Thoughts on Fiction

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Neal Stephenson is not a bad writer. The opening chapters of Reamde are terrific.

"you're comparing one of the very best films ever made with what is (apparently) a bad novel. "
The Diamond Age won the Hugo award for best novel in 1996. The story it tells is fascinating, I just wish the way it was told wasn't by an attention deficit disorder- addled and ostentatious narrator.
The book was an immediate success and widely praised, whereas Blade Runner was almost universally scorned upon release. To this day, there is a huge number of viewers who consider Blade Runner a boring mess.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 7 February 2018 16:48 (three years ago) link

I agree that Arrival is not a good film. It only makes sense if the extraterrestrial visitors are a product of Amy Adams' imagination. She is trying to cope with the loss of her daughter, and in order to feel that her life has importance, she dreams that she alone can fulfill a role critical to the survival of humanity.

I recommend you give Sicario a shot. The directing is masterful.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 7 February 2018 17:00 (three years ago) link

The terrible thing about the passage from The Diamond Age is that it brought to light for me the inherent problem of literary description in a way that has tainted my ability to enjoy reading books that I used to enjoy reading.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 7 February 2018 18:47 (three years ago) link

Nabokov's Pale Fire gets a special moment in Blade Runner 2049. I've no idea what could be behind it, maybe Hampton Fancher taking a dig at highbrow literature? Or suggesting that the girlfriend simulation's AI isn't designed to grasp irony?
It made me laugh.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 7 February 2018 19:01 (three years ago) link

the original short story arrival was derived from was much more interior and about resolving philosophical paradoxes of free will/pre-destination; stephenson as an author (as well as william gibson) are primarily known and praised for delineating influential ideas rather than constructing taut plots or characterization -- aren't these the larger ideas trumping literalism that you're looking for? if anything, doesn't the visual (and capital-intensive) nature of cinema prioritize the kind of literal, surface-level construction of narratives?

Philip Nunez, Wednesday, 7 February 2018 19:51 (three years ago) link

"doesn't the visual (and capital-intensive) nature of cinema prioritize the kind of literal, surface-level construction of narratives?"

It does in practice. That is why most films opt for the literal-minded treatment of story.
But it isn't an inherent property of the medium, just in the way it is used.
Minority Report was a commercial success while Blade Runner 2049 was not- so it's easy to see why.

My own view is that because written narrative is a more direct way to delineate ideas than cinematic narrative, it is less challenging, less surprising, less reflective of human experience- especially for the artist.
I suppose that once I've written a story, I could release it as text and be done with it. I find that I have very little interest in doing so. I need to give it the form of an experience of the senses because that is the way life is lived and how I find meaning- it is through experience, not words.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 7 February 2018 20:55 (three years ago) link

I first became exposed to the writing of Neal Stephenson when Amazon Studios asked me to adapt a project he was developing - a medieval sword fighting game - into a potential animated series.
I was working from a treatment written by Stephenson himself, along with other writers and enthusiasts of historically accurate sword techniques.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 7 February 2018 21:12 (three years ago) link

if they're mostly concerned with the formal representation of swordsmanship over narratives, it seems like there would be a lot of creative room left over to maneuver in -- is that usually the case in these kinds of projects?

Philip Nunez, Wednesday, 7 February 2018 21:24 (three years ago) link

two weeks pass...

Playtime (Peter's favorite or close to it?) plays on the big screen in SF on March 15th; I'll be there.

J.P. McDevitt, Sunday, 25 February 2018 21:17 (three years ago) link

That is the only way to really see Playtime- on the big screen with an audience. My first viewing, on a pan and scan vhs tape, baffled and confused me.
I consider it essential viewing for filmmakers, especially for animators, and I show clips to my students, not all of whom get it at first.
Please post your thoughts after the screening.

http://meaningoflife.tv/videos/39901?in=00:01
An interesting discussion on the shifts of moral stances in narrative traditions.
The claim is that defining the hero of a story by the morality of his actions is a relatively recent practice.
We may, in fact, be reading old stories that way by habit (identifying the hero by his goodness).
Whereas the authors had no such need nor intention. Instead, heroes are defined mainly by their tribal identification, regardless of how moral their actions might be.

