A moofable feast. (alexandraerin) wrote,
A moofable feast.

Rules of thumb are nice, but in a digital age there are other options.

So, one of my favorite commenters in the whole world dropped by the latest chapter of Tales of MU to let me know that he thinks I'm doing a good job in fleshing things out but he's concerned about the lack of clear antagonists.

Because, you see, you need to have an antagonist to have conflict and you need conflict to have drama and you need drama to have story and you need story to keep people interested. Right? I mean, those are the rules. I didn't make them up. That's just how things are. Right?


Okay, let me back this truck up a bit. You see that word up there, "drama"? I used it in the preceding paragraph. The word "drama"... like most words... has a bunchload of different meanings, but all these ideas about storytelling conventions, these rules of thumb that we more or less rely upon... they come from "drama" as a medium or genre of storytelling. That's what I'm talking about here, and there are two things that must be said about it:

1. Drama is important. Very important. Its importance to the development of western literature... of western civilization... cannot be overemphasized and should not be underestimated.

2. It is not the be-all or end-all of storytelling.

That whole "five act structure" thing that if you've had enough literature-related education someone at some point in your life has probably told you all stories follow, or should follow? It was created as a tool for analyzing certain kinds of drama. It can be useful tool for constructing a drama. It's not a necessary prerequisite for telling a story. It's a way of helping to make your drama is interesting, but it's not required for interest.

And not all stories are dramas. For some stories, the five part dramatic arc is just downright cumbersome, if not inappropriate.

The essence of story is not conflict. The essence of drama may be conflict, but the essence of story is ...and then something happened. To be a good story, the events have to be of interest to the reader. The interest can come from drama, yes, but this interest can be rooted in another emotion besides those inspired by conflict and/or suspense. It can be rooted in identification with a character or the events. It can be rooted in humor.

Four years of telling the story of Mackenzie has given a pretty good idea what readers are interested in. I don't think introducing a "villain" to the story in the next three chapters could do more to draw readers in and fire up their excitement than the chapters will already excite all by themselves: a chapter about magic, a chapter about the world, and a chapter with Callahan.

This is where I think our over-reliance on the strictures of structure has misled us, as artists and as audiences. The Harry Potter series told a story about love triumphing over hate, mature embrace of life triumphing over destructive fear of death, etc., but what drew readers in from the start is OMG THE WORLD IS MAGIC AND THERE ARE HIDDEN WIZARDS AND A SCHOOL OF MAGIC.

That's what was interesting, in book 1. That's what got people coming back from book 2. Not to see what happens next with Voldemort, or what villain would take his place if his defeat proved to be permanent... to see what Harry's second year at Hogwarts would be like, what it would bring. Not what puzzle pieces would be slotted into a dramatic structure, what magical things he would learn and do and what insights into the magical world he lived in we would get as readers. Over time the focus shifted more and more to The Conflict, of course, but the early days of the series shows that The Conflict need not be the essential hook of a compelling story.

And the web shows us the same thing, too. Look at how many webcomics with an ongoing story keep people coming back without a clear antagonist. Questionable Content and Girls With Slingshots are two in my mostly-remember-to-check-daily list that fit that. Sure, both strips might be classified as being plot-light or mostly gag-a-day style, but that doesn't weaken my point... it illustrates it.

Humor can keep you coming back. Pathos without external conflict (i.e., people's emotional problems) can keep you coming back. This is a very general "you"... anybody could reply to this saying, "Humor doesn't do it for me without _______." or "Plots based around emotional issues just drive me away." These things aren't universals. Few stories will "work" for everyone.

And that's where and why and how the rules of thumb for drama have come to be seen as the essentials of storytelling... traditional publishing demands works with broad (if not universal) appeal in order to have a chance of paying off, so it expects authors to play it safe with accepted and familiar formulas. A little innovation is good, yes. A little subversion now and then helps you stand out. A little, but not too much.

But those aren't the only stories worth telling, or worth reading. The common denominators (no value judgment as to whether they are high or low) of the mass market are not the only tastes worth appealing to or the only needs worth fulfilling.

And at the end of the day, I would rather be read by people who take my characters as they are than ones who try to shove them into boxes marked "prot" and "ant" and who can only make sense of their actions and motivations and reasons for being in the story in the first place based on something they learned in a high school lit class or from a page on TVTropes.

This entry automatically cross-posted from http://alexandraerin.dreamwidth.org/239668.html. Comment hither or thither. Void where yon.
Tags: oh the ranty rant, save the drama for your mama, writing about writing
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