When I heard McGuire say that as a child she loved stories where the child protagonists went to a magical world where they became heroes and warrior-princesses and the like, but was always so angry that they then had to go back home, I was nodding emphatically in agreement. I wanted to get lost in the misty woods and find myself caught in a war between goblins and elves. Or go around a bend on a lake shore and find myself face to face with a giant beetle who greeted me and told me we had to run because danger was coming and so forth.
Except I didn’t want to have to come home again after the first adventure was over. The other world was so much better than the real world. I recall one time when I asked a teacher I trusted why the stories always ended there, she wasn’t very understanding. “Wouldn’t you rather be home with your mom and dad and all your friends?”
She didn’t know what to say when I asked, “What friends?” I didn’t add that if I could run away and never see my father again I would be the happiest boy in the world. This isn’t to say that I never had friends as a child. But being the kind of kid who was always quickly labeled a sissy (or worse words) and a weirdo whenever new kids met me, combined with the number of times we moved because of my dad’s work in the petroleum industry (ten elementary schools across four states), I never had a lot of friends. This particular conversation happened less than two months after we had moved yet again, and I hadn’t yet really found a friend at the new place.
Another time that I told someone how much I wished I could live in one of those magical worlds, the person tried to convince me that the things which seemed like an adventure would not be fun. “Real monsters aren’t just scary, they actually hurt you.”
I had learned through multiple experiences that if I told such adults that I already lived with exactly the kind of monster who actually hurt you that I would be disbelieved at best. Because the kinds of adults who will see a ten-year-old with stitches and multiple contusions on his face and one arm in a sling, look that kid in the eyes, then lecture him that if he was just more well-behaved his father wouldn’t do these things to him not only don’t know what monsters are—they enable monsters.
That reality is precisely why portal fantasies appealed so strongly to me as a kid. And why the endings were always so frustrating.
Let’s pause a moment to go over some terminology. A portal fantasy is a story in which people from our mundane world enter into a different, fantastical world, through a portal of some kind. Classic examples are falling down a rabbit hole in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or through the enchanted wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or carried off by a tornado in The Wizard of Oz, or being injured and losing consciousness to wake up elsewhere as in the Thomas Covenant books.
A portal fantasy is different than an immersive fantasy, where all of the action occurs within the fantastical world and there are no characters who come from the mundane world. Think of Lord of the Rings or The Last Unicorn or any of the Conan the Barbarian stories. It is also different from an intrusive fantasy, where magical/fantastic creatures somehow come into what otherwise appears to be our mundane world—sometimes the narrative assumption is that the magic has been there all along, but for whatever reason most of us are unaware of it and thus don’t believe in it. Think of Dracula or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or A Wrinkle In Time.
The particular appeal of the portal fantasy for a kid like me is that in the fantastic world, I would have options that aren’t available to me in the real world. I didn’t see how any of the monsters and evil overlords in the fantasy books were worse than things my father (and the whole structure of society that enabled child abuse) did to me. As a kid, I may not have really understand the concept which is summed up by the old adage, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” but there was one thing that the protagonists of the portal fantasies had that I didn’t have in the real world: agency. The kids transported to the magical kingdom may have been put in perilous situations, but they weren’t powerless.
It wasn’t just when I was a young child that other people critiqued my enjoyment (and enthusiastic recommendations) of portal fantasies. In my teens and later, an additional critique was added: “You just want a happy ending.” This was usually served with a heaping helping of cynicism about how happy endings don’t exist in the real world, and people who don’t understand that are defective in some way. All of that judgmental cynicism is also the foundation of critiques (that often comes from certain people who call themselves fans of sf/f) which dismiss many works of speculative and fantastic fiction as merely fan service.
I have two responses to this line of argument.
First, go back up and re-read the bit about having to survive beatings from my dad that led to hospital trips. I suspect I know far better than the people who make the happy ending argument just how bad the real world can be. And I survived that. And you better believe that part of the reason I survived it is because fantasy books helped me to imagine a life where the monsters could be conquered. That alone should justify the existence of so-called escapist literature.
For the second and more important response, let’s go back to the Wayward Children books and the author thereof. There are two things I’ve come to expect from a Seanan McGuire book:
- At some point in the story she will break my heart,
- By the time I get to the end, I will be holding my hands out (metaphorically) toward the author like a Dickensian urchin and will plead, “Please, may I have some more?”
And to be clear, I mean there are things that happen in the stories (not just this series) to the main characters that make me physically shed tears as I’m reading. Sometimes McGuire has left me sobbing uncontrollably with some developments that happen. Characters in her stories do not always get a happy ending. Many very unhappy things happen to them. So if all I wanted was happy stories where nothing bad ever happens, why do I keep reading her stuff (excitedly pre-ordering things when I can; and recommending the stories to others)?
Because I never get the feeling that she is doing it just to shock me. She never allows harm to happen lightly—even to the bad guys. Death never happens senselessly. By which I mean both that the bad things always makes sense within the world, but also because the bad things are integral to the plot. It always feels genuinely that she knows this pain and she understands it. These stories don’t sensationalize or revel in pain and suffering, they show pain because real people suffer things that hurt this much. In the real world, far too often the pain of many types of people is ignored, rationalized, and even celebrated.
I don’t want to celebrate pain. Celebrate the moments of happiness and love that characters seize despite misfortune? Yes, please!
The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on.
