Rhythm: The Enemy of Story
This is going to be partly a writing post, partly a gaming post, and partly a literary post. I don’t outline these things, so who the hell knows what’s going to happen next. Let’ start with… (throws dart) literature. Okay, so the past few years I’ve themed my Lit Survey class around the Hero’s Journey (mostly Campbell’s Monomyth, etc.). Inevitably, we start talking about superhero movies in the class, as superhero tales are the ones most recognizably Campbellian in form. While I do like these movies (overall), after reading hundreds and hundreds of pages of student work on Calls to Adventure, Crossing the Threshold, the Normal World Vs the Special World and so on and so forth, I tend to get bored with the whole thing.
Now, as it happens, it’s rather difficult to escape the basic rhythms of this story form, particularly if you intend to tell a story involving a protagonist intended to be even vaguely heroic – this stuff is deeply ingrained in our collective unconscious and our ideas of story. Inevitably we wind up following some variation of this path – both in our reading, our own writing, and even at the RPG table.
The challenge, though, is to resist the urge to paint by the numbers – follow the journey, step by step, like a kind of roadmap. While you can tell some very competent tales that way, you also fall into being predictable. Spend enough time with this structure, and things cease to amaze you, which is, frankly, a terrible loss.
Of course, totally diverging from this format has its own problems – the story becomes unsatisfying or strange to the point where you no longer connect with it. Kafka, for all his brilliance, isn’t telling stories that delight and engage so much as confuse and confound. This has its place and its own appeal, naturally, and I’m not suggesting the avant garde, post-modern, or abstract tale is a worthless endeavor. It’s that if you want to tell a heroic story but you also want to make it new, you need to find variations of the monomyth that are poorly traveled. There are many ways to do this, of course – shake up who your hero is, shake up the setting, shake up the stakes, and resist hitting the steps of the story “cleanly.” If you want a master class in how this is done, watch any given Cohen Brothers film – they are regularly, consistently unusual and amazing, even though, in broad terms, they are (usually) telling the story of a central character who is yanked from their normal world, sent through an ordeal, who then returns to the normal world somehow changed and enlightened. They just do it in the messiest, most bizarre way possible.
In tabletop RPGs, there are dangers in rhythm, as well. The standard form is this: Players receive a call to adventure, they delve into the dungeon and slay monsters, and they are rewarded with treasure. In D&D in particular, this is what we sign up for, right? But there is only so long this can happen before the game gets old. Too many gaming sessions can be described as “role-play, role-play, kill little thing, argue, big battle, treasure.” I fall into this routine myself. There are plenty of games out there that don’t lend themselves to this, sure, but plenty more that do, I’d argue. Even in those games that don’t do this, the danger of routine still looms large, it’s just that the routine changes.
I say routine and rhythm is “dangerous” because it risks, to my mind, what is ultimately fatal to a book or game alike: becoming boring and predictable. Nobody wants that. Nobody wants things to go smoothly and perfectly all the time (even when they say they do) because it kills the excitement of the unknown. For gaming, as with storytelling, this requires you to consciously seek variations on a theme. Break the mold. Have the dungeon be empty, but have it lead players on some different, deeper quest. Have the monster be absent – it’s back at the village, killing and eating all those people your players are sworn to protect. Never forget the narrative fun that can be had with a cursed item (note: not for making players look stupid, but for giving them benefits that have extreme costs. Yes, that’s a +5 sword. No, you can’t ever sheathe it or wipe off the blood. Enjoy visiting the orphanage.). Have the players be wildly overmatched to the point where they need to flee the dungeon (and make it back through all the deathtraps backwards). Have the adventure involve no dungeon AT ALL. Have the players save the town from a flash flood. Drop them in a desert with no food or water and watch them scrabble to survive. Make one of them king for a day.
The point here is that, as important as the forms and rituals of our storytelling world are to making our stories satisfy, we also need to remember that variety is the spice of life. Break the mold. Change the dance. Improvise.
My Hierarchy of MCU films (to date)
Watched Doctor Strange this weekend. It was very enjoyable, and if you’re a fan of superhero movies, I’d recommend it. If you aren’t, well, you’ve seen it before (more or less) and shouldn’t trouble yourself.
Superhero movies, and most notably the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), tend to be repeated retellings of the same basic stories. There is a reluctant hero of some kind, he (or, much more rarely, she) is granted the mantle of power, sent forth by will or necessity to battle evil, receives wisdom at the foot of a wise elder (who often dies), and at last vanquishes evil and assumes their responsibility as champion of the defenseless. There you go – just about every superhero movie in history, boiled down to a few plot points. If that structure looks familiar, that shouldn’t surprise you – it’s all classic Joseph Campbell, the ancient monomyth reborn and retold in the guise in the modern world.
