Sibilia is both part of and distinct from our world. The city manifests itself differently to every visitor.

I wouldn’t exactly call it a solo TTRPG. It’s more like a semi-randomized writing prompt. The game starts with a description of the city. Which continent is it on? What is the time period? It is tantalizingly vague. The city is a mystery, and you are left to answer those questions for yourself.

The Play

The randomness is primarily provided by a shuffled deck of cards. You start by drawing two cards and consulting a simple chart to determine an adjective and a noun. Together, these describe your character. You might be a lonely missionary, an intrepid journalist, or a blasphemous scholar. (If you’ve played Fallen London, this naming scheme will feel very familiar.)

With your character in hand, you begin your journal. The game provides some questions to get you started. How did you get here? Where are you staying? And so on.

For each new entry in your character’s journal, you roll a six-sided die to determine how much time has passed. Then you draw two more cards. The suit of the first card provides an adjective, and the second card provides a location or event. You might have a serendipitous incident at the bookstore, read some sinister news in the broadsheets, or make a mysterious find in the antique store.

Finally, if your two cards had the same suit or the same value, the city changes. As the game describes, “It might be an expected change in season or politics, but it might also be a shift in reality.” Once you have experienced four of these changes, your time in San Sibilia comes to an end. You get one final entry to describe the circumstances of your departure.

My Experience

I’ve played San Sibilia once so far, over a long weekend. Depending on how loquacious you are, how strictly you follow the rules, and your luck, it could range from one hour to perhaps three or four. I spent about two hours across two days.

The initial description of the city, my character, and the starting questions were a great jumping-off point that immediately sucked me in. As I wrote my journal entries, I did choose to skip a single event and draw new cards at one point, but the random elements did pull my story in unexpected directions. I felt that the “same suit or value” mechanic for changing the city could result in some odd pacing, and I decided to force a change at one point when it was a very long time coming.

The game is simple enough that it’s easy to adjust it to your own tastes. The prompts worked well, and I never really had a hard time figuring out what to write next. The writing process was fun, and now that I’ve gone back and re-read it, I like the story that came out of it.

San Sibilia avoids a lot of the challenges that other TTRPGs have in telling a good, structured story by only having one player, having almost no mechanics, and limiting randomness. The one aspect where the game can fall down a little bit is the random number of journal entries between changes to the city. Even that can be easily dealt with by setting a hard minimum and maximum number of entries in each of these “acts.”

Where to Get It

A Visit to San Sibilia is available on Itch.io and Drive Thru RPG for $5.00. It’s also licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0), which means you can share it and remix it, as long as you provide proper attribution.

What I Learned From “Over the Garden Wall”

Over the Garden Wall is a strange show. It’s a cartoon mini-series of ten tiny episodes, less than twelve minutes each. It purposely evokes an old-fashioned style, and while it’s not afraid of a joke, the mood of the show is often one of slowly building horror.

The show is the story of two brothers, Wirt and Greg, who are lost and trying to find their way back home. Where exactly they are (in geography or time period) and where their home might be, are all left a little bit unclear. But that doesn’t stop them from continuing down the road, accompanied by a pet frog and a talking bluebird named Beatrice.

It is strange enough that it seems a small miracle that it was ever made. It’s the sort of thing that knows exactly what it wants to be, even though that doesn’t fit very neatly into television seasons or half-hour slots, or precisely-delineated viewership and advertising segments. I expect it’s the sort of thing that people mostly either love or hate, and I fall firmly into the first camp.

As usual, I’ll eschew a traditional review. Instead, I want to comb over this beautiful oddity to see what lessons we can learn from it, to improve our storytelling.

There may be some light spoilers here, but I’m going to try not to ruin the mystery for those who haven’t watched it. If you don’t want to be spoiled, go watch it first! It’s on Hulu, and only slightly longer than a movie.

Succinctness is a Virtue

When I was a wee lad, I loved giant stories that spanned many volumes. I loved giant jRPGs that shipped on half a dozen discs. I loved TV shows that ran for the better part of a decade.

There are still examples of those things that I love, but now that I’m kind of an old guy and there are never quite enough hours in the day, I really, really appreciate things that fit greatness into a small package. I love a good short story or novella. I treasure a good miniseries or single season show.

Over the Garden Wall clocks in at under three hours in total. You can watch the whole thing in an evening, and you don’t even have to stay up late. And although each episode is quite short, each one is gratifyingly complete. Across the episodes, every major character has an arc, and the little mysteries build into big mysteries.

