story writing

I can’t turn it off

So we went to see Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows a couple of nights ago. It was decent, if not amazing; it was more a straightforward action-adventure movie than a mystery, and the script was crammed with obviously deliberate Holmes-on-Watson shipping subtext, but the pace was cracking and the characters interesting. I liked the first one more, but this was okay.

Afterwards, though, there was a post-movie -dinner conversation about the fate of one character who is killed off early in the film (no spoilers – well, unless you count ‘people die’ as a spoiler). Everyone found the death unsatisfying and a waste of an interesting character, and a number of my friends speculated that perhaps the character faked his/her death, and wasn’t really dead, and what had really happened was an elaborate ruse.

I came back with my standard response to this sort of thing: ‘Well, nothing ‘really’ happened. These are actors performing from a script, not real people, and nothing that’s not up on the screen is part of the narrative. Unless there’s a scene in which the death is shown to be a fake, there’s nothing else to say.’

And this makes me sound like a boor with a stick up my butt, I know. That may in fact be true. Lord knows I can be a humourless git at times. But what I’m trying to say that is when I read a book or see a movie or whatever, all I see is the text; all I see is what’s there in front of me. Because that’s the thing that actually exists, that can be analysed and understood and picked apart, that’s the thing that causes an intellectual/aesthetic/imaginative/indigestive reaction in me. It’s an artefact that can be understood and/or appreciated for its own beauty.

But for many readers, there is the urge to extrapolate, to imagine further; to see the book/story/movie as a window into another reality about which statements can be made. This is the fanfic urge, the worldbuilding urge; the urge to see implications, to imagine the unseen scenes between the ones on screen/the page, to see the text as a partial glimpse of something larger.

And it’s fundamentally an urge I don’t understand. And my inability to understand that desire and that state of mind – to see a text as reportage rather than artifice – is something I often wish I could overcome. I think I’m missing something, because to me the book is only ever words on a page. Hopefully smart, beautiful, well-chosen and properly-punctuated words, words that make my brain race as I stitch together imagery and meaning from them… but still, I can’t understand how you go outside the text, how you can ask whether what happened on the page/screen was what really happened.

Nothing really happened. Someone made it up. And I always feel that that’s a much more amazing and wondrous thing that the notion that the author/creator is someone just channelling a reality that exists somewhere else.

If you like to imagine books as windows into another reality, one that can be envisioned and then examined… honestly, I kind of envy you. That’s pretty cool. There are times when I’d like to turn off the constant analytic assessor in my head and believe, even if only for a second, even if only as a deliberate choice. But I can’t, and when conversations turn to that, I get a bit incomprehending and should probably learn to be quiet.

I have a similar mix of incomprehension about, for example JK Rowling’s claims that the character of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter novels is gay. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read any of them, but I did hear about this in the news on a slow day a few years ago.) As I understand it, when criticised for not including any gay characters, she said that Dumbledore was gay but that she chose not to include any signs or suggestions within the text that that was the case. But that’s fine, because the character has a reality, and this utterly-invisible reality is enough to deflect any criticism.

This is my Potter-truth

For me, that’s the same as saying that Dumbledore was actually an animated chocolate golem, or fought crime as Batman between novels. Sure, it never came up in print, but if he can be gay without, y’know, being gay, then my theory that Harry is actually a sackful of ferrets perfectly pretending to be a human being is just as valid, because that’s a reality that just doesn’t happened to be mentioned in the text. And yet, if I say that loudly at Potter conventions, suddenly I’m the guy escorted from the building by security and beaten up in an alley by Hermoine cosplayers. Again.

Mind you, saying that you can’t extrapolate from the text isn’t the same as saying there’s no such thing as subtext. Subtext is the foundation of meaning upon which a narrative rests; it’s not overt, but it’s still internal the text. Extrapolation, on the other hand, is external to the text; it’s the reader/viewer bringing their own desires to the material and reshaping the narrative to fit. Which is an interesting process, and it’s one I’d like to understand more, but it doesn’t seem to be doable. This is the way my head is, and I can’t turn it off; all I can do when I encounter a text is dissect it on its own terms. It can’t be real for me; it can only be a crafted object.