Rowland goes on to describe hopepunk in more detail. In later posts, when lots of people argued about the term she chose (often suggesting noblebright as the preferred term), she explained how a hopepunk world is different than a noblebright one. Noblebright is where every hero is noble and pure and they conquer evil because they are noble and pure and once evil is conquered everything goes back to being noble and pure. A hopepunk world isn’t a rose-colored fairytale place, instead:
The world is the world. It’s really good sometimes and it’s really bad sometimes, and it’s sort of humdrum a lot of the time. People are petty and mean and, y’know, PEOPLE. There are things that need to be fixed, and battles to be fought, and people to be protected, and we’ve gotta do all those things ourselves because we can’t sit around waiting for some knight in shining armor to ride past and deal with it for us. We’re just ordinary people trying to do our best because we give a shit about the world. Why? Because we’re some of the assholes that live there.
I’m not completely sure when the term grimdark was first coined, but I know the attitude was around (and works of fiction based on it were getting praised and winning awards) in the late 1980s. Grimdark is sometimes described as a reaction to idealistic heroic fiction, meant to portray how nasty, brutish, violent, and dark the real world is. It has also been defined somewhat more accurately as a type of fiction that prefers darkness for darkness sake, replacing aspiration with nihilism and the assertion that true ethical behavior is either futile or impossible.
I think a much more accurate description of the majority of grimdark is torture porn and rape porn pretending to be a deconstruction of unrealistic tropes. Damien Walter noted in an article for the Guardian a few years ago that it is driven by a “commercial imperative to win adolescent male readers.”
Usually in grimdark stories the driving narrative force is to do the most brutal, shocking, nasty thing the author can to characters that they have made likable—with a lot of misogynist skewing. Rape of women and children is particularly prevalent in these stories, usually justified by the claim that that is realistic for pre-industrial societies, ignoring the fact that in war zones throughout history men were almost as likely to be the victims of rape by the enemy as women. I also have trouble with the “realistic” defense particularly in the epic fantasy settings because those authors never show people dying of cholera or dysentery—which in the real historical settings were at least a thousand times more likely to be the cause of a person’s death than torture or rape.
Grimdark appeals most strongly to white (usually straight) young men from middle class backgrounds—the sort of people who are least likely to have experienced much in the way of grimness in the real world. They are the kinds of guys who will insist that they are oppressed now because women, people of color, and queer folks have some civil rights protections. In short, they are the kind of people that:
They’re nice white middle class boys and the closest they’ve ever come to the ghetto is when they accidentally got off at the tube in Brixton once, took one look around and ran crying back into the tube.
I’ll tell you where that quote came from in a minute. First, I want to finish explaining why I believe it is mostly white, straight, middle class young men who find this appealing. It’s precisely because their exposure to grim realities is almost always secondhand. The notion that the person held up as a hero isn’t really a paragon of virtue is something they didn’t experience firsthand as a child. They didn’t routinely have someone they admired and loved call them an abomination, for instance. Queer kids, on the other hand, experienced that again and again growing up. Women learn early in life that the best they can expect from society and family if they get sexually harassed or assaulted is that they will be blamed for not somehow avoiding the situation. People of color learn that their lives are considered disposable by much of society, and so on.
Brutality, nastiness, and cruelty aren’t surprising revelations, to us. They are things we learn to expect (and endure with a smile if we don’t want to get grief from those around us). So we don’t get the same puerile thrill from its portrayal as others do.
I started working on this post last weekend after reading some of the follow-ups to the Vox story that I included in the Friday Five. And then I discovered that Cora Buhlert had already said much of what I thought about the issue (and had a lot more references than I to quote) in a blog post that I failed to read last week while I was being sick and not reading much of anything: The Hopepunk Debate. The block quote above came from there, where she was quoting a much older posting she had done elsewhere. You should go read her post, because it’s full of all sorts of interesting citations and observations.
When grimdark first started popping up, it seemed to many like an interesting and novel way to look at our perceptions of culture. It was the scrappy newcomer to the pop culture landscape—in 1987. In the 30-some years since, it has become one of the dominant paradigms of storytelling. The most popular fantasy series on television anywhere right now, Game of Thrones, is grimdark. It’s no longer surprising when likable characters are maimed and tortured and murdered in brutal ways in popular shows and books. It’s become boringly predictable.
Except that’s not quite true. Brutality has always been banal.
This gets to why I think Rowland is right to use the suffix -punk in her description of this reaction to grimdark. Grimdark has become the norm in too much of speculative fiction. Believing that hope is a thing worth kindling is, in such an environment, an act of rebellion.
We can argue about what kind of works qualify as hopepunk. For instance, I think that The Empire Strikes Back could be considered hopepunk. Luke’s insecurities and imperfections drive his part of the plot. Lando isn’t a nice guy (charming, yes, but not nice). Han is imperfect in different ways than Lando or Luke. Lots of things don’t go right for the heroes, but they don’t give up.
I’ve said many times that science fiction is the literature of hope. Even in most dystopian fiction, I have said, there is a glimmer of hope. I fully understand that that is something I believe, and isn’t necessarily an empirical fact. I believe the best sf/f can be realistic, it can be dark, it can portray the imperfect and even nasty nature of the world, while still offering that glimmer of hope.
And the truth is that that world is more realistic. That is an empirical fact. If the worst possible outcome was always more likely than others, our planet would be a barren, lifeless rock. Yes, we all die eventually, as far as we know all living creatures do. But the world is full of life because more often than not, living things survive, they endure, and they pass the gift of life along. Not understanding that requires turning an awfully big blind eye on the world. It’s a boring and inaccurate assessment of the world around us.
