The Genre of Inscrutability

I recently watched a show called Bee and Puppycat: Lazy in Space with my kids. The show has had an interesting life, starting as a web short, kickstarting a full series, and then getting a sort of semi-sequel series on Netflix that encapsulates the earlier versions in the first couple episodes. For what it’s worth, I only watched the Netflix series.

The show is a silly and deeply weird cartoon about a lazy girl named Bee and an interdimensional space puppy/cat/thing. Bee is fired from her job for the aforementioned laziness, and Puppycat helpfully takes her to the interdimensional temp agency to do strange odd jobs across the universe every time the pair needs a little cash.

At first glance, Bee and Puppycat is just a goofy cartoon, but it is so strange that I found myself thinking about it quite a bit once we had finished the series. Like a curious kid, I wanted to take this show apart and try to understand how it works.

The Legacy of Adventure Time

Adventure Time was a cartoon that exploded into pop culture. It combined absurdism, surrealism, and what I now think of as millennial-style non-sequitur humor with storylines that took unexpectedly emotional turns and occasionally addressed serious topics from silly angles. While it started as ostensibly a kids’ show, it grew a fanbase that was largely young adults.

Adventure Time changed in tone over the course of its ten seasons, perhaps due to a change in show-runners, influence from its fan-base, or its creative staff getting older. The earlier seasons are whimsical and light, often silliness for silliness sake, while the later seasons seem more burdened by the serious undertones, a little more self-conscious, but also trying to be more than just a series of goofy bits.

Clearly, a lot of cartoon television talent was cultivated around the show, because people involved in Adventure Time have gone on to work on many other well-crafted shows. Among that diaspora, the influence of Adventure Time and its aesthetics are clear. Stephen Universe, Over the Garden Wall, and Bee and Puppycat all share some of that Adventure Time DNA.

The Genre of Inscrutability

The world of Bee and Puppycat is strange and mysterious, and we’re dropped right in the middle of it. Initially, it has some of the trappings of the mundane world. A girl losing her job at the café and needing to do odd jobs to make ends meet is a fairly ordinary premise. But this quickly spirals into stranger and stranger territory. What kind of creature is Puppycat, and where is he from? Is Bee actually a robot? Why is her landlord a small child, and why does his comatose mother cry magical tears that transform everything they touch? Why is pretty much everything and everyone on her island home so bizarre, and yet nobody seems to care?

Mysterious settings aren’t uncommon. In fact, they’re a great way to pull the audience into a story. Pretty much all speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy and some horror) create a secondary world that the audience has to figure out. And while older examples of these genres might have front-loaded exposition and lengthy prologues, time and experience have shown that the most effective way to get into this kind of story is to throw the audience right into the middle of it, and help them to figure it out as they go along.

The implicit promise in most of these stories is that the setting is a puzzle that the audience will be able to solve, piece by piece. At the beginning of the Lord of The Rings, all we know about are hobbits and the Shire and a weird old guy named Gandalf. It’s only later that we learn about elves and dwarves and orcs and ents and more elves and the Numenorians and the Maiar, etc., etc. The extreme fans will read and re-read and glean all the little hidden details, and spend hours debating what the heck Tom Bombadil is. But even the average reader will know quite a lot about Middle Earth by the time they get to the end of the third book. Tolkein lays it all out on the page.

What’s interesting about Bee and Puppycat is that it takes place in a mysterious world full of interesting details, but it doesn’t do much to explain how they all fit together. It doesn’t lay everything out. The setting is a puzzle, but the pieces are all mixed up, and a few of them might be missing altogether.

I’ve started to think of this kind of story as the Genre of Inscrutability.