But on the flip side, there’s something great about taking books (and movies and plays and comics, yeah, but mostly books) on their own terms – as works of craft and art and imagination. For me, saying that all there is is what’s on the page isn’t a way of denigrating narrative, or saying that those who like to extrapolate are crazy/bad/wrong/Republican; it’s a way of celebrating the text and the act of creating it. Text is a joyous thing; text is what you get when a (hopefully) passionate, inspired writer sets out to create a thing of beauty. To celebrate it for what it is, rather than what it can be inferred to be, is no different than celebrating the Sistine Chapel ceiling as a work of great artistry, skill and technique, rather than as an accurate depiction of God and, um, whoever the other guy is. Is it Adam? That would make sense, I suppose. But I don’t need to know that in order to appreciate the power of the work, and I don’t think we need to act like a narrative is ‘real’ to still acknowledge its power and its worth.

Invention is more fun than extrapolation. If only so we can argue that it was the Potter-ferrets that faked their death to throw Sherlock off their trail.

13 replies on “I can’t turn it off”

Thanks for this post! I think I understand your position much more clearly now. A question, though: does this mean that, when you write, there’s never any detail about the world/characters/plot which, despite having occurred to you, doesn’t make it into the final product? Because while I’d understand if that were so, I think it’s probably true for quite a lot of authors (particularly epic fantasy authors) that there’s always going to be bits of worldbuilding info that are left over, most of which will be written down in any form ranging from deleted scenes to character notes. I also know of quite a few authors who now include or release those extra scraps of information as extras on their websites, or in special editions of the book: but if that detail is never formally “published” in the same way the book is, does that make it less textual to you than if it had been in the book to begin with?

I’m assuming you have no problem with the idea that the information contained in Book 2 of a series can be used to help analyse the characters as extant in Book 1 – that continuity and subtext can carry across volumes or installments. But it seems strange to me to deny the textual validity of certain ideas on the basis that they haven’t been formally published, despite having been publicly stated and written down by the author. It seems to be hinting at the idea (and I’m not saying you believe this; it just strikes me as being something one could infer from the stance, assuming I’ve interpreted correctly) that some forms of writing/publication are more legitimate than others; that there’s a point at which an author’s worldbuilding data goes from being illegitimate (Rowling’s claim that Dumbeldore is gay) to legitimate (the posthumous publication of Tolkien’s unfinished stories and notes about Middle Earth) purely on the basis of whether someone has paid money for the data.

So, curious: what’s the uppermost bounds of what you’d consider to be canon/textual? Where does it start to blur?

Hi Foz!

First up, sorry for taking so long to reply; it’s been a week of lots to do and a strange reluctance to engage people on this topic.

There’s a lot here, so I’m going to focus on a few points.

Writing extra detail – no, I don’t do that. Well, I also don’t tend to write the kind of stories that involve worldbuilding in the first place, but in something like, say, Hotel Flamingo, I didn’t bother to think up anything that didn’t appear in the text. The things that matter to the narrative are there, and vice versa, the things that aren’t there don’t matter to the narrative, so I don’t bother thinking them up. I know that a lot of writers, gamers and creators do come up with that level of hidden detail that lets them come to grips with their material, and that’s cool and I salute them for it. Me, I generally don’t even know what my characters look like.

Worldbuilding – as you might gather, this doesn’t do a lot for me. That said, I have worked on RPG projects and setting design, and obviously those involve worldbuilding. When I’ve done so, I’ve focused as much as possibly (to the point of exclusion if I can get away with it) on details that directly impact play and will be obvious and overt in play. Information that doesn’t affect play, but that ‘only’ impacts a player’s feel for the character and setting, isn’t something I’ve spent much time or wordcount on if I can help it. There’s nothing wrong with such material, and I know many players treasure it because it helps them immerse in a setting – but I’m much more interested in helping to create a satisfying session of gameplay than in fostering immersion, so that’s where I put my energies. My approach to writing is pretty similar; I want to create a narrative that’s engaging to read, rather than immerse the reader into a world.

Canon – The thing that I am perhaps most knowledgeable about in this world is the DC Universe – and let us pause for a moment in hushed awe and sadness to consider what that says about me. That’s one of the most heavily developed settings that exists in modern literature, one where a massive body of (often self-contradictory) canon and continuity has amassed, one that I know a lot about. But that canon on its own is boring; I’ve owned things like ‘Who’s Who in the DCU’ and Gotham City guidebooks, and they’re not 1/100th as interesting as actual comics. So that canon is a tool for making interesting comics, rather than interesting comics existing to further develop the DCU canon. Continuity is a resource, not an end in itself, and when it gets in the way of a good story, the best comics either ignore it or quickly explain the change away to get on with what matters, like giant robots and starfish aliens.

