Chuck Wendig: Terribleminds

Apple-Obsessed Author Fella

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Throw Your Links In The Ol’ Link Dump

Hello, Internet, my old friend.

Man, since doing away with a regular edition of Painting With Shotguns (originally mistyped as “Painting With Shoguns,” which is my cable access show wherein I learn how to paint from an ancient Japanese shogun who has been displaced in the timestream), I no longer get to just barf up a bunch of Internet links into your lap. Like, say, the way my dog just barfed on the kitchen floor a half-hour ago because the dummy drinks too much water, too fast. As if we’re going to suddenly make water illegal in this house. Seriously? He’s a very dumb smart dog, that dog.

Anyway. Links. Right.

First and foremost, your task, should you choose to accept it, is to drop a link of your own into the comments. (“Drop a link?” Shut up, you.) Anything will do. Something you find intriguing? Amusing? Controversial? Doesn’t matter if it’s LOLCats or related to the Large Hadron Collider. Bonus points for combining both LOL Cats and the LHC. But please, please, no “Large Hard-On Collider” references, because for fuck’s sake, this is a family site.

Second and secondmost, now I retch links into your open palms and eager eyeholes.


Ich Bin Ein Word Slut

First, because I am nothing if not a whore, did you see that a project I co-wrote with Lance Weiler — COLLAPSUS — is up for an International Digital Emmy? Even though I am not directly nominated, that does not mean I will not exploit the opportunity, placing “Emmy-Nominated” in front of every identifier I can think of. “Emmy-Nominated Pet Owner.” “Emmy-Nominated Liquor Pig.” “Emmy-Nominated Moron.” “Emmy-Nominated Narcissistic Sociopath.” I’ll be at Target:

“A 15-lb bag of dog food, one crate of oranges, and a mysterious vibrating sexual device that looks like a latex possum. That will be $147.82 cents, sir.”

“Don’t you mean, ‘That will be an Emmy-Nominated $147.82 cents, Emmy-Nominated sir?'”


“Never mind, just hand me the goddamn Sex Possum.”

Second, because as noted I am nothing if not a whore, Robin Laws released the short story list for the new Stoneskin Press anthology, The New Hero. My short, “Charcuterie,” is in the mix, which is exciting because I actually don’t think it sucks. It’s even more exciting, however, given the fact that my story is clearly the lettuce in a Meaty Talent Sandwich.

Uhh, hello, Jeff Tidball? Maurice Broaddus? Rich Dansky? Monica Valentinelli? Ken Hite? That’s just a smattering of the goodness. All people I admire, so it’s nice to be in the mix with them.

Linkmonkey For The Inkmonkey

The Hack Manifesto.” Priceless material from Lilith Saintcrow. “My advice on writing is geared pretty specifically toward people who want to make a living at it. It’s also geared to people who love language and want to tell a ripping good story. It is not for Artistes or for fragile speshul flowers who want only squeeful strokes for their delicate, heart-shattering, mindstopping genius.”

JD Rhodes: “Diversify.” JD talks about Amanda Hocking, Snooki, Borders, rejection, and other fiddly bits about publishing and writing in that post. Check it out.

Also: “The days of the “take-care-of-me” writer are gone, folks.  Those writers will not survive in the new environment.  We will lose a lot of talented writers.” Great big essay from Kristine Kathryn Rusch about the changing times in writing and publishing.

Stephen Blackmoore talks about writing his novels and about the soundtracks he gives them. His musical tastes are completely in line with mine: Poe? Massive Attack? Butthole Surfers? Poe’s Haunted is the best album you may have never listened to, by the way.

Miscellaneous Debris

Huzzah, data visualization: visual proof that movies are getting worse.

I’ve recently come to dig reading Ryan Macklin’s blog — here’s a good one about critiquing, and contained within are interesting lessons for any game designer. Follow the Macklin. Follow him into the jaws of Hell.

GQ UK: Top Ten Whiskies. Discuss.

