We Can Only Tell the Stories We Know

A lot of people loved the first Matrix movie. I did as well. Unlike me, an awful lot of people who watched the next two movies didn’t like them at all. The story didn’t seem to go the way they wanted, or seemed pointless, or didn’t have enough of what made the first movie great. It’s understandable, in a way. The first movie was the traditional Coming of Age story people know and love: the Hero learns of his destiny, gradually accumulates understanding of his power and role, and ends the movie committed to his cause and in the fullness of his power. Yay! It’s very traditional, the ending is happy and all go-get-’em-feel-good-pow that audiences love. It’s a character arc that can do nothing but rise.

So when the Wachowski brothers continued the story, with the understandable desire to finish the saga of Neo and the Matrix and all that stuff, it wasn’t received as well. The character arc dipped and meandered, things happened that people didn’t expect or particularly care for, and vilification ensued. It wasn’t what the audience wanted.

Well, you know what, audience? Tough titty.

It took me a while to learn something, and it wasn’t until I finished Crack’d Pot Trail by Steven Erikson that I learned this valuable (for me) lesson. It was an odd epiphany to receive from a short novel ostensibly about two necromancers who are being hunted for committing some pretty heinous crimes. In point of fact, though, the book has a lot more to do with Art, its creation, creators, consumers, rabid fans, critics, and the rest who couldn’t care less. The story is told from the point of view of a storyteller, appropriately enough, and it helped open my eyes to a simple fact: storytellers can only tell the stories as they know them. The Story exists, and all the writer can do is produce it as best he can using the words he knows and the quirks he brings to the style.

I mean, yeah, I know that sounds obvious as shit. But an important element to that is that the storyteller can’t worry about his audience or his fans or expectations or any of that stuff that just muddies the waters. The minute a writer worries more about the audience than the actual process of creation, it’s over. The writer is doomed. An inventive story suddenly becomes a cliché, a pastiche of elements that worked in other stories, a tired collection of the same old shit that others have done before. It may still be successful, sure, but any writer that goes into a story trying to please the audience is lessening their chance to create something memorable, different, or unique.

Too often, writers worry about whether they are Doing It Right. They read articles about the Top Five Things Writers Do Wrong, they stress about Rules of Success, they obsess over quotes from other writers who’ve been dead for 50 years and use them as their Guideposts to Proper Storytelling. The end result is second-guessing, forcing narratives, stilted writing, writer’s block, and sometimes just the overwhelming feeling of You Know What, I Can’t Do This Shit At All and I’m Just Gonna Give Up Entirely.

Or maybe it’s just me. It’s certainly possible. I suspect it isn’t, but whatever. I’ll assume it is just me, since it’s the only perspective I know at least 75% of the time. I’ve struggled writing the sequel to The Curse of Troius for a while now. I fretted over the story I was telling. I’d gotten feedback that said I Was Doing It Wrong. I had characters from the first book that were static and really doing nothing in the second book, which meant they weren’t in the story at all or gone for a long stretch. Traditional wisdom says that people who liked the first book would be upset by this. I tried to think of ways to make them do stuff. I couldn’t. I also had new characters doing things and moving around for no as-yet clearly discernible reason, people whose role wouldn’t become greater until later books. I considered chopping them out, shifting focus back to older characters, and making those people do active and involved things.

But, the problem is, that’s not what happens.

In Curse, I have a character utter a quote I got from somewhere else that I can’t trace the exact origin of (I got it from Dave Sim who was quoting [I believe] Alan Moore) but adore, and it’s this: All Stories Are True. The story I’m telling happened. Yes, it happened only in my head, but it happened, and it happened the way I see it in my head. As much as I know that there are elements that people will consider Mistakes, I know many of those elements are Wrong on purpose. It’s the story I know, and it’s the only one I can tell in a way that is true to the story itself. I can’t worry about making people happy, because worrying about making people happy made me completely unable to write at all. Well, fuck the people. I can’t please them intentionally. I can only hope they like the stories I know, and like the way I present them.

