8.23.2010

Why We Write #3


The last time I hit you lovely readers up with a column on Why We Write, it was about that almost plot-less, sometimes sappy and extremely popular form known as fluff. It's a thing that I'd thought a lot about at the time and, after posting it, Aardie asked me if I'd do-- his words-- "a companion article about the pitfalls of unrelenting angst."

At the time, I didn't know how to approach it. After all, if you read my story Chuck vs the Simple Twist of Fate, you know that it's a pretty angsty story. How do I dissect something in an objective manner when I so obviously gravitate towards it in a subjective way? Then, some time last week, a few posts popped up on the Chuck fanfiction forums. I'm not going to name names, but you'll be able to pick up on them anyway, so let me preface this by saying that, while I'm disagreeing with the assertions made, do not mistake my disagreement for personal attack.

So, without further adieu, follow the break for an examination of why we write angst.




Before I get into the actual mechanics of why, I need to backup to those blog posts. They're important vehicles for examining the pitfalls of angst. The most telling quote that I found in the whole conversation said exactly this: "Hurting your characters is fun, and provides interest as a reader and a writer. Who wants to see people be happy?"

The sentence struck me as odd. Let's look at the obvious first. The last sentence "Who wants to see people be happy?" is interesting, especially when you examine it against fluff. As we talked about last time, seeing people be happy is precisely the reason for the existence of fluff. And, while fluff runs directly opposite to normal storytelling, that doesn't make it inherently bad, just necessarily more difficult to pull off artistically. That being said, fluff is really, really popular across all fandoms. The question seems silly then. A lot of us want to see people happy. It's, to borrow a phrase, why we write fluff.

It's the first part of the sentence that gets to the core of why we, on the other hand, write angst. "Hurting your characters is fun, and provides interest as a reader and a writer."

Here's my problem with this idea: It's flat out untrue, across the board. Hurting your characters can be necessary for a story-- I'm going to go ahead and point to many of the stories of Castle Inanity authors as examples-- but that doesn't automatically make it fun or interesting. It's the story of how and why these characters are being hurt, and also the story of how and why they're being healed, that does those things.

In a way, fluff has by Newtonian physics created angst. In writing stories in which the sole purpose is to make everything be okay forever, there has been created a subsection of stories in which the sole purpose is to make everything be not okay forever. Somewhere along the line, we've come under the impression that things not being okay is more valid than things being okay.

The simplest expression of why we write angst is that we are, ourselves, depressed. Writing angst-- in other words, foregoing resolution to instead focus on the terrible aspects of humanity-- is a way to come to grips with the angst in our own lives. That was the first idea that I had when I thought about why we write angst.  But the other reason, and maybe stranger, why we write angst, is that we've been led to believe that sadness is a more worthwhile emotion than happiness. This delusion has formed that negativity is more enduring than positivity or, if not more enduring, than more worth exploring.

What we all too often miss when writing angst is that stories are not at their best when they fall to one extreme (fluff) or the other (angst). The best stories balance the two, juggling them intimately. As readers, we don't crave bad things to happen in and of themselves, we crave a push and pull between conflict and resolution. We like our most serious moments to hide some levity, and our most lighthearted moments to imply something more severe.

I like using examples from my own writings here, because I have the ability to accurately describe exactly what I was thinking when I wrote a passage, and how it applies to why we write this certain topic. For this one, I'm gonna pull out a passage from Chuck vs the Simple Twist of Fate, Chapter 8.

Chapter 8 was the first chapter where I started writing highly stylized prose (oooh, a call back to Why We Write #1). One of the very first paragraphs read as follows:

"The rest of his team had been taken out. Chuck had avoided a similar fate by adhering equally to both the principles he had established playing dart guns with Bryce in the Stanford library and the rules he had created playing Halo with Morgan: don't stick your neck out. Play the angles. Fools rush in. Never get involved in a land war in Asia."

It's not an especially angsty line, granted, but it illustrates the balance I'm talking about. In discussing a very serious training exercise, I included both a call back to video games with Morgan, and a reference to the Princess Bride. I didn't break tone in either of them, which maintained the serious spirit of the chapter, but the their existence alone was at the very least smirk-worthy. It injected something into the reading that, without sacrificing tension, allowed a moment of respite from the soul-crushing of Twist's Part II.

