Monday, June 24, 2013

Can A Story Change Your Life? - The Meaning of Plot-Driven: Naoki Urasawa's Monster

If I remember correctly, a suggestive piece of fan art by the Canadian artist kurot was what originally put Monster on my radar.

There's a certain amount of irony to that fact, as I have to admit, on the basis of the series's own art alone, I probably would never have taken the time to look into it.  That isn't to say that it's poorly drawn; the art is perfectly serviceable and suits the story's demands.  It just doesn't call out from the page like a siren's song, compelling readers' (or at least my) attention the way, say, the precision of Takeshi Obata's work in Hikaru no Go or the sheer moeness of the character designs in Kamichu! or K-On!  Worse yet, Monster touches on none of the usual genres or tropes that populate my fictional wheelhouse.  Yet, like all well-crafted mysteries, it poses a single question at the onset that is tantalizing enough to compel its reader to continuing reading long enough for several other questions to be posed - and in turn, their answers sought.  Before long, the unsuspecting reader is barreling headlong through a 18-volume manga series, unable to turn away until the final scene is unveiled and the mysteries - at least the ones that will be answered outright - are revealed.

In my case, I read through all eighteen volumes in a roughly 24-hour period, only pausing to attend classes.  (I believe this was the Fall or Winter quarter my third undergraduate year.)  The urgency with which I consumed each volume was only matched by the profound impact that another Urasawa work would leave on me, several years later.

Aside from being an exemplar of the mystery genre - albeit in graphic form - Monster also reveals how the plotwork and devices of the genre can be used to enhance the plot of non-mystery stories.  The layering of questions-to-be-answered is, at its core, the most elemental function of plot in storytelling; the audience's interest in "what happens next" is the true impetus behind any story.  That interest can be fostered and maintained with beautiful turns of phrase, depth of character or milieu, or fascinating ideas and events, but the most fundamental motivator is the question that cries out for an answer.  When a story's opening compels its audience to read on, it has posed its preliminary question - "what's going on here?" - with enough intrigue to drive readers past its unfamiliar trappings.  And, by the time that the preliminary question is answered, and the audience knows enough about the characters, milieu, and events to understand the story's context, other questions have been raised which demand their own answers:  "Who is she, really?"  "What will they do?"  "Why is all of this happening?"  And "How will it all be resolved - if it's to be resolved at all?"

Posing and answering these questions involves striking a delicate balance.  Too many questions too quickly threatens to overwhelm an audience, while too few or answering them too linearly may cause them to lose interest.  There is also a danger in tying up every loose end so that the story's resolution is so neat and tidy as to feel manufactured, yet too many loose ends left undone makes things seem unfinished, ill-plotted, or simply leave the audience unsatisfied.  It takes a masterful hand to handle plot in a way that satisfies but never seems  contrived.  Monster helped me to realize that much of the trick lies in carefully managing the seed-and-answer cycle of the questions that your fiction raises along the way.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Can a Story Change Your Life? - The Bevelled Edge of Love and Hatred: The Tamir Triad, by Lynn Flewelling

I came across Lynn Flewelling's The Bone Doll's Twin - the first book in the trilogy that she calls The Tamir Triad, succeeded by Hidden Warrior and The Oracle's Queen - via, as those who've been reading this series may be able to guess, a review by OSC.  (While his recent works seem to fall short of the stories he churned out in the 1980s - Ender's Shadow being the exception - and I share very little common ground with his political polemics, the man remains a consummate judge of the storytelling art.)  He would later call it "[p]erhaps the deepest psychological novel I've ever read - the fantasy makes the unconscious issues real.  Gorgeous but dark," and "brilliantly original and moving. This story still haunts me, months after reading the books. . . . Th[ese] book[s] drag[] you through so much emotionally painful territory that you're almost relieved when it's done and you can escape to your safe regular life."

I agree completely with his sentiments, yet for me, The Tamir Triad isn't so much about darkness and pain as it is about their polar opposite.  It's about love in all of its forms - family, fellowship, and romance - how fine a line separates it from hatred, and how subtly a relationship can shift from one mode - or extreme - to another.

The premise of the books is certainly a dark one, and Flewelling doesn't shy away from exploring the grimmer corners of her own magic systems and milieu, or the human psyche in general.  What struck me the most - and haunted me long after reading the books - wasn't the dire acts and situations, but how genuine, wholesome, and loving the relationships that evolved between the principal characters were.  Despite the complications that necessarily flow from the opening acts of The Bone Doll's Twin, the main character's childhood is one surrounded by caring and invested adults, and - as the story progresses - is further enriched by peers of approximate age, and a best friendship that comes to define the course of the story later arcs.  True, many elements of those relationships serve to deepen the plot and punctuate the conflicts; in fact, the corruption of the familial love between the protagonist and a cousin into an embittered hatred between rivals to a throne is perhaps the most tragic aspect of the entire story.  But it is also the strength of those bonds that serve to carry the protagonist and other principal characters through the pain the plot demands - and to emerge from it whole.