“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”
— Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”
There are some who would say this isn’t in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, and certainly not in line with advice I have often given people who are stuck: to just write the next word and keep moving. Since each time I have redone a scene I started from scratch, I think this counts as legitimate first draft activity. I’m not revising, see. And if someone thinks this is a form of cheating, well for years I was a member of the NaNoWriMo Rebels. The original rules specified that you not write a single word of the story before the stroke of midnight on October 31. So I was a rebel because I was usually trying to finish one of more works already in progress. So if my multiple tellings of the same (or substantially similar) scenes is cheating, I guess I’m a rebel again.On the other hand, there is a scene that is told twice which I intend to go into the book that way. The reader will first seen the end of a battle from the point of view of the main villain of the story, as he arrives when most of the fight is over and tries to figure out what’s happening. Then in the next chapter the reader will see the beginning of the battle from the point of view of one of the protagonists and learn quite a bit more. And I think it works quite well.
We’ll see what the readers think.
I’ve discussed this topic many times both on my various blogs, on convention panels, and in personal conversations. The person thinks they can’t write because the idea they have isn’t perfect, or they aren’t being creative/original enough, and so forth. One very specific form of this issue I’ve heard many times goes something like this: “I’ve read about how plotting and so forth works, and when I’m analyzing a book or show or something I can often see where the tale went wrong, but I’m not able to apply that skill to writing something new.”
At which point I usually launch into my rant about how writing is not the inverse of literary criticism?
What do I mean by inverse? Well, let’s first consult the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language. The relevant definition is: “ Of two operations, relations, etc.: such that the starting point or antecedent of the one is the result or conclusion of the other, and vice versa; (of one such operation, relation, etc.) opposite in nature or effect (to the other).” So, for instance, untying a shoelace is the inverse of tying it, while tying the shoelace is likewise the inverse of untying, right?
So, what do I mean when I say that literary criticism isn’t the inverse of writing? I mean that if one imagined the process of analyzing and deconstructing a story as a series of tasks, performing those tasks in reverse doesn’t produce a story. And when you compare your ability to find flaws in a story as being a necessary skill to creating a story, you are misunderstanding the creative process. Also, knowing how to perform literary deconstruction doesn’t guarantee that one understands stories—it means one understands paradigms that some authorities have proclaimed about stories.
Another way to understand it is to think about music: literary criticism and the like can be looked at as similar to understanding the mathematical equations that describe sound waves. Understanding those equations doesn’t mean you can think up a catchy tune. Which doesn’t mean that studying music theory might not improve your music making, but it doesn’t guarantee you will make compelling, or even mildly interesting music.
So, for instance, when a story teller begins working on a story, they don’t make lists of the metaphors they intend to use. Likewise, we don’t usually think about what the theme of the tale is and so on. I, personally, virtually never know what any of my metaphors are in a story unless someone points them out to me.
Everyone’s process is different. Most of my stories begin as a question, and the process of writing is how I try to find the answer to that question, and to the subsequent questions I uncover while working on the first.
Analysis is very useful during the editing and revising. Studying some of the things we can quantify about how stories work isn’t a waste of time. But don’t focus on that. Certainly not when you’re at the first draft stage.
Or, as Gandalf observed: “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
I need to do a bit of a follow up to my previous post about the issues at Worldcon. I didn’t touch on everything that happened, and since the issue blew up, Mary Robinette Kowal, whose tweet from years ago on a related subject I quoted in that post, has agreed to help redo the programming. Kowal has been running the programming tracks at the annual Nebula conferences for a while, and she had posted a nice summary of their process for trying to put together a program that appeals to many parts of the community. So many of us are provisionally hopeful that the situation will be a bit better at the actual convention than they appeared just days ago.
I have also been reminded that sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between ignorance and actual malice. Now, I was thinking that most of the bigotry that seemed to be motivating the issues were likely unconscious—all of us are often unaware of just how many prejudices we have absorbed from society. Alis Franklin, in particular, has pointed out another explanation for much of the problem:
“This all feels very much like people used to running a small-town parochial con with an established member-base suddenly getting in a twist because they have to accommodate (gasp) outsiders.”
And she’s likely on to something. A lot of this does sound like the people in programming are speaking from their past experience running their local convention, where they believe they know their audience and what those attendees expect. But even if that is the case, I still suspect that their local crowd includes a lot more queers, people of color, and other folks who are interested in topics that their local con doesn’t recognize in programming—because as I said, we’re everywhere, and we’re all used to being excluded and dismissed; so much so that when we raise an issue and are shut down, we often just hold our tongues thereafter.
On the issue of the one pro whose submitted bio was edited to change all of eir pronouns to “he” and “him”, and the insistence for a few days that this was a bio taken from the web (when no one can find such a bio and they can’t provide a link), that gets into the conscious versus unconscious bias. Either the person who copied the bio was simple too ill-informed about non binary people and nontraditional pronouns, and simply assumed it was some kind of extremely consistent typo (which I think is a stretch), or they’re one of those people who balk at pronouns to the point of refusing to use any they don’t agree with and decided to change the bio and then claim it was a mistake if they were called on it.
I don’t know if the same staffer is the one who decided not to use another pro’s usual publication bio and photograph, and instead write a different bio using information that usually was not released publicly and use a photo taken from the pro’s private Facebook. In any case, it is difficult to construct an “honest mistake” excuse for that one. And if it is the same staffer, I think that is more than adequate proof that the changed pronouns on the other bio was an intentional aggression.