The Army Did Psy-Ops on United States Senators?!

Julie Summerell blogs and inadvertently gives me a glimpse of my child-rearing future and the insidious interrogations I will undergo at the hands of said progeny — “Where Is The Microchip?”

And finally, and I guess this falls a little under self-promo whoring since I helped write and develop Danse Macabre, but here is a White Wolf video where Russell Bailey, Eddy Webb, and Kelley Barnes unbox the book and give a look into its blood-soaked pages:



It Goes Down Smooth: The Shackleton’s Scotch Flash Fiction Results

Crystalline Field

The other day, I said: “Hey, you. That’s right. You. With the clown shoes. And the iguana. And the faint aroma of spoiled milk. It’s time to write a flash fiction challenge based on Shackleton’s Scotch.”

And somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 of you crazy motherfookers stepped out of the shadows and tossed your flash fiction down on the stage and were like, “BOOM goes the dynamite.”

Or something.

Anyway, below I present to you the mighty Shackleton’s Scotch challengers — it’s some good stuff, so do yourself and them a favor, click on over and read away.

Before I present those links, I’ll ask: did you dig the challenge? Do you want more excuses to write flash fiction? Let me know. I could be convinced to do this again.

These Playas Be Ice Cold

(If the fiction had no title listed, instead of going with “untitled” I’m instead listing them with, most frequently, the first sentence of the piece. Also, I’m listing them in the order they were received.)

Josin McQuein: “First You Run Out Of Food, Then Fuel

Dan O’Shea: “Shackleton’s Hootch

Albert Berg: “The Stone Saucer

McDroll: “Whisky Island

David Blakeley: “Inner Child On Forgotten Scotch

Levy Montgomery: “That Single Fly’s Foot

Adam Maxwell: “Bullet Time And The Beer Taxi

Me Myself And I: “I Don’t Drink Anymore

John Kenyon: “Endure

Sparky: “Booze Run

Billy Prophet: “Shackleton’s Scotch

CY Reid: “The Best Laid Plans

Marc Nash: “Drying Out

Ben Kirby: “Last Case Run

KD James: “Scotch On The Rocks

Sean Preston: “Distillation

Gary E. Weller: “Mackinlay’s Samba

Paul Vogt: “Gun Nut

C.M. Stewart: “Snotrunningly

Aiwevanya: “Jeannie In A Bottle

Shullamuth: “A Paean To Spring

Frank McBride: “That Box My Brother And I Buried

DeAnna Knippling: “A Fly In Amber” (use purchase code QN26W)

Rob Hart: “Stealing Shackleton’s Scotch

Madison: “Three Men On A Snow Day

Anthony: “Shackleton’s Magical Whiskey

Orange Tango: “He’s Not Sure Why He Went To The Bar

T.N. Tobias: “A Drink At The Edge

Marian Allen: “For A Few Bottles More

The Plutarchy Cometh

Cash and Bullets

(A brief caveat: this post has the potential to generate discussion, and that discussion runs the risk of being heated. I’m all for being emotionally invested, but the standard rules of “don’t be a dick” apply. Further, a disclaimer: I am not mad if you don’t agree with what I say. Obviously, I think I’m right because, well, duh, I’m me and I am pro-me as much as possible. But I do not demand that you agree with me as long as you don’t demand I agree with you. Civil discourse, pretty please.)

If the middle class is a big balloon, it’s like someone untied the balloon knot and know the thing is slowly but surely leaking air, sputtering around the room like a cartoon dirigible.

This is a pretty cool link right here, featuring eight graphs that detail… well, let’s just say that the title of the page is, “It’s The Inequality, Stupid.”

I just feel like we’re living in truly absurd times. Times that, were you to read about them in a book of fiction, you would say, “Oh! This is satire,” or, “I’m sorry, I don’t really believe this is possible. Pbbbt.”