Present day critiques of Biblical myths assert that the actions of God and God's agents in the Old Testament are useless and untrue because they are plainly immoral.
(Not consistent with universally recognized standards of goodness.) Such arguments are beside the point for the biblical, and other mythological, writers.

Peter Chung, Monday, 26 February 2018 05:47 (three years ago) link

My argument against submitting to the Judeo Christian God because I detect God's moral failings is,in this way, a non sequitur.
In other words, the 10 commandments and other biblical laws were never meant to provide moral guidance. They are not claiming to help make men good.
They are meant to make men conform to a common, tribal identity. What is "good" has no meaning outside of that.

Peter Chung, Monday, 26 February 2018 06:00 (three years ago) link

two weeks pass...

In teaching my class, I struggle to convince some students on why they should not rely on exposition to engage the viewer's interest and emotions.
The argument is that if exposition works, then what is wrong with using it? Exposition is the simplest and clearest way to convey the characters' motivations and the dramatic stakes of a narrative turn.
The problem is that by explaining why an action is needed, its urgency- you destroy any sense genuine of urgency.

https://cdn.boldomatic.com/content/post/QWnDQg/Explaining-a-joke-is-like-dissecting-a-frog-You-un?size=800

Everyone understands that you must never explain a joke, because to do so defeats the purpose. Any comic who has to explain his jokes to his audience hasn't learned the skills needed to be a comedian and does not deserve to be on stage.

My hard claim is that this principle does not apply only to humor. All emotions- sadness, anger, love, horror, suspense must arise naturally from an internal realization in order to be genuinely felt.

I use several examples from films where some character explains what has to be done before the hero decides to go and do it. This is extremely common and has the effect of rendering the mission irrelevant to the interests of the viewer.
If a director can't convey the motivation without explaining it, he has no business directing. It should be self-evident from the context the director creates.

Peter Chung, Sunday, 18 March 2018 07:02 (three years ago) link

To be more precise, exposition is fine to provide the set-up, as in a joke.
The gut punch of emotion, the punchline, however must always be inferred.

A director does run the risk of losing viewers this way.
There have been many cases where viewers have watched things I've done and said "I don't get it".
Just as there are many directors I admire who are rejected by audiences for the same reason.

Peter Chung, Sunday, 18 March 2018 07:23 (three years ago) link

Is a character explaining what has to be done beforehand the same as a character explaining what's going on as the punchline is happening? Can you give examples of the "explaining beforehand" and the explaining of the punchline?

I loved Playtime and found it refreshingly different from anything I can consciously recall seeing. It seems the 70mm prints are all damaged, but if one were to surface I'd strongly consider traveling to go see it if necessary.

Battery is about to die so I'll write more another time.

J.P. McDevitt, Sunday, 18 March 2018 11:05 (three years ago) link

Directing a narrative film is a complex task, so it's not so cut and dry.
There are many cases, pretty much all films, where a turning point occurs that sets a major character on a new course of action.
Where the character makes a choice triggered by some turn of events.
The trigger should be both an emotional punchline and a set up (motivating event) for further action.

The motivation needs to be felt by the viewer at the same moment as the character. In bad films, this does not happen. The goal is simply stated as exposition.
Viewers may not notice it consciously, but that is a major factor resulting in you coming out at the end and saying "that movie was boring".

Peter Chung, Monday, 19 March 2018 05:43 (three years ago) link

Negative examples I've shown in class are from Paprika and Wreck-It Ralph. I would also cite (as I have here) Harry Potter movies, Hunger Games sequels, Christopher Nolan's films, most scripted TV dramas. I suspect that TV in general has had a bad influence on how feature directors rely increasingly on exposition. It goes along with my complaint about literal mindedness.

