I didn’t get much sleep last night, and for the first time in a while, it was because I couldn’t stop thinking of my book, and what it could be, but isn’t right now.
The odd thing – and I think it’s a good thing, too – about this experience was that, unlike with any of my other stories, thinking of how it could be different was not just a flight of fancy with no consequences; it felt like a serious dilemma, a choice that I had to make before I could commit to continuing this novel. (Which isn’t that odd when I think about it now, because unlike all of my other stories, I’m actually in the process of writing this one, so there are consequences to my decisions. But whatever.)
Granted, it was about 5am at this point, and the stuff you think is important at 5am while you’re failing to sleep is perhaps not the best guideline for distinguishing what actually is important to focus on, but at the time it felt like a fair portion of the world’s fate rested on this decision. It wasn’t a change in terms of what happens in the story, but it changed the meaning behind it, and that, of course, changes everything else as well.
I like the exploration that this new option offered me. It came from just thinking of a scene in the story and how I might want to film it, if I ever got the opportunity, and suddenly a little bit of Japanese horror film editing crept its way in there – that stop-motion, slight fast-forward trick that they do for the creepy ghost people every now and then. It was just for one or two quick shots, just to establish a mood and confined to that one scene, but it immediately sent a shock wave throughout the neural territory that Tallulah occupies in my head, and suddenly I was transported into an alternate dimension for my story, in which certain core concepts had been altered and the entire tone of the story altered with it, and it was fascinating, and quite inspiring.
Here’s the thing, though, the thing that really made me take it seriously: the current tone and conceptual backbone of Tallulah is quite markedly different from what I’d originally wanted to go with. I couldn’t think of how to do it the way I wanted to at the time; it seemed like I was stuck with a choice between two extremes, and so I just sort of wrote and let what happened happen. And I’m cool with that. That’s drafting. That’s getting ideas out there.
But now I have this new idea that helps me with something old, something that I left behind, and it feels like if I don’t at least give it a shot and try to make it work, I’ll be giving up on what could be a really fantastic story, and one that is truer to my original vision. And so far, going back to the roots of this story has only brought good things.
However, the other thing is that the current story that I’ve got – that’s good, too. I like it. I like the way that it turned out. Obviously there is a lot of work to be done before I feel like it’s ready to go, issues with consistency and the dramatic rises and falls in the action and tension and whatnot, but the core components and base materials I am very happy with, and am having a really good time with. And what’s more, I’ve enjoyed getting familiar with them. This new idea is new, and while it does harken back to my initial affection and ambition for this project, I honestly think that without the novelty, this wouldn’t be so appealing. And there’s no way I’m going to completely undermine a year and a half’s worth of work now just because I couldn’t get to sleep last night. I can never get to sleep. I suck at sleeping. This is not a new thing, and I know that the mind starts doing weird things when it’s been kept awake for too long.
I’m going to continue tweaking what I’ve got before I start adding in anything new, as I planned, and this whole 5am epiphany thing is going to get its own Word document so that I can have it on record, and out of my head. I do feel like it could actually solve a few of the issues I’ve been having with the more mechanical aspects of the world I’ve built for Tallulah, and again, takes it back to its roots and gives one of the more difficult concepts I wrestled with a new lease on life. So while I’m not going to implement it until it becomes the only option that seems right for the story, I’m not going to totally disregard it either.
It did make me think of something, though, and that’s the part that world-building plays in influencing the way in which I invest myself in a story when I read books, or watch films, and is the dilemma that I now face with Tallulah.
Taking Harry Potter as an example, just to beat a dead and already so beaten it’s little more than meat-sludge and bone-juice by now horse, part of the reason I got so invested with it was because there was a clear system in place for how things worked. You’re either a Muggle or a Witch/Wizard, you get a wand, you get Sorted into a house, you learn X subjects which neatly categorise the different ways in which magic can be learnt and applied – its mechanics are open and available for the reader to imagine themselves interacting with. It is about as interactive as a book gets, really, without going into Choose Your Own Adventure books, and it works to invest the reader because it has built a playground for them to run themselves through in their imagination, something with solid rules that they can rely on – boundaries foster creativity. I also assume it’s a really big part of why there’s so much HP fanfiction; yes there are obviously the characters that readers want to spend more time with, but there’s also the Wizarding World, and the transparency of the inner workings of that world, which is absolutely an integral part of how the story is told, invites people to craft their own ideas that fit in with that system, to reward their learning and understanding of it and apply it. It’s the same reason I think so many people like the idea of Rules of Writing – just the idea of Rules in general. It makes things transparent, and it allows you to invest yourself safely, to be a part of it, to be included, to get with the system. It is actually a whole lot like playing a videogame. And the approach, as far as I’m concerned, also makes the most sense for a series, rather than just a one-off story.
