samuel x. brase likes to write

Something Basic I Should Have Realized Earlier

Posted in pop theory by Sam X. on 10 April 2009

I hate you, JJ Abrams. I need more mystery boxes in my novel.

Mysteries attract crowds. Hence, all the great pop culture stories involved a number of mysteries to keep the masses interested. Come for the plot, stay for the character development. That is the mantra of pop stories. Even something as simple as “the ending” can serve to drive the story, although if you want to get many people to participate, you’re going to need simpler mysteries to lead them along, like breadcrumbs to the finale.

Let’s frame this another way, though. Take Anna Karenina. Subtle mysteries, less grotesque than Dan Brown’s use of the Illuminati, litter the novel. Will Levin ever find a wife? What does Anna’s nightmare mean? How does Vronsky/Anna’s spiral into adultery contribute to Levin’s exhaltation of rustic life? The relationships twist around each other, the symbolism weighs on itself, and everything crashes down as Anna lets herself be crushed by a moving train. Spoiler alert? My bad.

In its time, Anna Karenina was ignored by the critics, proving once and for all that critics are not the only barometer of “good” art. When creating a work of art, I think you have to forget the critics. Infuse the story with what you think belongs and see what comes of it. This is not an excuse for poor style, only an excuse for cheap plot machinations. I can forgive Lost its cheap appeals to the mainstream by way of unnecessary and attractive characters — I cannot forgive Dan Brown’s awful writing. It can be tough to get a piece of art noticed amongst the flotsam of art these days. 

So at some point, as an artist, you have to decide if you want to host these appeals to the mass. I think I will host these appeals, primarily because I don’t think appeals are necessarily bad. They are simply a way of telling lots of people that your work is worth checking out. In a contained story, a movie or a short story, appeals are harder and less worthwhile I think. As soon as someone picks up the film or the short story, you’ve got their money. You don’t need to sell the long term. With a franchise, a television show, a series of novels — you have to sell the long term. There’s something in it for you if you come back. Like a restaurant or something. Come here enough times and you’ll get a free taco.

I’m interested in selling the long term. I enjoy writing short stories, and if I ever have a career it will be because I’ve gotten my name out there via short stories. But I want to write a series of novels, a long, complex story, set in a world that I’ve created. That’s what I want. And I can do that when I sell the long term, when I hook people with mysteries. The trouble is, too often I see storytelling as a mode of explanation, not tension. I race to explain everything so the audience understands motives and thoughts. I need to learn to appreciate mysteries in storytelling. I need to slow down when I write. The audience likes mysteries and I need to indulge their pleasures. 

For a little while.

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