Now, this often gets held up as a point of criticism: comic book movies, they say, are all the same. Well, first of all, you have to admit that they’re right – they totally are the same. If you’ve seen Iron Man, you’ve also seen Doctor Strange and Thor. The movies – in terms of theme, plot, pacing, and character – just aren’t all that different. There is, however, something that the critics also have to admit: different doesn’t automatically mean “better.” Consider this: how many pizzas have you eaten throughout your lifetime? Probably tons of them, if you’re anything like me, but even if not you don’t need to use pizza – try “bottles of wine” or “blue jeans” or “shoes.” There are lots and lots of things we value and enjoy and crave that are, basically, broadly the same every time we consume or use them. Of course, nobody would ever say that all pizzas are created equal (or all wines, or all jeans, etc.) but also the fact that we’ve experienced “pizza” before does not invalidate future interactions with “pizza.” It’s still pizza; I still like it.
Just so with comic book movies. They all operate in the same basic sphere and run according to the same basic forumla. Even across sequels, a kind of pattern tends to play out. First there’s the “Origin Story” (frequently featuring a Macguffin), then there’s the “Coping with Hero Life” story, then we’ve got the “Everything Falls Apart” sequel, and so on and so forth. We all know the steps. We still like the dance, though.
Now, I’ve lamented the fact that superhero movies rarely break conventions, and I do stand by that – there is substantial room for innovation in the cinematic realm, at least. That said, there is some appreciation to be gleaned from watching talented people polish the old standard to a healthy gleam. Telling a story well is every bit as important as telling a new story. In recent years, this story has been mastered by the folks behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, without rival. Yeah, they all tell the same basic story, but discussing how well each of them does the same task is still worthwhile. We watch sports, remember, and those feature the same exact game with the same basic rules over and over again and yet nothing diminishes our enthusiasm.
Anyway, after getting out of Doctor Strange, my friends and I had a discussion of where the movie ranks in the hierarchy of MCU films. We generally considered it to be in the “top half.” We then had to discuss what was the median – which MCU movie ranks in the exact middle? My friends said Ant-Man, which is actually the only MCU film I haven’t seen. Given that, and given that Ant-Man may just be the exact center of the MCU, I’ve decided to rank all the other existing MCU movies, from best to worst (in my opinion). Here we go:
13: The Incredible Hulk
12: Iron Man 3
11: Iron Man 2
10: Avengers: Age of Ultron
8: Captain America: The First Avenger
7: Thor: The Dark World
6: Marvel’s The Avengers
5: Doctor Strange
4: Iron Man
3: Guardians of the Galaxy
2: Captain America: Winter Soldier
1: Captain America: Civil War
Now, a few of these I’m open to moving around a little. You could swap the Iron Man sequels, if you like. GoTG could be below Iron Man 1, but generally I’m satisfied, here. Notably, few of these movies are actively bad (well, some come close), but clearly some serve up the same dish with a bit more flair. I’ve no idea where Ant Man fits, but currently the median film is Thor: The Dark World, which seems mostly fair.
Well, what do you think?
The Mythology of Exceptionalism
Okay, nerds, get ready to be offended. Ready? Go read this post by David P. Goldman. Deep breaths, folks.
Let’s skip past the bit about “obese, pimply-faced losers” and the fairly childish vitriol that accompanies it. The guy doesn’t like Harry Potter – fine. It doesn’t make him Hitler. I’ve ranted at length about such snobs and their churlish insistence upon their flavor of storytelling’s superiority over some other version, and I’ve no need to do so again. What I want to focus on here is the inherent hypocrisy and ignorance of Goldman’s central thesis.
Goldman takes aim specifically at Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth as espoused by his classic work The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Goldman dislikes it, and in his article he claims the following:
Skywalker/Potter/Siegfried are a carryover of the pagan idea of heroes, which is simply the pagan idea of a god: a being who is like us, but better. Campbell claimed that the “hero” of this ilk is a universal myth, but that is plainly false.
He then goes on to claim that both the Bible and Chinese narrative lack heroes in this sense – in that latter instance, they are instead “a humble lad who works harder than anyone else, and isn’t too proud to start by carrying slop buckets in the kitchen of the martial arts school.” Goldman seems to insist that China, rather than being ruled by a hereditary aristocracy, was instead ruled by mandarins (bureaucrats) and compares it to being ruled by the equivalent of the Havard faculty. This dovetails nicely with his opinion of the Biblical “hero”, who is not god-like, but rather earnest and hardworking and hardly qualifying as heroic.
