June 13, 2020

Writing Inside the Lines

There is a certain type of poem called a sestina. I've written two of them, and let me tell you, they are tough. Rather than relying on rhyme and meter, they employ a pattern of six words that end each line in the first six stanzas, and then end or are contained in the final three lines. The six words also change which line they appear in in each stanza. If that sounds complicated, that's because it is. However, sestinas are a great form because they force you to write a good poem. You have to end the lines on those words, which means you must construct your sentences carefully. Also, if you don't want it to sound repetitive, you had better play with the meaning and connotation of those six words. You can't noodle around. You can't slack off. If you're going to write a sestina, you really have to care about it.

I think this idea of writing with certain rules can improve most stories. Especially in a world oversaturated with shock-value, twist endings, and an anyone-can-die mentality, writing inside the lines, so to speak, forces writers to be careful. When writers must practice restraint, their stories are prevented from going over the top, flying off the rails, and all that other awful stuff that our media is so glutted with recently. They have to care, and their stories will be better for it.

One example of this is the storytelling in traditionally animated films or those that use practical effects versus that in CGI. While some CGI films do have heartfelt storytelling, there are hundreds more that are a waste of the data used to make them. And while there are some weird or awkward 2-D films, I feel like the ratio of good to bad is far higher than in CGI. As for practical effects, they almost always work better in their tone and feeling than slapping up a bunch of ritzy computer graphics because you can. Why this discrepancy? Because traditional animation and practical effects are more expensive and time consuming than CGI. Thus, the creators have to be darned sure that their movie really needs a specific scene or character or monster. These elements can't just be thrown in with CGI. The creators have to self-edit, which leads to a tighter story with less fluff and kibble crammed on.

Another example is in scary stories made for children instead of adults. Because there are certain expectations--like you can't have gore, or killers running around murdering extras left and right--writers are forced to come up with more detailed monsters and worlds, which leads to creepier or more in-depth stories. Compare, say, Coraline, to 90% of monster movie for adults. The Bel-Dame is similar to a classic folklore monster, in that she seems to have limitation--she has to actually lure children and coax them in, rather than just grabbing them and sewing buttons into their eyes. She isn't your typical semi-omnipotent adult movie ghost who can go anywhere and kill anyone for no reason, but that makes her scarier. We know what she's capable of, and it's way worse than just killing someone in the bloodiest way possible.

Knowing how a story ends is also something that's been on my mind lately, due to two shows in particular: Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Tangled: The Series. Both of these shows are part of larger franchises. Not only must they use the previously established characters and settings of those worlds, but both have a previously established ending. So how does that affect what the writers are allowed to do in these stories?

We all know how the Clone Wars end: Order 66, the fall of the Jedi Order, and the establishment of the Empire. This knowledge, however, adds to the tension of the series rather than detracting from it. Every time there is a scene of the clone troopers bonding with their Jedi generals, in the back of your mind you can't help but think of the Order 66 scene in Revenge of the Sith. It adds a nice, thick layer of angst to what would otherwise be a normal military adventure show. We also know that Anakin goes to the Dark Side and why he does, but now (unlike in the movie), we get to see that slow progression toward it. We really get to like him as a character, but every so often, he'll be a little too ready to force choke someone, or flip out about slavery, or freak when those close to him are in mortal danger. It's fascinating getting to see his gradual growth into a more Vader-like personality. And, finally, there is Anakin's apprentice, the fan-favorite Ahsoka Tano. She's in the show from its pilot episode, but she's not in the movie. So the question of what happens to her, and where is she when Order 66 goes down, is always present just offscreen. That's suspense! That's drama!

You also have Tangled: the Series, aka Rapunzel's Tangled Adventure, which is sandwiched between the movie and the short film "Tangled Ever After", where we see Eugene and Rapunzel get married. Thus, we know that her hair is going to get cut short again (it regrows magically in the pilot); so we can wonder and speculate as to how that's going to happen, now that her golden hair is back and unbreakable. We know that the main cast all lives, so the drama comes not from anyone-can-die, but from interpersonal relationships: Can this person be trusted? Will these people remain friends? Could any of these fallouts have been prevented? Perhaps the best part of this show's being a spin-off is what it does for the romance. Eugene and Rapunzel are in love at the beginning of the show, and they're in love at the end. We know this. Thus, we don't have any stupid "will they or won't they" or love triangles or anything. The drama comes from Rapunzel not feeling ready for the responsibilities of marriage (or princessing, for that matter), and Eugene wanting to settle down but still being patient and supporting her. It's one of the best romances ever written, and it's in a show for children. Maybe it's one of the best romances because it's in a show for children.

So the next time you are strapped for how to make your story more compelling, maybe impose a rule on yourself. How can you evoke horror without showing violence? How can you create a tense situation if you're not allowed to kill characters? How might showing the ending of a story first change how the audience experiences the rest of it? It might be a fun exercise, and it will almost certainly produce something better than mere shock value or twist endings could.

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