Even the twist ending (which could have been disastrous) is satisfying, layering additional meaning onto the episodes leading up to it. When I finished the series for the first time, the first thing I thought was, “oh man, I need to rewatch that to find all the things I didn’t pay enough attention to.”

It’s easy to make a big, messy, sprawling story. The real artistry is in crafting that story down into a svelte package where every single word is in exactly the right place, and even doing multiple things at once.

Mood Matters

Over the Garden Wall is autumnal. And I don’t simply mean that it’s set during the fall, although it is. The backgrounds are scattered with orange leaves verging on brown. There are fields, ripe and ready for harvest. There are fall festivals and Halloween parties, and as the show goes on, the chill of winter descends over everything.

There’s also the music, which is original to the show but sounds decidedly old-fashioned. It’s sometimes jovial and silly, sometimes morose and melancholy. It hovers between major and minor keys. It captures the mood of Halloween, an old festival that has continued into modern times, stripped of its original meanings: a hint of the ancient and sacred, a hint of the otherworldly and evil, a hint of banal silliness.

Almost every single episode manages a difficult trick. Each one feels like a horror story, beginning with the mundane, leading into strangeness and rising dread. Then, in the end, that menace turns out to be overblown. Everything works out fine, but that dread lingers and grows as the episodes go on.

Autumn is the season of dying. The cold death of winter is on its way, and the plants and animals seek shelter and hope for the rebirth of spring. The show is keenly aware of this, and almost everything is built around these themes of fall, winter and spring, of death and rebirth.

An overarching mood or theme like this can elevate a story beyond the individual components.

Don’t Explain Everything

The last two episodes of Over the Garden Wall come out of nowhere. At least I certainly didn’t see them coming. And yet, they’re a satisfying conclusion. They provide an explanation for what’s going on, and they provide the emotional closure that makes the whole thing feel complete.

What the ending doesn’t do is explain everything. Did everything literally happen? Or was some of it metaphorical? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, and we can each ponder and debate what we think really happened.

I know there are some folks who need to have every mystery wrapped up neatly with a bow, but…I don’t understand those people! Life in the real world is mysterious, and things often go unexplained. Hundreds of years of scientific exploration have only shown us how little we really know. Stories, like science, are a way to explore the universe.

By all means, resolve those big mysteries in your stories. Answer those burning questions. But when you get to the acknowledgements or let the credits roll, consider leaving one or two things open to interpretation. A little ambiguity can make a good story feel like it was just a little too big and too real to entirely fit onto the page.

Comedy Enhances Tragedy Enhances Comedy

There are great dramas and great comedies, but I’ve always felt that the greatest works of art straddle the line between comedy and tragedy. There’s something magical about laughing at the start of a sentence and crying by the end of it.

Over the Garden Wall has some amazing jokes that have become a part of my daily conversations with my family. None of them bat an eye when I talk about burgling turts, call harmless lies “rock facts,” or mention horses who want to steal. But the show also has some relatable teenage angst, tear-jerking brotherly love, and even maybe some life-and-death stakes.

Just because you’re creating “serious art” doesn’t mean you can’t crack wise once in a while, and if you’re crafting a work of comedy you can still sneak in an emotional gut punch or two. In fact, those things can be even more effective thanks to that juxtaposition. The real world isn’t all good or all bad. It’s a mix of both. Stories that acknowledge that feel true.

Wear Your Influences Proudly

Have you ever had a great idea for a story, only to realize it’s not your idea—it’s actually from a movie or book that you forgot about long ago? I have. It’s mortifying.

As artists, there’s an incredible pressure to create something unique and new, with your own voice. To be called derivative is an insult. But the fact is that each of us is a creative soup whose ingredients are all of our most beloved influences. The art and media that you consume inevitably influence the art and media that you create.

Over the Garden Wall emulates a turn-of-the-century style in its painted backgrounds (often with sweeping countryside or dark forest), its new-yet-old-timey music, and even in the mode of speech used by many of the characters. The animation evokes Felix the Cat, Betty Boop, and early Disney.

The show isn’t afraid to look, sound, or act like things that have come before. It pulls wholeheartedly from its inspirations. It wears its influences proudly. And wonderfully, by amalgamating all of these old influences with its modern writing, voice acting and processes, it manages to create something that feels unique and fresh.