In several of the discussions online I’ve seen a lot of people not understanding what the problem was with requesting semi-formal wear for the Hugo ceremony. Foz Meadows summed it up better than I did:
”…the fashion at the Hugo Awards ceremonies tends to be a welcoming, eclectic mixture of the sublime, the weird and the comfortable. Some people wear ballgowns and tuxedos; some wear cosplay; others wear jeans and t-shirts. George R. R. Martin famously tends to show up in a trademark peaked cap and suspenders. Those who do dress up for the Hugos do so out of a love of fashion and pageantry, but while their efforts are always admired and appreciated, sharing that enthusiasm has never been a requisite of attending. At an event whose aesthetics are fundamentally opposed to the phrase ‘business casual’ and whose members are often uncomfortable in formalwear for reasons such as expense, gender-nonconformity, sizeism in the fashion industry and just plain old physical comfort, this change to tradition was not only seen as unexpected and unwelcome, but actively hostile.”
I also note that a few days ago Mike Glyer posted a link to a letter from decades back from E.E. “Doc” Smith (the author of the Lensmen books, among others) when the 1962 WorldCon asked for all the ladies attending the award ceremony to wear long formal gowns. Smith commented that his wife had not owned formal wear since entering retirement and thought it was unreasonable to expect people to go to such an expense.
Which is a nice segue to this: until the 34th WorldCon (MidAmericaCon I, 1976 in Kansas City, Missouri) the Hugo Awards were given out at the end of the convention banquet. The banquet consisted of eating (obviously) while the guests of honor gave speeches. Fans who couldn’t afford the extra expense of the banquet were allowed in (usually in a separate area such as a balcony) for the awards portion. The awards ceremony was separated from the banquet in 1976 for a couple of reasons, but one was to make it easier for everyone who wanted to attend to do so. The conventions had gotten so large that the fraction who wanted to see the award ceremony was too much for the banquet halls of typical convention hotels to accommodate, and there had always been the problem of people who couldn’t afford the banquet ticket. I wanted to close with that because I have seen a number of people arguing that the people who are feeling unwelcome because of this con’s actions are making unreasonable demands to change traditions of the conventions.
The traditions change over time for many reasons. It isn’t about change for the sake of change, it is change of the sake of practicality and realism. People have, in the past, believed that science fiction and fantasy was only created by straight white guys, and was only loved by other straight white guys. That has never been true, but the illusion was maintained through a variety of societal forces and some willful ignorance. It has become increasingly difficult to maintain that willful ignorance, and besides, ignorance is never a good look on anyone. It’s not about whether fandom is diverse, it is about to what lengths some people are willing to go to ignore, silence, or push out that diversity.
So how things came to a head: a professional writer who has been nominated for a Hugo this year was told they weren’t going to be on programming because “there is a kind of creator who appeals to Hugo nominators, but are totally unknown to convention attendees.” The email also managed to misgender the pro and… well things went downhill, after the pro and their spouse posted some of this information online. The programming people contacted the spouse, asked the spouse to convey their apology and expressed disappointment that they went public instead of handling this privately.
And that prompted many many other writers and creators to come out of the woodwork, posting their own many attempts to deal with similar issues (such as, “why did you discard the bio my publisher sent you, and pull information from my private Facebook account instead?” “What do you mean that people like me aren’t of interest to convention attendees?”)—indicating that a whole bunch of people had been trying to address this privately to no avail.
Only when it became public and dozens of authors who were on the programs wrote in to either withdraw, or at least suggest that other, newer, less well known writers could take their place on some panels, did the con chair issue a real apology (there had been a “we’re sorry if anyone’s offended” style non-apology the night before).
Because the thing is, the people who were being excluded weren’t just new writers to the field, it was overwhelmingly the queer creators, the non-white creators, and the women creators. And at one point, the programming person explicitly said, “Do you expect a WorldCon to be like WisCon?” WisCon being famously more feminist-friendly and queer-friendly than most other conventions.
Other people have written about this situation, and probably better than I, but there’s a part of this whole thing that just really presses my buttons, and it aligns with a theme I’ve written about many times on this blog: to wit, queer people, trans people, people of color, women, and people of many religions and cultures have been fans of sci-fi/fantasy (and created sci-fi/fantasy) for as long as it has existed. We aren’t new. We aren’t exotic. We aren’t fringe or band-wagoners. We’ve always been here, we just have seldom been allowed to be visible. As Mary Robinette Kowal observed at least four years ago:
“It’s not about adding diversity for the sake of diversity, it’s about subtracting homogeneity for the sake of realism.”
—Mary Robinette Kowal
Let’s go back to the explanation that was being given before the backlash forced them to scrap their programming plans and start over: “There is a kind of creator that appeals to the Hugo nominators who is not known by the convention attendees.”
I have at least three responses to that:
First, nominators are attendees. In order to nominate for the Hugo Awards and in order to vote for the winners, one must purchase a membership to the convention. And you know who else are attendees? The pros who are coming to the con that the con com doesn’t want to let on the program. Sure, not every attendee participated in the nomination process, and not every one of them nominated ever finalist, but some fraction of the attendees did. And the number of people who nominate is more than large enough to be a statistically significant sample of fans. So it is an entirely misleading and useless distinction to try to draw between attendees and nominators.
Second, this argument is a form of gaslighting. I’ve seen some people compare it to the old TrueFan arguments (and the more recent Real Fan claims from melancholy canines), and those are good comparisons, but I think a better model is the Moral Majority. I know I hark back to that particular group a lot, and I admit I know so much about them because they originated in the denomination in which I had been raised and they came to national prominence literally as I reached legal voting age, so my earliest election experiences included being told again and again that, because I disagreed with them, I was a member of the implied immoral minority.
This is the same kind of argument: “attendees” are implied as being the vast majority of fans, and these majority of fans don’t find “that certain kind of creator” interesting, unlike the “nominators.” The nominators are, by inference, supposed to be viewed as a fringe, extremist minority whose interests can’t possibly overlap with the implied majority. And just as the Moral Majority’s very name contained two lies (they were neither moral nor a majority), this notion that type of fans who are not interested in a “certain kind of creator” must consititute such an overwhelming majority that virtually no programming to appeals to anyone else is worth having.