Legitimacy – That’s not what I’m trying to get at. It’s not about legitimacy, it’s about what’s interesting – and, specifically, what I find interesting and how I approach a text. I’m interested in the narrative above all else, but I’m also primarily (perhaps solely) interested in the narrative AS A NARRATIVE (sorry, can’t italicise for emphasis in comments) – as a crafted work of fiction. If the author creates concepts outside of a narrative framework, I just don’t tend to find them interesting to read or engage with. To put it another way, I’m generally more interested in the way words are used to tell a story than I am in the story that’s being told.

Bounds of canon – I don’t know if I can really answer that. Canon’s a resource; all that matters is that the story being told with it is interesting and engaging. Ditto textual bounds. If it’s in a good story, terrific; if it’s not, I don’t think it’s bad, I just don’t have much interest in it. I know that that sounds like I’m dodging the question, but I’m not; to be honest, it’s a hard question for me to understand. It’s all stuff that’s made up, so it’s not like some of it’s realer than others. To me, anyway.

Any of that make sense?

There are a couple of things going on here.

First: everything you are told is reportage which opens a window on a wider world. The evening news is a more-or-less accurate story, which reflects (we hope) things that happened, which all rely on other things which happened, which we must speculate about to make sense of events. And we’re used to making those speculations, we get into the habit of wondering what else happened that we weren’t told.

Second: we are all too used to stories, especially mysteries, which rely on things we aren’t told for the solution. We forced to imagine the wider world impacting on the story, as we are constrained by the size of the window of what the author shows you. (Murder By Death hung a lampshade on this concept, then strung it with neon and tinsel.)

There are stories which tell you everything you need to know, there are stories which hide things from you, and there are stories which hint at more.

The stories which tell you everything are like chinese puzzles: part of the fun is to read them the second time to see all the clues you missed the first time.

The stories which tell you next to nothing are like being a real investigator: you know only scraps, and have to figure out what happened from glimpses and sparks.

It’s the other ones which spark cults. Lord of the Rings and the like, where the story trips over hints of a larger, coherent, world: of a history and a future and things happening off screen which don’t have anything to do with the plot, but may or may not be relevant. You know what happens in the story, but there are all these tangents and side tracks you feel like you could follow. Where the door opens and you don’t see the back of the set, but a corridor, which leads… somewhere.

Fanfic and the like is about wondering what’s at the other end of that corridor.

I’m not sure I’m seeing the link between discussing what might work better — or be cool, or whatnot — and “the author/creator is someone just channelling a reality that exists somewhere else”.

(And there are totally signs in the book that Dumbledore is gay, but I can understand JK doesn’t want to own up to them in public.)

Having said that, all my own fiction (alas for the dead, etc) only ever existed in the words I made. They defined it for me.

After discussions with other people it seems one difference is that I am a really non-visual person, and other really do visualise what is happening. That surely involves adding extraneous detail by default.

Patrick, I know what you mean about this. I once took friends to see the Spanish horror movie Rec. Afterwards, one of them kept coming up with scenarios that allowed characters to live and or be saved. She even came up with an alternative ending and said: ‘I reckon that’s how it should have ended.’ Interestingly, that friend is a novelist.

I’m like you. I see and appreciate the text. Nothing beyond it intrudes in my reading of that text. And I don’t understand it when people posit alternatives.

My theory is that the people who like to invent world outside the bounds of a particular narrative are frustrated writers who are not satisfied with what they’ve seen and think they can do better. I think this is what’s driving an aspect of the slash fiction phenomenon. Either that or the people have been overly influenced by postmodernism’s notion of ongoing intertextuality — that an original text doesn’t matter. It is merely a leaping off point for an entire other narrative that depends largely on the reader.

I find it so strange that a person (er, that is to say: you, a person I know, no less) who not only writes stories but also roleplays stories has this outlook on them. Surely that’s what roleplaying *is*. It’s saying: “Here is a world, here is some people in it, now extrapolate what happens, start filling in gaps with ‘yeah but then’.”