This kind of story, however, stakes a lot of its success on that system that it exposes and invites people to invest themselves in. If it doesn’t stand out enough, if it’s not ‘better’ than what else is on offer, if it can’t carve itself out some sort of niche that people are going to look at and take notice of, then the transparency gambit has failed, and that transparency, the repeated mentioning of the Rules and exposures of the System, actually end up hurting the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief, because if they’re not invested in it, then they won’t want to hear about it.
Then there are the stories that don’t even really have a world to hide at all. These are the stories that read almost like watching a puppet-show where you can see the people who are operating them; they are so transparently stories for their own sake that there is nothing to be invested in – other than the story itself. A ‘pure’ story does not present the audience with a point of entry; these stories exist at the same ‘level’ of existence as the audience, and make no attempt to disguise it, and give the audience nothing to go on other than the story itself, the message, the flow, the narrative dips and dives, the ideas transmitted through the telling of it. There is no Second World here, no playground, nothing to self-insert into. The best example I can think of for these kinds of stories would be something really self-aware and postmodern like that film Spring Breakers – or, actually, jokes. Why did the chicken cross the road? Nobody cares anymore at this point, but nobody even asks why there was a chicken crossing the road to begin with; it’s required for the story, a tool with extrinsic value and nothing more. That’s the only justification needed. And when people don’t ask the question, that’s when these kinds of stories work – and also the point upon which they risk everything.
And then there are the story-worlds that do present a set of mechanics, that do offer an internal logic and system of operations that feels like world-building, but then keep those mechanics secret; they don’t flaunt their systems to the audience because that’s not where they’re staking their success, because they are not exercises in world-building, but in world-hiding. The best example I can think of off the top of my head is Silas from The Graveyard Book. Neil (who I am, of course, totally on a first-name basis with) has confirmed that Silas is, in fact, a vampire – but we don’t need to know that in order to ‘get’ him, or to invest in him. It is, in fact, the fact that he’s so opaque when the rest of the characters are more transparent (ghost puns ftw) that helps to make him stand out so much by comparison. He is not really a vampire, not in any consequential way regarding what defines him; he’s Silas. And that’s actually really good for a vampire, because it is that air of mystery, of the uncanny, and of singularity, that gives vampires their cultural capital.
But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to invest in – it’s just that now, instead of a playground, you’ve got an unopened package with no markings on it. You can see its shape, you can feel its weight, perhaps hear tantalising mystery sounds from within that seem to give it away, but you can never be sure. Opacity can be just as fulfilling to invest in as transparency; it’s not the same kind of investment, because it’s not ‘safe’ to imagine yourself into that world, but instead you now have the opportunity to let your speculative imagination run wild, and the question, rather than the answer, becomes the point of entry into the story. And if it’s done right, then getting an answer, discovering that Silas is a vampire, can actually be downright disappointing, because then suddenly the system has been revealed, lumped into a category that everybody already knows and has expectations of and standards for, and it ceases to be its own thing – unless, of course, it’s a strong enough story/world/character to stand out even amongst the other members of that category. I’m not saying that Silas is such a character, but I’m not saying he isn’t, either. I’m saying that he represents the effectiveness – and the appeal – of world-hiding: mystery, and originality. These kinds of stories are, to my mind, more suited to one-offs as well, because they feel so internal, so self-contained, and, when done right, so distinctive as to be incomparable.
So last night’s lightbulb-flash has now set up a struggle between all three of these types of stories regarding world-building for me with Tallulah. They’re different kinds of stories, and they have different pros and cons, and I like them all for different reasons. It’s not like I have to make a decision, however it felt like I did last night – I just have the idea now, one that I didn’t before, and it’s opened up a new opportunity for me to look into, at some point. Or not at all. Or right away.
However, I’m still looking into planning restructuring for draft 2, and it hasn’t involved this new development yet, and again, I want to hold off on adding in new stuff until it becomes apparent that the story needs it. So until that happens – if it ever does – I’m sticking to what I’ve got, because it works fine, and I like it fine. More than fine, in fact. You stick with something long enough, it becomes part of you. Sometimes that’s not healthy, like with toxic relationships or habits, but in this case, as far as I can tell anyway, things are chugging along very smoothly. And if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
But it’s good to be able to, just in case.