A Very Bad Idea That Seems to Work Anyway

To be in the Genre of Inscrutability, a story has to have a few key things:

  1. A fantastical setting – it may be similar to the real world, or wildly different, but it’s clear that the setting has some unreal rules at play.
  2. The fantastical elements aren’t explicitly addressed.
  3. There’s some mechanism to make that okay

    Now, thing number one is straightforward enough, but thing number two immediately gets us into trouble. Good storytellers know that you don’t show the gun on the mantle unless it’s going to go off, and you don’t set up a mystery that you don’t intend to resolve. The resolution of the mystery and the catharsis that comes out of it are necessary to make a mystery story feel complete. Thing number two seems like a Very Bad Idea from a storytelling standpoint, which is what makes it interesting.

    The big question, then, is how do we do thing number three? How do we make it okay? To answer that, I think it’s helpful to look at more examples.

    Examples

    The Bee and Puppycat series hints at Puppycat’s past without actually explaining very much. We’re shown what Bee is, but it’s never explained why she was created, or where her “father” is. I still have no idea what’s up with Cardamon or his mom. However, Bee and Puppycat isn’t really about these things at a structural level. The episodes tend to focus on relationships and interactions between Bee and the other characters, or occasionally just between the other characters.

    Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris stories also contain unexplained mysteries. The city is founded on the ruins of a much older (perhaps much more advanced) city inhabited by the mushroom dwellers. The mushroom dwellers go into hiding beneath the city, and collect the refuse the city-dwellers leave behind. While individual mushroom dwellers are superficially weak, it is implied that they are collectively powerful—enough to completely empty the city of inhabitants during The Silence, and perhaps to retake the city permanently in some indistinct future. Who or what they are is never really explained. However, the city and its history are just backdrops to these stories. The mushroom dwellers make it clear that the city itself is a transitory state. There was a before, and there will be an after. They are a natural, elemental force set in opposition to the crass, industrial humanity of Ambergris.

    Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a book about a book about a film that tells the story of Will Navidson and his family moving into an old house, which slowly reveals itself to be a supernaturally shifting non-Euclidian space. The book relies on the multiply nested frame stories and footnotes to construct a sense of verisimilitude as well as mystery. Though all of it is fictional, receiving the story through a game of telephone with multiple unreliable narrators only adds to the intrigue. It feels like stumbling into a particularly vivid and heavily documented conspiracy theory.

    Did the Navidson Record ever actually exist, or is it just the crazed ramblings of Zampano? Did the house itself ever exist? And if it did, how did it come to be? How long has it been there? We are never given answers to any of these questions. Instead, we are expected to wonder.

    How to Make It Okay

    The Genre of Inscrutability builds a setting full of mysteries that it doesn’t intend to resolve. This is not to be confused with something like LOST, a very unfortunate show that intended to resolve its mysteries and catastrophically failed to do so. Here, we are talking about purposeful inscrutability.

    As we see in Bee and Puppycat, one way to make this okay is to keep that mystery separate from the tension and catharsis. If the story is about whether the main character will follow his dreams and leave his small town to go to culinary school, his mysterious island home is just interesting set-dressing. When he overcomes his fears and decides to go, the tension is resolved in a satisfying way. The mysterious setting is still present, but it’s not blocking the satisfying resolution of the story.

    Ambergris shows another possibility: a setting so grandiose in scope that it is not fully knowable. I cannot know every nook and cranny of my home city. I certainly cannot know all of its long history. Likewise, Ambergris is a setting with fuzzy edges. We might know some of its history, its inhabitants, its streets and buildings, but we cannot know all of it. There is vague malice lurking beyond the torn edges of the map, monsters that might just come up out of the ground one night and whisk everyone away. Such a setting makes the characters feel small and weak in a very big and dangerous world.

    House of Leaves fully leans into the mystery. The mystery is entirely central to the book. The book itself is a puzzle box, a literary game. It doesn’t give away all the clues, because that would be too easy. You have to want the answers and work for them. You can theorize and guess, but at the end of the day, the book just winks, shrugs, and walks away. It’s up to you to convince yourself you’re right, based on the evidence at hand. House of Leaves forces the reader into the position of the conspiracy theorist, just like its numerous narrators.

    In Medias Res

    When I was a young whippersnapper, I once accidentally read the sixth book in a seven-book series. I didn’t know it was part of a series. I didn’t find out until I got to the end and found the whole series listed out. It was a very disconcerting experience. It is the ultimate form of in medias res.