Third, the majority/minority part isn’t the only form a gaslighting being attempted. Because here’s the thing: in most of the Hugo categories, it is not people who are nominated, but works of sci-fi/fantasy. The authors are referred to as nominees, but technically it is a specific novel, novella, novelette, short story, et cetera that is nominated. But that phrase, “a certain kind of creator who appeals to the nominators” puts the emphasis on the creator and the creator’s identity. In other words, they are arguing that the nominators really didn’t like the specific story, but have chosen the story to fulfill a quota or something.
In other words, the person who made this statement believes that the story nominated doesn’t really deserve to be nominated, and believes that the nominators don’t believe that either. It’s the same racist/homophobic/transphobic/misogynist arguments that the melancholy canines were making. A “certain kind of creator” is a dogwhistle. The nominators may want queer/trans/women/people of color, but “normal” people don’t. That’s what that statement says. And this is why I still fervently believe the person who said that should be fired from the con com.
Fourth, finally, they are arguing that attendees are only interested in seeing creators they already know and love. Completely ignoring the fact that most fans want to both see old favorites and to find new writers/stories/shows/what-have-you that might become favorites. One of my favorite parts of attending conventions are when I am exposed to new authors I’d never heard of before, and new works that I’d never seen. I’m always writing down names of authors and stories and ‘zines and so forth, and then going to look them up after the con.
Many of the authors who are currently in my personal list of favorites, are people who I learned about at a convention panel. Yes, once they become a favorite, I will look for their names in the programming grid and try to see some of their events, but I’m not just there to see the folks I already know.
The conventions where I ran programming were all smaller than WorldCon, but I have run programming at conventions. I know it is hard work. I know it can feel like thankless work. But one of my goals with that programming was to provide convention attendees opportunities to learn new things, to find new artists or writers and so forth that they didn’t previously know about; to introduce the work of many people to new audiences, while also giving fans a chance to see the people whose work they already liked.
If you don’t see that both of those goals should equally drive the programming of a sci fi or fantasy con, then you absolutely should not be working on programming. Go work for a commercial convention where the only point is to sell autographs. Do not volunteer for a World Science Fiction Con.
First, let’s deal with the song a bit. If you aren’t familiar with the song (which knocked the Beattles off the top of the pop charts for 4 weeks in 1967, then went on to make it into the top twenty of the Blues chart, the Soul chart, and finally the Country chart), you must listen to it once before we talk about it. Even if you are familiar, you really should listen again, and try to listen to it as a short story, rather than just some song:
The song is often retro-activily classified as Country, but at the time it was more clearly pop with a heavy blues influence. I think people classify it country because the story of the song is set in the south and she lets her Mississippi accent through.
Anyway, as a short story, it’s pretty phenomenal. And part of appeal of the song, clearly, is the mystery at the center of the song: what did the narrator and Billie Joe throw off the bridge earlier in the week, and why did Billie Joe commit suicide?
Over the years, Bobbie gave a very consistent answer: she didn’t know and it didn’t matter2. Many times she explained to interviewer, “It’s a MacGuffin. Alfred Hitchcock called the object that moves the plot along but isn’t really important on its own a MacGuffin, and writers have been using that term since the 1930s.” The song wasn’t about what happened, rather it was about unconscious cruelty. The family is sitting around the table discussing the suicide of someone they all know as casually as they ask each other to pass the biscuits, completely unaware that the suicide victim’s girlfriend is a member of their family, sitting right there listening to them.
The something that the narrator and Billie Joe were seen “throwing off the Tallahatchie Bridge” is one type of MacGuffin. It is something another character saw, and a third character comments on, which draws a connection in the minds of the audience between other events in the story. But exactly what it was and why it was thrown off aren’t important to the tale that the writer is sharing.
You’ll find a few different definitions of MacGuffin out there (also spelled McGuffin and Maguffin). My definition is:
- A story element that draws the reader’s attention to certain actions and/or,
- Drives the plot of a work of fiction (usually because several characters are willing to do almost anything to obtain it), but,
- The specific nature of the object may be ambigious, undefined, left open to interpretation, or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that in a thriller the MacGuffin is often a necklace (a small object which can be worth a lot of money, but may also hold sentimental value or be coveted for its beauty), while in a spy stories the MacGuffin is usually some mysterious papers. The important thing (storytelling-wise) about the MacGuffin is what it motivates the characters to do, not what it actually is. In the example of “Ode to Billie Joe” the thing thrown off the bridge is important because apparently it contributes to Billie Joe MacAllister’s decision to commit suicide, probably motivates the preacher to come tell Mama the news of the suicide, and draws the audience’s attention to the connection between the narrator and Billie Joe.
One might wonder how MacGuffins relate to subplots. As I’ve discussed before, subplots are sequences of events with plot-like structures that happen within a larger story an are sometimes only tangentially related to the main plot. And sometimes a way you can connect subplots more closely to the main plot, or even connect subplots which aren’t otherwise related to each other is with the use of a MacGuffin.
For example, many years ago when I became the editor-in-chief of a small sci fi fanzine, I inherited a project started by the previous editor. She had come up with a framing tale to allow contributors to write a large group story together. This allowed contributors who had trouble coming with with plots an easy situation to write some scenes about their characters in, for instance, and encouraged contributors to work with each other. When I became the editor, there were about 40,000 words worth of writing from a whole bunch of people… and most of it did not fit together very well.
