Friday, November 30, 2018

Writing lessons learned . . . from cartoons [GIFs]

National Novel Writing Month is a pretty cool writing program that's designed to encourage authors to write a book. More specifically, you have to write 50,000 words in the 30 days of November, and if you succeed, you "win."

Today, I "won."

2018 is my first year participating. In years past, I used to see other authors enjoying themselves (or torturing themselves, as the case may be) and I would encourage them if appropriate, but I never thought I'd be one of them. This year, it's been an interesting experience. Not only because I've never put myself on any kind of externally dictated word count goal during drafting or put myself on any consistent schedule for writing, but because I participated in this program partly to try things I had not tried.

And I got to do exactly that.

It's been about three years since I wrote a book. I've written at least ten novels in my life, and all of the ones I finished were completed very quickly and ended up very long. I am what's known in writing circles as a pantser: I write "by the seat of my pants," with little planning. I'm also not much of a worldbuilder. I write stories with a lot of navel gazing, a lot of conversation, and a lot of character interaction. I try my best to have a plot, but for me, plot is an excuse for characters to interact.

When you get down to it, we care about what happens because of who it happens to. Steven Universe is my favorite cartoon, and even though one of the big complaints about it from certain subsections of the fandom is that it spends too much time with side characters or "filler" episodes, it's really the early, deliberate focus on the characters that made so many people fall in love with the show, and now we fans will tune in to watch them do anything. 

HOWEVER, there ARE those people who watch because they are invested in the plot reveals, or fans who are very interested in the history and backstory. Again, we care about those things because they are shown to have significance to characters in the show, and attaching backstory and plot to characters is a lesson I learned long ago for making those things interesting.

However, a few things are new to me. This is the first time I've written a book after learning as much as I have from Steven Universe, and I want to talk about what I've learned.

1. Introducing backstory elements early on that will be explained later--without being obnoxious or coy.

Steven Universe is incredibly good at this. Now, I've listened to the podcasts and read the interviews from the people who work on the show, and I know that sometimes they deliberately include stuff when they don't know what it is, or they grab something from an earlier episode and make a plot point out of it. It isn't always deliberate; the important part is that it looks organic when you do do it. 

An example:

In an early episode, "Serious Steven" (episode 8), we first see the Strawberry Battlefield.

It may seem like it's not telling us anything, but it is. a) A battle happened here that they're not telling us about. b) These weapons came from somewhere.

As we get to know the Gem characters better in the show, we see that they generally do not use weapons like this at all. So what's going on? Was this even their war? Their usual fighting weapons are magically summoned from their gemstones, so what could have caused a battlefield to be covered in discarded material weapons?

And then later, in "Lion 3: Straight to Video" (episode 35), we get a glimpse of a mysterious object in a bubble.

Guess what? Background artist Steven Sugar thought it would be cool to draw a bunch of weapons on that battlefield. Storyboarder Joe Johnston thought it would be cool to include this gemstone in a bubble. Neither completely had it worked out as to what they were even making. And then they had to explain it later. "Hey, where DID those weapons come from? They must've had material weapons sometimes. And therefore, it must've been someone's job to make and provide those weapons."

More than 50 episodes later, that gemstone gets activated and it's a long-lost character we get to meet for the first time.

And guess what? She makes weapons.

The Crystal Gems' good old blacksmith, Bismuth, is introduced to the show. Before this reveal, sure we figured those weapons had to come from somewhere, and sure we figured eventually we'd find out what that dang bubble was about, but when two mysteries are solved by giving us Bismuth, that feels even cooler.

But the show didn't deliberately create a central mystery out of either of those background details. Eagle-eyed fans certainly tossed around theories about them, but the show itself wasn't shoving these things in your face and saying "Wouldn't YOU like to know?" This show rarely does that. 

Because of how skillfully Steven Universe throws in background details and later ties them together, I learned how to do similar things in my writing, and I applied them in the project I just finished. Like Steven Sugar and Joe Johnston, I included a few things I didn't really have plans for, figuring hey, this is nice, but since I'm not shoving it in your face that you don't know what this is, it's okay if I never come right out and explain it. 

