Flatness and Feeling: Three Recent Works

Note: The following post contains minor spoilers for the plots of All Systems Red, Ancillary Justice, and Blade Runner 2049.

Probably the major theme of recent science fiction has been the way technology distances us from our own emotions. One of the devices authors and directors use to explore this distancing effect is intentionally flattening the affect of a central protagonist, exploring the world through their unfeeling eyes to question and problematize our own relationship with the world. Flatness is a tool, and like any tool it can be used to greater or worse effect depending on the choices the author makes. I want to explore three recent works and try to see where they succeed in wielding flatness, and where they fail.

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells, is a novella told from the perspective of Murderbot, a heavily-modified human clone working security for a scientific expedition to an unnamed planet. Murderbot’s emotions have been medically scrubbed, and its main reaction to the world around it is boredom. Even when its clients are endangered and it is forced to protect them, the emotions this creates are awkward and painful to Murderbot, and it acts in ways to escape them. The novella has gotten a lot of hype recently and it’s a nice character sketch but I think it’s the least successful of our three works. Murderbot’s perspective, while compelling, is never really challenged by the story. Almost always, when the humans in the tale act emotionally or with any kind of humanity, they are shown to be foolish and even suicidal for doing so–Murderbot is hardly a Mary Sue, but it does solve every problem in the story through the application of pure logic. Furthermore, anything Murderbot doesn’t care about (which is pretty much everything) is given short shrift here. Early in the story Murderbot fights a giant alien monster. It should be an amazing scene, but it fails–we get Murderbot’s clinical analysis of the creature but no actual description. It can’t even decide if the monster has teeth or cilia. Later on we find out why this planet is special as a setting, and Murderbot dismisses this vital bit of plot information in a couple of sentences. The problem with All Systems Red is that there’s no contrast. We get Murderbot’s grayscale world but nothing else. No visual description at all. The human characters are almost interchangeable and there’s very little interpersonal conflict.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie fares a little better, though I still had problems with it. The main character is the last survivor of a hivemind made of former prisoners of war who have been conditioned to be unfeeling and perfectly loyal soldiers for their own conquerors. The flatness here is leavened–the protagonist is allowed to feel affection for her former officers, and in fact appears to be on a revenge mission (we learn later that it’s much more complicated, and much less sentimental). The action takes place on three different worlds: a marshy planet only seen in flashbacks, a lonely ice world, and a space station with complicated social hierarchies. Leckie does a fair job describing the two planets in compelling detail (the station not as much) and there’s a set piece involving an ice bridge that adds some much needed action to a very cerebral plot. The flatness of the story works against it much of the time, however. Most of the story’s action is described in the briefest possible terms, to make room for long passages of guarded dialogue. The actual plot, which remains mysterious almost until the end of the story, is convoluted and never allowed to evolve organically. We are given mention of aliens and space battles but these are abstracted away, pawns in a five-dimensional chess game where nothing really matters but who wins. The flatness here is a mark of intellectual superiority: the few characters who do show emotion are either mocked or despised for it, while the cold and callous logic of the protagonst and antagonist are celebrated and far more effective. While Murderbot wrestles with its vestiges of humanity, the Ancillary works hard to get rid of hers–she wants very much to be a spaceship again, not a person, and this goal is seen as worthy. This isn’t a failure of the story, mind you. The whole point of Ancillary Justice is that its universe is far too big and impersonal for humanity to run, and it needs to be administrated by beings with greater mental capacity. It’s an interesting theme but one that left this human reader a little cold.

