Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Always derivative, but asymptotically approaching infinity

I'm the kind of person who has big, detailed, ambitious ideas . . . for other people's work.

For my own work I'm lucky to get a premise and a paragraph.

When people talked about being let down by the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who I came up with an idea for a rebooted franchise with a hundred year plan that wove together various divergent narratives, made the 50th an event rather than an episode (which the four previous decade-events crescendoed up to), had built in mechanisms to deal the possibility of unplanned actor departures (be they due to getting a better deal, creative differences, or less healthy reasons) took every plot-hole as a jumping off point to do something interesting, and . . .

Could not possibly have the serial numbers filed off.*  I did that without even really trying.  It just happened.

When I try to come up with an idea of my own I usually stall out before I write a single word.

If I can create a plot then I can't create any actual scenes.  All outline and no substance.  If I can create some actual substance, a scene or two that might be written, there's no story for it to fit into.  If I have characters I probably can't conceive of a setting.  If I have setting, I probably can't conceive of characters.  If I try to mash two ideas together so I have both . . . they don't fit, don't mesh.

Yet if I'm trying to tell the story of Bella Swan, Tsukasa, and JC Denton facing the zombie apocalypse (while I hide behind Bella, in a sort of cowering way) . . . well that has a timeline, it's got a general overview, it has a couple scenes, it's got . . . ok, honestly not that much.  But way more than The Princess Story, and way less than Edith and Ben, which is kind of the point.

The more original something is, the less I can actually pull it off.

I'm writing this when I've been on an extended dry spell with respect to everything, so it might not seem to have much punch given that I'm not writing anything be it derivative or original, but this too shall pass and when it eventually does I think it's a fair bet that I'll be having a much easier time writing something set in a world Ana Mardoll or Fred Clark is deconstructing than something entirely of my own.

But, the thing is, even though my works are derivative, it's not like they're copies.  Writing copies of Left Behind or Twilight would hardly be rewarding, more like mind-flaying.  Tons of original thought and world building and characterization goes into that stuff.  World building and characterization that wasn't present in the original.  So if I'm doing all of this stuff, why can't I do it without some execrable work as my jumping off point?

I think part of it is seeing things from a Watsonian perspective and asking, "Ok, why the Hell did that happen?" instead of taking the external Doyalist perspective which lends itself to, "What the fuck were you thinking author?  There's no way in fuck that should have happened!"

Bad writing, or even merely inconsistent writing, leads to a complex world because you need to be able to reconcile things that are nigh impossible to reconcile.  If you take it as a given that X, Y, and Z happened and ask, in-universe, why and how, you start developing strange and interesting theories that may take you to places you never expected to go.  (Or epileptic trees.)  That doesn't happen if you take a more reasonable approach and recognize that the author(s) simply fucked up and/or didn't care.

But, at the same time, you become tied to the original by the very problems that create such fertile grounds.  If your setting depends on X, Y, and Z because your world building was literally started by, and laid upon the foundation of, the question, "How can X, Y, and Z all happen in the same universe?" then these things become too important to throw away.  Take them away and your foundation is gone, the building crumbles, things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mass and moment are released, other poetry as well.

So maybe it's absolutely fundamental that you have a sparklepire who saves a depressed girl from an out of control van spinning counterclockwise across an ambiguously full parking lot on a day when school really should have been cancelled because WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK FICTIONAL FORKS, WASHINGTON!?  (Not to be confused with actual Forks, Washington which I'm sure is a nice place that cares about the lives of their teenagers.)

And at that point you're really not going to get away with, "No, really, it's not Twilight, it just happens to have a gaggle of --two adult and five teenage-- sparklepires who have been living in Forks since the depressed main character stopped coming to there to visit her police chief dad during the summers."

Or maybe it really matters that your protagonists are a star reporter, an airline pilot, an college student who is daughter of the pilot, and a pastor to the previous two, who all have the unwanted attention of the Antichrist because he's already got the flight attendant linking three out of four of them and (with the un-linked pastor for the free space) if he can catch them all he'll have bingo.  (Nicolae Lanakila, he's got to be the very best, like no one ever was.)

Or perhaps there's a really strong reason why it matters that these people came through a picture, onto a ship, were briefly enslaved, discovered a burnt out island, had one turn into a dragon, another meet a fallen star who did body-horror to his slaves, and . . . the estate of C.S. Lewis would like a word with you.

