On Leaving Things Unsaid

Twice in the past couple of weeks, while channel surfing, I’ve come across Fargo, the 1996 Coen Brothers classic right at that point where there’s enough left to make it worth watching the rest, even if it’s not the beginning. For what it’s worth, that point – both times! – was after Jerry’s unsuccessful parking lot pitch to his father in law, after which he has a little freak out in the parking lot.

Fargo is one of my favorite movies and I’ve seen it over and over, but I still get new things out of it. These two times around one thing jumped out at my writer brain that hadn’t registered before. It has to do not with what was on screen, but what wasn’t.

What drives the plot of Fargo is that hapless car salesman Jerry Lundegaard needs money and is willing to do just about anything to do it. He tries to scam his wealthy father-in-law to “investing” in a parking lot development deal. He’s running some kind of game with the GMAC finance people, too. And, of course, there’s the eventual plot he hatches to have two goons kidnap his wife (who’s wealthy father will then pay an inflated ransom to get back) that ends with a lot of dead bodies.

We know all this. We see the machinations, see the wheels turning. One of the best scenes in the movie is after the kidnapping when we hear Jerry on the phone calling his father-in-law to tell him his wife has been kidnapped. Only he’s not on the phone (the shot starts with him off screen) – he’s rehearing the call he’s going to make, getting his scheme down pat. We hear him fend off the GMAC guy on the phone. And we see him deal with the two goons.

What occurred to me rewatching recently is what we don’t see, what we don’t learn. For a start, we have no idea how much money Jerry needs. It must be substantial, as he’s only going to pay the goons $40k initially on the kidnapping, while setting the ransom at $1 million and that’s only one of his many ongoing schemes. Still, we don’t know a number. Nor do we know to whom Jerry owes a substantial debt. It could be a bank, the result of a failed legit investment or business, or it could be gambling debts that he owes to the mob. Again, we just don’t know.

I think this is a pretty brilliant bit of storytelling. Typically, story gurus will say, you should give your main character a clear goal that they struggle to achieve through the course of your story. But sometimes the rule needs to be broken and I think Fargo is one of those places. If we know how much Jerry needs, the story shifts from being one about a scheme spiraling out of control to one about whether Jerry is going to succeed. If we know why he needs the money it shifts our perception a bit and we’ll be more invested in Jerry’s success. We probably don’t want the mob to break his legs, right?

What all this does is keep us as viewers from getting too close to Jerry, from caring about him succeeding. I think it’s a conscious choice by the Coens to keep us from empathizing with him, as you normally do with a main character. You could certainly try to produce a story where the readers or viewers try to empathize with a guy who gets his own wife, not to mention half-dozen other people, killed as his scheme goes off the rails, but that would be a different story than Fargo. This also allows the moral center of the film to be Marge, who doesn’t even show up until about a third of the way in (coincidentally right after I found the movie on TV these past times).

This isn’t the way to go for most stories. Certainly if you want your main character to be viewed as a hero, even a flawed one, you need to let readers know why they’re doing what they’re doing. But sometimes that’s not what you want. Sometimes you want the guy who sets in motion the disposal of a dead body in a woodchipper to just be a bastard through and through. Who needs to get on board with that?

Some New Music: In the Year of the Plague

I will not lie – there’s been one thing I’ve really enjoyed about the past year of pandemic fucked life. I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to keep working from home during the whole thing without any real impact on my daily work. One side effect of that is that without commuting time on workdays, I had a lot more time on my hands.

What a boon that must have been for creativity! So much more time to write!

Yeah, well, about that. Whether it was the constant creeping doom around the world or just the fact that Widows of the Empire and Heroes of the Empire are being difficult, I didn’t turn all that extra time into a new books. Not yet, at least.

What I did do was make some music.

And here it is. All of these songs were started or finished (in most cases both) during 2020. Not many are actually pandemic related, but just being able to use the extra time to quickly follow up on ideas and moods definitely played a role. With a couple of exceptions, none of them have been uploaded until now.

Not all of these songs fit the Pandemic Year mold. “Shadow Weaver” and “A Vulgar Surplus” both developed out of ideas I had sketched out in 2014 and rediscovered last year after I moved some old projects into my newer DAW. Ironically enough, “In the Year of the Plague” itself went through several fits and starts, with the final version only taking shape this spring. Maybe that says something about the long tendrils of our COVID year. Or not.

A couple of other notes. “The Laminated Llama” arose from an experiment with the SynthOne app on my iPad. “Please Scream Inside Your Heart” is my first experiment with sound collage, with a nod toward “The Waiting Room” from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. It was inspired by news reports about a reopening Japanese theme park’s advice for having COVID-preventative fun. The samples are taken from various loop libraries and the BBC’s sound effect archive, along with some insect sounds recorded by me at Babcock State Park on a hike.

This isn’t a collection of doom and gloom. That’s lurking in a lot of the sonic crevices, but I hope that it’s also about finding some fun and beauty in the face of a world in crisis. I had fun putting these tunes together. Hope you get some enjoyment listening to them.

The artwork here is by frank_to_artist on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license. Modified by yours truly.

On Horror . . . IN SPAAACCCEEE!!!

I love a good dust up over genre boundaries. Whether it’s sci-fi versus fantasy or prog rock versus anything, I get sucked into these things. Part of it’s a genuine curiosity about where the lines are drawn. Part of it, honestly, is see what can be some spectacularly wrong takes.