Blade Runner 2049 is the most successful work I want to look at today, one which uses its flatness as a perfect counterpoint to its deep emotional themes. Like most film noir, the movie employs a cold, cynical tone that is betrayed by the deeply human story it wants to tell. Its protagonist, K, is a replicant of a new series, one which is free of human desires. He moves deadpan through a world in crisis, performing a job. A job he has no emotional investment in–to the extent he isn’t even bored by it. He’s been designed from the ground up for flatness and his lack of reaction throughout the film is brilliantly portrayed by Ryan Gosling as both incredibly useful and–to the viewer–emotionally terrifying. All of his relationships are abstracted, through-a-glass-darkly versions of normal human interactions, and his final moments in the film are wonderfully understated. His flatness is wielded here like a blowtorch–he forces the viewer to engage with the things he refuses to touch. His opposite numbers in the film, Luv and Joi (what great names), exist at an even further remove and serve to keep his flatness emotionally grounded. When we see our first real human character in the movie his over-reactions and scenery chewing would almost be funny if they weren’t so heart-breaking, an irruption of feeling the movie seems unable to contain. This is flatness used with precision, by a master.

It’s not entirely fair to compare the two novels to a movie, of course. Blade Runner makes extensive use of its visuals to prop up K’s flatness. The lush colors and surreal set design keep the viewer awake through what could have been a very sleepy first act, definitely, and the star power of the actors compensates a lot for the emotional flatness. Yet I think authors can take a lot of lessons from this movie, all the same. We need to always remember that flatness is a device. Whether we want to praise emotional detachment, like Leckie, or just find it awkward like Wells we need to keep it under control–right up until the moment we need to lose that control and let sentiment overwhelm us.

Plot: The Melodrama Pile-Up

What’s the difference between a soap opera and a Greek tragedy? Both are fictional stories about the suffering of likeable, or at least attractive, heroes. There is an inevitability to their plots–they’re not necessarily formulaic, but everyone can pretty much see where things are headed. Neither of them promises nor delivers a happy ending.

Yet Greek tragedies are held up as being among the finest examples of literature. Soap operas are often derided as trash stories fit only for the most bored and jaded consumers.

I can tell you a soap opera is more dynamic and harder to write than a tragedy. They require bigger character ensembles, more modulation, better pacing. A tragedy is all about sustained affect, a car driving downhill as fast as it can. A soap opera is a rally race, where you need to plan for each stage, every sharp turn well in advance. So why do we roll our eyes when Laura goes into another coma, or Stavros burns down the children’s hospital… but applaud in respect when Oedipus realizes he’s married his mother and then stabs out his own eyes?

Both forms serve the same function: to make you feel pity. The downfall of the characters is unearned, or at least regrettable. The tone is somber, reflective, and bitter. Both forms rely heavily on mood and atmosphere. What separates them is focus.

The story of Oedipus is ridiculous and tawdry, but it’s one story. The play-goer or reader can’t get away from this one man’s journey. On the other hand a soap opera is crammed full of tales of woe. Every character has their own downward arc, and in the best soap operas no one story is valued more highly than any of the others.

When tragedy is singular, and rare, and highlighted, it feels real and strong and relatable. When tragedies are piled atop one another, they suffer from comparison to each other and they become melodrama. Another coma? Another burning hospital? Another husband hypnotized into sleeping with his wife’s younger sister? It becomes self-parodying, often farcical.

When you plot out your story you need to think about how the reader will react to each element, each beat. You need to know how far you can stretch their willingness to feel for your characters. Focusing in on a single character’s misfortune is a powerful tool. It’s tempting to give every side character and extra their own deep, sorrowful backstory, but all that does is dilute your protagonist’s suffering. If everyone is sad, no one’s sadness means anything. If one man is miserable while the world around him is singing in joy, the contrast alone is enough to make him sympathetic.

This isn’t to say that a character’s crisis has to be simple. Complications will arise from your inciting incident, the stakes will pile up, the plot will thicken. And it would be unrealistic to have everyone other than your main character be happy all the time. But focus in as best you can. Drill down on one person’s story at a time. The tighter, the more laser-like in intensity your plot becomes, the more powerful the drama.

Pacing: Good News and Bad

Pacing might be the most important skill a writer can develop. Pacing is the tempo of your story, the sense of time passing, the sense of things happening in a smooth, organic order. Pacing is everything.