It seems that in older films, the directors just had a deeper appreciation of subtext.
I use clips from Marnie, Leave Her To Heaven and The Sound of Music to show how to do it the right way.
There's a good scene from Pulp Fiction that I like to use, where Bruce Willis escapes, then turns around and decides he should rescue his enemy, played by Ving Rhames. It's wordless, but the viewer understands exactly what is going on in Bruce's mind. His motivation is explained later, but just as a way to confirm what the viewer already understood.
I also show clips from Aeon Flux and Firebreather. I use these clips because I can reveal in detail the process by which directorial decisions are made.

Peter Chung, Monday, 19 March 2018 06:07 (three years ago) link

I suspect that viewers are so accustomed to having the meanings of events explained to them that they feel lost when the explanation does not come.
They are not, in fact, "not getting it". They DID get it, they just can't feel sure, so they can't say so with confidence, and they blame the filmmaker for not providing assurance.

Peter Chung, Monday, 19 March 2018 06:23 (three years ago) link

https://www.dccomics.com/reader/#/comics/436774

I came across this recently on io9. Emotions are stated directly. No need for anything to be inferred.
I do not feel the emotion internally. There is no art and no skill.
(Never use the line "I love you" in a script. Unless it's meant as a cover.)

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 20 March 2018 14:35 (three years ago) link

There is a lot of expository sequences in the Matrix series that fans have constructed elaborate theories to explain away as cover for some deeper conspiratorial meaning (e.g. the explanation for the machine's need for humans as a power source is a deception), but to me it's very unclear whether such things are intentional. In evaluating student work, how would you distinguish between something deep vs something muddled?

Philip Nunez, Tuesday, 20 March 2018 17:02 (three years ago) link

I always have at least one student who attempts to convey an idea way more ambitious and complex than what he/she is equipped to communicate.
It is like attempting to write War and Peace before mastering basic grammar and spelling.

The problem always amounts to someone expecting their viewer to make unwarranted assumptions about what they are seeing. As your example from the Matrix illustrates, viewers cannot help but find unintended meanings in works of fiction. A good director must have enough command over the medium to set boundaries on the viewer's impressions. I don't endorse the idea of artworks that can mean anything to anyone. That is no different from incoherence.

To answer your question, it comes down to a matter of good technique. Craftsmanship matters. If an artist intends to draw a character in peril, but instead draws him looking relaxed, then that is muddled due to a deficit of skill (or carefulness).

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 21 March 2018 08:54 (three years ago) link

Here's a challenge I handed out to my class earlier this year:
A guy in your story loves another character (male or female). Tell me how you would get the audience to know this without dialogue (let alone his saying "I love you").

Peter Chung, Thursday, 22 March 2018 06:14 (three years ago) link

one month passes...

I had given up on Westworld at episode 6 of the first season. There's been a lot of talk about season two, but I couldn't make it past 15 minutes.
The series posits mysteries which the viewer then forms theories about, trying to solve the question of what is happening under all the layers of clues, misdirection and conspiracy. What is happening?
It is both tedious and meaningless to spur discussion over which fictional plot is the correct one. Any one you choose is equally arbitrary, fictional and disposable.
Viewers are just arguing over which potential plotline the writers ended up choosing. Do the writers think this is interesting?
If the experience of watching the show was pleasant, then maybe the mysteries are an added reward for the audience's attention.
But the act of watching, to me, is an extremely miserable one. It's clear that the viewer's experience is secondary to its function as a delivery mechanism for plot information.

Peter Chung, Monday, 14 May 2018 18:00 (three years ago) link

People often say that what matters the most in any movie is the story. That the story is first and foremost the reason they watch film and T.V.
Even filmmakers often will say that "story is everything". Viewers think they care about story above all else, but in fact this is not the case.
What viewers want from a movie is an experience of the senses, a stirring of the emotions and mind.
Story is the effective means of delivering that experience, but story is not the goal or purpose for making and viewing films.