Those are over the top examples, and I don't really know where I'm going with this.

Other people's works are like puzzles to be solved.

We ignore, for a moment, that the author was a horrible racist and the character traits are an expression of that racism, and instead ask, "What could reasonably lead to someone in this situation having these traits, thinking these thoughts, and doing these things?"  If we do it right, then we'll end up with a much more interesting character, one who isn't from stock racist caricatures (I can never fucking spell that word right; thank you spell checker) and subverts the racist tropes the original enforced.

We ignore, for the moment, that the author had the plot go A, B, C because they had an outside agenda they were going to follow whether it made sense or not, and ask how could B follow from A when at first, second, and third glance that seems not just implausible but impossible.  Then we ask how this could lead to the right conditions for C when B would seem to negate any such conditions.

When the puzzle is worked out we've done more world building and more characterization and more solid fiction than the author ever did.

But, for whatever reason, I can't seem to do it on my own.  I've worked out how to re-work The Last of Us into a story with three main campaigns** in which Riley never dies but everything canonically shown happens, the world is significantly more fleshed out, and so forth.

Seriously, look at the size of that fucking footnote.  That's just a general overview.

For my own zombie stuff . . . I got nothing.

Ok, not nothing.  One scene where a trans character is accepted.  Pretty close to nothing when you compare it to what goes on in my head re:The Last of Us.

I can fill a world with stories and details and so forth, provided it's not my world.

I don't know why I felt like writing about that, but at least there's a post here.

* * *

* I could maybe get away with the idea for a series that follows what the Tardis does with itself after the Doctor is finally well and truly dead.  Just don't call it a "Tardis", don't have it look like a blue box on the outside, find another name for the low frequency torsion inducers (things that use sound to induce a twisting motion and can thus be used to embed or extract the helical threaded fasteners --usually metal-- so common in the universe) cut all ties to the rest of the franchise, change the background mythology, and . . .

Oh, and it's also the part of the concept where I have the least idea of what would happen.

Pattern continues.  The more original something is, the less I'm able to follow it down the winding paths that eventually lead to, you know, actual produced fiction.

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** The first campaign is Joel, it's like the main game but the Ellie parts are cut out.  When Joel is unconscious the story skips over that.

The second campaign is Ellie it starts with the flashback Left Behind content, follows from there to the next . . . three weeks, was it?  Her getting back into quarantine, her ducking the military, her meeting Marlene, fast forwards through the parts where Joel is doing all the work, shows follows her perspective on getting the handgun and saving Joel, continues to skip to the parts where she's separated and independent, all the way through to saving Joel at the university, at which point we get the non-flashback Left Behind content, the Ellie parts of winter, and then what little of the ending she's there for.

It ends on her talking about Riley and asking about the fireflies (no flashbacks to what Joel knows, this is Ellie perspective.)

The third campaign is Riley.  It starts with her slipping out of a firefly safehouse and crossing occupied Boston to reach Ellie.  The Left Behind content is mostly done in excerpted cut-scenes, ones that take into account decisions the player made in the Ellie campaign, but don't spend too much time making you rehash the same stuff.

Then there's the two of them getting infected.  While Left Behind strongly implies that they were bitten by different zombies, her hand (the one that got bitten) came dangerously close to the mouth of the zombie that bit Ellie so it's not too hard to say they were infected by the same zombie, at the same time, in the same place.  Add in saliva mixing if you want.

After the cut-scenes of excerpts from the date with Ellie in Left Behind Riley wakes up.  Turns out she didn't turn.  Like the last survivor of the helicopter crash, entirely non-zombie illness caused her to become dangerously violent.  She attacked Ellie, Ellie thought Riley turned, Ellie thought she killed Riley.

An injured Riley makes her way through occupied Boston looking for Ellie.  She's hiding from fireflies and government alike because she's AWOL from one and a terrorist to the other.

The Boston section is made of short bursts and large gaps.  She's healing from a near-fatal wound, she can't trust any doctors.  As a result she's always several steps behind until the very end of the Boston section.  She finds out where Ellie is going to be taken just before the Boston events of the Joel campaign.