So it was that, last week, I was drawn to a Twitter dust up of an interesting opinion – can you have horror is space?

It started this way:

The first response seems about right:

Makes sense, right? I mean, it’s a movie where a monster – which happens to be an alien – kills victim after victim in a single locale – a spaceship – forcing the hero to pull it together and kick ass. It’s a horror flick. It’s sci-fi.

Not to the original questioner, who followed up:

I’m not sure I’m convinced, mainly because I think “horror” is both a genre unto itself and also a type of story.

Let me make an analogy to progressive rock. At its inception, prog was a descriptive term, a generic label for all kinds of music that was pushing the boundaries of what was contemporary rock at the time. When the genre’s popularity tailed off it wound up giving birth to a particular idea of music defined by a handful of stereotypical features – long songs, focus on instrumental passages, mythical/literary lyrical topics. Later on, newer bands influenced by the original wave of prog started making their own music in the style of those original bands. Thus, “prog” became both a descriptive term and a style.

Horror is kind of like that. There definitely is a genre of horror stories, but there’s also the fact that horror stories can be told in all kinds of different settings. Some may involve supernatural elements, some may not. Some may be set in modern times, other may have a historical setting. Relevant to the discussion here, you can also have horror stories set in the future and, yes, in space. They may be sci-fi (or fantasy), but that doesn’t keep them from being horror stories, too.

In the end, that’s one of the cool things about speculative fiction. Whether sci-fi or fantasy, it’s more of a setting or milieu than a story type in itself. Either genre can support stories from romance to mystery to satire to daring heist caper. Given that, it doesn’t make any sense to say that being a sci-fi story precludes that same story from being a horror story, too.

For what it’s worth, the final vote tally was like something out of one of those “dictator for life” elections somewhere:

Oof.

The Proper Calibration of Stakes

Every story – well, nearly every story – is about characters trying to accomplish something. Depending on what kind of story it is – comedy, weepy family drama, thriller – the stakes are going to be completely different. Dude, Where’s My Car? is an appropriately low set of stakes to use to move the plot along in a stoner comedy. In a serious character piece, not so much (although now I’m thinking of it as a long form commentary on existential dread and maybe?). Every story needs the right stakes.

In sci-fi and fantasy stories are often told against big, bold backdrops – starships that travel between alien worlds or weird fantasy worlds sprawling with orcs fairies and all the rest. As a result, it can sometimes be too easy to let the stakes get too big. It’s worth remembering that as the stakes spiral out of control, it can impact the story you’re trying to tell and the reactions readers or viewers are going to have. The bigger the stakes, sometimes perversely, the lower the dramatic tension.

What is generally regarded as the best of the Star Trek movies? Wrath of Khan, right?

Think about what the stakes are in that movie. It doesn’t have anything to do with saving Earth or the Federation. It starts out with Kirk not going gently into retirement and slides into a mano-a-mano (or shipo-a-shipo, I guess) fueled by revenge. Yes, there’s the whole Genesis device stuff, but even that isn’t the kind of universe shattering stuff the drives the plot in later movies (why is the Enterprise always the only Federation ship in the neighborhood?!). It works so well because it’s about a few people, doing desperate things.

Which makes a lot of sense, because lots of old Trek episodes were just like that. Most episodes revolved around getting one of the main trial – Kirk, Spock, & McCoy – out of trouble. Occasionally the entire Enterprise is at risk, but never (that I can remember, anyway) was there a “we have to save the galaxy” episode. Even the later series that had some big bads – the Borg, the Dominion – used their galaxy-spanning threat sparingly.

Lots of the other Trek movies fall into the trap of making the stakes saving the entire fucking galaxy (or Solar System, at least). Superhero movies tend to do this a lot, too. The problem is that once you’ve put the entire world/galaxy/universe at peril, how likely is it that our heroes – be they Avengers or Starfleeters – to fail?

Another example where keeping the stakes low really helps is The Wolverine, the second stand-alone flick featuring the beclawed X-man.

It takes a break from the usual huge stakes of the X-Men movies (the mid-end-credit scene sets up precisely that – the need to save the world – for the next flick) and tells a story that focuses on Wolverine’s history and demons. The action is great, the story flows, and it never really goes beyond Japan. You get the sense that all this happened without any real impact on the outside world – but it story works precisely because it’s so personal and contained.

This all came to mind while I was reading Lindsay Ellis’ Axiom’s End a little while back.

It’s a pretty good read and that’s largely due to the fact that for a long time it’s first contact story doesn’t have the hugest of stakes. What’s interesting is how the human main character and the alien she starts to help have to learn to communicate with each other and how to deal with the baggage each of them bring to the table just as members of their particular species. There’s some danger involved, naturally, but the stakes are fairly limited. That is, until about the last third of the book, where a threat to the Earth materializes. That doesn’t ruin things, but I was a bit disappointed.

I can’t say I’ve done a lot for reigning in stakes in my own work. Both The Water Road and the Unari Empire trilogies have pretty high stakes, if you consider the fate of nations to be high stakes (most would). They seemed natural for those stories, though, and since neither of them take place in our world, there’s no inherent need for any particular endings. Moore Hollow is considerably narrower and more personal, which is what I wanted from the get go, so that worked out well there.

As usual, there’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to figuring out how high the stakes should be in a story. Sometimes saving the universe is just right. Sometimes, all you need to do is have the characters make their way from Point A to Point B, having some fun and adventures along the way. Like anything else, it needs to be carefully considered to figure out what works best for the story you want to tell.