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Rhythm: The Enemy of Story

Zzzzz…

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.

Oh great, more piles of gold…

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.

Good luck!

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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 hero's journey in a nutshell.

The hero’s journey in a nutshell.

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. …

We might not like it, but this is closure, too!

We might not like it, but this is closure, too!

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.

The Real Hero

This semester in my lit survey course, I decided to focus the theme of our readings around the idea of heroism, the hero’s journey, and the various and complicated ways heroics are played out in prose, poetry, and on screen. As it’s the first time I’m teaching the course in this way, there will be some wrinkles to iron out for the next time around, but thus far it has been fairly effective. My students have a working understanding of Campbell’s Monomyth and we’ve finally moved away from the stereotypical image of the hero as he (note the gender) who protects the weak and innocent from the wicked and powerful. There’s a lot more to it than that, as a cursory investigation into heroic figures will quickly show.

Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.

Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.

To wrap up the semester, we’re taking a look at two deconstructionist approaches to the heroic myth. First is Watchmen, the iconic graphic novel by Moore and Gibson. The second is The Big Lebowski by the Cohen brothers. Both stories feature ‘heroic’ characters in a certain sense – they solve the mystery, they save the world, they do justice to the unjust. However, there is an issue of intent and nature at play in both stories that holds the heroic acts (the external heroism, if you will) as suspect and hollow when taken in context of the personal intent of the heroes (the internal heroism of the characters). I don’t wish to ruin the ending of either tale, but it is hard to say that either the Dude or Rorschach are internally heroic or intend to do what is ‘right’ for the sake of it. If good comes of their behavior, it is primarily accidental or derivative.

So, that begs the question: Does a hero need intent? If you go out one morning and, purely by accident, foil a bank robbery by slipping on a banana peel and save the lives of seven people, are you a hero? Most of us would say no. Let me provide a different example: if you are forced, at gunpoint, to save a child from a burning house, are you a hero? The answer becomes less clear. Final example: If you are compelled by a psychological or social disorder to run around each evening beating up muggers and dragging them to jail, does that make you heroic? This last instance is where we so commonly come down on the side of ‘yes’, though we seldom have the question put to us so succinctly. Batman (and Rorschach) are compelled by trauma to do what they do in order to feel sane or whole. It can be convincingly argued that they don’t do it because of philosophical ideals any moreso than the guy who slips on the banana peel. If the outcome of the behavior in question is negative (the ‘hero’ does not run around bringing crooks to justice but rather assaults women in an attempt to steal their underwear), the insanity defense will readily and often successfully be deployed in their trial: “They are not responsible for their actions, your honor – this man is out of his freaking mind and needs intense psychiatric care.”

The issue of intent pivots around the long-standing debate over the existence of free will. Not to delve too deeply into philosophy and neuroscience, but in brief it goes like this: It is debatable that you make decisions based upon some concept of independent will. It can be argued that all of us are amalgams of environmental influence and genetic predisposition that dictates our behavior and that, outside of additional outside influence, we cannot change ourselves. Yes, yes – I know a lot of you disagree, and the argument in favor of free will is also robust, so this matter is very far from settled. The question, though, has a significant impact on how we identify heroism. Can you be a bad person but do good things and then be considered good? If I grudgingly agree to save the world, complaining about it the entire time, do I deserve the accolades of the masses for their salvation?

Furnishing answers to this question is far from easy. It is a concept I explore with my character, Tyvian Reldamar, in The Iron Ring. Like me, Tyvian doesn’t know either. Part of telling a story, though, is the exploration of our world, no matter of you set your tale in Alandar or alternate 1985 New York City or even in the City of Angels in the early 90s.

Of Cops and Robbers

First off, read this brilliant analysis of 80s Action Movies by Max Gladstone. It is fantastic, especially if there’s any amount of literature geek in you at all.

Done? Okay, let’s proceed.

While I might quibble a little bit about Gladstone’s division of heroes into those who are gifted knowledge by destiny and those who earn metis by grit and cunning (I feel they are the same story operating by the same plot points, the same Campbell-ian elements, the same departure into and escape from the ‘special world’, etc..), the identification of classist divisions in different heroic stories is well done. Our heroes often exist on a series of hierarchical planes, and the stakes over which they struggle likewise change depending on this classification. Neo becomes the One whereas John McClane just gets to save his wife; Riddick rules the necromongers while Ripley escapes with Newt in dreamless sleep. The division there is real; both are heroic journeys, but the ‘elixir’ they return with (to use Campbell’s description) are of a fundamentally different nature. The two worlds they are destined to master are different.

Bromance before it was a thing.

Bromance before it was a thing.