We live in times when Republicans (and, true, non-Republicans) exalt Ronald Reagan and then, in the same breath, bemoan the many tax hikes they have suffered. Except, what tax hikes? And, hello, Reagan had his own share of tax hikes, people.

Here’s the thing about tax hikes: nobody likes them. Nobody likes having to pay more money for things. But let’s reframe the discussion a little. Let’s say you want your children to go to a great school, so you shell out the money and put them into a great program at a great school and they’re on track to become smart little motherfuckers. Tuition, however, isn’t cheap. So, the school board — which comprises parents who send kids to this very school — approve a cut in tuition to make it more affordable. Sure. Okay. And year after year, they continue to uphold that tuition cut because — duh — they like paying lower tuition. Except, problem: the school can no longer continue to afford the high-end teachers, or the trips, or the classroom computers, so everything drifts downward in terms of quality, which means the education there also drifts downward. (You might call this a “trickle down” effect, if you’re a fan of irony.) The kids that come out of the school are no longer smart little motherfuckers because the school is now on par — or below — with public schools. The desire for cheap tuition outweighed the desire for smart little motherfuckers. Even though those who sent the kids there could afford the original tuition.

If the metaphor seems muddy, let me clear the waters so it is crisp as consomme: the oooh-la-la private school is America, a country once lauded for being a champion on the world stage. We won every motherfucking spelling bee, what up. But now, the “school board” is voting with their own selfish interests, choosing to keep tax cuts which means, in short, we aren’t able to pay for stuff. Roads. Teachers. Arts programs. Cops. Workers. Everything costs money. And we don’t want to pay for it. More importantly, the wealthy don’t want to pay for it because, duh, they’re wealthy. They don’t give a fuck about roads because, I dunno, they have secret hovercrafts or some shit. They can afford top-shelf schooling. They don’t care about what the country has now or can do, they only care about what’s in their Zurich accounts.

And let’s follow that chain — campaign finance and lobbying confirms that money talks in our political system. Which means that those with money can make things happen. Which means that the wealthy can take greater advantage of the political system through various loopholes and exploits. Which means that they’re constantly going to vote in their own favor, whiiiiich meaaaaans we are moving swiftly toward an oligarchy, or, more specifically, a plutarchy, where the rich rule. Do I have that right? So, all those blah blah patriotic blah blah “Democracy!” blah blah trumpeter assholes are saying one thing but voting for another thing entirely which is a crass dismantling of democratic ideals. The Tea Party, which continues to advocate that it’s for the common man (in many cases not just the common man but actually the lowest common denominator man — the modern American Neanderthal), is actually funded by big money dick-cankers like the Koch Brothers who actually want to reduce the common man’s bargaining power which in turn gives more power to the government. That’s not small government, you shitheads.

(Er, not you shitheads, my fine feathered readers.)

I see the question bandied about: why do Americans continuously vote against their own well-being? We vote against healthcare for everybody which seems like a total no-brainer (yay healthy people, healthy country!). We vote against teachers. We vote against improving our infrastructure. We vote “for” smaller government by stupidly voting for big government. We vote against our own income bracket and for the income brackets way above our meager heads. Why?

Because we believe a lie.

We believe that “get rich quick” should be cross-stitched on every flag flying at every American home. We believe that we are one day going to be rich, and so this illusion keeps us from voting against the rich — in fact, it convinces us to vote for them in big ways. “What’s that? A bill that says that rich people should be allowed to murder poor people in the streets with sabers? Well, sure! I mean, no, no, I know, I’m not rich right now, but soon as my Wacky Plumbing Widget hits the big-time, I too will be able to slay the poor with my saber! Ha ha ha! Stupid poor people! Okay, I’m going to go buy more Ramen now.”

You see a lot of blustery hoodoo about raising taxes on the rich and not those below them. There is this sense that such a move would be unfair — as if “fairness” figures into this game at all — and further as if this would be a socialist move. Let’s talk about that a little.