Over the Garden Wall is a Modern Masterpiece

What can I say? I love this show. I love the mood that it puts me in, and I try to watch it every year around Halloween. I love how difficult it is to find any comparisons for it when I’m recommending it to people. I love that I keep finding little secrets hidden in the dialogue or visuals, even after multiple viewings.

If you haven’t watched it, go check it out. As I said in the intro, it’s on Hulu and only slightly longer than a movie. And I hope, like me, you get a little inspiration from it for your own creations.

“It’s a rock fact!”

What I Learned From “The Martian”

The Martian is a 2011 sci-fi suspense novel about astronaut Mark Watney, who finds himself stranded on Mars after a huge dust storm ends his crew’s mission and nearly kills him. It’s a book that combines near-future hard science-fiction with a classic survival story. Author Andy Weir keeps the story rooted in realistic science and extrapolates what the first few manned missions to Mars might look like. But it’s Watney’s struggle to survive and overcome one impossible challenge after another that gives the book its heart.

Rather than review a decade-old book, I decided to look at what the story does well, and what lessons I can learn from it to improve my own writing.

A Good Opening Is a Juggling Act

There’s a lot going on at the start of the book. The astronauts of the Mars mission leave their habitation module in the midst of a severe dust storm, fleeing to their launch vehicle so they can escape before it tips over in the high winds. They’re unable to see each other in the dust. When Watney is skewered by a high-speed flying antenna, disabling him and his suit’s comms, his teammates have no choice but to leave him for dead.

Weir could have started the book with this high-octane action scene, but he doesn’t. Instead, he starts with this:

Chapter 1

LOG ENTRY: SOL 6

I’m pretty much fucked.

That’s my considered opinion.

Fucked.

Six days into what should be the greatest month of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.

I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.

For the record…I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say, “Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.”

And it’ll be right, probably. ‘Cause I’ll surely die here. Just not on Sol 6 when everyone thinks I did.

There’s no doubt that the action scene would start the book on an exciting note, and it would set up the plot nicely, but wouldn’t do much more than that. Instead, Weir starts with a log entry and Watney’s assessment of his situation, before he describes what happened.

This has a few advantages. It immediately gives us hints of Watney’s personality. The way he describes the situation is important. These few sentences set up Watney as the main character and the challenge he will have to overcome: surviving Mars, alone. This primes us to ask “what the heck happened?” And now we’re hooked, and we keep reading to find out more.

Adjust the Narrative Style to Fit Your Needs

I can’t remember the last time I read a book that splits up the scenes of the story in so many different ways.

The first five chapters (about fifty pages) are told entirely through Watney’s computer logs. We get to know him and his situation, and see him go into problem-solving mode as he tries to solve the immediate challenges of staying alive. Interestingly, the logs are relatively short, with several logs per chapter.

Next, the book goes into a third-person narrative style to go back to Earth and the folks back at NASA. There is a larger cast of characters to follow at NASA, so this shift makes it a lot easier to follow what’s happening, while sacrificing some of the closeness to a single character that the “logs” style give us with Watney.

The next major shift is at chapter 12, about halfway through the book, where we finally get a flashback to the action-packed scene of the astronauts fleeing earth. This comes at a time where things are going well for Watney, so it injects a bit of needed tension. More importantly, this flashback serves to introduce us to the rest of the crew of the Ares III mission, just in time for them to come into the story. After the flashback, we immediately roll into a scene with these same people in the present.

Finally, throughout the book, little mini-scenes and dialogues play out as back-and-forth messages between those in space and those back on earth. These serve a few different purposes, but mostly convey necessary info quickly so the story can move on to something more interesting.

What was most surprising to me about all of this is that it’s really not distracting. As long as these different techniques are written well and serve the needs of the story, they enhance the experience, rather than detracting.

Go to Great Lengths to Cut the Boring Bits

The style of Watney’s logs give Weir a great way to skip the boring parts, and opportunities to create micro-tension as Watney describes his plans in one log, then describes the results of those plans in the next log, often within the same chapter.

The story doesn’t even touch on the people back at NASA or Watney’s crewmates until it’s time for them to enter the story. All along the way, the important information is provided, the characters introduced, exactly when they are needed. Information that isn’t worth an entire scene is conveyed through quick exposition or text messages.

The book doesn’t slow down, because as soon as there’s any risk of that happening we skip ahead to the next exciting bit.