    This is exactly the experience that the Genre of Inscrutability cultivates, but it’s a dangerous game. Some readers won’t put up with it. I have no doubt that all of the stories I talked about above have left readers and viewers behind. Not everyone wants to work to enjoy a story, and no matter how the inscrutable story tries to make it okay, it is requiring extra effort from the audience.

    On the other hand, the inscrutable story offers a real depth of experience to a dedicated fan. One need only look at the wikis, forums and social media conversations to see that fans of this kind of content derive a huge amount of satisfaction from combing through every detail of the work, and then discussing it with other fans. But woe unto the author who accidentally inserts some small error that the fans latch on to as a meaningful clue. Even if you don’t intend to reveal all the answers, internal consistency is still important.

    If you know of any other stories that you think fall into the Genre of Inscrutability, let me know in the comments. I’d love to find other examples.

Three Things I Learned From Sundiver

In my recent post on dissecting influences, I mentioned the Uplift double-trilogy by David Brin. At the time I wrote that, I was looking for another book to read with my kids at bedtime, and decided that this would be a good time to revisit the series.

Now we’ve finished the first book, Sundiver, and the kids enjoyed it enough to want to keep going. It had been more than a decade since I last read the book, so my memory of it was vague and tinged with nostalgia. It’s a good book, but maybe not quite as good as I remembered. The world-building is solid and the diverse alien species are a highlight (although that all gets much further developed as the series goes on). The dialogue and characterization are sometimes a little clumsy. The main character is honestly a bit of a weirdo. But weak characterization is nothing new in plot-driven sci-fi, and I think Brin still does a better job than someone like Asimov.

The book is structured as a mystery, centered around the discovery of two new species of aliens living in the upper layers of Earth’s sun. This mystery turns out to be the focus of conspiracies and alien politics. The main character, Jacob Demwa, is a Sherlock-esque genius who is dealing with the psychological fallout of his traumatic past, and it falls to him to figure out what’s really going on.

1 – Great Clues Are Memorable, Not Obvious

As the story progresses, we see more and more of the behavior of the aliens on the Sundiver ship. Some things come off as strange, but most of it is fairly mundane. Some of the human characters parse these actions much as they would for other humans. The more savvy among them understand that an action doesn’t necessarily correlate to the same emotions or motives in aliens that it might among humans.

This serves as worldbuilding, but these alien actions are also clues. To the reader, the aliens are already a little mysterious, so it’s easy to chalk up any of their behavior as “alienness” unless it’s really clearly suspicious. Focusing on their actions, and even describing the same things repeatedly, ensures that the reader will remember these incidents. However, the significance will only become clear later in the story, as Jacob begins to understand what’s going on and as more is revealed about the alien species.

For some veteran mystery readers, this may be irritating. If you are trying to solve the mystery before the answers are all revealed by the book, it’s going to be frustrating to discover that you didn’t have all of the context and information about these aliens that would allow you to fully understand what their behavior meant.

I think speculative fiction readers may be more open to this kind of storyline, because they’re used to the exercise of discovering the details of the world as the story progresses. However, I’m more of a sci-fi enthusiast than a mystery reader, so I may be biased.

2 – Clues Should Point to Multiple Possibilities

This may seem obvious to readers and writers who have thought a lot about mysteries, but it’s an important lesson on effective mystery structure. A clue that points to multiple possibilities broadens the scope of the mystery, while a clue that only has one explanation narrows the scope.

Many of the clues laid down in Sundiver could be explained by several different characters acting with different motives.  There are at least two humans and two aliens who seem somewhat suspicious, and many of the clues could point to each of them.

The initial mystery of Sundiver is set up fairly early on, although it morphs and changes a few times before the end. At the same time, the suspicious characters are all introduced early on as well. Some of them have more obvious motives, but some of them are suspicious simply because of their interactions with the other characters. Some are just irritating, causing trouble for the nicer main characters, and that’s enough to seed at least a little suspicion in the reader’s mind.

