Thursday, September 13, 2012

Story Balance

The issue of "rule of cool" versus "realism" I discussed in relationship to gaming on Tuesday manifests also in writing. Specifically it arises in fiction - in non-fiction, if you hand-wave details of your subject they had better be details that are not germane to the purpose of the work, or you're not writing non-fiction anymore.

In creating fiction, however - whether for print, film, or indeed for gaming media - the issue is front and center, and is complicated by the fact that your audience is not sitting at the same table as you providing direct input. Assuming you find an audience at all (which is far from a given, even in the best market), it will be only after all the decisions about which details to sweat and which to hand-wave have been made. When writing for a professional market, you can get feedback from a handful of others involved in the process: a critique group or beta readers if you use them, an editor, a creative team or collaborator; and it is possible to present yourself to an amateur market, particularly in online fan communities, in such a way as to make your decisions based on active responses. For the most part, however, these decisions must be made in response to an audience of one: yourself, and then sent out to take its chances in the faceless crowd.

I am a lot less easygoing on this question in my writing persona than in my gaming persona. If you want a playground full of impossible physics, inaccurate history and sociology, and silly-looking weapons and armor, be my guest. I don't have to play with you and it's none of my business; and if my knee-jerk reaction is to look down on you, well, it's my responsibility to mind my manners and not let that reaction out into the world where you can see it.

But if you want to make a movie in which cavemen interact with dinosaurs; or write a story in which the conquistadors conquer the Mayan civilization; or write a game resource in which guns don't exist because gunpowder flat-out won't function in the setting; you had better be either writing parody, or have the explanation for these bizarre premises front and center in the work.

But of course it's not usually the big things that are handwaved, and it's not the obvious errors against which we need to guard ourselves. God and the Devil both lurk in the details, and that's where we get into arguments. In almost all cases, in these arguments I'm on the side of those who believe the author needs to take the time and trouble to get it right. I'd be writing all day if I used all the specific examples crowding my brain, but what it boils down to is this:

Assuming that your audience doesn't care about details or common sense and only wants the "rule of cool" is profoundly disrespectful of them. And if you don't respect your audience, how can you expect them to respect you?

A real argument made in defense of deliberately perpetrating a popular error, despite knowing better:
"So many people think this is true, they'll reject it in the story if I don't show it this way."

Oh, really? Your chosen audience is the category of people so prejudiced, so hidebound, so willfully stupid that they can be counted on to choose a familiar falsity over an unfamiliar fact? People who, in fact, prefer to be lied to rather than to have to think about, or double-check, an assumption?

Well, if that's the bed you want to crawl into...I prefer to be read by people at least as smart, flexible, and intellectually honest as me, thank you; preferably by people who are superior to me, as I'm not of more than ordinary capacity in any of those qualities.

A real argument, made in defense of not bothering to do the research at all: Oh, that stuff is boring and nobody really knows any better. If I learn what really happened/could happen, it'll limit my storytelling.

Not surprisingly, this argument is factually inaccurate. Doing the research - whether into the biology behind your science fictional premise, the history happening at the same time as your historical romance, or into the physics behind the McGuffin in your thriller - is inspiring. Odds are good that the facts are far, far more interesting than the cliff-notes version of biology that first attracted you to the idea of a parthenogenetic alien species, of history that first attracted you to ancient Greece as a setting, or of atomic fusion that first made you think it provided a good bone of contention for your spies. Yes, doing the research will change your storytelling - but only in good ways. Only in ways that will enable your fiction to rise up out of the mass of other fictions and become the new standard, the one that people imitate instead of doing their own research.

That desirable outcome is not guaranteed; but you knew that when you embarked on a project that was neither death nor taxes. And the process of research is intrinsically rewarding. The standard version of the Battle of the Alamo lacks color, depth, and human drama. Next time you're in San Antonio, come hear my version. I'll prove it to you.

And it's also not true that nobody really knows any better. A lot of people who read science fiction are passionately interested in science and even do it professionally. Historians and archeologists read historical fiction. More to the point, obsessive eleven year old children read anything and everything connected to their current obsession. I worked out the action of Len's story with multiple maps and an almanac, keeping track of calendar days, phases of the moon, weather, and currency values partly because these things were of tremendous assistance in working out what my characters did and why they did it, but also partly because somewhere out there is a collector of Confederate currency, a calendar savant, or a geologist whose enjoyment of the book could be utterly wrecked by finding an error in one of those areas.

Never underestimate eleven-year-old experts. They will write to you, and they will demolish your ego.

Niggling anxiety in the back of my own brain: But you yourself put real people into the lesbian western without specifically looking up details of their character or seeking out their descendents. Plus you never did fire any of B's old guns.

That's true; and it illustrates that, as in gaming, there is a point of diminishing returns. Nobody really wants the woman who can't see straight lines handling firearms, even under close supervision, and B vetted the relevant parts of the manuscript for me so I should be fine. I did try to seek out some descendents and didn't get a response; though it still bugs me sometimes that I may have been in a Renaissance dance troop with a couple of descendents of the Vance family and never even tried to contact them. But these people are all peripheral to the story, finding out too much about them would have risked them crowding out my fictional characters and used up more time and energy resources than their presence in the book justified, and in the case of the people I did try to contact who didn't respond - they're entitled not to respond.

Anybody reading the book will understand, and if not there'll be a disclaimer to make them understand, that in the final analysis, the story comes first. As long as I'm careful to not even imply anything about these people that is not reasonably deducible from the public record, again, I should be fine.

In both game balance and story balance, the game and the story come first. I maintain, and I always will maintain, that it is better to have accurate information than not to have it; but once you have it, you are not obliged to show it off in the final result. Your DM may really appreciate you using your geological expertise to help him design a realistic dungeon, or work out what would really happen when a Rod of Lordly Might is broken on the San Andreas Fault, releasing all its energy; but he doesn't want to hear a lecture on the subject in the middle of the game. The reader will appreciate a vivid phrase evoking the experience of wearing a side-buttoned boot, but does not want to know what every character has on in every scene.

Not even the eleven-year old costuming expert.

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