First, socialism exists across many echelons of our government. Social security smells of socialism. It’s right there in the name. Socialism is also a much nicer program than “let’s give all the power to the super-rich and hope they decide to support all us bottom-feeders and pray that trickle-down doesn’t mean the trickle of urine spattering upon our heads.” (AKA, “Golden Shower Economics.”)

Second, let’s get shut of the idea that a single tax rate across the board creates an equal economic condition for all. Let’s say that I have ten dollars, and you have a million dollars. Let’s say that the tax rate is 10% (because yay for easy math!). The gubmint take a dollar from me, leaving me with nine. Uncle Sam takes $100,000 from you, leaving you with $900,000. Equal tax rate, fair across the board. Ah, but. Now that I don’t have a dollar, an unholy host of things now fall outside the “Shit I Can Actually Afford” purview. My ten dollar co-pay? Can’t afford it. A ten dollar McDonald’s meal for my family? Can’t afford it. New pair of super-discounted sneakers? Bzzt, nope. On the other hand, you’ve still got nine hundred thousand dollars. Sure, some things might have slipped from your economic grasp like, say, a jetboat made of other jetboats, or a floating island where you force hobos to compete in your own version of The Hunger Games, but you can still afford all the essentials. You can afford most luxuries, actually. Plus, money at that level suffers a Gremlins-like phenomenon: it multiplies a lot faster because you have more of it to multiply. Your money makes money. My money goes towards not dying.

Do you see, then, how the system is already unfair?

Power is consolidating in the hands of the rich. It doesn’t trickle-down because companies have left this country so it “trickles” in rivulets and runnulets away from American citizens. And yet we continue to reward this behavior, like giving a treat to a pit bull who keeps biting our hand time and time again.

And meanwhile, we continue to watch as the Republicans — who, by the way, at their core have compelling notions of personal moral and fiscal responsibility — devolve into a party of mustache-twirling villains. You can tell they’re villains because anytime Michelle Obama comes out with a smiling, friendly initiative the GOP swiftly moves to cut it down just on principle. “Kids shouldn’t have diabetes? Yes they should! Screw you, First Lady! Diabetes is a choice. I won’t let your big government take that away from my kids!”

It’s almost comical how swiftly the Republicans act like the American people are the enemy, constantly trashing initiatives that serve the best interest of the common man. I feel like a crazy person yelling about Soylent Green. “We’re eating each other!” America gets fatter and stupider and meaner and weirder and we just watch the shadow puppets dance on the wall, convinced that one day someone will hand the marionette strings to us and so we continue to vote in favor of the puppet-makers and puppet-masters.

Meanwhile the Democrats continue their “not-in-the-face” policy while the Republicans continue their “oh-hell-yes-in-the-face” policy. Are we losing our minds over here?

How the hell do we get this train back on the tracks?

Human Google Makes Twitter Chili

Slicey Slice

In case you missed it, once upon a time I wrote an article titled, “In Twitter We Trust.” The article, found at The Escapist, basically posits the notion that our circle of trust — which comprises and completes that mystical thing we call “word-of-mouth” — is broadened greatly by use of social media. Further, it puts forth the idea that social media can, in a hive-mindy way, become what I call “Human Google.”

Ask the Twitter hive-mind a question, get an answer.

Try it. It’s good clean fun.

You can ask the hive-mind anything, really. How’s that new movie? How do I spackle a hole in drywall? Pants, or no pants? Why does my right nipple excrete a fluid that could be described as both “buttery” and “Satanic?” Ask a question, get an answer. A perfect system.

The great thing about Human Google is that it offers us something that search engines generally don’t — and maybe can’t: meaningful filter. Google doesn’t know me. It wants to. It thinks that some alchemical combination of data “cookies” defines me, but it doesn’t. What defines me is, in part, my relationships to others. So, when I say to Google, “Hey, Google, what are the essential ingredients for chili?” it returns to me 180,000+ results. And even on the first page, it has my question wrong in spaces — it thinks I’m talking about chili powder, or Thai chilis, or Rozonda Thomas from the defunct R&B girl group, TLC. (Okay, it didn’t really think I was talking about her until the fourth or fifth page.)