How can I be so certain? Two recent practices I've encountered make it very clear.

1. These days, it's possible to acquire copies of movies and T.V. shows and watch them whenever and wherever one desires.
I have, on a few occasions for T.V. shows, gotten impatient and ran the player at 1.5 times or twice normal speed with the captions on. It can tell me whether or not I want to continue watching. But I quickly feel that if the show isn't worth watching at normal speed, then it isn't worth watching at all. If all I cared about was the story, then this should not matter. If I can get the content of the story more quickly and painlessly, then what is the harm? But if the story holds my interest at a fast speed, then I will slow it back down to get the experience of sensory engagement. That takes precedence over merely learning what the story is. Here is where quality of directing is crucial.

Viewers exist who do watch shows sped up, and they are the ones who care about the story at the exclusion of everything else. But they are a minority.

2. You can find blogs for just about every series where someone recaps in writing the events of an episode that they've watched. Who reads this stuff? Surely not someone who regularly watches the show, since the recap is just repeating what they would have seen. And if someone is interested enough in the recap to read it, then why do that instead of just watching it? There exist people who read such summaries, and again, they are the ones who care about the story and not the viewing experience. And again, they are a minority. Most fans of a series actually watch them.

Peter Chung, Saturday, 19 May 2018 06:13 (two years ago) link

one month passes...

A very common fiction writer's pitfall:

How to construct made up problems that will need to be solved by your characters.
I am noticing more and more that it is this point that causes me to lose interest in a fictional story.

Especially in science fiction or fantasy, the author will invent some made up obstacle or challenge that the hero must overcome.
It's crucial that the author use good judgment when choosing that problem to be solved.

In physical terms, the problem can take any form at all, no matter how fantastical, as long as it reflects some actual source of conflict faced by actual humans.
Unfortunately, the author often chooses a problem that is just fantastical and arbitrary, and therefore comes across as just some useless rule that was made up for the sake of breaking it.

Peter Chung, Saturday, 30 June 2018 14:40 (two years ago) link

Peter, thanks for your comments in this thread. I've been studying creative writing recently, reading and writing short stories intensely for the past year or so, and participating in a number of classes and workshops. This discussion has been some great food for thought. I may post more specific responses as I'm able.

Looking back, I think engaging with you, and with Aeon Flux, since I was 16 or so ended up laying the groundwork for how I approach storytelling (and art in general) -- thank you for that.

Matt Rebholz, Sunday, 1 July 2018 15:20 (two years ago) link

Today it hit me and I totally get the reference to Pale Fire in Blade Runner 2049.
Wow.

Peter Chung, Monday, 9 July 2018 14:03 (two years ago) link

Peter,

Do you mean the use of the poem from the book in K's baseline test, or do you mean something deeper structurally, like the novelistic portion of the novel as a simulacra or the like..?

Interestingly, I've hear Gosling had a hand in writing the baseline test. Regardless, the original full text is fun to read:

https://www.reddit.com/r/bladerunner/comments/76hea1/full_text_for_the_baseline_test/

Derdekeas, Tuesday, 10 July 2018 17:18 (two years ago) link

*heard, rather

Derdekeas, Tuesday, 10 July 2018 22:28 (two years ago) link

Is the baseline test taken from the poem in Pale Fire? I don't recognize any part that matches.

I was thinking of the end of the film, of K lying in the snow, chasing an illusion, grateful for his brief taste of life, the pale fire of a child who dies.

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff--and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.
And from the inside, too, I'd duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I'd let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 10 July 2018 23:57 (two years ago) link

I'm struggling to find the reference too, but in my research I found that apparently in Pale Fire, referring to a vision he has during a near-death experience, John Shade sees "dreadfully distinct / Against the dark, a tall white fountain."

Those may be the only actual lines used in reference, but apparently they do exist in the book.

... But yes, that's a good observation! I hadn't thought of that.

