Manuscripts Burn


"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov

Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."

Friday, March 28, 2014

Would You Like to Ride the Bone Train?

I'm going to begin describing a general sort of story in the next paragraph, and as soon as you've fully figured out where the story is going, go ahead and skip to the third paragraph.

A mysterious antiquities shop opens in town and the proprietor is a friendly, older gentleman whose dress and manner is odd, almost as though he stepped out of an earlier time period. The man is overwhelmingly kind and whenever people come into his store, he seems to send them away with free merchandise and avuncular advice. Around this point, when no one else is around to watch him except the reader or the audience, the man smiles just a little bit too widely, or maybe laughs evilly to the camera. Then gradually it becomes clear that the objects he has been handing out are not mundane antiques, no, in fact they cause pain and pestilence and ruin lives in the most ironic ways possible, although none of it can be tied directly to the object or the happy-go-lucky store owner who sold it. One of the heroes by now is convinced that the man is some kind of demon or evil presence, and while he denies it at first, he slowly reveals his true nature and perhaps even begins to enjoy that one character is like Cassandra, screaming about how evil he is while no one else will listen. Finally either on his own or after painfully convincing some allies, the heroes all work together and banish the devil and all is right with the small town again...or is it?

Okay, you finally made it to paragraph three. If you followed the instructions, how long did it take you to jump down here? Three sentences? Two? Only one? Did you get it in the first sentence?

There's a reason I asked you, dear reader, to jump through this hoop for me. I want to talk a little bit (just a tiny little bit) about storytelling, but mostly I want to tell you about a great new show. Now this story, the sort of NEEDFUL THINGS archetype, is very common and we see it all the time on anthology TV, in short stories, and the like such that we know all the beats. The pleasure in reading such a story, therefore, is primarily in the originality of the ironic punishments, and perhaps in the individuality of the heroes and how they banish the demon, etc. etc. Now, bearing this story in mind I want to tell you about a television show I watched earlier this week called Rick and Morty. If you've never seen the show, Rick is a nihilistic scientist and a bit of a drunk.

In this week's episode, Rick drives his granddaughter to her new job, walks in the door, and within about thirty seconds sizes up the situation, turns to the mild-mannered older gentleman and says, "So, what's your deal? Are you The Devil?"

That's a minute or two into a thirty minute show! Normally, with ordinary act breaks and everything else, the hero probably wouldn't even begin to suspect that the owner of the curiosity store is not all he seems until the first act break, and he or she probably wouldn't be certain of it until the second act break, and then the last ten minutes or so would be the big climax. By cutting straight to the chase the show opens up whole new avenues of storytelling. Instead of everyone in town needing to be convinced that the store and its objects are evil, everyone automatically buys into that and begins going to Rick to have their objects uncursed. Rick's granddaughter allies with The Devil who becomes suicidal when his ruse is uncovered, and together they go on to found an evil internet startup.

Rick and Morty is probably my favorite show on the air at the moment, which is a shame because a lot of that is due to this season's Archer and Justified, two long-time staple favorites being just terrible this season. I'll level with you: I watch basically everything Adult Swim produces. There are a few rare exceptions, for instance I couldn't handle Mondo Wrestling Alliance and I thought Delocated was unbearably stupid. But for the most part I started watching [as] in 2001 or thereabouts and have seen almost everything they have to offer. Rick and Morty isn't just the latest act of undeniable genius from that network, it strikes me as a whole new paradigm for television storytelling going forward. I've liked the show, even loved it, since it debuted in November, but I couldn't quite put my finger on why until this week.

The "why" is just that there's no bullshit. So much of storytelling, especially genre storytelling, and double especially serialized genre storytelling, is vamping for time. There's always a mystery, there's always someone who believes first, and then there's always so much time put into convincing other characters until finally everyone's on board. And that's fine, or it was fine, for the last seventy-odd years of television as a broadcast medium. But now that we have a generation of viewers whose grandparents watched the Twilight Zone. I'm not going to pretend like I don't enjoy sitting down and watching a sci-fi show or an anthology show go through the beats, but I also do tend these days to get a sneaking sense of "come on, just get on board already!" Like, how long is it going to take for the kid to convince his parents (or whoever) that his teacher (or whoever) is a vampire (or whatever?) It's going to happen eventually!

When I was dicking around with making KINGDOM a TV show, I even marked down some of the genre-necessitated shows that I thought would be fun to cover. Here are some of the ones I came up with:

1.) Lotus-eater machine (aka "it was all a dream")
2.) Honey, I Shrunk the Recurring Cast
3.) Everybody's mind get switched into a different body
4.) Grey goo scenario (aka "the nanites are self-replicating!")

And so on. I'd seen them all so many times before I knew I had to put my twist on them. And Rick and Morty does that but it just cuts out the whole middle part. There's just no fooling Rick. (Morty, his grandson and sidekick, is another matter entirely.) Earlier this season they set up Rick for a lotus-eater, Matrix-type scenario and within thirty seconds Rick had identified Morty, normally above reproach, as part of the scenario. The whole rest of the episode played out with (get this!) Rick being SMARTER than the actual audience. I'm not going to lie: I, of course, thought that Morty was real and Rick, in a fit of drunkenness, had accused him and then realized his mistake. And by the end of the episode I realized that A CHARACTER IN A TV SHOW WAS SMARTER THAN ME.

I said I was going to try to limit my talk about storytelling, and I will, but if you know literally nothing about how a story is constructed, then it would behoove you to know that the difference between what the character knows and what the audience knows is the key to creating tension. It's called dramatic irony. So, imagine a show where you know what the villain's plan is and the hero doesn't . That's one kind of dramatic irony. Another kind is when the heroes make a plan off-screen and the audience doesn't know what it is (think "Ocean's Eleven.")

In almost every case, dramatic irony requires you not to know stuff. It's the magic of storytelling. You just don't know what you're not shown. The most exciting kind of dramatic irony is when you can't guess what the character is going to do, even though all the clues are laid out in front of you. (Think Tyrion's chain trick from A CLASH OF KINGS.) But to have a character genuinely be smarter than the audience? That's a feat. That's really...that's something there. That's...that's...that's Rick and Morty. It's just Rick and Morty. Rick and Morty and their adventures, Morty. RICK AND MORTY FOREVER AND FOREVER A HUNDRED YEARS Rick and Morty. Some...things. Me and Rick and Morty runnin' around and...Rick and Morty time...a- all day long forever...all a, a hundred days Rick and Morty! Forever a hundred times...OVER and over Rick and Morty...adventures dot com...WWW dot at Rick and Morty dot com w...w...w... Rick and Morty adventures...a hundred years...every minute Rick and Morty dot com...w w w a hundred times...Rick and Morty dot com.

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