Holmes is a particularly great example for this, because he was one of the first mass-market publishing phenomena which had a fandom that did exactly that- imagined the stories were ‘real’ (the fact that they were ostensibly set in the ‘real’ world and occasionally interacted with actual historical events probably contributed to this, but that doesn’t stop fans of Star Trek from [endlessly] extrapolating tiny hints from episodes into entire worlds and cultures) and then hypothesizing further details about Holmes, even if those details weren’t strictly outlined by Conan Doyle.

The actual Lord of the Rings story was, by far, the minor portion of the writing Tolkien did to create middle earth. He wrote entire languages beforehand, mapped out vast histories that only tangentially intersected with the events of the novel itself. There’s a great bit on the making of DVD for the films, where the actor who plays Theoden (Bernard Hill) is describing his armour. There were three layers, each one intricately, finely detailed with beautiful images- but the audience only ever saw the top layer- the two layers beneath that were almost completely obscured. But, Hill said, *he* knew they were there, and that made him feel like a king, which changed his performance.

LotR is obviously a special example but the principle is universal. If a work *didn’t* encourage me to ‘imagine further’, to wonder about the fate of the characters, to explore the concepts laid out by the book, to talk about them with friends, I’d consider it something of a failure and probably forget about it pretty quickly. Because fiction is about transmitting ideas, and if those ideas don’t encourage and stimulate the imagination, has anything happened at all?

As an actor, I often thought way too much about the life my characters might have had outside the confines of the script. This often has no importance to the story you see on the stage (or screen, or page I suppose) but for me, invested as I would become in the character I was playing, it became part of my understanding of how to make them seem real. Sometimes you just don’t get anything to go on except half a dozen lines of dialogue, and especially if the piece is a bit weird, that might not seem like enough on which to hang a believable performance.

I’ve put that in the past tense because I try not to do this any more, and I don’t do it much for other people’s fiction (well, not unless I think there’s a joke in it). But I do find it entertaining, and mores, part of the process of understanding the fiction – especially when a character’s fate seemed inadequately explained, or too short, as with the character you mention above.

The other reason I might wonder about a wider world is one that applies to me as an actor and as a role-player. In both instances, I’m participating in someone else’s world; one that I will help flesh out, but one that’s not my own nonetheless. What kind of character would I play in this TV series? What kind of character would I make if I played in this campaign setting? Of course campaign settings are designed as worlds in which to invent your own stories, which is perhaps opposite to what narrative fiction does, but you get the idea.

Oh, and there’s totally evidence Dumbledore is gay in the HP books. In fact, there’s a plot point or two that don’t really make sense otherwise, though because they’re part of the backstory (albeit a fairly important part) rather than the current one, it’s easy for those so inclined to ignore.

I think in game of Shadows there are clues that Adler did not die. The primary one is that when Watson sees the handkerchief he looks stricken. Holmes looks disturbed, smells the handkerchief and the looks of disturbance drops away as he does so- ergo, he detects some clue which leads him to believe Adler is still alive- this is totally consistent with the first film (and the opening scene of the second) in which basically everything Adler does is a double-bluff. Combined with the fact that Adler knew she was under observation and great threat from Moriarty, plus the fact that her death is only reported as an observation from Moriarty rather than portrayed directly (indeed, the camera very specifically does not portray her fall) all adds up to (in a movie about as subtle as a hammer to the face) indicate that all is not as it seems- so saying: “Unless there’s a scene in which the death is shown to be a fake, there’s nothing else to say.” comes across as… completely out of character for a person I know to be so damnably smart.

Another problem with the sort of literary existentialism that statement advocates is that it effectively wipes out some of the greatest ambiguities in fiction, and that greatly reduces the value of those works. Did Tony Soprano’s life end in the last instant of The Sopranos? “Doesn’t matter, wasn’t portrayed onscreen.” But that remains THE question about the entire series, and it’s debated endlessly. If you ignore the clues seeded throughout the entire season and stick purely to what’s ‘onscreen’, then nothing happens at all. If you don’t believe in the fiction, if you don’t care about what the answer is, then the fiction has failed, utterly. It’s failed to make you BELIEVE. Is Cobb still dreaming? Is Deckard a replicant? Is Shane alive or dead as his horse rides into the sunset? Is Buffy actually in a mental institution? Was all of Deep Space Nine actually written by a sci-fi writer in the 1950s?