Okay, so first off, this entire premise of the argument is bunk, pure and simple. The supposition that Campbell’s thesis is plainly incorrect and that his heroic mythology
isn’t found in the Bible or in Chinese folklore is patently false, demonstrating both a misunderstanding of Campbell and betraying a blind prejudice on Goldman’s part. Not only is the Campbellian monomyth entirely supported by both the Bible and Chinese folklore, the latter is directly cited in Campbell’s work on many occasions (it seems as though the depth of Goldman’s knowledge of Chinese myth is limited to kung fu movies). In the Bible’s case, the monomyth is repeated time and time again. Take the story of Moses: Moses is called to adventure when he flees into the wasteland. He crosses into the magical world at the foot of the burning bush, and he returns later to Pharaoh’s court bearing knowledge and power. This happens to Jonah, to Abraham, to Job, to Paul, and to countless other prophets and heroes that fill the Bible through both testaments. To say Campbell was antisemitic is fine (he was disdainful of the Jewish religion, certainly), but he did insist upon the power of their folklore, which is in large part what the Bible is made up of.
Goldman, here, is quibbling over the details and missing the larger narrative. Yes, Moses doesn’t have god-like power himself – he is granted it by God. That, however, isn’t substantially different from the power granted to King Arthur when he draws the sword in the stone or to Theseus when he takes Ariadne’s string into the labyrinth. In all monomyths, the power granted to the heroes does not originate in themselves, per se, but rather are rewards granted to them for their behavior and, frequently also, their lineage. The fact that Moses is a descendant of Abraham, though, and therefore special by blood (and this is of significant import in Exodus) seems to elude Goldman. We could play the same game with Chinese folklore and myth (fact: the Chinese maintained a hereditary aristocracy from about 1000 BC until 1911), but I feel I’ve made my point here.
The underlying reason for Goldman’s distaste for Campbell and, by extension, modern fantasy literature has less to do with Campbell’s work and more to do with Goldman’s willful blindness to the clear and apparent similarities Christianity has with other stories. Goldman wishes Christianity to be special and unique and, while it certainly has unique qualities, it is structurally similar enough to all other mythology to make it part of the broad tapestry that makes up Campbell’s theory. Heroes are us, only better. Period. The only thing that changes is what constitutes “better.” For the ancient Greeks, they wanted heroes of strength and cleverness who were willing to stand up to the tyranny of their capricious gods. For the Chinese, they want humility and filial piety, which means their heroes follow slightly different paths, but all well within the bounds of the monomyth. In the Bible, the Christian hero is selfless and faithful, obeying their God and sacrificing their well-being for the well-being of their people. It’s the same sales pitch, just with a different product to sell.
That, though, is upsetting to guys like Goldman – real America’s Americans who believe in Jesus and Built the Railroads (on Irish and Chinese backs). The theory that their deeply-held stories are, in actuality, just another version of a story as old as humanity itself and in no way exceptional, is hard to swallow. Why, then he’d be no better than we “obese, pimply-faced losers,” clinging just as tightly to his own personal fairy stories to make him feel better about himself. We can’t have that, now can we?
The Exotic and the Mundane
The more I think about it, the more I believe that all storytelling is simply negotiating the narrative tension between the exotic and the mundane. Read a book on storytelling or writing or screenwriting, and odds are you’re going to hear something along the lines of “all stories start the day something changes”. What that means, essentially, is your main character is going along with their daily business when something knocks them out of their regular routine and forces them to adapt to new circumstances. Joseph Campbell outlines this famously as the “Hero’s Journey” – the hero begins in the normal or mundane world, the Call to Adventure is answered, they enter the Special or Magical World, and their adventure begins. I think there’s more to it than simply that, though. See, just because you run Campbell by the numbers doesn’t mean you have a good story. Furthermore, as important as the plot is to a story, there’s a lot more at play there, too – theme, setting, style, and so on. I think that all of these things are also caught up in that dichotomy, between the exotic and mundane.
If you are writing in the real, mundane world, that story won’t be interesting unless that normalcy is made somehow exotic. The exotic – another way of describing the new and novel – is what gives a story purchase. It’s what draws us in. We are not interested in a patent clerk. We are interested in the patent clerk who is the brilliant physicist. We are not interested in a high school, but we are interested in a high school Saturday detention session that changes the lives of several young people. Without some aspect of the novel or new or strange, we don’t actually have a story.
It works both ways, though. The exotic cannot maintain our interest without some element of the mundane. This comes up a lot in science fiction and fantasy, actually; the mundane is used as a way to allow the audience to identify or sympathize with characters in a bizarre environment. The further a story drifts from what is identifiable, the less potent the story becomes. Why? Well, the audience has no emotional hand-holds by which to come to grips with the action. If I write you an epic war among single-celled organisms, I’d need to do certain things to make you engage with the story. If I don’t, it’s just a bunch of goo going at it in a petri dish. To use a real-world example, consider Dune, which is about as exotic as you get. Amid the Bene Gesserit and the Gom Jabbar, we have Paul and his mother. We have Paul taking a test. We have Paul in pain. These things we understand, and these things allow us to connect with Paul early on. They carry us through a story that would, otherwise, be an unidentifiable alien landscape. The exotic is tempered by the mundane so that we can access it intellectually and emotionally.