The Try/Fail Cycle is an Engine That Drives the Story

Watney is faced with a big challenge: survive and somehow get off Mars. That one overarching goal is actually composed of dozens of smaller challenges: having enough food, water and air; making contact with earth; and traveling hundreds of kilometers to another mission’s launch vehicle. Back on Earth, they have their own challenges. As the characters try to solve each problem, they sometimes succeed, sometimes fail, sometimes have to change strategies and try again, or deal with the fallout of a bad decision or unexpected event.

The book exemplifies how the try/fail cycle can drive a plot. The characters have clear goals and sub-goals, and clear stakes for success or failure. Plus, Weir uses these cycles to ramp the tension up or down. I could sense when a few things had gone well for Watney that it was just about time for some new catastrophe to blow up all his well-laid plans.

The tension only abates occasionally, to give the reader a reprieve. Once we’ve taken a collective breath, a new problem is introduced, and once again the characters have their work cut out for them. They have to inch forward, fighting every step of the way.

One example even interleaves Watney’s happy logs, where everything is going smoothly for a change, with italics description of the manufacturing process for a particular piece of equipment. What would otherwise be relatively mundane description of things going well becomes ominous as it becomes clear that the description is foreshadowing the imminent failure of that equipment, and the ensuing disaster.

Asymmetric Information Can Create Tension

For most of the book, Watney is completely cut off from NASA, or can only communicate one-way through simple morse code messages, spelled out in rocks and read through satellite photos. This creates a dynamic where Watney knows things that the people at NASA do not, and vice versa. In each of these cases, Weir uses this asymmetric knowledge to create tension.

The reader, being able to look out through multiple viewpoints, can see the incoming problem while some of the characters remain ignorant until it’s too late. The characters would have too easy a time overcoming some of these challenges if they could work together with no hindrance, so Weir creates believable problems that prevent them from working together.

Sometimes You Don’t Need a Villain

A lot of readers love a great villain, but this book really doesn’t have one, and it still works. If anything, Mars is the antagonist, but none of the characters really bear any ill will toward the big red rock. Despite effectively being a prisoner on the planet, alone for months, Watney has mixed feelings whenever he thinks he might actually escape.

If the book has any overarching message, it’s one of optimism. It says that almost anything can be overcome with human ingenuity, and our greatest strength is our ability to work together. Near the end of the book, Watney ponders how he could have never come as far as he had without the help of hundreds of people working tirelessly at NASA, along with the rest of his Ares III crewmates, and even some surprise help from the Chinese space agency.

A story like this can be hopeful without being saccharine. Not every story is zero-sum. Sometimes nobody has to lose and everyone can win. And I think that’s the kind of story that a lot of readers are finding appealing right now.

Lemony Snicket Proves I Can Love Literary Fiction

This is a review — a word which here means, “an excuse to write about a book that I like” — for the book, Poison for Breakfast. This book was written by Daniel Handler, who sometimes calls himself Lemony Snicket when he’s writing books. He mostly uses straightforward language, and when he doesn’t, he likes to define the words he’s using, as I just did, above.

Poison for Breakfast is a book that takes its time getting where it’s going, but it does get there. So I’m going to take my time getting where I’m going in this review. I’ll start by talking about music and books.

How I’ve Felt About Music

I first recall really paying attention to music, beginning to realize that I might have opinions about music, in middle school. Those opinions were mainly whether I liked a particular song or not. For some music lovers, there is a particular genre they fall in love with, and it becomes a lifelong passion. I had no conception of genre, at first. That came sometime later.

When I did develop opinions about genre, they were mostly vague and negative ones, influenced, if not outright parroting, my parents’ tastes. I recall “hating” techno, rap, and country music, or at least saying that I did.

As I grew into an adult, I made it a point of pride to seek out opinions and ideas that challenge or conflict with my own beliefs, whether that be in politics, religion, or music. I’ve been an adult for many years now (a shocking number, when I stop to think about it), and I’ve sought to listen to a wide variety of music. Luckily, we live in a world where there are still a few independent radio stations and innumerable streaming services, not to mention Bandcamp, YouTube, and all the other places where artists can make their work available to the world without much interference.

I’ve learned that there is no genre of music I truly dislike. The trick is to find a single song that I can appreciate. From there, I always find more. Rather than genres that I “hate,” it turns out I just have genres where I’m pickier.