2. How to portray the effects of an ancient, epic tragedy on an individual and their loved ones.

Steven Universe has at least 20,000 years of backstory. It begins with intergalactic tyrants colonizing other worlds, obliterating the organic life of any planet they settled. Their cruel matriarchs, the Diamonds, finally faced consequences for this when they tried to colonize Earth, and one of their own finally turned against them.

We don't know anything about these antagonists until we're more than 75 episodes in. One of them is name-dropped as early as episode 51, but no details follow. We come to know they're important, and later we realize how incredibly vital their influence has been in shaping this plot, but the show could have lived and died without mentioning them if it had ended at Season 1. We already had characters who we later find are living with the legacy of what the Diamonds did, but we didn't need to know about it to care about their emotions and about what happened to them. In fact, finding out about the Diamonds' deeds meant so much more every time we learned about a major character's relationship with them. Context would reveal itself, and then we'd go "OHHHH."

When HUGE things happen that are world-shaking (or, in this case, galaxy-shaking), every person still has a personal reaction to those events. We didn't have to start Steven Universe with "a long, long time ago" to give us context. We jumped in to see how the characters live now, and we believe them, and in some cases we can see something must have happened to make them the way they are, but those old wounds and past loyalties do not need to be given to us FIRST. We can learn who these characters are, and then when we later learn how they have been shaped by epic events, it has so much more power.

In my latest book, I also have a group of people who are many generations distant from a catastrophic event that happened to their people. The protagonist did not personally witness it because it was well before her time (more than six hundred years ago), but she has inherited the hole that event made in her culture, and she has a relationship with that sorrow even though it didn't happen to her, didn't happen to anyone she knows, and happened in a place she has never been. It's still a very personal cultural pain for her people, but most importantly, when I write about her I have to show both her connection to it and her distance from it. Steven Universe did that so well with Steven, being that he's also inherited so much devastation that he has no personal context for but can feel in the world around him littered with its remnants.

As a Jewish woman, I am making this personal by drawing on my feelings about the Holocaust. It happened before I was born. I do not personally know anyone who was in a concentration camp and I don't know for sure of any lines of my family that were killed there. Most of the immigration to the USA that happened in my great-grandparents' generation happened well before the Second World War. And still, when I hear references to the Holocaust, I think of it as something that was done to "us." I'm pulling from that to write this book, but I am also using the lessons this cartoon taught me about how a terrible thing that both did and didn't happen to you can influence who you are and who you become.

3. A little pacing goes a long way

Steven Universe is pretty phenomenal in that it expertly plays the long game with some of its reveals. There are a few plot points that were building for seasons before they were finally dumped on the audience, and even though some people guessed they were coming, many others did not. 

As a show with many secrets, this is nevertheless not just a show about mysteries. This show really takes its time, lingering on how every development feels to the main character and taking time out to check in with the characters, devoting whole arcs to characters' interpersonal fallouts, catastrophic freakouts, post-traumatic stress, self care, and evolving relationships. As mentioned before, some people complain about these episodes where "nothing happens," but I think those moments are everything. 

So one thing I've tried to apply in my most recent book is not considering the important moments between the characters as if they're indulgent, pace-destroying digressions. If that's what I want my book to really be about, I have to take my time and let the characters have them, and if the plot is important, they will also feel a draw toward moving it forward. I just don't have to artificially drag them to the next plot point if there's something worth writing in the moments between. What's great about this is that when and if something epic DOES happen, you feel it's earned; we spent enough time with these characters that we're excited to see how it affects them, and maybe we've really been able to feel the time stretching like it must have for the characters who lived it. There's no need to rush to the next "plot point" if the journey is important.

4. A scene that is written for one reason can pretend to be about something completely different

One thing I've noticed in Steven Universe is that an episode will focus VERY hard on something that ends up being almost irrelevant to the plot. But what it DOES do is bring something very important into the story. Maybe a person, a concept, a weapon, a tool, or an experience someone will need becomes a whole episode by itself.

Did we really need to see an episode about Stevonnie in a drag race with Kevin? It was a good episode, and it had some great lessons about competition, giving attention to jerks, and enjoying experiences in the moment. 

But if in a later episode it was important that Stevonnie already had some driving experience, we needed an excuse to have them driving in a high-stress atmosphere, and here it is. Perhaps that episode pretended to be about Stevonnie besting Kevin in a way that mattered even though they didn't win the actual race, but plot wise? It gave us, in episode 89, a setup and an explanation for Stevonnie being able to drive the crap out of a car-like spaceship in episode 140.

