Today I am reading stories full of eloquent rage and imaginative cursing. I can’t help it. British politics is once again spewing ugliness and stupidity across our emotional landscape in the form of the ‘debate’ over the leadership of the Labour Party. As during the general election, I’m coping by reading Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan, a book that pre-emptively savaged the ugly, empty politics we seem collectively to have accepted.
Last week I was reading Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Mars, a gentle bimble through fascinating alternate worlds, in which conflict, usually the essential driver of story, is flattened from stark peaks to gentle undulations, fading into the background of the world building. It was just what I needed to wind down at the end of some intense working days.
In between, I re-read Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s run on Young Avengers, mostly for the bright and snarky dialogue of its characters, perfect fun weekend reading.
All of which made me think about the connection between reading and emotions. What we read can change or support our emotional state. It can exhilarate, inspire or even depress us. Ignoring how we’re feeling as we decide what to read seems like a waste of powerful emotional energy.
I realised that I should pay less attention to what I think I ought to read, and more attention to what mood I’m in. If I read to suit my mood then I’ll read more and enjoy more, and it’ll help me deal with the day. If I go against the mood, I just end up putting books down and reaching for the easy options of TV and the internet.
So what mood are you in today, and what will you read to suit that mood?
It’s that time of the week again, time to delve into the latest Writing Excuses writing exercise. If you’re not already familiar with these, Writing Excuses is an excellent podcast in which four pro genre authors discuss how to write, and I’ve learned more about writing from this show than from any other source.
This week’s exercise:
Take the reverse engineered outline from a month ago, and move a side plot to the main plot.
This is an interesting way to see how focusing on different plots affects the structure of a story. I have to confess, I made a slightly half-arsed job of that previous exercise, looking at the first five pages of a Transmetropolitan comic. Still, I can do this exercise, and maybe take it a little further than last time.
Back to the City
The plot I looked at was issue six of Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson’s sci-fi comic Transmetropolitan, ‘God Riding Shotgun’. Transmetropolitan follows the angry and often hilarious adventures of journalist Spider Jerusalem, who at this point in the story shares an apartment with his assistant Channon. I identified two plotlines – the main being Spider getting in the face of organised religion, and the sub-plot being about his relationship with Channon.
Turning this around, we would start on page one with Spider and Channon having a conversation, instead of Spider writing an article on religion. We get to see Spider being a jerk and Channon accepting it – the status quo – but the focus is on their relationship, not Spider’s work. Spider can still look crazy, and it should probably still feature an anecdote illustrating how weird their future city is, because that’s about establishing character and setting.
Now instead of getting sidelined into showing their relationship on page two, the conversation instead evolves into something about religion, introducing that plotline. Pages three and four take them out of the apartment to go to the religious convention which, in the comic, they get to somewhat later. We’re moving that plot along early on while leaving the other to bubble along in the background.
Which means that on page five, with the characters wandering around the religious convention, we see Channon learning about something objectionable Spider’s done to her and getting angry about it. Probably not what time he’s woken her up – as this is now the main plotline it needs more force. In fact, the convention and its weird religions would now trigger the revelation, subplot helping main plot along. They get into a heated argument in the middle of the convention. The main confrontation is being set up.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Stepping away from page by page detail, it’s interesting to consider how this changes the tone of the plot. In the original, we get a melancholy conversation and reconciliation between the characters midway through, as the subplot between them is resolved, and the comic ends with Spider trashing the convention in spectacular, angry style. We travel through emotional depth to an entertaining showpiece finale.
With the plots reversed, the comic hits the height of excitement and spectacle midway, with Spider making his fuss and probably getting thrown out of the convention. It’s then in the aftermath that we get into the emotional beats of the two characters’ situation, and they reconcile over their shared views on life. That leaves the reader with a very different feeling at the end – a combination of fuzzy and melancholy rather than amused and indignant. It’s a very different experience.
What Did I Get Out of This?
Despite working from the wobbly foundations of my previous work, I found this exercise really useful. It’s made me think about how I want the overall emotional flow of stories to go, and how I can rearrange plotlines to support that. It’s also made me realise that I should spend more time properly studying and rethinking other people’s writing, to get better at my own.
Anyone else done this exercise? How did you get on? And if you haven’t, what stories have you re-written in your head, and what did you change? Come on, you can own up, we’ve all wished for the happier ending from time to time.
Last week, podcast Writing Excuses reached story structure in their year long writing course. The exercise for this episode was:
Take a favorite piece of media (but not something YOU created,) and reverse engineer an outline from it.
I’m not going to do this one in huge depth. It’s an exercise you could potentially keep working at indefinitely, and I’m a bit strapped for time. So I’m going to have a look at what’s happening, and what’s being promised, in the first few pages of one of my all time favourite comics – issue 6 of Waren Ellis and Darrick Robertson’s science fiction series Transmetropolitan, a story called ‘God Riding Shotgun’.