I like that the miraculous child is the creator of dreams, and lives in a kind of impenetrable void from which such dreams are crafted.

Derdekeas, Wednesday, 11 July 2018 23:29 (two years ago) link

K's lifetime is that of a child. Like Roy Batty, he learns to revel in the brief moments he's given, choosing to defy the purpose for which he was made.

The wooden horse is everything. For me, that's the whole movie.

Peter Chung, Thursday, 12 July 2018 01:12 (two years ago) link

To tie this back to the topic-
what makes Blade Runner 2049 a valuable work is the canny use of an android character to embody life's impermanence.
K's journey and final attainment are moving in a way that's surprising and uniquely shaped by the viewing experience.

There are many things about the fictional story that are unresolved and illogical, but they don't matter.
The narrative has done its job, and it profits no one to dwell on it beyond that point.

Peter Chung, Thursday, 12 July 2018 08:34 (two years ago) link

Yes, there’s a necessary level to good narrative that allows the participation of the viewer in determining meaning, even beyond interpretation.

I have a lot of thoughts about what the horse signifies in a larger cultural sense, and it’s the role of a chosen symbolism to provide a certain open-endedness if a work is to prove itself of any real value in th obscure traffic of time.

Derdekeas, Tuesday, 17 July 2018 22:55 (two years ago) link

three weeks pass...

I came across this today and it has been bothering me. Apparently it has been sweeping awards and earning raves.

http://escapepod.org/2012/05/17/ep345-the-paper-menagerie/

It's a succinct example of everything wrong with current audiences. I mostly blame the public for swallowing this nonsense, though I detect a fair willingness to pander on the writer's part.
As an Asian American, I will say I find this kind of thing supremely facile and tedious. Sorry.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 8 August 2018 05:03 (two years ago) link

I suppose if I were to write a story about my Bollenhut-wearing German immigant mom whose cuckoo clock golems I snidely rejected, I wouldn't win quite as many awards.

oder doch?, Wednesday, 8 August 2018 11:00 (two years ago) link

I think I must have read this before instead of finishing the Three Body Problem, which the author translated, but I didn't remember much of it. It strikes me as being more in the mode of a fable rather than SF/Fantasy. What were you expecting from it?

Philip Nunez, Wednesday, 8 August 2018 16:16 (two years ago) link

It's all here. Literal-minded, didactic, with a hefty dose of narcissistic fixation with identity.
Whatever emotional charge to be gotten is simply delivered in the most expository language possible. Nothing to infer, therefore no emotion to arise from within.
There is not even the effort to write the mother's letter in words that are believable as her voice. Everyone knows what a mother's letter reads like, and it is not this.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 8 August 2018 17:16 (two years ago) link

Would you say the author's error was in delineating too much or too little?

Philip Nunez, Wednesday, 8 August 2018 17:30 (two years ago) link

I'm sorry I gave this more time and exposure than it warrants. I don't care about this story, but it's the general shift of the audience's mindset that is troubling.

To clear away the bad taste, I will give a push for something worth your time.
I rewatched Patrice Leconte's 1989 film Monsieur Hire a few days ago.
As good as I remembered, and I found a new clip I will be using in class next semester.

I remember watching Ex Machina and thinking Leconte's film did it better. Confirmed.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 8 August 2018 17:42 (two years ago) link

Do you feel like this is a shift mainly in un-discerning audiences, or do you think it's global?

Philip Nunez, Wednesday, 8 August 2018 18:20 (two years ago) link

eight months pass...

"Do you feel like this is a shift mainly in un-discerning audiences, or do you think it's global?"

Both. Global audiences are becoming un-discerning. It is the increasing pace at which media is consumed. There is so much scripted content available and it is becoming blunter, less nuanced, more simplistic.
It's literal-mindedness, which I realize now to be a symptom of cultural infantilization.
It is not the stories, but the artless manner in which they are being told. Everything is shaped by an underlying fear- a very unhealthy fear that the audience might not understand, and therefore must have everything spelled out for them.
For people working in TV (as I am currently), there is often the view that "sure, it would be better if we could get by with less explaining, but if we do explain, what's the harm?"
For me, the harm is real, and it is insidious. It is nothing less than a theft of what should be the rights of the audience.