On the other hand, when I turn to Twitter and I say, “Hello, excellent humans of Twitter, please bequeath unto me the essential ingredients to chili,” I get a flood of great answers.

What did I learn?

Well, I learned that chili recipes are as individual as the people who make it. I mean, snowflakes don’t have shit on the uniqueness of chili. We’re not talking subtle regional variants. We’re talking straight up different animals. This goes well-beyond the Texas Versus Cincinnati cage match. This goes far past the muddy trenches of beans versus no beans. Ingredients given included, but were not limited to: ground beef, stew beef, steak, short rib, pork, bison, Italian sausage, chicken, chorizo, tomato sauce, tomato paste, pinto beans, kidney beans, chili beans, white beans, black beans, beer, Coca-Cola, Scotch, coffee, Jalapenos, Chipotles, Anaheims, Thai hots, bell peppers, sweet peppers, habaneros, Sriracha, Tabasco sauce, cinnamon, cumin, cilantro, onion, carrots, celery, giardiniera, garlic, lime juice, fish sauce, cocoa, melted chocolate, butternut squash, peanut butter, molasses, human souls, and dictators.

I now believe that there may be no more diverse a dish than a bowl of goddamn chili.

Anyway, this is what I put in my chili yesterday: ground round, ground pork, two sweet bell peppers, one yellow onion, two Jalapeno peppers, one can each of kidney beans, pinto beans, white beans, a small can of tomato paste, a medium can of diced tomatoes, a large can of tomato puree, one cup of dark black coffee, a 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar, two TBs of Worcestershire sauce, two TBs of brown sugar, two bay leaves, a bunch of diced garlic (cooked with the meat), sweet smoky paprika, cumin, chili powder, cocoa chili powder, cayenne, ground pepper, a squirt of Sriracha. Simmer for six hours. At the end of it, top of fresh grated Havarti cheese (all I had on hand, but worked really well) and fresh lime juice.

Let me tell you — and this came from Justin Achilli and others, this suggestion — the lime juice is the fucking kicker, the corker, the game winner. I mean, it totally elevated the flavor profile of this chili. I will never again make chili without that final spurt of lime juice at the finish line.

Great stuff. And crowdsourced in part by the power of Human Google. Computers don’t need to give us the answers. Computers can instead facilitate us giving one another the answers.

That, and really weird porn.

Worldbuilding Is A Kind Of Masturbation

Sunset On A New Planet

I stand here planning for a new project, and this new project demands all manner of monstrous monstrousness (or, rather, creature-flavored creatureology), and in that, I want to wrap my head around the world in which the project’s tale will take place. In doing so, I envision the task before me…

…which manifests as a deep dark hole waiting at my feet. Occasionally I see shapes squirming down there in the tenebrous depths: glinty flinty eyes and writhing labial squid beasts and snot-slick hell-squirrels flying little rotflcopters and other assorted hallucinations of one’s infinite (and utterly diseased) mind. Horrific as it may sound, as a writer I am delighted by such morbid fantastical explorations and it is therefore quite tempting to leap boldly forth and pirouette in mid-air and plunge into that fictional chasm where the monsters lurk, where realms untold await, where the hell-squirrels worship their belching hell-squirrel god.

I could truly get lost in there.

I could wander its disturbed creative depths, a man lost in a maze of his own making.

Ah, but I am given pause. I have a story to tell, after all. I have a book to write from this. If I engage with my made-up world endlessly anon, then the book will never get done. And it is then that I am reminded (as I have said this in the past): worldbuilding is a kind of masturbation. It is not in and of itself a bad thing so much as it can be a fruitless endeavor given over only to the expression of onanistic narrative ejaculations — *fap fap fap* and blammo! Upon the page I eject my wad and leave behind in crumpled-up story tissues endless pages revealing the lineage of the unicorn-kings, the ancient language of the Flarnsmen of Jibeau, the secret geomantic architectural blueprints of the chattering hell-squirrels.