If we write fluff to satisfy a sweet tooth, then we write angst because we're convinced even a little bit of candy is going to cause multiple root canals. But, truthfully, it's a healthy balance that we need to strike between the two that's going to lead to the best outcome. Writing angst is no more or less valid than writing fluff, but the darkness inherent in angst declares itself falsely superior. But, seriously, if I've learned anything from Disney/Pixar movies, it's that an adorable love story can be just as artistically important as a Shakespearean tragedy.

You know, I think Leonardo DiCaprio's character in Inception said it best:

"I think positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time."

And who are we to argue with the guy from Titanic?

11 comments:

  1. I feel like I have to thank you personally for that article, Chris. So, you know, thanks! :D

    A few observations:

    I read the posts on the fan fiction forums as well.

    It was interesting watching you pull viable generalities out of the disparate viewpoints expressed in that forum discussion. Interestingly enough, I agree with the various statements you made, even if the route you found to them seemed somewhat indirect. ;)

    But I think you sidestepped something in taking this approach. And that's the variability in the audience itself. Those people posting on the forum? They weren't all in the fat middle part of the bell curve - they were all over, including the long tails stretching away in both directions towards fluff and angst.

    I know someone who goes apoplectic at the first sign of disharmony and is only satisfied with sweetness, light and the promise of fidelity. And we all witnessed someone on the forum who wanted the Charah angst to go on forever, a pining that would NEVER be fulfilled. This person would rather be poked in the eye with a sharp stick than watch people being happy.

    These two examples are people at opposite extremes of the curve. I can't imagine them having any common ground with regards to the depiction of romantic relationships in fan fic.

    Surely, no general rule about mixing angst and fluff is going to fully satisfy these varying people's predilections, right? For whatever reason, what feeds their needs is a much purer concentration of what they crave. And these two cravings are in diametric opposition to each other.

    If I interpret this article in the context of my original request, it seems as though you're saying that the pitfall of unrelenting angst is that it serves a story just as poorly as unrelenting fluff. That both extremes are to be avoided in preference to a balanced mix of both.

    And this works for me, if I can successfully set aside both the people who can only consume fluff and those that can only consume angst. If I can relegate them to being simply outliers in the fanfic audience at large. And just live with that.

    Think I can do it?

    Because if I can't then I can never serve their needs fully and I will have to be happy with whatever compromise services the greater whole. Which, if you think about it, is not all that bad a fate. :)

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  2. OldDarth23.8.10

    To quote Jeff Bridges from Starman's and his character's fascination with the human race:

    'Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you? You are at your very best when things are at their worst.'

    The best stories put their characters through the wringer because the friction between external and internal forces provides the grist for characters to take journeys and have them evolve.

    For me this holds true for any dramatic scenario; be it angst or otherwise.

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  3. I can´t find anything at the ff.net forums. Is it just me being clueless with a pc or there is a secret handshake to get to those forums? Could you post the url?

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  4. Tynianrex:

    Go here:

    http://forum.fanfiction.net/topic/49974/26424662/21/

    Scroll down a little until you see the first long post and start reading from there.

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  5. @intersectedlightly: Thanks!!

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  6. Aardie, I think you got it just right in your post when you said, "It seems as though you're saying that the pitfall of unrelenting angst is that it serves a story just as poorly as unrelenting fluff." That is pretty much exactly the point I was trying to make.

    OD made a good point, too, in saying "the friction between external and internal forces provides the grist for characters to take journeys and have them evolve."

    See, for the best stories, you need to traffic in tension and release. The reason why neither full-on fluff nor full-on angst are viable for long stories is because fluff is concerned only with release and angst is concerned only with tension.

    I see what you're saying, Aardie, about that not reaching the audience of either extreme, but the best you can do artistically must, by the rules of effective storytelling, avoid those extremes or necessarily suffer for pandering to one or the other.

    OD, I agree to a point that bad things happening to characters is a great catalyst. The problem with a story of overwhelming angst is that the payoff can never be equal to the troubles of the journey. You need conflict to move your characters, yes, but nothing but conflict will, firstly, degrade the reaction to your conflict because your audience has become accustomed, and secondly and more importantly, become an emotional drag on your audience.

    So, I stand by my assessment. We write angst as a method of tackling the bits of darkness we encounter in our lives, and also as a response to fluff, and also because we've been led up the prim rose path to say that sadness has more depth than happiness. The truth, though, is that the best of what you can write will always balance both.