A while ago, I watched a couple of movies on DVD back-to-back. The first was Sucker Punch and the other was Battle: Los Angeles. Most of my friends loved B:LA because the story was familiar and clichéd but reveled in that fact and made no apologies for it. The movie was what it was, a fun shoot-’em-up blasting aliens and individual heroism and all that shit. I liked it. I’ve never met anyone that loved Sucker Punch, though. It’s a hard movie to love. I don’t love it. It’s weird and doesn’t end the way I wanted it to. I wanted the happy ending. I wanted to see those girls all free and happy, I wanted the Bad Guys to all get what was coming to them. I didn’t get the ending that I wanted, and I imagine most everyone who saw it felt the same way.

Thing is, I don’t really ever think about Battle: Los Angeles. It happened, I was entertained for two hours, and haven’t given it much thought afterwards. Sucker Punch, though…. That movie fucked with me. It fucked with my head for a long time. I thought about it a lot over the week after I saw it, and I still occasionally think about it. It defied the conventions and defied my desire for the traditional Hollywood ending I’m used to. That fucked with me. I was angry that a certain character never got his comeuppance. In short, I gave a shit. I still do. It still bothers me to this day. And by telling the story as he knew it, by not giving me or anyone else the ending they wanted, Zach Snyder created something that I will never fucking forget. It was successful, thanks mostly to international audiences, making about $90 million. B:LA made over $200 million. But for me, Sucker Punch was better, because it was memorable.

I think there is only one mistake writers or painters or artists in general can make: listening too much to other people about what they should or shouldn’t do. Rules of Grammar are (somewhat) important: other than that, take the rules, shred them the fuck up, and tell the stories you know. Let someone else decide if they like it or not. That’s their right. But it’s not their right to dictate to you what to say or how to say. That’s your right, and yours alone.

Again, maybe it’s just me. Maybe this doesn’t make any sense to anyone but me. I’m OK with that. I’m writing again. I don’t give a shit about whether I’m telling the story I should. I’m telling the one I know.

About Alan Edwards

Former cancer caregiver. Husband of the most magical and amazing person who ever lived.

Posted on September 26, 2011, in Philosophizin' and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I hadn’t thought about this much, but you are right – we have to tell the stories as they are “told” to us by the characters/muse/whatever-the-fuck in order to be true to our art.

    Yes, I worry TONS about what people will think about my books. Did I totally fuck myself by killing off so-and-so? Should I have handled that gang bang differently or ditched it all together? There are a lot of concerns about how my ideas will be received. I’m struggling hardcore with a particular character who’ll get his own book after my trilogy finishes. He’s the most loved character in my series so far, but he’s not what he seems. AT ALL. Should I remain true to his real character or paint him as the guy everyone wants him to be? If I compromise and do a little of both, t’s gonna be a really tough balancing act.

    Thanks a lot for forcing me think today, Alan. You’re a bastard. 🙂

    • Hahahaha, my brain wouldn’t shut up about it, so I decided to inflict that whole thinking thing on the rest of you. =P

      I struggle with that whole balancing act too. I think I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to stick with treating the characters in the way that resonates most with me personally as “true”. I think it’s the best I can do. Plus they get mad if I don’t.

  2. I think some people love “sad” or non-hero endings purely because it does mess with their emotions… but I’m still angry about Sturm’s death in the first DragonLance novel over 15 years after reading the book, not to mention what happens to *redacted* in the first season of Game of Thrones. I am obviously not one of these masochistic people. 😉 Then again, one of favorite McCaffrey novels kills off the heroine and I still feel that kind of sad pride over a hero sacrificing herself for others. I guess it’s all in the WAY you write it, not what you write.

    I don’t think I could ever do that to a reader, but damned if I don’t respect a writer that goes for it whether it’s the “right” ending or not. Congrats on breaking through the inner editor/audience member. 😉

    • I know what you mean about Sturm. That affected me a lot, even though re-reading it made it clear that it was coming. It didn’t make it any better.

      And thank you! It was hard making that breakthrough. My inner editor is my NEMESIS.

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