My thesis, then, is this:

Worldbuilding should be a slave to storytelling, not vice versa.

Okay, Squid Beast, What The Hell Does That Mean, Exactly?

It means, quite simply: in terms of doing any prep-work for your story, it behooves you to first conceive of the story you want to tell at all levels of complexity (from the barest level of boy meets girl to the more complex outline, treatment or synopsis) and then use the world to prop up your story. Worldbuilding can:

Fill in blanks, drive home theme, untangle plot knots, accentuate the characters, it can even bring about fresh and unexpected conflict. (It can probably do more, I just got lazy and stopped thinking about it.)

But my opinion  is that worldbuilding can only easily do these things for you if you let it serve the story (rather than putting a gun to the head of the story and forcing it to serve the setting).

Here There Be Hell-Squirrels: The Dangers Of World-Building

To be clear, I am not saying that worldbuilding is itself bad — how I could I possibly justify that as a guy who (much as I myself hate to do it) puts outlining and prep-work on a pedestal?

What I’m suggesting is that worldbuilding-before-story-conception threatens you, the intrepid penmonkey, with a number of perils which could ensnare your best efforts.

What perils, you ask?

First, as noted, it’s quite easy to get lost in worldbuilding and do so endlessly without ever accomplishing anything of substance. When I recently stared down the barrel of this upcoming project, I opened my notefile and started furiously taking notes and then — an hour later, I was left to wonder, what the hell am I doing? None of this matters in terms of the story I want to tell. It’s just piffle, waffle, kerfuffle, and other words ending in -ffle. Was it a fun distraction? Sure. It was lovely. As a pure creative exercise I guess it had some merit. But it did nothing to help me understand my story better. I was just playing with myself.

Second, a story offers you boundaries. You work on an outline or at least have an idea in your mind as to the story you want to tell, that story is like a fence or, better still, the dark lines of an image in a coloring book. You’ve created margins, and from that point, worldbuilding is about staying in the margins. If you lead with world creation, however, you’re in danger of going so far astray that you have no focus, no purpose, no theme or mood or character hooks or whatever. It’s like going to Home Depot and buying up the whole tool department just to hang a fucking painting. Rein yourself in, you frothy stallion, you.

Third, it’s easy to become obligated to the storyworld over your story. “Oh,” you say, “I worked so very hard on describing the psychic pseudo-cultural breeding habits of the unicorn-kings, and even though I don’t really have any place for them exactly, I don’t want to waste the 11,000 words I’ve expended on this subject. And so I shall include a chapter in my book about it. The reader will consider it bonus material!”

Fourth, and this is related to the last point: uncontrolled worldbuilding threatens to intrude upon your tale in the form of the much-and-correctly-reviled… infodump. “Here! I will now force-feed you the fruits of my world-building labors!” *splurch*

And Now A Deviation Into Kidney-Punching Fantasy Novels

I used to like fantasy novels as a kid, but less so these days. It’s not that I don’t still enjoy them — theoretically, I do — but rather that I never know when a good fantasy series is going to suddenly become mesmerized by its own worldbuilding. Too many novels devolve this way and go goo-goo ga-ga over their own sense of setting and culture. It drives me a bit buggy. A popular series of fantasy novels which rhymes with The Meal Of Wine or perhaps The Glockenspiel Of Crime started off at a rip-roaring pace. But then each book got slower and slower, trapped deeper and deeper in its own mire of story-world minutiae. By Book Number Seventy-Four-And-A-Half, the entire 1,242 page epic took place over seven minutes and spent approximately 14,000 words on the subject of fabric.

Then again, these books sold approximately one jizzillion copies, so maybe you shouldn’t listen to me.

