The Fertile Earth that is Post-Post-Modernism

“And then what happens?”

This is the question I’ve been hearing in my head a lot lately. When talking to other writers trying to get going with their first project, or more importantly, with my own work. It’s the question at the heart of every Stephen King novel (by his own admission during an interview) that drives him to completion. It’s driven me through every tabletop RPG I ever ran. If the characters have a lot of stuff, steal it/break it/lose it. If they are sitting around doing nothing, attack them. Basic D&D fare, but it keeps the players entertained and gives hooks to hang a plot on.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the little brushes I’ve had with Post-Modernist philosophy as I sit there watching the world burn around me in this soon to be Post-Covidiocy world with monetary collapses, market collapses, and the death of western civilization staring me right in the puss.

“And then what happens?”

As a spec fic author, this is really important when I start considering the future. How much of it will be Mad Max? How much “1984” or “Brazil”? Will it be “A Brave New World”? Anyone for “Soylant Green”? Or will it be all of it with a side of “Hunger Games”? My money’s on “A Brave New 1984 in Brazil while having Soylent Green for Tea with Mad Max”.

Photo by Artem Lysenko on Pexels.com

But it’s also got me thinking more deeply on the roots of creativity thanks to a video by “The Quartering” who talked about the new “Cruella” film being a female version of “Joker”. Mind you, I’ve seen the spoilers and went…. really? Not my cup of tea, but at least the fans seem to like it so who am I to criticize too severely (of course to laugh yourself silly, See the “Pitch Meeting” video on Youtube lampooning it… come to think of it, that’s really what got me into the question I’ve been facing lately.

BTW, all this pop culture jargonist mish-mash has been in service to my point today.

What all this spawned in my head lately was this: If Post-Modernist philosophy posits the smashing of the old symbols, semiotics and semantics in which to create new things out of the wreckage (think mashup music, crossover films, retellings, trope twisting and pop culture pile ups like “Ready Player One”… none of which am I criticizing because I LIKE much of these things) at what point are the symbols so broken down that they become the fertile soil for the creation of NEW ideas?

Yes, yes. Stop there now. I know “there’s nothing new under the sun”. This has all been done before. I, for one do not believe that history repeats itself, but lean more to the “but it does rhyme” school of thought. I’ll go so far as to say it will also riff and ad lib too. The broad tropes/genres/mediums will always exist to some degree for they speak to the human experience, but consider the evolution of how mankind reacts. How does it cycle through history? There’s always been horror stories for instance. But what was once cautionary fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm have evolved to slasher films and torture porn of today thanks to mankind’s memory and boredom for the familiar.

So, now that I’ve committed to using up my allotment of “Quotation Marks” for the month… I’ll sort of get to the point of what I’ve been pondering. When will we start seeing some new and “truly unique” creative endeavors in entertainment? When will it stop being a recycling of “Star Wars”, or a perversion of “Superman”? Is it possible to break free from the Pixar Formula? Will we finally be far enough removed from nostalgia porn to want to put something great and new that can thrive on the silver screen instead of just crappy imitations of the masters who came before? Are there any masters left or do we have to wait till we are sufficiently removed from them to finally have new ones show up on the scene again?

How many people know or have read great authors or playwrights from the Roman empire? Beyond Cicero that is, but that also belabors my point. There’s a good chance that the tens if not hundreds of thousands of artists who existed then, and may have created great works are lost to time. Destroyed by neglect or burned up in the destruction of institutions like the Great Library fire. Some may say that’s the same conundrum looked at by sci fi in dozens of books/shows/movies as they try to save mankind from becoming extinct. But that type of extinction seems to be central to existence in this world. Species go extinct. Houses rot away and are reclaimed by the land. We are just dust in the wind, and so are our ideas.

I look at my own work and wonder if it will stand the test of time? In 500 years, assuming the Rapture didn’t happen, will my books be remembered like “Pilgrim’s Progress”? Or even “The Chronicles of Narnia”? Now that would be the real achievement! The real blessing of God. At least in heaven I may know the true impact of my work. But on earth?

I mean, consider one of the greatest films of all time that was on the verge of being forgotten till someone missed the deadline to renew the copyright and it lapsed into public domain: “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Thanks to that mistake, the movie was run almost non-stop at Christmas in the US because it was cheap and nobody wanted to work in the TV station on the holiday so it was discovered by a whole new generation of viewers, and was reborn without ever having changed. An artistic resurrection.

