In Too Deep

And I’m trying to get all the thoughts on my blog, in-stead of being lazy.

It was stuck in my head after I thought of that title and congrats/you’re welcome, now it’s stuck in yours as well.

It’s no secret on this blog that I overthink things, and I enjoy doing so. I was the kind of person (read: the pretentious kind of person) in high school who enjoyed books like “In the Lake of the Woods” which was one of those postmodern, deliberately obtuse books about a man’s slowly deteriorating marriage. It was the kind of book clearly going for the description “Kafkaesque” except Kafka’s protagonists generally were in completely inexplicable situations, whereas looking back on this book later, I was always struck with a sense that, barring the actually supernatural elements, the protagonist probably would have found himself a lot less confused if he’d actually paid attention to his wife when she said things.

But that was entirely too much detail – apparently I still have a lot of Feelings about that book.

The original point was: I sorta grew up loving books like that – and of course, movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, and books by Kafka, and basically any media that asked me to read into the text while I was reading the actual text. This should surprise nobody.

It has also meant that I like to write stories like that. While, at the time this post goes up, I haven’t actually managed that yet (or at least, I haven’t released them for public consumption), I have always had a few “wouldn’t it be cool if” ideas kicking around on The List for those types of stories.

But I’m also very critical of a lot of these stories. Yeah, I’m pretentious, and I enjoy being pretentious, but I do also believe that there is a point where “pretentious in an interesting way” becomes just “dense and annoying”. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Ergo Proxy to pieces, but it tried to use symbolism to mean so much that it kinda ended up meaning nothing. Yeah, it named a lot of its things after psychologists and concepts, but the story itself didn’t have time to dig into all of that enough so a lot of things ended up just being named these things for the sake of having a meaningful name.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not here to take one side or the other on the “lit fiction” argument (any of those arguments, really) – besides, we all know which side I’d usually come down on. But I do like to think about the difference in the things that I find actually deep and the things that I find are using the surface-level trappings of depth in order to seem more ‘intelligent’ than they really are.

I’m gonna keep this a little short because I know I’ve talked about this topic before, but it’s been a while since I had a blog post up, and this is the best I got right now.

This is definitely not the only point where things can go wrong in this type of thing, but one of the things I was starting to think about the other day was about information delivery. I think about this a lot because I generally think that the rate and order of information delivered to the audience is one of the most important aspects of writing a story. After all, if you break down a story into its most basic form, you’re just giving information to a reader. Every plot twist is just giving new information to the reader. Every development in the plot is new information. Dialogue is characters giving information to each other, and thereby to the reader. Pacing boils down to when you choose to give information to the reader, and what order you choose to give them information relating to different aspects of the story.

The difference, for me, I think, between a story that feels deep and symbolic, and one that feels like “a normal story” mainly boils down to how much information is given. I know of a few stories that started off deep and symbolic, but by the end, they explained what all the symbolism meant. They were still good stories, but they were very much a different experience than a story like a Kafka story which presents you with the symbolic narrative and makes no explanation whatsoever.

I think that there’s a bit of a misconception – or maybe more of a misperception – of these kinds of narratives. It’s nice to come up with neat ways of “solving” stories like these, and there’s a bit of a perception that people who ‘understand’ these stories are on some level more intelligent or better at critical thinking than someone who doesn’t ‘get the point’. There’s a focus, therefore, on perceiving these stories as “deep”, and on the levels of thought needed to understand them.

I think this creates a lot of mystery around the process of writing them that really doesn’t need to be there. It’s fun to think of the author as twisting words and laying traps of perception for the reader to get caught in and puzzle over. But when you sit down and actually think about the process of putting something together like that, I think starting with information is a much more productive way to think about it.

Because really, the difference between a “deep” story with multiple interpretations (or one with just one hidden interpretation) and a “straightforward” narrative that we generally think of as a story lies in one thing: How much of the total possible information the reader gets.

A straightforward story, let’s use a thriller for reference, but this also applies to most genre fiction and a lot of lit fic as well, is one where the reader gets most or all of the information by the end of the plot. At the end, not only is it clear whether the main character reached their goal, and what happened to all the characters as a result, it’s also clear what the coded message they received in chapter 3 meant, what really happened when it looked like the love interest walked out on them just before the final showdown, and all the details of the villain’s secret plan are laid bare. There might be one or two details left hanging, but they’re often addressed in the finale as well. “So what about that letter the villain sent to their loved one?” “We missed out on reading that, so we have to imagine what it might have been”. These aren’t so much mysteries as character notes that are added to give depth or the illusion of depth to a particular character who might otherwise have been one-dimensional. Chekov’s Gun is in full swing here – all guns must be fired by act 3, or at least taken off the shelf to be polished. Conservation of detail means that everything must be important, or at least somehow relevant.

A story, on the other hand, like a Donnie Darko, gives the audience maybe a quarter, maybe half of the relevant information. The audience gets enough information so that the sequence of events seems to follow logically (here used to mean that there’s a basic sense of cause and effect), and enough that the conversations the characters have seem to revolve around a few common themes, but past that, the audience is basically left to fill the gaps of character motivations, and even to a certain extent whether the science theories in the story are correct or whether they’re just a cover for something else.

The trick with these stories, then, in my opinion, is to take all the possible information and then take pieces out and leave holes, and stop when you have the type of story you want to tell. Want a more traditional story? Only take a few chunks out, those that truly aren’t necessary. Want to tell a story that has a few different interpretations? Take out a few more – pieces of information that would definitively point one way or the other, but leave all the background information in. Want a story where the readers really have to work for their story? Take out as much as you can while still leaving the story with a sense of cohesion (not logic; you can even take out enough to make the plot not seem to have a causal structure if you really want, if you do it right. It just needs to seem like there’s a common thread of theme or idea through everything, and a promise of some sort of payoff at the end).

If you’ve got different ideas, feel free to share in the comments below! I’m still working out the details of this idea myself, so I’d be really interested to hear other ideas and thoughts.

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