This cast of potential scoundrels is already nicely established when problems appear and things begin to go wrong.

3 – The Detective Can Be Wrong…For a While

The main mystery of Sundiver is solved about 2/3 of the way through the book. There is a classic reveal scene where Jacob Demwa gathers the characters and spells it all out. The villain is taken into custody. At this point, my son asked if we were almost done, and he was shocked when I told him that we still had over a hundred pages left.

This is a dangerous play. Brin purposely defuses the main source of tension in the story, with a lot of the story still to be told. He only keeps a few loose threads dangling: the personal problems of the main character (which has been a B-plot for most of the book) and some concerns around those freshly discovered aliens living on the outskirts of the sun.

The book then has to reveal the true villain and lead into a suspenseful finale. This knocks the “detective” character down a peg: he was wrong about the most critical thing in the story. It also pays off all that work into clues that point to multiple possibilities, and ideally even clears up one or two things that a clever reader may have noticed not fitting neatly with the first, false resolution.

An Interesting Crossover

Sci-fi/Mystery strikes me as a challenging mix of genres to write. The difficulties of creating a believable future world and the difficulties of crafting an intricate puzzle only seem to further complicate each other. I appreciate Brin’s offering, even if there were one or two places where it didn’t quite work for me.

This is also one of his earliest works. I’m partway through the second book in the series now, and it manages to be cleaner and more tightly written, despite a much larger cast of characters. So, we’ll keep reading, and may be pulling more lessons from the rest of the series.

Three Things I Learned From City of Saints and Madmen

I bought City of Saints and Madmen on a whim, many years ago. I suspect I was too young to properly appreciate it back then. In fact, I don’t clearly remember if I even finished it. Regardless, it left a strong impression on me and it has influenced my own work.

The book was my introduction to the New Weird, a genre that is even more difficult to define than most genres. These stories of the city of Ambergris are like fantasy in that they create a secondary world, but there are no wizards, no magic, no elves. There are elements of steampunk in the presence of post-industrial technologies, but they are props, not the focus. There are certainly elements of horror, as these stories are often dark and bleak, unsettling and violent. There is more than  a touch of the literary, the savoriness of phrasings and narrative in unusual, twisted  forms.

Recently, an even larger Ambergris anthology was printed, and I had to buy it. It is a massive tome, combining three books—City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek: An Afterword, and Finch.

Unfortunately, I discovered that this new version is missing almost everything from the appendix of the original book of City of Saints and Madmen. Even more unfortunately, this so-called appendix is almost half of the book, and it adds far more than just ancillary information. So despite having bought the new edition, I have to keep the old book for the huge chunk they cut out.

As usual, I don’t like to write ordinary reviews (and I’d be hard-pressed to review this strange book, anyway). Instead, I want to talk about what I’ve learned from it.

1 – Don’t be Bound by Traditional Narrative Forms

Vandermeer didn’t just write an anthology of ordinary stories. Instead, he presents the city of Ambergris through various narrative lenses. There are ordinary stories, but there are also pamphlets of civil history and family history, notes from psychiatrists, and a slightly deranged monograph on a fantastical type of giant squid. Hell, the squid monograph even has a ridiculously long bibliography of completely made-up sources.

Presenting fiction in some of these forms might seem like a bad idea, but Vandermeer makes it work. “Dradin in Love,” the first story, pulls you into the book with a strong narrative, providing an introduction to the city and piquing your interest. Then he expands the setting through a guidebook essay, “The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris.” He keeps it light with snarky footnotes from the author, an irritable historian who considers himself above writing a cheap guide, but still does it for the easy money.

“The Transformation of Martin Lake” follows Lake, an artist who will become famous in Ambergris for his oil paintings, through the most formative period of his life.  Inserted between these scenes are the speculations and interpretations of his work by a famed art critic. As the story eventually reveals the dark secrets of his success, we see that the critic’s analysis is wildly inaccurate.