That brings me to the topic of this post: the vaunted mythological provenance of the ‘Cops and Robbers’ drama. There are scores and scores of these stories – I scarcely need name them – but here we go: Lethal Weapon (all four), Beverly Hills Cop (both), Die Hard (and sequels), 48 Hours, Another 48 Hours, all the Dirty Harry flicks, Speed, the Rush Hour franchise, and so on and so forth ad infinitum. From The French Connection to Hot Fuzz to The Heat, people turn out to watch the boys in blue chase down the bad guys and bring them to justice. We eat it up, frankly – car chases, pithy dialogue, gunplay, and so on. It’s more than just that, though – all of those things I just mentioned can be found in a Bond movie, for instance, and that is a very different animal.

No, cop movies and the Cop Hero is all about class (or the lack thereof). The police officer is the everyman hero by definition. Even the crazy elite ones (Martin Riggs, for instance) exist within the realm of achievable ability. You – yes you – can become a cop. A cop’s job is to protect the innocent against the wicked and unjust. They are, by definition, heroic. Even though we understand intellectually that not all cops get to do such things and that the realities of police work are very, very far from glamorous, there is still a connection there you do not feel when watching James Bond or Harry Potter. These are not the elite masters of the Earth nor are they the mystical chosen one ordained by Providence to earn victory. They’re regular guys. They’re just like us.

Elements of the Cop Hero

There is more to being a Cop Hero though, than just fighting evil. All of them, to varying degrees, ascribe to the same basic archetype. Though fairly broad, this archetype is pervasive for a reason. Let me elaborate:

Problem With Authority

The Cop Hero does not feel it necessary to defer to those of higher rank. They possess the truth through the hardness and breadth of their experiences, and those above them have lost touch with such things. Whether they begin brazenly defying authority or they learn to do so over the course of their journey, in either case the result is the same: they have a higher calling than just following orders. For them, the fight to protect the streets is a passion more than simply a vocation – it is who they are. This is important to us as viewers in that it mirrors our own wishes to escape the bureaucracies that compromise our passions and deeply-held beliefs. We wish for the courage to call inept managers or superiors out on their nonsense. We hope to be bigger people than our mere job title permits. In the Cop Hero, we see potential in ourselves.

Troubled Personal Life

The Cop Hero might not be alone, but they are certainly distressed in their personal endeavors. Many are drunks, some are suicidal, almost all have poor relationships with women. Some rare few are harried by their wife or significant other or, perhaps, overcome with the responsibilities of familial life. If they have a daughter, she gets kidnapped; if they are married, their wife is threatened. Their home is literally and figuratively a battleground, whether it is due to the complete lack of domestic hygiene or because they do not and cannot control the behaviors of their family. This is, yet again, a call to the everyday and the commonplace. The battleground of the modern working adult is the work/life balance between career and home. It is an unwinnable struggle, however. As the modern man/father/woman/mother seeks to be their best selves in both places, sacrifices are inevitable in both arenas; this is a phenomenon mirrored by the cop drama, only with it magnified to extremes. The birth of the Cop Hero as we understand it arrives in synchrony with the fast-paced modern world of the mid-20th century in America, and this is no accident. Their struggle is the metaphoric extrapolation of our own.

Let's face it: this sounds like a really bad idea.

Let’s face it: this sounds like a really bad idea.

Unwavering Resolve

While this is a trait broadly applied to almost every hero, part of the Cop Hero’s identity is caught up with the choice he has in his work. The Cop Hero always has (or appears to have) a way out. He can give up, go home, and let the ‘authorities’ handle it. He has a job, a pension, a desk, and so on – he does not need to do what he does. His suffering comes as a result of his own decisions, not because fate has foisted them upon him. John McClane can surrender with the other hostages and let the Feds outside do their duty; Axel Foley can stay in Detroit, put his nose to his work, and write off the death of his friend as the result of a lifetime of bad choices. Unlike other heroes, their ability to Refuse the Call is unequaled. Something, however, keeps them going even though, by all outward appearances, their decision is self-destructive and pointless. Accordingly, fate rewards their stubbornness: McClane realizes later that all the hostages would have been blown up without his interference; Axel Foley is rewarded for his ingenuity and dedication with new friends and the vindication of his suspicions. The appeal of this behavior is fundamentally tied to the underlying myth of our culture: the American Dream. The pursuit of the illogical and audacious in the face of overwhelming negative reception and contrary evidence is sacrosanct to our country’s self-image, and the cop hero – everyman that he is – embodies this idea in his quest.

So it is, then, that we have heroes with badges standing up to corruption and evil in our modern world. That they fight criminals is almost incidental; the criminals, like the heroes that combat them, are largely metaphorical anyway. The Cop Hero is the embodiment of the modern American struggle itself and, therefore, it will always be with us and relevant. That we have moved away from it in some sense (as described by Gladstone) should come as something of a warning. If we cannot produce more of Riggs and Murtaugh or Axel Foley or John McClane, one wonders whether we have either resolved the problems that plagued us as a society in the past or whether we are simply forgetting who we are.