Pacing is crucial to plot. It’s how you build suspense–how you make your reader care about what happens, and how you get them to hang on every cliff with you. It’s how you make it feel like your characters earned their victories and how they climb back from failure, one painful inch at a time.

Pacing is crucial to characterization. A protagonist’s arc is entirely dependent on pacing. Go too fast and it feels like they couldn’t possibly have learned all those life lessons overnight. Go too slow and it feels like they’re spinning their wheels, willfully refusing to learn anything.

You keep the reader turning pages with pacing. Your ending only feels satisfying if the pacing was right. So how do you master this vital skill?

Well, there’s good news and bad news. The bad first: there’s no good formula for it. Ignore all the books about screenwriting that tell you what beat should happen at what minute of the movie. That only gets you so far. You need to get a feel for pacing, an intuitive sense of when to speed up and when to slow down. It take practice, and patience, and trial and error. I’ve always said the best way to learn how to write a good book is to write ten bad ones, and this is exactly what I was talking about. Good pacing comes from experience.

But I promised you good news, too. And for once I’m going to admit, there are two easy tricks that can really help with your pacing, and make your story a dozen times better, like, instantly.

The first is modulation. I see this going wrong all the time in bad books, and I feel it’s something that every writer should learn on day one. It’s super easy. Just never do the same thing twice.

If you have a scene (or a section, or a paragraph, depending on your form) of heavy action, the very next scene should be slow, quiet, and personal. Maybe the protagonist needs to go home and lick their wounds and talk to their besty on the phone. Slow it way down. Conversely, after a long scene of dialogue–do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. Have something big and dramatic happen. Or give us a lush, stylistically beautiful scene of setting description, with no spoken words at all.

This gives your reader a chance to switch gears. Time to synthesize what they’ve learned. To catch their breath after the big gasp moment. It makes them feel like time has passed, even if plot-wise both scenes happen simultaneously. The tension drops, or mounts, at just the right time.

The corollary to this, though, is you can never let any element of your story disappear for too long. I’m sure you’ve read a story where the character opens the safe and finds a ticking time bomb… and then we cut to three scenes of the scientist talking to the president about string theory. What the hell happened with the bomb? Your readers will wonder if it blew up off screen. They’ll feel like you’re pulling a fast one on them, which breaks them right out of the story. No, modulation means creating a rhythm. It means alternating between two stories at once, maybe one quiet and personal, one loud and world-changing. Bad news again: even modulation, simple as it is, takes some skill and some finesse.

I promised a second trick, and it’s one it took me years to learn. When in doubt about pacing, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the answer is to slow things down.

It’s understandable. You want to get to the good stuff, right? You’ve got this amazing story to tell, you want to gallop right to the finish line and not look back. Which is good, it’s great that you’re so excited about what’s going to happen. But if you move too fast, your story will feel cheap. A book should never feel like just a bulleted list of events. This happened, then this, and then we learned that, which made the hero do this… you might as well be writing instructions on how to put together an Ikea bookcase.

If your plot feels mechanical and rote, like the characters are just going through the motions… or conversely, if your characters feel limp, like they’re too generic to actually have a sense of personality–pump the brakes. Take time to take stock, to explore the world you’ve created, a little. Let life flow into the story. Let it unfold naturally, and at its own pace, and it will reward you.

Just don’t forget to modulate. As soon as you blow the readers’ minds, give them a chance to catch up. Not for too long, though. That time bomb is still ticking down, the width of a scene away.

Writing: Character Motivations

Every character in your story should have a clear motivation. They need a reason to enter the scene, and something they want to accomplish before the scene is over. This goes for a walk-on character who only has one line just as much as it goes for your protagonist and antagonist. If a character has no reason to appear in a scene, then they shouldn’t. Give them something to do!

This might seem daunting at first, but it’s simpler than it sounds. There are only three main motivations: love, money, and death. These are the things that drive people, and attaching one of them to a character is all you need to get them moving.