The more I think about it, every story has this balance to strike. Now, the precise nature of the balance is very wide, but it is nevertheless there. Our normal world needs the new and unusual to keep our interest, just as alien worlds need some aspect of the normal to do the same. This strikes me as something very fundamental to storytelling and, while I’m certain somebody else has put it into words better than I have here, I honestly haven’t seen this idea explored. It probably warrants some explanation.
Hunting for the Happy End
I do not follow and am not interested in the World Cup. If the US wins the World Cup, I will not go to any parade unless, perchance, I feel like attending a parade for the inherent enjoyment of the activity itself. Truth be told, the older I get, the more detached I become from professional sports in general. Once a rabid Red Sox fan, I now follow them only casually – I tune in after the All-Star break, when I see their chances of making the playoffs and am interested in the outcome. I have always been loosely interested in American football, but not so much that the ups and downs of that particular sport affect me in any emotional way. I won’t watch the NHL (snore – seriously, if you like hockey, watch college hockey), and I find basketball interminably dull.
I do not, however, begrudge people their enjoyment of sports (well, so long as that enjoyment doesn’t lead to violence, excessive body-painting, or bouts of alcoholism and depression). If there’s one things sports do well, it is create self-contained narratives of success or failure. You tune in to watch the game, you assign moral (or at least aesthetic) values to each team, and then you watch them play through a rigid structure that produces a victor and a loser or, less often, a draw between equals. Voila – closure!
The quest for narrative closer runs deep in our species. Joseph Campbell explored this with his monomyth, wherein he laid out the basic framework for what we call ‘the Hero’s Journey’. In brief, a protagonist leaves the normal or mundane world after being called to adventure by (X) and crosses into the magical or spiritual world of adventure, wherein they have adventures and, eventually, experience some ordeal (Y) in which wisdom or power is gained. They then return to the regular world a changed person. There’s a lot more floating around in there, but that’s the gist of it all. It lays out the basic format for every story from Gilgamesh to 95% of everything Hollywood has produced since it has been making movies. It is the basic framework under which we understand ‘story’ and what that word means. This is especially true in the speculative genres, where the Hero’s Journey is practically sacrosanct, thanks in large part to the provenance of stories like Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian.
The world, of course, and real life do not adhere to this framework at all. Our world just keeps going. You win one day, you lose the next day, and in a million million years, nothing you do will have mattered at all, anyway. Nothing. In John Gardner’s Grendel (itself a heroic journey, by the way), Grendel comes to the Dragon in search of meaning. The Dragon isn’t having it, though. He says:
“Things come and go,” he said, “That’s the gist of it. In a billion billion billion years, everything will have come and gone several times, in various forms. Even I will be gone. A certain man will absurdly kill me. A terrible pity – conservationists will howl.” He chuckled. “Meaningless, however. These jugs and pebbles, everything, these will go too. Poof! Boobies, hemorrhoids, boils, slaver…” (Gardner, chapter 5)
The dragons’ view is inherently nihilistic and depressing. There can be no purpose, he claims, because in the end nothing will change. The natural world affords no special exception to the diligent or beautiful or brilliant or wicked – dust to dust, ashes to ashes, etc.. To quote the Warhammer 40,000 universe:
Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for there is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.
But the universe is a big place and, whatever happens, you will not be missed. …
In end, after it is all said and done, the universe will die either a cold death or a hot one, and we (assuming we still exist, which is rather arrogant of us to assume) will go with it.
We needn’t be so morose, however, to acknowledge the importance of closure to our narrative consciousness. We like to know how the story ends. We prefer the story to end on a good note, as it confirms our judgments in the beginning of the story as sound. We will tolerate an ending that is dark and miserable if, by experiencing it, we feel somehow enriched. What we don’t like is the gradual dwindling and diminishment of a tale. We don’t like it if a story ‘stops’ before it is over, since the stopping point is essential to us. It is where we stop and take stock of what we have learned from a conceptually distinct set of experiences. We willingly place arbitrary borders in the stories of our own lives in order to make sense of them, even though life and experience does not respect those borders. We expect the same of our stories – we want to know how it ends, so we can then judge that ending.
And so that brings us back to sports. Yes, somebody will win the World Cup. That isn’t closure, though – next time around, that team will lose. The players on the winning team right now will continue to exist, living their lives with all the swings and swells of fortune to navigate. It won’t be over. Nothing ever really ends, you see. We just want it to and, more importantly, we want it to end at the moment of our choosing.