Peter Chung, Saturday, 20 April 2019 17:05 (two years ago) link

"Often, films challenge morals: what is right, what is wrong, and what happens when you pick a side. There are times, however, when nothing is resolved yet the question lingers throughout the film. This is the baffling case of The Cold Lands, an inferior case study on doing the right thing."

https://screenanarchy.com/2014/03/review-the-cold-lands.html

Really enjoyed The Cold Lands, BTW.

Blair Gilbreath, Saturday, 20 April 2019 20:00 (two years ago) link

It gets more butts in seats if everyone can understand and share in the same understanding, especially when you're selling to a global market. It's a huge problem.

OTOH, I saw The Missing Pieces (the add-on film/collection of deleted scenes from Fire Walk With Me) recently. A lot of it is extraneous material that I'm fine with snipping out, but everything in the room above the convenience store is amazing and really helps to contextualize the rest of the film. It's still a great movie, but I wonder if it would've been better received if those scenes hadn't been edited so brutally. It's a rare case of too much information being left out.

Blair Gilbreath, Saturday, 20 April 2019 20:26 (two years ago) link

I am dealing daily with the push and pull between the demands of commercial programming and my hope to promote an optimal viewer experience.
I can observe from the process and the public response, a vindication of clarity (obviousness) over true viewer engagement.

At Cartoon Network, showrunners are discouraged from building their shows on long arcs that require the viewer to track relationships and plot details in favor of self-contained episodes.
The reasoning, of course, is that one limits viewership as casual viewers will not be able to jump in on a series midway without being lost - and bored. Accessibility.

This perceived dichotomy / dilemma is due to the mistaken belief in story as the primary focus of viewer interest. I have tried to watch a portion of Steven Universe recently and could not get enough of a grip. If you don't know the plot so far, it is unwatchable, as so much of the information is given through exposition rather than through contextual means. The truth is that you can manage to devise a manner of engaging the viewer, the details of plot become unimportant, or better yet, appreciable through contextual clues. It is the manner of engagement, not the particulars of plot that are always the true reason why viewers seek the viewing experience. There exist shows that can be enjoyed without any prior knowledge, and that is all the proof you need.

Producers always get this relationship between the viewing experience and the story backwards. They think the story is the attraction and that the pleasure of viewing is the bonus. It's the other way around.

Peter Chung, Monday, 22 April 2019 04:24 (two years ago) link

<i>Steven Universe</i> is extremely lore-heavy and 160 episodes in at this point, in its defense. The first season or two were very easy to watch without context. As the audience was built they got more confident with the serialization; same thing applied to <i>Adventure Time</i>. My guess is that CN gave them more rope after acquiring ratings success?

Nhex, Monday, 22 April 2019 04:35 (two years ago) link

I understand that it is lore-heavy, but to allow that to excuse the show being unwatchable to novice viewers is to admit that the show lacks interest apart from its story (lore).
That is exactly what I am complaining about.
In the case of Adventure Time, I find later episodes engaging in spite of my not knowing the context. Still too much expository talk, but watchable.

Peter Chung, Monday, 22 April 2019 05:58 (two years ago) link

Ha, you should see the how rabid online fanbases for SU treat it. I love the standalone episodes just as well, but the diehards clamor for more "main storyline" episodes like you wouldn't believe.

Nhex, Monday, 22 April 2019 14:25 (two years ago) link

That is what I have noticed, and it's what prompted me to post. I'm currently at Cartoon Network, and have gotten to know Rebecca a little. Lovely person, dedicated and very talented. And I have seen the fan obsession up close.

Peter Chung, Monday, 22 April 2019 17:31 (two years ago) link


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