That thing where the person thought you knew the context of the thing.

Vaguely related to my last post, I suppose–that was about how one story can be dressed up in the shape of a different kind of story, and this is about how one story can be dressed up as itself but be misread as to what that is.

I saw Wonder Woman. (Not recently, and I mean, I think everyone saw Wonder Woman.) And I was discussing it with someone else who’d seen it, and they mentioned that they’d thought the movie hadn’t explained enough of the story. I thought the movie worked fine for explanations, but I figured that I have some cultural-background-radiation familiarity with Wonder Woman, and am generally pretty happy to sit back and watch for world-building anyway, so I asked for clarification.

They felt that if the movie was going to reference existing Greek myths about the Amazons and Themiscira, and use those as the basis of the story, they should include more details. For example, since they put time into bringing up the story about Themiscira being protected from the outside world, that was obviously something that should have mattered, and they should have explained why and how it was that way so that it wasn’t jarring when everyone got through the protection.

(This was when I started re-examining my casual assumptions about how much of what I knew about Wonder Woman was general-culture background radiation, and how much of it was my-specific-subculture background radiation.)

I mean, on the one hand, it certainly makes sense; if a story establishes something, you expect it to come back to that thing. That’s basic stuff, Chekov’s Gun sitting right there. And yet no-one else I personally know assumed that the story of Themiscira was about things that were supposed to come up; it was just a story about things that were.

I think every genre has this, to some degree. In an office romance, the annoying co-worker’s horseback-riding hobby may not signal that she is going to try to trample anyone. In a mystery, the police sergeant’s impeccable grooming may never be a plot point. Some things establish setting and character, and some things are a hook for action; the two don’t have to overlap, although they can.

(It’s like in Escape from L.A. The gizmos that Snake gets given all come up as plot points throughout the movie. On the flipside, the evangelical moral purity of America and the catchphrase “Call me Snake” do not; they establish the setting, but they aren’t keys to the events.)

((I can’t believe I’m discussing Wonder Woman and Escape from L.A. in the same post.))

I haven’t quite figured out exactly what signals the difference between establishing points and action points to the viewer, and clearly it’s subjective, but I’m turning it over; if I can figure it out, it’ll be useful for being able to convey a story’s promise more clearly.

(And I’ve just gotten my first rejection of the year! The quest for centiBrads continues.)

Advertisements

That thing where the thing looks like another thing but isn’t.

I’ve been watching Riverdale (a fact which has prompted a little self-analysis of what exactly I like in a movie or TV show, but that is neither here nor there), and a recent episode did something that I’m sure there should be a term for.

(Spoilers follow. Oh yes.)

Riverdale, for those of you who don’t watch it, is a pulpy neo-noir crime soap teen drama thriller with a faintly retro feel. It’s clearly fond of classic movies (every episode is named after one, usually crime or thriller but sometimes horror). It’s not quite real in a couple of subtle ways. All the main characters are juniors, but they’re also seventeen years old, for example.

One of the patterns (not hard rules) that leaving Riverdale doesn’t quite work. In the show, three people have done so. One is Jason Blossom: he died. One is “Mrs Grundy”; she made it to Greendale, but was murdered. One was Joaquin, who left by going on a bus to San Junipero – that’s the eponymous town from an episode of Black Mirror which is actually a fictional world where people’s consciousnesses are uploaded after death. (Before the show began, there was also Archie’s mother, and Hermione Lodge – they both start outside Riverdale and come back to it.) Archie’s mother gets to leave again, but overall, the pattern you see again and again is that people don’t leave Riverdale, and if they do they die.

So. The episode I’m thinking of was called “Tales from the Darkside” and told three short related stories.

In the first, Jughead owes someone a favour, so he needs to deliver a crate to Greendale. He doesn’t have a car, so he asks Archie to drive his, and while they’re en route a tire blows out. A truck driver comes by; he says he’s going to Greendale, he’s got room for one of them and the crate if they pay him, and Jughead agrees to give him all his money ($18) in exchange for the ride.

The first thing the driver says, once they’re moving, is that for a minute he thought Jughead’s friend was Jason Blossom. The driver (played by Tony Todd) then starts telling Jughead about the Riverdale Reaper, a mass murderer from fifty years ago. They stop for gas, and Jughead discovers that the guy has a dear deer in the back of his truck.

Meanwhile, Archie calls a repair service, gets his tire replaced, and drives on. He reaches the point where the sign on the road says

<- RIVERDALE
GREENDALE ->

and stops for a second. A deer crosses the path, strolls straight across the road, and disappears into the woods behind the sign.

And, alright, practically speaking, it’s not that anyone actually can’t leave. Archie catches up with Jughead and they make the delivery.

But in terms of subtext…

  • Jughead gets a ride from someone.
  • This person, in a show that loves and references movies, and which is specifically referencing horror movies with this episode, is played by the actor who played the urban legend/killer/living story from Candyman, and who was Death in the Final Destination series.
  • The first person the driver indicates he knew is a boy whose defining characteristic throughout the show has been that he’s dead. It drives the entire first season.
  • The first name the driver brings up (and he never brings up his own) is that of the Reaper.
  • This man demands all of Jughead’s money in exchange for ferrying him across the border.
  • We see a living deer as the creature that walks along the border between Riverdale and elsewhere.
  • We see that this man has a slaughtered deer in his truck; literally, the thing that marks the border, destroyed and made powerless.

This is absolutely the story of Jughead being stuck delivering a questionable substance to repay a favour. You know he’s not going to come to a Tales from the Crypt terrible ending. He’s got to stick around. We know this.

But it is also the story of someone being taken across a border by a stranger who is all but wearing a T-shirt saying “Ask me about my role as the Grim Reaper, Guardian of the Threshold and Ominous Bringer of the End.” And we know that as well, and we can enjoy the beats of that story even as we are sure they will never happen. And the beats of that story both exist and shape our expectations of what will actually happen.

There’s a word for this, isn’t there? Telling one story, but telling it in the shape of another?

Counting ink, 2017

I had one story come out this year; “Thou Unnecessary Letter”, which was started in one of Cat Rambo’s classes and published in the Alliteration Ink anthology No Shit, There I Was…. One of the slush jackalopes for the anthology referred to it as “magical alphabet noir”, and I can’t think of a better summary.

I submitted stories 51 times in 2017, and got 46 rejections (43 were from 2017 submissions, and 3 were from submissions made in 2016). I also withdrew two stories (one from a 2017 submission, and one from a 2016 one).

At the end of the year, I had seven stories out. Last year I only managed 36 submissions, and this year I was aiming for 50; next year I’m going to try for 70.

Here’s hoping 2018 is a little gentler all around.