I went through the whole thing, taking notes and trying to come up with an outline that would fit all the disparate pieces into the original framing tale. One of the contributors (and an Associate Editor), Mark, regularly wrote a lot of the stories we published, and had written several sequences with different characters which could have been turned into interesting plots on their own. So we talked at length before bringing the proposal back to the rest of the editorial board. There would need to be a lot of new stuff written to tie the pieces we had together and push the whole thing to an ending, and I proposed two MacGuffins to help us out.
A lot of the existing sequences (and the framing tale) involved a criminal deal (worth the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars) gone wrong. While the initiating event for the non-criminal characters was an anniversary party to celebrate the original maiden voyage of a spaceship. So, one MacGuffin would be the 36th Century equivalent of a bearer bond: a physical object containing some kind of encryption key which could be presented to a particular financial institution and be exchanged for the hundreds of millions of dollars—that could be cashed by anyone. The other was an anniversary present which the pirate captain charged his first mate with making certain was delivered to the captain of the ship celebrating the anniversary.
This gave us two packages that were both in the possession of one of the criminal leaders early in the story and then became separated in the chaos of the shoot out and the inconveniently times major earthquake. Many of the criminal characters believed that either of the lost packages was the fabulously valuable bearer bond, but weren’t sure which one. Other characters had no idea when either package was.
A lot of the sequences which had no other connection to the established plots could thus be connected merely by adding a few sentences where one or another of the characters came into contact with a package that looked important, and then losing it. Other sequences got a more firm connection to the plot by adding a few sentences where one or more of the characters was trying to find one of the packages.
The two MacGuffins on their own didn’t solve all the problems. We spent a few months dividing various sequences and subplots to members of the editorial board to write additional bridging material5. And then Mark and I would each re-write these sequences to make them fit with the others. After a few months of this, I started sensing a bit of dread from the other members of the editorial board when we got to the standing item of this story6, so one meeting when we got to that point I immediately said, “I think we’ve reached the point where I should take over and finish weaving the rest of the tale together, and then Mark can do a clean-up pass.” At least two members of the board audibly sighed and said something like, “Thank goodness.”
We published the final tale as 24 chapters in consecutive issues of the ‘zine. The final word count was a bit shy of 250,000 words. And those two MacGuffins really helped. In the penultimate chapter, one MacGuffin finally ended its journey, and I managed to make the delivery of the lost bearer bond to the pirate captain into the punchline to a joke. The other MacGuffin never made it to where it was originally destined, but it served as the final punchline to the entire story.
The objects themselves were not really important, particularly in light of the number of characters who were killed in the course of the tale7. But the objects provided through-lines for may subplots and kept the reader guessing until the very end.
1. The opening lyrics of the song are, “It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day”
2. Please don’t ping me to tell me that the 1976 movie based on the song reveals the answers. It doesn’t. Through a series of events involving a later minor hit of Ms. Gentry’s that was the theme of another movie, a studio approached her with the idea of making a movie based on her first hit. Per the agreement, her only involvement with the movie was they would use an existing recording of her singing the song in the soundtrack, and she would have one meeting with the screenwriter. Only one. He reported afterwards that the first question he asked her was why did Billie Joe commit suicide. He said Gentry laughed and told him, “I have absolutely no idea. That’s not why I wrote the song.” Then he asked her what they threw off the bridge, and she repeated that she had no idea. Left with no information he could use, the screenwriter made up a rather convoluted plot, and named the previously unnamed narrator of the song Bobbie, so that audiences would believe that the song was autobiographical3.
3. Which it wasn’t4.
4. In a very early interview about the song, when the interviewer was not happy with Bobbie’s explanation that it was a MacGuffin and pressed her repeatedly for an answer, Bobbie said, “I really don’t know. Maybe it was a ring or a locket that represented an engagement or something?” But clearly at this point she admits that she is guessing, too.
5. A lot of the authors or co-authors of some of the sequences had left the project, but we had permission to use the material, without always knowing how the absent writer had intended to end their sequence.
6. Yes, we were technically a fan project, but we had regular meetings and I had agendas for the meetings and we took minutes and everything. I’m that kind of editor!
7. It was a natural disaster story and the story of a criminal deal gone wrong, with multiple shoot-outs—of course characters died!
8. Edited to add: I should have linked to the podcast. Cocaine & Rhinestones Season 1, episode 4, “Bobbie Gentry: Exit Stage Left”.
When I wrote previously about subplots, I searched for other blog posts and articles about it to link to for other perspectives, and was surprised to see a few pieces of what I considered bad advice being repeated in a lot of them. For instance, many such articles insist that subplots must be resolved before the main plot. A few allowed an exception for a subplot that is intended to carry across multiple books (perhaps to become a main plot of a later volume), but most didn’t even mention that. And that’s simply wrong.
Let’s review a few definitions: the main plot is an obstacle, puzzle, or problem which confronts the protagonist at the beginning of the story, is resolved by the protagonist’s own actions at the end of the story, and is the thread that ties everything else together. A subplot is a subordinate plot taking up less of the action than the main plot, having fewer significant events occur, with less impact on the “world” of the work, and often occurring to less important characters. A resolution is the point where the outcome of a plot or subplot is revealed (or sometimes only suggested). And remember that a resolution isn’t always a solution in that the character can fail to solve the problem; which makes your story a tragedy.
Now, subplots can end before the main plot. In a novel many of them will as a matter of course, because some subplots are literally distractions and additional obstacles your protagonist encounters while pursuing their main goal. In order to rescue the enslaved knight, your protagonist may first need to get information from a mystical oracle, which may involve enduring some hardship just to consult the oracle. Then the oracle may tell her that she has to find a magic artifact, an ancient spell book, and a blood relative of the enslaved knight. Obtaining each of those involves a mini adventure and thus a subplot and resolution along the way, and so on.