While right and wrong may never blur together, there are no one-dimensionally good or evil characters.  Even the nastiest actors are given touch points of understanding, so that even if the reader cannot condone their actions and roots for their downfall, he or she at least can perceive where they are coming from - or, perhaps, where they went wrong.

As with most stories worth discovering, The Tamir Triad leaves you not only with a greater and satisfying understanding of the characters and events in its own world, but imparts greater insight into your own.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Writing Resource: Writing Excuses Podcast

Well into its eight "season," Writing Excuses is a podcast put together by storytellers Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells, and Mary Robinette Kowal.  Each episode is approximately "Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart," and chock full of first-hand advice and wisdom from three successful creative content creators.  Not only does Writing Excuses offer guidance to the scores of one-day creators out there, but it also provides a peak at the perspectives and parlance of those who have made successful inroads into the industry.  Of particular interest to those who - like me - have trouble confining their storytelling to shorter lengths, is a recent episode that focuses on short stories, with Kowal deservedly serving as the topic expert.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Can a Story Change Your Life? - The Value of Suffering: Traitor, by Matthew Stover

This CASCYL installment differs from previous posts in that it looks at a book that's a part of a larger franchise, arguably one of the largest:  the Star Wars Extended Universe.  Traitor, by Matthew (Woodring) Stover was one of the middle novels of the sweeping New Jedi Order series, and as such can be easily overlooked, especially by those who don't have the time or inclination to read up on the other books in the series to get the necessary context.  I would argue, however, that Stover's treatment of the primary characters in Traitor is deep and intimate enough to allow it to work as a stand-alone novel on that basis alone.  While knowledge of the Star Wars and New Jedi Order-specific milieu is certainly helpful, it's not actually required.  The story is about novel's the main character - Jacen Solo, one of the twin offspring of Han Solo and Leia Organa Solo - and his personal growth amidst his captivity by the enemy Yuuzhan Vong forces and the enigmatic Vergere.  But it also contains a send off for another Extended Universe character that is perhaps one of the finest scenes ever rendered in a Star Wars novel.

The hallmark theme of Traitor, as well as what makes it such a gripping and intimate tale, despite its popular sci-fi trappings, is suffering.  Stover explores the theme both directly and philosophically, and the way in which the characters respond to it - and are shaped by it - is an inherently cathartic process that fulfills the primary purpose of fiction:  to give the reader experience of having lived an entirely different life, and the chance to allow the lessons and discoveries made in the process to reshape and redefine his or her own life.

For me, though, Traitor drove home a principle of storytelling that I had never fully accepted:  the notion that  suffering is the force that propels all action in a story.  At some fundamental level I understood this premise; but given the ham-fisted treatment that many YA novels I'd encountered had given it, I'd relegated the direct relationship between suffering and plot development as the province of lesser, more brutal storytellers.  I surmised the link had to be more attenuated to have the nuance and impact that it ought to have; that the whispered word resonates stronger than the utterance shouted at the top of your lungs.  Stover proved that a storyteller can - and, in fact, should - be as brutal toward his characters as the story itself dictates, so long as that brutality is given proper meaning.  Unfettered brutality is a spectacle, an event to be abhorred but never understood.  It happens because it happens.  Brutality coupled with purpose is far more incisive, because the shock-and-awe of the event is inextricably tied to the motives and goals behind it - both those of the in-story tormentor, tormentee, and the overarching daemon who pulls their strings:  the author.  The lesser storyteller uses suffering as a cudgel to bludgeon the plot along the path he or she wants it to travel; the master uses it as a scalpel, concealing the cut marks of his or her work beneath the fully realized actions and motivations of the characters themselves.  The characters' purposes overshadow the author's on stage, to the point where the puppet strings are all but invisible.  The reader thereby is forced not only to witness the spectacle, but understand why it has come to be - why, in many ways, the natures of the attendant characters made it so it had to come to pass - and the dual thrill and horror of that understanding underscores the event, transforms it, beyond all logic and reason, into something bittersweet and beautiful.

Stover never shies away from inflict pain and suffering on his characters in his original fiction - the Acts of Caine series being one of the most prominent examples - but never does he focus as much attention on the nature of that suffering and its metamorphic effects on characters as he does in Traitor.  It's a masterclass of narration, storytelling, and catharsis.