Presumably there aren’t *actually* wires coming out of everyone’s heads in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, but we *infer* what is ‘really’ happening by interpreting the text. And that’s the crux here- ALL reading is inference from the text. You may say you don’t do it, but you do, all readers do- and must. The text says there is a chair, but doesn’t say what sort, so you fill in the blanks. The text says a man walks in, but doesn’t describe him, so you fill in the blanks. Then he says something that doesn’t jibe with that mental image, so you update it accordingly. Extrapolating from the text *is* reading- theorizing about ‘what happened next’ is purely a continuation of that imaginative process. You don’t have to be a ‘frustrated writer’ to do it- just an interested reader.

If Woman Whose Name I Cannot Recall And Can’t Be Bothered to Look Up (WWNICRACBBTLU) is dead, she’s dead. Until another movie is released that says she’s alive, in which case she’s alive. It doesn’t matter for the purposes of the story. Does the spinning thingy fall at the end of Inception? What happens after the credits roll after the final episode of Blake’s 7? Extrapolation can be really fun, but it doesn’t ‘matter’ (if that’s the correct word) any more than fan-fic. Which can also be fun, I’m sure.

I’m not sure matter is the correct word- or if it is then I’m not sure what definition you’re using. Whether or not the ‘spinning thingy’ falls at the end of Inception IS the purpose of the story- the movie is painstakingly constructed around that moment. To disregard it, and every ambiguity in fiction (and let’s be clear, Adler’s death IS ambiguous- if it was explicit in the text then we WOULDN’T be debating it- we’re not, for example, debating whether or not Moriarty is dead, because there are no clues in the text that imply he is not), is to deny the point of reading fiction, and even more importantly the point of TALKING about story at all- the synthesis of the reader and the writer’s imaginations is beautiful and subtle and oblique and yes, it’s fun to discuss how each different reader interpreted the text. Patrick interpreted Adler to be dead. I interpreted her to be not. That is interesting. Saying: “There is no such thing as subtext.” is boring, and, more importantly, incorrect.

I think the distinction between subtext & ‘inferring stuff you shouldn’t’ is a bit cheaty (subtext is what the author MEANT for you to see, the rest is naughty fanficcing) but the reason I enjoy it is because it’s a distinction raised by an author shaking his fist at the postmodern sky and saying “YOU SHOULD ONLY SEE WHAT I MEAN FOR YOU TO SEE!”

Didn’t postmodernity kill off the supremacy of authorial intention? Do we always know what’s at the heart of what we do, or say, or write?

I once heard an anecdote about an author (I think it was Margaret Drabble?) who apparently said repeatedly in interviews “This book is not about my father.” Say it one more time and I might not believe you, Margaret. 🙂

But the distinction between subtext and inference is being arbitrarily defined in this instance- Patrick didn’t see any onscreen evidence that Adler survived, and that is his reading of the film and it’s totally valid, it is ‘literally’ what happened. My reading of the film is that there were multiple clues that she did survive (or, at least, that all was not as it seemed), not because of fanciful inference, but because of what was implicit (in fact, carefully crafted) in the text. This is also a valid reading of the film. Now that’s this specific example. Dumbledore is another specific example where there are subtextual clues about his choice of partners (of course he was in love with Grindelwald- the story doesn’t make sense otherwise) but, being a children’s book, it’s not explicit- it’s still a part of the story, it’s just open to interpretation (as, indeed, is all the homoerotic subtext in the Holmes movies). There aren’t any clues that Potter is a sackful of ferrets pretending to be human, so that is not really open to interpretation.

But what Patrick appeared to be saying, in general, is that only explicit textual information is valid: “Nothing that’s not up on the screen is part of the narrative.” I reject this. There IS a world outside what is explicit in the text- the implicit world. Yes, it is imaginary and it is fluid and it does depend on your reading of the text, but it is also informed by the text.

The common thread here is the idea of some kind of final authority- we keep using words like ‘shouldn’t’ and ‘really’ and ‘it doesn’t matter’, which, as you point out Sarah, is something of an illusion. Authors very frequently (in some cases very famously) put subconscious biases (fears, particularly) into their creations- to say they are the final authority is questionable. We can certainly debate about what the author put in and intended and what was explicit and what was implicit, and that’s mad fun and that’s why we do it. But to draw a line in the sand and to say: “If it’s not in the text, it’s not something I consider.” is, I think, a statement that rejects the idea of subtext. (“This episode of Star Trek isn’t about Vietnam! It’s in space! Vietnam isn’t in space!”)

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