But some subplots can also be resolved at the same time as the main plot. In the same fight that the protagonist frees the enslaved knight, a supporting character may rescue his children also captured by the main villain, while another supporting character avenges himself upon the minor villain who is a minion of the main villain, and so forth. Several subplots all being tied up at the same time. Pulling that off with a lot of the subplots, getting them to converge on the main plot, makes for a very satisfying climax to your novel.
However, a few subplots can also be resolved right after the climax, in the part of the novel known as the denouement. Time for another definition!
The denouement is that portion of the story where all the loose ends are tied together. Side note: the word comes to English from the French dénouement meaning to untie something—isn’t language funny? To get back to the main point: in most modern novels, the denouement is usually a single chapter at the very end, after the outcome of the main plot is revealed. It’s the time to assure the reader that the characters who survived and triumphed have actually gotten their happy ending, to show that the villains are indeed suffering, and so on. One of my university literature teachers described it as the time for the reader to catch their breath after the excitement of the resolution and say good-bye to their favorite characters.
I think the reason so many of those other blog posts and articles think that the subplot has to resolve before the main plot is because their authors conflated the resolution with the denouement. Which is easy to understand, because in short stories the resolution and denouement often happen in the same sentence. In plays and movies the denouement is usually in the same scene, comprising only a few lines of dialogue or the like after the resolution.
I mentioned above that most modern novels accomplish the denouement in a single chapter after the resolution. But that hasn’t always been the case. A great example of the old school way of doing it is found in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, in which the denouement goes on for nearly a third of the final book!
Some of your subplots will be those loose ends tied up during the denouement. Loose ends don’t always require an entire scene for a resolution, they can sometimes be handled by a couple of lines of dialogue. “But what happened to the elephant?” “I found him a good home with that druid we met at Gobsbridge.”
And yes, some of your subplots will be left unresolved, carrying over into a future installment. They can even, technically be introduced in the denouement! That moment when a supposedly minor sycophant of the main villain is shown to somehow have survived the explosion and is clinging to some floating wreckage down river, perhaps. Horror movies and the like often have the cliché of a single hand reaching out of the smoking wreckage, indicating one of the supposedly dead villains isn’t. You get the idea.
If you decide to emphasize that a subplot is going to continue into the next story, don’t lay it on too thick. You don’t want to overshadow the happy endings for those characters who got one. Remember, the denouement is a time to let the reader catch their breath. It’s a way to ease the reader out of the excitement and anxiety of the main plot. Yes, you want the reader to be interested in what happens in the next book, if you plan to write one, but they’re most likely to do that if they feel good about the ending of this one. That isn’t to say that everyone always has to get a happy ending. I’ve set denouement scenes at literal gravesides of heroes, as well as the bedside of two children being read a bedtime story by their grandfather who is taking them home to their mother with the news that their father was killed saving them.
So bittersweet and tragic endings are fine. But any indication you give that there is another adventure ahead for some of the characters shouldn’t leave the reader feeling as if the protagonist accomplished nothing.
Readers may not remember everything that happened during a story. They won’t remember a lot of the lines, scenes, plotholes and such that you worked hardest on. But they will always remember how you made them feel.
For another perspective on subplots, you might want to check out this blog: Writing and Such: Tackling Subplots
Which is not to say that characters we put in our stories aren’t or shouldn’t be based on real people. Many characters are amalgams of many people that the author has encountered throughout their life. Quite often the author can’t name all of the sources of a character because many were people we encountered without getting to know well, plus half assembling of the personality quirks happened in the writer’s subconscious. Other times, we knew exactly who we got a particular mannerism or figure of speech from. And sometimes it’s a lot more than one or two things.
I made a conscious decision with one of my novels to (in most cases) loosely base characters on specific people or characters from other works. It started out as just a whim, and for a while was kind of a fun game, and then it became something I did without thinking. I’d need a new supporting character for a particular scene or subplot, and start writing them, only to realize many paragraphs into the first scene that I was basing some aspects of the character on that person.
Some people don’t want to do that, at all. And I’m sure that you can find someone out there who will adamantly insist you should never base a character on a real person that you know. They will list off several good reasons for this advice. One of the things those annoying shows I mentioned earlier do get right is that if friends and acquaintances guess or suspect a particular character is based on them, and that character if portrayed in a less-than-flattering way, that can cause a bit of resentment in your real life.
My counter argument is that certain people in your life will, when they read something you wrote, sometimes think that you have based a character upon them whether you consciously did so or not. And if they take offense, whether you meant to base the character on them or not isn’t going to matter. You can attempt to explain the way every character in fiction is, to an extent, a pastiche built from your imagination as well as observation of real people, but it may not convince them.
One of my favorite villains in my current WIP is a character named Mother Bedlam. Parts of her personality, mannerisms, and relationships are based on at least three real people I have known in life, all of whom have since passed away. Other parts of her come from a variety of crass, conniving, and criminally depraved characters and historical figures. She’s intended to be a comedic villain, despite also doing some vile and violent things and propelling serious plot points along. Many of her traits are exaggerations for comedic effect. If any of the people I have consciously based her on were to read my stories (which they never will, because they’re all dead) and recognize themselves in her, I might have an awkward situation to sort out.