There are many other episodes like this--especially the ones that focus on the human townspeople and some incidentals of Steven's life. This was inspiring to me, so I've tried to learn from it and incorporate necessary plot elements or details into scenes about something else. That way they don't feel shoehorned in, they don't feel like they stick out suspiciously, and they feel organic when they come up again.

5. A good mystery should be solved by some of the audience before the solution is revealed

All the major theories of Steven Universe were backed by conspiracy theorists at the beginning.

And there's not a single plot reveal that didn't have a subsection of fans screaming, "SEE??? DIDN'T I TELL YOU???"

This is because the writers didn't lead the audience by the hand down a single path, but they did build the reveals on a logical setup so you never feel like they just pulled a solution out of nowhere. Sometimes it's shocking how it's revealed, or details of it are really unexpected, but enough was told as the story unfolded that some people could figure it out. The creators said that when writing Steven Universe, they wanted people to feel that satisfaction when their attention to detail paid off. They didn't want people to feel by and large blindsided by the reveals, because then it feels cheap.

From this, I've learned that if I want to reveal something, I don't have to worry about trying to hide it from everyone reading, and I haven't failed to write a good mystery if people do figure it out. However, a good mystery also surprises some of its audience too. You can present a series of clues, but avoid hand-holding so people won't feel cheated or condescended to. It's really an incredible feeling when you figure something out ahead of the reveal--unless it was really obvious.

And, that said? It's actually okay sometimes if YOU, the writer, don't quite know where you're going. The Steven Universe creators figured out Amethyst's origin quite a while after they'd started making the show, but it retroactively made sense.

As a pantser, I often learn what happens by writing it (instead of writing toward something I am looking for the best way to reveal), and it's refreshing to see with this show that sometimes that approach works too.

6. Connection through fandom is important

A very funny, very specific aspect of Steven Universe is how often the characters use other works of fiction to communicate with each other.

The characters often learn about each other, their values, their hopes and dreams, and even understand concepts they couldn't get before. In one episode, Garnet is finally able to help Peridot understand her relationship by comparing it to a TV show Peridot likes.

This is especially common with young people; they connect through bands they like, fandoms they're in, and identities they may share, and they can compare themselves or their situations to characters or plot points in stories they've all seen. I'm writing a Young Adult book, so in order to make the characters have something in common, it's helpful to use something like this to help them communicate with each other and bring them together. It can't all be about attraction or childhood friendships that are thrust upon them through no effort of their own. Contextualizing one's life through stories is a wonderful thing, and Steven Universe has so many examples of this working.

7. Marginalized people need to see stories that resonate with them on a unique level

This is the big one. There are so many Very Specific aspects of the outsider experience that this show focuses on. From Onion having a bunch of friends who don't talk to Amethyst feeling like a reject until she found her own family of rejects (and learned they were all GREAT), this show is awesome at showing different ways of people finding their own. However, it is of course particularly special to LGBT people because of all the positive same-sex relationships and queer gender presentation.

We have a happy same-sex couple, but then . . . we also have the classic Sad Lesbian.

Pearl's relationship had a pretty devastating ending. She lost her partner to whom she'd given EVERYTHING, and it was . . . to a random guy who wasn't even that great, and now she's raising her son.

It would possibly be offensive to have to see a lesbian character suffer so much and not get what she wanted if she wasn't in the same show as deliriously happy lesbians. But what you get when you only show deliriously happy lesbians is a bunch of people who love what you're doing but wish their own lives could be more like that. If they're struggling, like Pearl does, they might feel a little disconnected from that portrayal. Therefore, having MORE examples of different ways people can live this life allows diversity and authenticity. And it works wonderfully for this show.

I'm doing my best in my story--which also contains space lesbians, in a very different context--to portray some pretty specific experiences, and to make sure there's some sweet and some sour. I've learned from watching this show how important it is to make every relationship (even the deliriously happy lesbians!) include conflict, so my characters' relationship has never been perfect either, but they're growing to know and care for each other, and it's satisfying partly because it was not easy.

I can't wait to keep learning from this show. :)

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