God I am not prepared for this.
Just saw Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and while I had been morbidly anticipating what looked to be an utter trainwreck of a film ever since it was announced, I have to say that I actually really enjoyed it. Though not because it was good. It’s really not. And I’m not just trying to be all cynical and disavow the genuine pleasure it brought me, because it did; this film – as a story – hangs together by imaginary threads that belong to other stories. There are about three different stories going on, the most interesting and solid one of which is cut short halfway through the film and then the next, nowhere-near-as-good one starts, with some nagging cameo appearances by the third. I really need to start a film review blog or something because I have Things To Say about this movie. But the takeaway for me is that most of what I liked about this film was in the visuals and the ideas that they inspired. Because however I feel about some of Zack Snyder’s other works, you can’t say he doesn’t know good visuals. The visuals held this film together far better than it deserves when broken down into its constituent parts, and I imagine that if my brain had not crossed the “been awake for too long” threshold while watching this movie I would not have slipped into the blissful, hypnotic stupor that carried me through the bad half of the film and made me enjoy it, specifically because I was and am too tired to actually remember the film well enough to put it together in sequence in my head. When I have slept and regained that ability, I predict a ripping of this film into shreds while screaming “THAT’S NOT WONDER WOMAN” until my throat bleeds.
In the meantime, the takeaway here is that, in preparation for Camp Nanowrimo – well, I haven’t done the preparation that I wanted to. Nowhere near. I’ve been angsting about my thesis and angsting about procrastinating and just generally angsting all around. It’s a thing I do. This is your brain on anxiety, folks. But that’s how it is, and I don’t think it’s enough to stop me from getting something out of this month of focused writing. And after having seen Batman vs Superman, I shall be going into the first day of Camp Nanowrimo with this lesson in mind: generic is not the same as contrived.
Often the two overlap. The example of the Damsel in Distress exemplifies this (and Batman vs Superman certainly doesn’t shy away from it); it’s generic because it’s a cliche, and it’s contrived because, seriously, there are other more interesting ways to create dramatic tension in a story. The designated Damsel just has to be the one who ends up being in trouble, has to be utterly helpless and of some kind of value to whoever it is Distressing her to justify said Distressing, so on and so forth. It’s thin. Contrivance is something that, while it may have justification, does not have strong justification, and that can come either from within the story (such as whenever the badass Action Chick also ends up serving as the Damsel in Distress) or from a meta perspective (such as every significant female character in everything ever ending up serving as a Damsel in Distress yes there are exceptions see how many fingers you need to count them).
Another example of contrived: Lex Luthor in Batman vs Superman. His motivation for doing the things that he does is precisely “crazy people sure are crazy”, both perpetuating ugly stereotypes about mental illness and manifest evil being synonymous and making Lex the antagonist equivalent of a Deus ex Machina, because due to his being crazy, any kind of motivation he has is automatically granted a free pass, because even if it doesn’t make sense to us – that’s the point. He’s crazy. Justified in-world? Sure. Justified in terms of good storytelling? Not so much.
This is a good lesson for me to bear in mind, because I’m hoping to make Camp Nanowrimo my success story in terms of using the “write on the fly” method I had so much fun with while writing my super-cliche YA werewolf novel. It just wasn’t cliche enough, and while that’s opened up some very cool possibilities for its development into something resembling an actual story at some point in the possible future, I want to prove to myself – and the world – that I can in fact write a really formulaic story. Not because I’m going to try and make it formulaic, but because I’m going to try and write it fast.
Speed is the entire point; speed is fun, and speed is liberating in the sense that, if you prioritise speed above all else, then you have to allow yourself to be generic, iterative and – in some places – contrived. With my YA werewolf novel, the idea was that contrived was allowed so long as it was a predictable, cliche kind of contrived, a contrivance with authority – the Damsel in Distress, for instance, would have been fair game. And the reason that you end up being generic and iterative and contrived when you’re writing quickly is because you don’t have the time to come up with anything better. You need a story, and you need it now. The fun of trying this out for me is the liberation that comes with allowing myself to write even the most awful, trite, archaic cliches and stereotypes imaginable for the sake of holding the story together in a story-like shape, and to see how smoothly I can combine said cliches and stereotypes in the shortest amount of time.
As for contrivance … the problem with Batman vs Superman is, as you might expect, the fact that it really isn’t allowed to be a film that stands on its own merit. It has to do so much other work that keeps it from being as solid as a story should be: it has to set up the stand-alone Wonder Woman movie, the eventual Justice League team-up, make sure that Clark and Bruce find some common ground instead of actually killing each other so that any of that can happen, all while – somehow – telling a story. And again, while I enjoyed it, the story it told was a visual one, not a narrative or plot-based one. And since writing books doesn’t have the benefit of pretty visuals to distract from a weak or contrived plot (and pretty language tends to just exacerbate the matter), I’ll have to make sure that whatever contrivances I do allow for serve to hold the story together, rather than justify it picking itself apart. There’s a difference between having the Damsel in Distress device set up the final conflict of the story and ending the story with a cliffhanger and no resolution at all, for the sake of dragging things out. The first one, while gross, at least can make a story cohesive (though probably not any story I’d want to read or write). The second one cannot. Ever. By its very nature, it is dividing a story into two parts when it should be one whole. And any justification for that is automatically a justification for a contrivance, and by extension is itself contrived.
That is the kind of contrivance I will have to avoid going into Camp Nanowrimo. I hate cliffhanger endings anyway, so hopefully I won’t have to worry too much about writing one by mistake somehow. But there are other ways to sabotage a story, by forcing in elements that, while they might be important for reasons beyond the story, hurt the story itself. The Marvel films have been heading that way for a while now, and Batman vs Superman is following in their footsteps. I sincerely hope that, should I ever be fortunate enough to get a publishing deal, it is not a contrivance I myself will have to play out, and for Camp Nanowrimo, fast and generic as I will hopefully be writing, guarding against contrivance and ensuring a coherent story is the discipline that I want to develop.
And also, I just need to write. I need to accomplish something creative. It’s been too long.
Now I just need to decide what to write. Hmm.