As it is, one time when I read one of her scenes to my writers’ group, another member of the group who had laughed a lot during that scene, told me later that if he didn’t know better, he would have been convinced I had somehow spied on his childhood and one particular despised teacher he had in grade school. At subsequent appearances of the character he would bring that up again. One time another person’s critique of some new scenes was that Mother Bedlam had been over the top—that no person would really treat one of their underlings that day. The other guy jumped in to say that his teacher had done almost exactly the same thing to one of the children in her care.
There are at least two lessons to take from this example. First, to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, there are only actually a few people in the world, we just meet many of them again and again. The other is that this illustrates why some character you think of as wholly original to you might make someone you know insist that the character is based upon them.
And I know I am hardly the only writer who has ever based a minor character whose only purpose is to die brutally to further the plot on a real person who gave us some sort of trouble at some point in our lives. My most vicious middle school bully has leant his name and or personality to a number of characters who have met such brutal deaths. Then there is one person who caused so much trouble for both myself and several people I know, that I made him into a character who is brutally killed in one book, brought back as an undead creature, and variously maimed, burned, re-killed, and so forth a few times in subsequent books.
Some people call it petty. I call it do-it-yourself-therapy.
I posted a while ago about many of the ways that the cliched advice of ‘show don’t tell’ is actually bad advice. A lot of people take it to mean that all exposition is bad. The usual ways of implementing it creates fiction that is only accessible to people who—because of the culture of their upbringing or through study—are privy to a specific set of presuppositions. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a nugget of truth in the advice, rather that the advice itself is an oversimplification and many of its proponents are pushing (whether they mean to or not) an agenda that excludes many people and cultures. The nugget is worth digging into.
There is no clear consensus of who first used the specific phrase “show don’t tell,” but it is possible that it is a reduction of a longer piece of advice from Russian author Anton Chekov: “Don’t tell me the moon was shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Of course, in this longer form, it is a bit more obvious that the problem isn’t exposition of all sorts, but rather flat or boring exposition. If you merely tell the reader, “the moon was shining” and nothing else, that’s a pretty generic image, and doesn’t set much of a scene. But if instead you say something like, “moonlight glinted off the broken glass on the floor” that gives a more specific image—and raises some questions. Why is there broken glass on the floor? What happened?
You show the reader that the moon is shining by telling them that moonlight is glinting off broken glass. And you’re going to show the reader what happened by telling them more. As I said in the previous post, being a storyteller requires one to tell stories.
Anton Chekhov is more famous in English-speaking writer communities for another piece of advice: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” The idea is that when certain objects, events, or utterances occur in your story, you raise expectations in the audience that this thing is going to be important. Another way to look at it is, if you’ve shown your reader something that seems important, you should eventually tell the reader what happens to that thing.
Anton Chekhov knew a lot about writing. He’s best known now for a few significant plays, but he wrote an unbelievable number of short stories, short-shorts, vignettes, and other tales. When Chekhov was a young medical student, his father got severely into debt, and Chekhov started writing and selling short, comedic stories and sketches of Russian street life in order to pay for his own tuition and to assist his parents. Eventually, his writing output was so prodigious, that he paid off his parents’ debts, was supporting several of his adult siblings, his own wife, at least one kept mistress, and he was treating medical patients for free. He considered his important life work to be the medical care, and the writing was just to pay all of those bills.
To get back to his advice about showing the reader things: while it is important that your telling of your story paints vivid pictures in your reader’s mind, it is equally important that everything you show the reader serves a purpose within your story. It’s a balancing act.
Many years ago I was asked to give a critique of a draft story by someone in one of the writers’ groups. The story was set in the late 1800s in a “wild west” town, and it had a sex scene. The scene included several pages of beautifully worded and painstakingly specific description of the layers of cloths the woman was wearing and just how much work was involved. There were more than a dozen paragraphs dealing with the unfastening of a set of buttons on a single garment. It was excruciatingly clear that the author had spent many hours researching period fabrics and design and construction of women’s garments in the period. And the author was determined that the reams of information gathered in the hundreds of hours of research would all explained to the reader.
The author claimed, during discussion, that the plot was her protagonist needed to get a piece of information from this guy, so she seduced him. Unfortunately that was completely lost in the very elaborate description of the clearly frustrating undressing process. A case could be made for a humorous story answering the question “can the protagonist get herself undressed and have sex with this guy before they both die of old age?” but that wasn’t what the author was going for—and even then, there was too much detail to support such a punchline. As it was, neither the difficulty of the undressing process nor any of the details of the clothing had anything to do with the author’s intended plot.
It should also be noted, there was no description of the man’s process of undressing. He got his clothes off in less than a sentence at the beginning of the scene. Which is why more than one person in the group thought that the story was meant to be a humorous parody of a bodice-ripper.
I usually have the opposite problem—I don’t describe things enough. So an important part of my revision process (once I get the first draft done) is look for places where painting the picture will make the plot, character motivations, and so on more obvious to the reader.
If you tend toward the more elaborate form of description, than you will need to pay attention to the other side of things during your edit and revision passes: look for abandoned guns. If you’ve described someone’s clothing in detail, ask yourself why? Is the scalloping on the hem of his cloak important to the story? Sure, if you need to establish that this character is well off, and has a flare for fashion, give some details. But maybe that little digression about the type of stitching should be trimmed. If at a later point some property of the cloak is going to be important to a plot point, yeah, show us a detail that at least hints at that possibility.
Similarly with the way a character looks, or the visual details of her home, or the contents of her desk, or the design of any weapons she carries. Show enough for the reader to imagine the character. Show enough to get the reader an outline of the way the character does things. Show the reader things important to the plot without drawing a bullseye on things that will telegraph plot twists.
Paint the picture, but only the picture that is relevant to the story.