In “The Strange Case of X,” we witness an interview between a psychiatrist and his patient. The story flits from third person to first person, to the raw transcript of the interview and back again. The patient, X, turns out to be a stand-in for Vandermeer himself, institutionalized because he has become so obsessed with the fictional city that he can no longer differentiate between the real world and his own creations.

Then (at least in the original printing) we reach the purposely mis-capitalized AppendiX, itself presented as a collection of items found in X’s room at the asylum after he mysteriously disappears. Within this frame are more stories and tidbits, letters and codes. The sheer variety of forms keeps you wondering what you’ll encounter next, and in a subtle way they help to build the verisimilitude of Ambergris. This is a city with a history, with surrounding geography, with politics and art and beauty and danger, as well as hundreds of thousands of people going about their business.

Many of these forms involve multiple characters with differing opinions and interpretations. There is Lake and the critic. There is the dry history of Ambergris, and historian’s irritated footnotes. There is the interview with X, and the psychiatrist’s interpretations. Just as real people often come at reality from different angles, the characters in Vandermeer’s stories are constantly vying for narrative control.

2 – A Web of References is a Puzzle to Solve

“Dradin in Love” opens the book with a gripping story, but it also sets up much more of the book than the reader will realize at first. It introduces the Religious Quarter, Albumuth Boulevard, the river Moth, the distant city of Morrow, Borges Bookstore and the Hoegbotton and Sons mercantile empire. It introduces the delights and horrors of the Festival. Dradin and his former teacher, Cadimon, and the ubiquitous musical genius of Voss Bender.

In every single section of the book, every story and essay and letter, there are scattered little references to the people, places and things of Ambergris. Some are large and glaringly obvious. Others are extremely subtle, and sometimes even inserted into what seems to be purposely dull writing (a bibliography and glossary, for example) in order to obscure them. Characters and places that seem to be little more than decoration in one story reappear in unexpected places later on.

Once again, this makes the random selection of literary bits and bobs slowly congeal into a much more unified whole as you read deeper into it. It also encourages the reader to pay attention to all the details. The kind of reader who loves to solve mysteries and riddles will begin to see the book as a puzzle, and each subtle reference clicks into place like another piece, forming a larger picture.

Of course, the danger with this style of writing is that the reader may not want a difficult book that they have to “solve” to find satisfying. They may not want to wade through bibliographies and glossaries to find some small connection between Martin Lake and Dradin Kashmir. They may not be tantalized by the coded section at the end of the psychiatrist’s letter. They may simply be irritated. But the readers who like that sort of thing will feel rewarded by what they have found, and there is magic in the idea that you may not have caught all the secrets on the first read-through.

3 – Setting is an Engine of Story

Something I find myself often referencing is Lincoln Michael’s post “On the Many Different Engines That Power a Short Story.” Writers talk constantly about character- and plot-driven fiction, but there are really an astonishing number of ways to make a story work.

I think City of Saints and Madmen is definitive proof that setting can power a story. This ramshackle collection of elements should not feel unified. There are characters, yes, and there is plot, here and there. But it is the city of Ambergris that ties it all together. All of the other elements are in service of that. Even the author of Ambergris, X, finds himself in thrall to it, the city seemingly dictating its own creation.

I have to confess that I find this heartening. I’ve had a fictional city of my own that I’ve been slowly building for a few years, but I’ve struggled to find characters and plots that I find satisfying. I’ve considered short stories, a novel, and even a TTRPG setting. Maybe I should just follow the lesson of Ambergris. Maybe the city itself is the story.

Three Things 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.

1 – 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.

2 – 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?

3 – 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.

Four Things I Learned From “Damn Fine Story”

Chuck Wendig is a silly, silly man, who has written a number of bestselling books. My first introduction to Wendig was his book of goofy morning Twitter affirmations, You Can Do Anything, Magic Skeleton.

I recently finished Damn Fine Story, his book about storytelling (and yes, he calls out storytelling as a distinct craft from writing). The book delights in silliness, a sort of gonzo absurdism that lends flavor to the underlying soup of writing craft.