Page 1 – Bring on the Crazy
The first page is a splash page – a single large image of journalist Spider Jerusalem typing a rant about religion while dressed in a fake beard, a tin foil halo and a robe made from a stolen bedsheet.
The promise it’s setting up is obvious – in this issue we’re going to see Spider’s take on religion. And because Spider can’t write about anything without getting in people’s faces, that means he’s going to end up fighting, verbally or physically, with priests.
But there’s something else as well. The story Spider is writing involves a taser-wielding priest of the Official Siberian Church of Tesla. This indicates that religion has got pretty weird in Spider’s city, and sets up the expectation of more weirdness to come.
Page 2: Subplot Time
Page two sees Spider waking up his assistant Channon, who isn’t happy at the disturbance. The religious angle is temporarily set aside to set up another plot thread – developments in the relationship between Spider and Channon.
This issue sees a turning point, in which the usually abrasive Spider breaks down his assistant’s defensives and is then forced to admit that he’s been acting like a jerk. This page sets that up by showing the status quo we’ll be moving away from – Spider being a jerk and Channon accepting it.
Pages 3 and 4: Pick a Fight, Any Fight
On page three, Channon realises that Spider, high as a kite, has woken her up at 5:30 in the morning. It’s a way of throwing in a conflict early on to keep things exciting, giving the issue’s main plot time to develop more slowly, and promises future friction between these two characters.
It also moves along the sub-plot about their relationship – the status quo is disrupted by Channon arguing back.
The end result, for now, is Channon questioning how much longer Spider’s body can take the abuse he’s giving it with drugs and lack of sleep. In terms of the series, this is foreshadowing a problem further down the line by pointing out to the reader that their might be a downside to Spider’s wild lifestyle.
Page 5: And Now The Main Action…
Page 5’s central point is a conversation about the huge number of new religions springing up in the city, and ends with Spider demanding that Channon find him churches. The conflict with religious representatives promised on page one is now about to turn into action. The drug-addled journalist is going to go out into the world and find, or make, a religious story. It’s the turn that leads us into the plot proper.
Understanding What Other Writers Do
This exercise made a change from the previous ones, in which I got to be creative. Even just doing it briefly, it helped me to understand what Ellis was doing structurally in building this story, and so to think about how I could use similar tricks. The early conflict in the sub-plot to buy time for the main plot was a particularly neat touch.
If I have time later I might come back and analyse the rest of this issue, because this was interesting and I love reading Transmetropolitan, in all its foul mouthed and angry grandeur.
Anyone else had a go at this exercise, or feel like giving it a try now? Just have a think about the chapter you’re reading or the program you’re watching and see if you can work out what’s going on structurally. Let me know how you get on – share your results or a link to them below. It’ll be interesting for me to see what others got from this.
I’ve been re-reading some of Transmetropolitan, Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s hilarious, angry and inspiring sci-fi comic series. Last night, I reached one of the darkest chapters in the story, so dark I put it down as a poor choice for bedtime reading. It was a reminder of what this series does well, and what we can learn from it.
Transmetropolitan is the story of Spider Jerusalem, a wild crusading journalist living in a near-future city that combines incredible technology with terrible corruption and deprivation. It’s a funny yet brutal book that combines political thriller, sci-fi speculation and rip-from-headlines slice-of-life dystopianism than shines an uncomfortable light on modern society.
‘Business’, the story in issue 40 (volume seven of the collected edition), is very much in that last vein. Spider Jerusalem, fresh from surviving an assassination attempt, spends a day investigating the horrors of child prostitution.
Yes, you read that right.
This is a book whose average issue is a wild ride of expletives, surreality and bowel-disrupting weaponry, and it takes time out to examine an issue so harrowing even serious dramatists give it a wide berth. It’s something so terrible that even to acknowledge its existence sickens me to the pit of my stomach. But if we look away from the bad things, we leave them to fester.
This the point of the issue, and its power. The sci-fi setting creates just enough distance to let us face the problem, but the realism and sensitivity with which the children are portrayed brings it straight into our modern lives. Nothing is romanticised or glossed over. The social and psychological needs that drive these kids are there on the page, in Ellis’s dialogue and Robertson’s stunningly expressive character art. Within the story, Jerusalem will make his readers look at this terrible thing. Through depicting the story, Ellis and Robertson force us to consider it too. I’ve read it a dozen times, and every time it leaves me stunned.
This is the power of great sci-fi and of truly great humour. Great sci-fi speculates on our future while reflecting on the modern world, the real making the unreal plausible, the unreal raising questions about the real. Great humour, the dark, snarling stuff in which Bill Hicks specialised, opens us up to the serious. By making us laugh it opens up our emotions, so that we feel the serious points. The punchline that makes us both laugh and think is a barb that sticks beneath our skin.
There aren’t a lot of punchlines in ‘Business’, but the barbs are there, our skins soften by the story that preceded it. And that’s part of why it’s such great art.
If you haven’t read Transmetropolitan then you really should. If you’ve read it before, read it again. Because fiction doesn’t get much better than this.