So what fertile soil is coming from the grinding down and emulsification of the symbols of western civilization as multi-culti-green-globalism tries to roll over everything? What new fronds will grow up from the digested mass media and symbols that once were considered holy and proud? Even my own “Tales From the Dream Nebula” is supping on small pieces and inspirations from dozens if not hundreds of sources, drawing itself a new vitality from the loam of creative history. Am I making something new and fresh, or am I making a mosaic out of the pieces of entertainment symbols as I dance in the graveyard garbage dump that is the current state of pop culture?

Early in my writing endeavors that I realized there was a chance my books would be my only bid for immortality in a world where there is no immortality. With no prospects for progeny, this was where I would grasp the mane of eternity and attempt to hang on as long as I could. But in the end, just like every artist that came before me, how long would it be before I was forgotten. Would it be the day after I died and my manuscripts were thrown into the trash? Would my tombstone wear away in the rain? The internet is not forever. It must have electricity and human desire to persevere… or would (as some would believe… not me) some A.I. rise up and delete all of man’s history in a microsecond? None of us know for sure, but we who create all hope to be the exception to the rule, and are re-discovered like “Beowulf” or never forgotten like Homer’s “Odyssey”.

So we circle back to the original question, but now standing on top of a giant societal “Butte Des Mortes” and cry out to any who will listen:

“And then what happens?”

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

What I Learned About Storytelling from Running RPGs.

To this day, I remember the first time I rolled up a character for Dungeons and Dragons in 1980.  My friend and I sat on the back porch of my house in the shade on a warm summer day and rolled the strangest dice I had ever seen.

I was 9 years old.

pexels-photo-269561

What began there was a love affair that became a wonderful creative marriage, then a bad romance which rebounded into an on again-off again fling filled with regret and finally a bitter, burned out divorce.  In my heart, I still love Role Playing Games, but I know what going back to running them, let alone playing them, will cost me creatively.

And that is where the damage was for me.  In my creative process.  Not to brag, but I was a good GM.  REAL good!  I had gamers who would petition to join my games over the years.  People who thought I should run games for GenCon and really get into the whole society of running games.  But I also learned my failings and that I could not keep up a pace that some of the people had because I did not see how I could make money doing it, and did not want to devote myself to what was necessary to take it to the next step and become that GM my gamers thought I could be.

For 30 years straight, I ran RPGs from Cyberpunk to Westerns, I ran them all it seemed.  Weekly turning out game and running long winded campaigns like a network television show.  In the end, I realized I was enabling participatory improvisational theater for amateurs and a small audience, and began to resent it.  I started trying to find new ways to love running games, but every year and every game system got harder and harder as I got more fed up with learning rules, doing the weekly prep-work and necessities for running good long term campaigns.

There were also spiritual reasons too.  Once I became Born Again, I could not play many of the character or games I used to love.  Gone were the games of magic and sorcery.  Gone were the complex characters I loved to play who were, for all intents and purposes, sociopaths, psychopaths and perverts.  I did, for a while find much fun in very moral characters trying to deal with very immoral choices, but even after a while I was burnt out.

All that experience though has been beneficial, for it has taught me a lot about storytelling.  This is what I learned from my players as well as their characters who were both participants and the audience of my creations.

Engage the Senses.

The reality is you and your buddies are sitting in somebody’s kitchen/basement/living room/dining room rolling dice among stacks of books.  You need to build mood.  That means lighting.  That means music and sound.  Smell, touch and taste not so much, but you can use good description to engage their imaginations.  The more you engage the senses, the better the immersion, and the the more likely you will have them sitting on the edge of their chairs, holding their breath as you roll your dice in secret, giving them a knowing grin worthy of Vincent Price.  Keep that in mind when setting the scene for you are all their senses and influence their intuition.

Pace is Critical

Gamers I learned have a very low boredom threshold.  If you don’t have combat every week, some players won’t show up.  Others, when the action is not on them, and you don’t have them interested enough to listen to what’s going on, they will engage in derailing side chatter which bogs the game down.  Same can happen to a story, just not as obvious.  The reader who is bored (and I speak as a reader myself) starts thinking about other things and finally finds a reason to put the book down and go back to facebook or youtube, ending your time together, maybe for good. That means if a section leaves a faint hint of Doritos and Mountain Dew in the air of boredom eating, what is a better, more interesting way to tell the tale.