Writer Paul S. Kemp (whose website is here and who writes awesome Star Wars books using his mighty thews) said something interesting on Twitter yesterday, though: “Incidentally, one of the reasons I love Sword & Sorcery is the de-emphasis on worldbuilding and focus on characters.” I say this without having devoted a great deal of effort to disprove it, but I agree with him. I think part of it is procedural: pulp writers didn’t have a lot of time to dick around with worldbuilding. They just had to get their hands dirty and jump right in. Even still, it’s an interesting lesson.

This Is Less True (And Perhaps Not True At All) If You’re Writing Games

By the way, and maybe I should’ve said this earlier, I don’t consider this lesson all that hearty if you’re working on game narrative rather than something more linear. I’ve noted in the past that traditional storytelling is about communicating the story of the author, whereas game-based storytelling is about communicating–or, rather, facilitating–the story of the game player.

In that case, worldbuilding is king. I come from the roleplaying industry, and there it’s very much about getting muddy in the trenches and talking up the crazy culture of vampire horticulture or about the designer drugs of mystic hobo hermaphrodites. There you have a license to sort of create wantonly, but in traditional storytelling you are more reined in.

How does this figure into transmedia? Uhhhh. Answer unclear, ask again later? No, really, I don’t know. I think to some degree transmedia efforts sometimes feel hollow or shallow (or perhaps even shollow!) because they spend so much time on the worlds they build and so little time on the stories that drive the experience. Then again, if the transmedia components are largely game-based, well…

*throws down smoke bomb, avoids topic, lets you people talk about it*

I Like Italics

Seriously, just look around. Italics everywhere.

YMMV, IMHO, Bippity-Boppity-Boo

I’m not saying you cannot worldbuild.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t worldbuild.

I am merely saying that the worlds you build should be in service to the stories you want to tell. You may choose to do otherwise, and you may in fact choose to do otherwise quite successfully. But, as always, terribleminds is very much about the writing life I happen to lead, and this is one of those things I believe about myself in terms of Getting The Job Done With Minimum Fuss And Narrative Masturbation.

Feel free to slip-and-slide down in the comments. Am I crazy? Am I full of shit? Am I onto something despite my crazy full-of-shittedness? Sound off, my little hell-squirrels.

Storytelling And The Art Of Sadness

The Little Sad Flower

Sadness is not a particularly jazzy topic, is it? It’s actually rather enervating. You bring up “sadness” and it’s not like — “Whoo! Haha! Fucking yes. Wendig is talking about sadness! Grief? Regret? Sorrow? Loss? Uhh, hello — yes, yes, yes and yes. Hot diggity dog! This is like an amusement park ride inside my brain!”

*rad guitar lick*

*fills pants with the effluence of joy*

Who the fuck wants to talk about sad shit? Blech. I don’t know what day it is in your house, but it’s Monday all up in mine, and on Monday, I’d much rather be looking forward to more delightful topics: “Yesterday, I had a wonderful spot of tea with a particularly irascible leprechaun and his wombat steed! The finger sandwiches were made of children’s laughs! Unbridled wonder and pegasus dreams!”

Alas. It just ain’t to be. Because today I want to talk about sadness in storytelling.

I’m going to say something now — a thing that is unproven and only barely thought of (shut up, it’s Monday, I can hardly feel my legs), but slosh it around your brain-mouth, see how it tastes:

At the heart of every good story lurks sadness.

I’ve talked in the past about a story’s “emotional core” (in a post where I also refer to it as the “narrative vagina”), but here I’m wondering if the emotional core has a core all its own — like the black cyanide seeds at the heart of an apple — and that core is composed of raw, unfiltered sadness.

I don’t mean to suggest that sadness lurks at the heart of only sad stories — to that, I offer an exclamatory “duh!” and I roll my eyes and make jerk-off motions with both my hands, to which you then say, “Chuck, both hands? That’s overkill, don’t you think?” And I nod gamely and then cry into my big heaping bowl of Frankenberry cereal. (This should at least explain why my beard is both pink and milky.)