Wendig uses a handful of pop culture references like Die Hard, Star Wars, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to illustrate and embellish his points, making the book fairly approachable. He also uses stories from his own life to illustrate a few of his points, proving that terrorists and lightsabers aren’t strictly necessary to craft an interesting narrative.

1 – Characters are the Nexus of Story Elements

If Wendig has a central thesis in Damn Fine Story, it is this: “Character is everything.” He makes a compelling argument that most of the elements of a story are derived or depend on the characters in that story.

The story starts with an interruption to the character’s status quo. Their main problem is this interruption, and it’s what drives the plot. Conflict and tension comes out of the character’s actions as they attempt to resolve that problem to their own satisfaction.

The plot should never control the characters. While unexpected things can, and should, happen to the characters, it’s how the characters act (and react) that makes the story. Characters must have some measure of agency, some ability to affect the world around them and fight for what they want. Characters fighting to overcome obstacles and achieve their goals is what makes plot happen.

2 – The Inner Emotional Story Drives the External Action

One of the key ways characters drive the story is through their own arcs. But a character arc is inherently internal. In most stories, the world around the character may change. The character may physically change. What really pulls the reader in and keeps them invested is the character’s own emotional inner journey. The character may come to grips with their own deficiencies and improve themselves, or they may discover that they’re not as good and kind as they thought, once push comes to shove. By overcoming adversity, they may discover that they had the strength in them all along.

The bigger the external stakes are, the more important the internal stakes become. Huge problems like galaxy-spanning wars and terrorist attacks make for exciting action, but they’re not something familiar and relatable. On the other hand, feeling like an outsider or wanting a more fulfilling job might be things that hit close to home for a lot of people. The inner conflicts faced by characters are often “smaller,” but that’s also what makes them relatable. A relatable inner journey coupled with a thrilling and extravagant external conflict can make for compelling fiction.

3 – Good Characters Are Relatable

Along those same lines, good characters must be relatable—not necessarily in every way, but in some way. None of us are space wizards (probably), so any space wizard you write needs to have some other aspect to their character or personality that feels more familiar to the reader. Maybe your space wizard is a young adult and eager to get away from the place they grew up. Maybe they’re unsure of themselves. Maybe they try a little too hard to be act cool, or to fit in with the cool space smugglers and furry aliens.

Relatability can come in the form of “good” characteristics, but it doesn’t have to. Foibles and weaknesses can be just as relatable. Each of us has a few weaknesses we’re all too aware of. Protagonists are often a mix of traits we can aspire to and less desirable traits we can recognize in ourselves. Even villains should be relatable, though they may take particular negative traits to extremes.

The craziest and wildest stories still need a core of understandable, relevant concepts that readers can map to their own lives in some way. When the story (and especially the characters) are too hard to understand, they’re impossible to care about. If the reader doesn’t care about them, then the story stops being interesting. The stakes don’t matter.

4 – Questions Keep the Reader Reading

As Lemony Snicket said, always leave something out. Every open question is a string, tugging the reader along. Every answer is a small victory. Scenes that end with a question or unresolved conflict keep the reader turning pages.

Wendig says, “Tease satisfaction, but be hesitant to deliver it…Reveal too little and the audience will feel lost. Reveal too much and the audience will feel safe and bored.” You have to ride the razor’s edge. Start with plenty of questions, then progressively answer more and more of them as the story goes on, with the most answers and biggest answers coming at the end. When you run out of answers, you run out of story.

More Wendig

Damn Fine Story is one of several books Chuck Wendig has written on the craft of writing. I enjoyed this one, and I’ll probably be checking out some of the others. If you’d prefer to try Wendig in small doses, you can check out his twitter. For larger, less frequent, and possibly more writing-related content, try his blog, Terrible Minds.

Five Things 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.

1 – 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.

2 – 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.

3 – 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.

4 – 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.

5 – 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!”

Six Things 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.

1 – 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.

2 – 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.

3 – 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.

4 – 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.

5 – 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.

6 – 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.