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  7. OldDarth23.8.10

    The only caveat that you should bear in mind Chris is that your hypothesis cannot be applied universally. What you are postulating is true for you and likely others. But not everyone.

    Which is what Aardie was pointing earlier.

    It certainly is not true for how I approach writing.

    Here is something else you may want to consider. Angst driven fiction is more prevalent and alluring for younger people ie let's be generous and say, under 40. By then, most people have found their life mate and have come to accept who they are.

    Angst driven writing does not have the same attraction or impetus as one settles down and raises their own family.

    At least from this old fart's perspective. :D

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  8. What's funny about this is that in trying to edit down my comment I cut an entire paragraph that made the point OD made in his last post, i.e. that tastes not only vary between people but they vary over time in the *same* person.

    My example was that, when I was in my teens, I was a big fan of nihilistic Armageddon stories where all of the "false" structures and organizations came crashing down due to some worldwide apocalypse. Now? Not so much. :) I guess you could say I stopped railing against the establishment and kind of became the establishment.

    Similarly, and as OD points out, the resonation I might have once felt with romantic angst has been usurped by an appreciation for the challenges of sustaining a long term relationship, fraught with more mundane if not less dramatic difficulties and peppered with small, yet pleasant victories.

    Either way, no one size fits all, and I think every author is forced to make some basic choices about who they want to appeal to. Otherwise, you end up with classic Sun Tzu - in trying to be strong everywhere, you end up weak everywhere. :)

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  9. But when we are talking about "angst", what are we talking about? Because I think that most of the times people mix "angst" with "pathos."

    Not everything that is sad or conflicting is angst. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary angst means "a feeling of anxiety, apprehension, or insecurity "

    The Free Online Dictionary says that this angst is "often accompanied by depression." But it doesn't say if this depression is from the characters or from the readers. Since the act of reading is an empathic one, I'm going to assume it means both.

    Pathos, on the other hand, is a quality, as of an experience or a work of art that arouses feelings of pity, sympathy, tenderness, or sorrow.

    People use "angst" for everything that has a sad or dramatic quality and I don't share that point of view. For me, angst comes to play when the conflict, or the sadness, or the drama or the "bad" outcome of actions is written in a puerile way. When it's overplayed like any feeling is overplayed when you're a teen. The world doesn't end because you break up with your boyfriend or because things don't turn out as you expect.

    But the world isn't always pink colored. All your problems don't dissapear when you get a job or you marry. Quite the opposite :-)

    So, in short, I agree with Chris: "The best stories balance the two, juggling them intimately. As readers, we don't crave bad things to happen in and of themselves, we crave a push and pull between conflict and resolution."

    I'm sorry if I came a little too strong. It's a topic that interests me and sometimes I'm too opinionated for my own good. I hope I didn't offend anybody.

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  10. Angst, if handled properly with tact and precision, can breath life into stories. If handled carelessly, as the producers of Chuck have proven with S3, it destroys characters and viewership ... or more in point $$$ budgets.

    As viewers and readers voicing honest opinions and refusing to "hang with the crowd" may be the only way to turn the ship around for Chuck, which sadly appears to have earned its last season due to a weak story, inconsistent characters, and gaping plot holes.

    "Fans" such as DarthRazorback with their bullhorns blaring, held the line in Fedak/Schwartz support stating we'd have the "best season ever" ... well we know how that turned out.

    My point being, don't trust in a style of writing as much as the author who is doing it.

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  11. I'm interested in how strongly this discussion has come off; when I made the same large generalizations about fluff, no one really batted an eyelash. Doing the same about angst engendered genuine discussion! Weird! Also, fun!

    Now, with Why We Write, I'm always dealing with the extremes of the topic at hand. It allows me to take the idea to task in an easier way. So, when I'm talking about angst, I'm talking about those stories that are all tension and almost no release, where bad things pile up on one another violently and without reprieve.

    I agree with BCF that USING angst as a tool is fine-- I mean, come on, read Twist some time. It's angst city-- but I'm discussing it being the whole of the piece. And I agree with BCF that the author is more important than the style, though I would say that given equal writing talents, a story of pure angst is always going to be inferior to a story of balance.

    So, in my headstrong contrarian way, I'm going to say that I'm not going to add a caveat about universality, because I'm not talking about angst as a tool (which can be used well, certainly) but angst as an ends of itself. I'm talking about pure and total angst as a story, and in which I feel like those principles can be applied universally.

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