What the fuck was I talking about?

Oh! Right. Sadness doesn’t merely lurk at the heart of sad stories, but rather, at the heart — the heart’s heart — of all stories. Or, at least, all good ones. The sadness needn’t be overt or outright. It doesn’t have to be the driving force behind a protagonist’s goals and desires, but it feels like it should still be there, behind the scenes. Let’s take two films that are not ostensibly sad and find the sadness in them.

First up: DIE HARD.

Die Hard is not what anybody would call a “sad movie,” unless you’re someone who gets choked up at the needless loss of yet another charming, smarmy German terrorist-thief. Ultimately, it’s a tense, kick-ass, high-octane and sometimes hilarious action movie. It is, in some ways, the Big Daddy of all actioners.

And yet, I posit that at the heart of the film nests a squirming knot of sadness.

Think about the motivations behind the protagonist: John McClane hasn’t seen his wife in a while because they are ultimately distant and estranged. They have children who are with her, not him. He’s a guy who’s too good at his job, and she’s a lady who’s too good at hers, and we get the sense that only some kind of cataclysmic movement is going to shatter their pride and get these two crazy kids back together.

Holy shit, that’s fucking sad, man. Isn’t it? Broken marriage? Disrupted family? The sadness is only exacerbated when their first meeting ends with a fight which is in turn interrupted by, ohhh, a bunch of cranky Germans with automatic weaponry.

Then you have Powell, who is a sad sack if ever there was one. He’s not pathetic, not exactly, but his story is tragic: he shoots a kid, ends up at a desk afraid to use his gun, gets fat, is played mostly as comic relief until we realize at the heart of this underdog is a goddamn police dog — loyal and ready to come off the leash.

Note that the story doesn’t have to end on sadness — I’m just saying that sadness has to be in there, it has to be in the mix, it has to live at the very nucleus of your fiction.

Second not-sad-but-secretly-actually-sad: STAR WARS.

Sure, sure, at it’s heart is a giddy yahoo space opera galactic romp across the Cosmic Wild West, but goddamn, you peel back the skin and you find a lot of sadness in there across both trilogies: in the “first” movie (A New Hope), we’re punched in the face by sad news time and time again. Dead father (who, okay, isn’t so much dead as he is evil machine guy)! Crispy aunt and uncle! Exploding Alderaan! Tortured princess! Sacrificial mentor! Porkins asplodes into bacon bits! The other films don’t lack for sadness, either: Daddy issues, dead Yoda, murdered children, lost limbs, executed Jedi, a mother who gets… I dunno, molested by Sand People, and so on, and so forth. Sadness runs rampant.

Shit, the very end of Return of the Jedi features what is ultimately a happy triumph over evil, but even buried in that is a deeply sad and common human experience: a son’s death-bed reconciliation with his estranged father. Yes, the reconciliation is ultimately a positive thing, but it is an event supercharged with the power of regret and grief. Makes you blubber and weep.

Sadness is a powerful storytelling component.

So. What does this mean for you, the storyteller?

I think it means this: when you embark upon a story, you should ask yourself, “What sadness lurks at the heart of this tale?” Find it. Dig for it. If none exists, create it. It’s a fucked up thing we have to do — manufacturing sadness — but it’s ultimately as necessary to good fiction as conflict. In fact, one might wonder if sadness is the secret impulsion that fuels good narrative conflict.

Find the sadness. And keep looking for it as you write, too. Nothing is more powerful to us than grief and loss — we then look to the storyteller to answer a fundamental question of, can we overcome it, or will it overcome us? What can be done with sadness? How will we ever reconcile grief and tragedy?

What I’m trying to say is —

Happy Monday, everyone!

(Feel free to throw more examples below in the comments — or, alternately, challenge the assertion. Is sadness really a necessary component to good storytelling? Or am I just talking out of my ass?)