She makes it to the original meet point before Ellie, Joel, and Tess.  The fireflies are still alive and, when they learn Riley is immune too, decide one immune girl is as good as another.  They capture Riley*** and split up.  Half of them take Riley to the university, half of them stay to wait for Ellie.  (Obviously the second half die, but that's not what this story is about.)

Riley wakes up at the university when it's still a firefly base.  She learns that they're looking for a vaccine, not a cure, she learns that extracting what they want will kill her, she realizes that the same thing will be done to Ellie if they get the chance.  Riley fights her way out (the damage she does is part of why the fireflies abandon the university.)

Riley sticks around, out of sight, as the fireflies abandon the university.  She was waiting for Ellie, but instead of Ellie showing up, she learns where the fireflies are relocating to.  She knows that that's where Ellie will be taken if Ellie is still alive.  She's on foot, so her trip to Utah takes a different route and a different amount of time than Joel and Ellie's.

She finally catches up with Joel and Ellie at St. Mary's.  In an extended version of the cutscene where Joel gets his weapons back we learn that Joel wasn't guarded by one easy to distract and disarm solider (because that would be profoundly stupid, make no sense, and be a plot hole one could pilot a fully loaded 747 through.)  Riley kills the second soldier --the one Joel didn't know about-- who would have killed Joel before his rescue attempt even started.

After a quick introduction, she and he split up to thin out the guards and make it more likely one will reach Ellie in time.  (The idea is that worst case they split the guards in half, best case most of the guards are after one intruder and the other has minimal resistance.  Gameplay-wise it'll turn out to be worst case with neither one having it easier.)

Riley fights her way to Ellie via a different route and arrives just after Joel saves her.  She stays behind so that Joel can escape with Ellie in spite of carrying her making him significantly slower than the various armed fireflies out to stop them.

Before they separate, though, they make a plan to meet up again. Riley nixes the standard 'just outside of town' idea, and tells Joel to keep going until he reaches a safe place, Joel tells Riley about the dam.  Riley says not to tell Ellie about her being there, either she'll tell Ellie herself, or (if she doesn't live to do that) it's better that Ellie not have to deal with Riley dying twice.

That's done fairly quickly, so perhaps not the best thought out plan, and probably not communicated in full sentences.

The final combat section of Riley's campaign sees her between Joel/Ellie and the heavily armed fireflies all converging on them.  She doesn't have to beat the fireflies, just slow them down enough that they never reach Joel/Ellie.

Once that's done she comes to the garage, walks over Marlene's corpse, slits the tires (or pops hoods and yanks wires) on all but one vehicle, and drives that one away.

In her ending she arrives just in time to hear:

Ellie: . . . that everything you said about the fireflies is true.
Joel: I swear.
Ellie: Okay.

Which is when she announces her presence:

Something like:

Riley: I don't know what he said, but the fireflies are gone.  They gave up on a cure, their last base got shot up, and Marlene is dead.  All that's left are angry people with guns.

No, that's too long winded.  Just something about the fireflies being past tense.  Riley knows that they stopped looking for a cure even before they abandoned the university because they were going to vivisect her for a mere vaccine (same as Ellie.)

Anyway, fade out on an long overdue Ellie-Riley kiss.  Joel can be in the background visibly not-disapproving.  Maybe even a smile.

Put all three together and you get canon The Last of Us (including Left Behind) but with final-level plot-holes . . . not quite filled in, but at least smaller, our interracial same sex couple not doomed to being half zombified the moment they decide to be a couple, a happier ending, and so forth.

Joel is learning to be fully human again, Ellie is searching for meaning after she seems to have lost everything (and finds it in her companion, not her quest individual people, not the abstract idea of saving humanity), Riley is fighting for love.

For Joel the climax is saving Ellie, for Ellie the climax is saving Joel in "Winter" (which would include escaping the horrible Reaver settlement) and maybe a bit of bonding with him over giraffes, with the actual journey's end being denouement, for Riley the climax waits until the very end when she and Ellie are together with no one trying to eat or vivisect them.

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*** Riley would have gone willingly but the fireflies in question believe that they shouldn't put all their eggs, all two of them, in one basket.  They refuse to let her wait for Ellie because they figure that if the two girls are sent in different expeditions there's a better chance that at least one will make it through.

Thus they take her against her will.

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