This isn’t to say that character motivations can’t be nuanced. In fact, these three poles of motivation are what create character depth–and in fact, give your whole story dimension. Imagine, say, a character who feels like they’re not getting fulfillment from their job. That’s simply a character who is feeling tension between the fear of death (that their life will have no meaning) and the desire for money (hence the unfulfilling job). This character might be motivated to quit their job and find more interesting work (that’s a pretty good plot hook), or stick around for the paycheck and grow ever more miserable (which could inform the tone, or create conflict with other characters, or affect their relationships and therefore rope in the motivation of love…).

For most characters, and most stories, you probably want to stick with just one level of complexity here. Pick two motivations, tops, and put them at odds with each other. If other motivating factors come into play as a result of that tension, fine, but don’t dwell on them, or your story can lose focus. That’s for top-level characters, mind you–people who get a lot of lines of dialogue and are intrinsic to the action of the story. Minor characters are usually best given just one motivator. Someone who walks on page just to deliver a crucial piece of information, then never appears again, shouldn’t have a massive backstory. Maybe they’re just doing their job (money) or just wanted to help a protagonist they secretly love… you get the picture.

Writing: The Power of Broad Characters

Everyone claims to like deep, nuanced characters. People who feel real and rich and alive. There’s only one problem. They’re wrong.

If you think of your favorite characters–frankly, any characters you can remember off the top of your head–you’ll think of broad, two-dimensional, larger than life heroes and villains and grotesques. Darth Vader. Tarzwile e coyote and the road runner beep beep Chuck Jones 9 Golden Rules for the Coyote and the Road Runneran.

Wily E. Coyote.

Narrow characters–those deeply imagined, palpably real people we’re all supposed to enjoy more–are native to the story they inhabit. They can’t exist outside of their setting, their plots, their themes. Memorable characters are the ones who could exist in any number of stories, who can plug themselves into multiple settings. They tend to be action-oriented and aspirational and to have recognizable costumes or tattoos or catchphrases. They stick with you because they have the quality of memes and archetypes. Nuance is the enemy of these characters. What they have instead is rules.

Wily E. Coyote is one of the best examples of this. His rules are never broken–he will always run afoul of his own machinations, he will always recognize when he’s about to suffer the consequences of his actions, he will never catch the Road Runner. If he did, the viewer would be deeply confused.

Rules are comforting to an audience subjected to a surreal world. They give us a framework to know which way to look when everything explodes. People love characters with rules.

Characters like this break many of the guidelines we’re taught in creative writing classes. But they work surprisingly well in genre fiction and they can create memorable stories just about anywhere. Next time you start creating a character and find yourself wondering where their grandmother worked during the war (information which will never appear in your finished story) think instead about creating rules for your character first. You may find that the character starts writing themselves.

Writing: Little, Big

The emotional impact of a story is almost always inversely proportional to the size of the story.

It might seem counter-intuitive. Big books, with lots of characters, settings and set pieces engage the reader on a more intellectual level. Worldbuilding becomes predominant–the reader’s enjoyment of the story is more about being immersed in a place and a time. But this always comes at a remove: the reader is constantly reminded of the activity of reading, of the experience of hearing a story. The characters become functions and parts of that world, and the reader is distanced from them, less likely to identify directly with them, for better or worse.

A small story, though, that holds to the Aristotelian unities–one character, events that take place over one day in one setting–forces the reader out of this objective mindset. They have no choice but to relate and identify with the singular voice and viewpoint. Events become enlarged in significance and charge: we know that, since we are alone with the character, everything that happens to them is important, is meaningful in a way we feel more intensely. Our experience becomes more subjective, more immediate. More emotionally resonant.

There are, of course, ways to problematize the difference. Books like Game of Thrones work great at playing with the intersection of these two levels–while there is a huge world out there, with a story rich in incident, each character is given a deep interiority. As a result readers can choose which character they want to identify with the most–who they “root” for. It’s one of the things that makes the book so powerful.