A tale on its own terms – Part I

June 1, 2017

I said before — no, wait, I said it over and over — that there is a distinction between the point and the plot. The novel you are writing may have a surface structure with a complex plot, but underneath it you still have some point you’re trying to get across. Or, perhaps, one you do get across, whether you’re astute enough an author to manage it or not.

The same logic applies to giant pop-culture stories like Star Wars: there are familiar, yet important, lessons about family to be learned beneath all the blaster fire. Goodness, the same logic applies to videogames. You may not like faerie tales, or big special effects movie extravaganzas, or big special effects videogame extravaganzas, but there’s still a point underneath that you could learn.

But why do it this way? I argue that it’s important to approach a tale on its own terms: to settle yourself within the shell created by the story’s plot and look at the point it makes within.

You’ve been in this situation: you’re enthusiastic about a story you just read/watched/heard, you want to tell somebody else, and the person you’re telling shoots you down with “I didn’t like it; it’s just about [insert quality here],” such as “it’s just about stupid dragons,” or “it’s just about the special effects,” or “it’s just about blowing up the Death Star.” Here your associate is getting hung up on the surface. And you try, goodness but you try: “It’s not about that! Once you get into it, you see it’s about so much more!”

Well, the issue is that it has all these layers; it has both a plot and a point. So, why place all this complex structure on top of the point? Why build a Death Star? Why not . . . make literally every movie into a realistic depiction of modern people in your hometown having family trouble like the Skywalkers do?

It should be obvious from that alone why the abstraction.

But here I’d like to reference the words of Paul Gresty. Followers of my blog know about my work on Kickstarter projects. Paul Gresty is the author of Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories, and, most recently, I’ve been working with him on Fabled Lands: The Serpent King’s Domain.

He has other projects including The Frankenstein Wars. You can guess “what this one’s about.” Obviously, as the creators put in their tagline, it’s about:

. . . war and horror, heroes and villains, and the soul of humanity at stake!

But I also like to keep quoting Neil Gaiman, who once put in The Sandman:

“Never trust the storyteller. Only trust the story.”

What’s hiding in the story? Regrettably, neither Paul nor I can find the exact quote anymore, but Paul once described The Frankenstein Wars like this:

[You ask the implications of a world where soldiers are stitched together from corpses. Soldiers become second-class citizens, eminently expendable, and so treated as “lesser.” However, the terror has another layer: with a single bullet, you could join them. You too could be the second-class citizen.]

There you have it.

By stepping into the story world — which is to say, literally any world other than a realistic depiction of modern people in your hometown — you can explore ideas beyond your expectations. If you in the real world are a “first-class person all the way,” how could you possibly be a second-class citizen? Why would you care? Goodness, why would you read a realistic depiction of real-world second-class citizens? Too depressing — or, if you are an egotist, too irrelevant.

But then you read The Frankenstein Wars and you are forced to think about it from a perspective you’ve never known.

Let us pause for a moment to appreciate the reason all fantastic literature in all of history exists.

No, really. By this mark we have justified all fiction, all theater, all campfire stories, all make-believe, if only you listened closely enough to find a point. The theatrics enable you to learn life lessons and develop empathy in situations that would be impossible if you restricted yourself to your existing down-to-earth life.

Hence I encourage approaching a tale on its own terms.

This applies to other things, too.

I’ve said before that I bought Unreal Tournament for the story. It sounds impossible, since surely all gaming is about the flashy special effects, and first-person shooters even moreso. Not so; and I just might have another entire post to make about how proud I am of today’s gaming and its ability to express story.

Which I believe will be my next post.

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