A Little Cognitive Dissonance

From a very young age, I’ve been attracted to genre fiction. I loved books about aliens when I was a child. Around the time I was discovering opinions about music, my mother’s co-worker introduced me to The Lord of the Rings, and from there I was thoroughly hooked on fantasy as well as sci-fi.

As I grew and my tastes in music expanded, so did my tastes in literature. Once again, all it takes is finding one book to serve as a gateway into a new genre. While I once may have eschewed non-fiction or romance, I’ve discovered a love of all sorts of non-fiction in recent years, and a few romances too (even if they do have a sci-fi bent).

I just talked about how I like to keep an open mind and expand my interests. It might seem absurd then, that I would shy away from any genre of literature. But the absurdity of it doesn’t make it any less true.

Literary fiction, which oddly has become as much a closed-off genre as sci-fi or fantasy, has long left a bitter taste in my mouth. Since this is a label more controversial than most genre labels, I’ll provide my own controversial definition: “fiction that is more interested in playing with words than in telling a compelling story.” This is a definition that encompasses quite a lot of “traditional” Lit-Fic, while also allowing something like Vandermeer’s Dead Astronauts, which many people might exclude, to perhaps straddle the border.

I might trace my early dislikes in music to my parents tastes, but I have a harder time tracing my literary dislikes. I’m sure it didn’t help that school foisted onto me some of these lit-fic “masterpieces,” like Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby, without adequate context and certainly before I was mature enough to appreciate much about them. I have gone back to a few of these books in recent years, and discovered that they at least have something to offer, even if I didn’t fall in love with all of them.

Literary Fiction

Writing a review of a book that barely mentions the book itself is considered bad form by many people. With this in mind, and having now taken a leisurely drive around the metaphorical block, let’s return to where we started this somewhat strained music/literature metaphor.

This is one of those books that, by my own definition, qualifies as literary fiction. And I enjoyed it quite a lot. Not only that, but what I enjoyed most was the words, rather than the story. I enjoyed it because it was literary fiction.

One could argue (with good supporting evidence) that this book does have a plot. It begins with Snicket, the narrator, who is told by anonymous note that he has eaten poison for breakfast. He spends the rest of the book trying to solve this mystery, though his methods mostly involve meandering around town and becoming lost in thought. It’s a tiny plot, but also a tiny book. This little bit of story is just enough to let the book focus on what it really wants to do, which is play with words.

Poison for Breakfast is so full of delightful sentences that I started marking the bits I liked with little scraps of paper. By the time I finished, there was a nice, thick ruffle of scraps sticking out. The book is full of anecdotes and asides that seem like non sequiturs until you read a bit further and find that they’re referenced again and again; linguistic winks and nods, like inside jokes with the reader. It wraps back around on itself. It pulls disparate threads together and twists them into delightful and surprising shapes.

There are motifs, like sets of rules that turn out to really only be one rule from a certain point of view, or that a good story must be bewildering, or the contents of the narrator’s breakfast, left-justified like poetry with each individual food on its own line:

Tea

with honey,

a piece of toast

with cheese,

one sliced pear,

and one egg perfectly prepared

And there is death. This is a book that mentions brutal prison camps; and death by starvation, and old age, and of course, poison.

Winks and Nods

A book about being poisoned might not sound like a child-friendly book. And perhaps it isn’t. Like Snicket’s other books, this is a book that observes the world with a child-like wonder, and discusses it with mostly simple and straightforward language. It’s a book that seems to understand a child’s perspective. It is more of a child-understanding book. It feels like the sort of conversation you might have been lucky enough to have as a child, with an adult who spoke seriously and honestly, and didn’t sugar-coat the truth or dumb-down the complicated. An adult who understood how to speak with children as equals.

By virtue of being both author and narrator, Snicket places himself where he can freely talk about his love of language and literature, and the books, poems, songs, and ideas he likes, while also illustrating that joy in his own words.

The second-to-last chapter takes all the little callbacks, the little winks and nods, and ties them all together in a neat little bundle. It’s the big reveal at the end of the magic show. And in the final chapter, Snicket sets to work writing the story you are in the midst of reading, making the whole thing feel like the cycle of chicken and egg (which is itself another repeated motif from earlier in the book).

Poison or Antidote?

Poison for Breakfast reminded me that I can love literary fiction, even if it’s not the first section I visit in the book store. As an added bonus, this is a book ostensibly for children, so I will get to enjoy it a second time when I read it to mine. With any luck, they won’t spend years thinking that they dislike whole categories of things when they are, in fact, just a little bit picky.