If things slow down, attack them.  If they’re wasting time on minutia, remove the distraction.  If they feel secure, betray them.  All these things will help jump start a flagging pace, and snap the reader’s attention back to you.

Satisfy the Needs Including Your Own

Every player who plays an RPG is doing so to have their needs met, but so does every GM.  If players bore the GM by not wishing to play interesting storylines, don’t bother looking for clues, ignoring the flavor text you so carefully crafted to give them clues and rush on to the next dice rolling pewpewpew fest… It can leave the GM, or author dry.  The good news is that being an author, you can write in a way that satisfies your needs.

Want more character driven plots?  Have at thee!  You like a good whodunit?  What are you waiting for!  Write that story.  The downside is that in writing, if you write something only you want to read, you will not sell.  That means finding the tropes people want to read, and write to them in a way only you can.  Then you will see both your needs as a writer, and the reader’s needs get fulfilled.

Realize what you control and what you don’t.

Sure, you come up with the basic storyline idea and handle the activities of every Non-Player Character, the weather, and so on… but you’re not really in charge.  You’re just herding cats towards the completion of your story.  Players can take your story in crazy directions, often introducing ideas that you never thought of, leaving you scrambling to keep up with them.  Hugh Wilson, head writer and show runner for “WKRP in Cincinnatti” put it very well, when considering characters (and I paraphrase)  Writers start out with the idea of who a character is.  It becomes apparent quickly that they are in a collaboration with the actor, and then spend the rest of the show chasing the actor.

This is true of the characters you are writing as well.  You must be willing to listen to your own creation and follow where they take you to complete your story, or fix the incidents your character’s wouldn’t participate in.  Remember, the characters are the cameras in how the readers will experience the world.

Nobody cares about your character particularly if they are derivative.

Hands up; any gamer here who has gotten caught in a game where some noob comes up to you and starts prattling about his AWESOMEZ CHARACTARRRR named Steel McKillalot?  Or some exotic whackadoodle that is a Count Dracula knockoff with an unpronouncable name?  Yep.  Been there and have the tee shirt.  The same eyeroll can be found in readers if you spoonfeed ‘tell don’t show’ backstory in your book anywhere.  The instant you do, the wide eyed cosplaying fanboy has just clomped up to you while you’re busy and started gushing.

This is a problem even for authors.  Backstory can be introduced only after the character has been made interesting to the reader in the context of the story.  So why is this Count Dracula ripoff so cool I want to hear why he is the way he is?  Is Steel McKillalot something better than a two dimensional cutout with a stupid name?  Oh wow!  That is cool how he got that backstory because I liked what he did in the book you just wrote.  Epic characters have to audition, before you can give them their one man show… unless their one man show is the story, then… carry on.

Be open to happy accidents.

No plotline survives contact with the writing.  Just like in gameplay, you will be thrown a curveball.  That image of a scene will not be met and no matter what you try, that becomes a platonic symbol of what you wanted, but just lack the skill or tools to achieve.  When those times come, be open to the accidental discovery.  Perhaps it will be the character whispering something about them you didn’t know that sends you gallivanting after their take on what you had planned.  It may be the map you drew out in your mind is showing you an easier route or a flaw in your plan that must be addressed.

Case in point.  Early on in Book 2, I discovered an escape route would be an impossible run through a gauntlet for the heroes.  But as I looked at the map, I realized I had forgotten a whole new section of the land and said:

“Self, nobody would be guarding that way… it’s too crazy, and besides, they have to do this other thing or all is lost.  So they would go that way!”

That one realization completely rewrote my middle build.  Instead of being all sorts of cloak and dagger hiding over territory I’d already been and struggled to think of a new way to make it interesting… well… it went back to a classic adventure/exploration in the land of “Here There Be Monsters”!

Huzzah!

That is a happy accident.  Something I’d not be able to explore if I did not just chuck the solution out and stick with the original plan.  (It’s also why I’m a plantser.  I know where I have to get to, just how it happens is open for innovation.

In the end, these are lessons I learned over decades of running RPGs.  Maybe I’ll have to be content on producing gaming materials, but not run the games because I get too bogged down in the process, and I need time to write.  But who knows?  Maybe 10 years down the pike when my first movie comes out, I’ll produce the game and modules and get the invite to sit down and guest GM at GenCon.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

cube-play-colorful-eye-numbers-51361