More Fiction (Part 1)

I’m going to do it again! I’m going to break a post into parts to milk it for the daily posting streak. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

This is mostly a self-analysis post though.

WARNING: This post contains many, many TVTropes links. If you are like me and need to be productive but are liable to being sucked into TVTropes, maybe you should find a way to commit to not clicking on any of these links, or just stop reading. The obligatory xkcd is kind of long and also featured on one of the TVTropes links I’ve already made, so I’m not going to embed it.

I blogged about this before in 2013 — how I felt that the analysis trained into me by English class was dulling my ability to appreciate and write the types of fiction I really enjoyed. After thinking about it I realized the mismatch goes deeper than that. Because the things I seek the most in fiction are escapism and entertainment. I like simple fiction with obvious (though maybe not that obvious) Aesops and extreme economy of characters via making all the reveals being of the form “X and Y are the same person” (which does not quite seem to be a trope but may be an occurrence of Connected All Along, with the most famous subtrope being Luke, I Am Your Father (which is a misquote!), and is also one common Stock Epileptic Tree, so maybe this isn’t the best example), because not only are such reveals fun, they make the plot simpler. What can I say, it works.

The qualities of being thought-provoking or heartwarming are only bonuses for me; needless complexity in the number of characters or plots is a strict negative. Sorry, I don’t want to spend effort trying to remember which person is which and how a hundred different storylines relate to each other if they don’t build to a convincing, cohesive, and awesome Reveal, and often not even then. And I like closure, so I feel pretty miserable when writers resolve a long-awaited plot point just to add a bunch more. Because of this I am ambivalent about long book series; most of my favorite works of fiction have come in long series but starting a new one always gives me Commitment Anxiety. Even when there’s closure, when I finish an immersive movie or book I’m always left kind of disoriented, like I’ve just been lifted out of a deep pool and have to readjust to breathing and seeing the world from the perspective of a normal person on land. I like when I’m reading good fiction, but I don’t like going through withdrawal symptoms. If I want to read complicated open-ended events, I’ll go read a history textbook, because at least the trivia might come up useful some day; if I want tough problems I’ll just look at real life and think about the possibility of college debt and having to find a job and everything. (If it wasn’t obvious yet, this is why I hyperbolically hate on Game of Thrones often.) Even worse than all of this is multiple paragraphs full of scenery and nothing else, unless of course parts or maybe all of the scenery are Chekhov’s Guns.

Some part of me is embarrassed to admit this because I’ve been educated for so long about deep literature that makes social commentary or reveals an inner evil of humanity or whatever. But then again, I don’t really need an education to appreciate the simple, fun fiction I apparently do.

So: there are a lot of famous classics or mainstream works I can’t really enjoy too much, or in some cases, at all. And yet, sometimes a random story or webcomic will appear and I just won’t be able to stop reading. Why? I decided to try making a list of things I like in fiction:

  1. I enjoy calling things before they happen — predicting plot twists, guessing the answer to the Driving Question or Ontological Mystery, and so on. Some specific examples I can remember having called are

    • The reapparance of the (most) conspicuous Chekhov’s Gun in the 17th Detective Conanmovie, the radio-controlled watch
    • The reveal at the end of Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher, which is funnier because it’s lampshaded when Ariadne also says “Called it!”
    • The explanation for chapter 13 of HPMoR
    • Kikuzawa’s strategy in Liar Game Game III. Before Akiyama called it. I still feel really happy about this.
    I think these are nontrivial calls that I have at least some right to enjoy, but I also really enjoy getting trivial predictions right, like calling the predictable kisses in romantic comedies or in basically any movie whatsoever. Even when I’m wrong two-thirds of the time, probably more because I’m confirmation-biased, the remaining fraction still feels awesome. Or, to give another example, calling conspicuous werewolves as such, prompted by when an actual wolf appears from nowhere or when somebody makes a conspicuous remark about the full moon or because of Werewolf Theme Naming or simply becuase the book’s blurb said there were werewolves involved and that was why I decided to read the book or comic or whatever in the first place. (Although who knows, Covers Always Lie.) This is followed by either mental screaming at the protagonists to not don’t get eaten, or maybe just amusement at waiting for their realization, because Our Werewolves Are Different and many of them are actually nice guys. Okay, this is not predictive power any more, more like just relishing the Dramatic Irony. Sue me.
  2. And yet, despite item 1, somehow I also enjoy the Reveal for questions when the author has done something clever I didn’t catch. Examples include a different Chekhov’s Gun (bordering on Boomerang) in that Detective Conan movie that came into effect right after the watch did, pretty much every strategy in Liar Game other than the one I listed, and all the big reveals of Ra.

    This is weird because logically, if a reveal I don’t call is a missed enjoyable opportunity to call something, I ought to not enjoy it. And yet I like getting tricked too, as long as the reveal isn’t backed by Insane Troll Logic.

    Maybe this is because, as I said, I seek to entertain myself when reading fiction more than I seek to solve all the mysteries, so I don’t go in expecting to solve anything and don’t feel disappointed when I don’t.

    It’s like I like solving puzzlehunt puzzles, but I can somehow also get really engrossed in looking at puzzlehunt puzzles, giving up after five seconds, reading the solution, and going “How could anybody think of THAT?”
  3. Subverting, double subverting, lampshading, deconstructing, and pretty much all forms of playing with tropes. Here is my most recent example:

    (dark close-up of glinting eyeglasses) Black spectral energy!? That’s…

    (cut to normal) …fairly common.

    Paranatural chapter 1 page 59
    I don’t know if there’s enough context to convey the humor point, but there you go. Even now I’ve looked at it five times and I keep laughing.
  4. Catching allusions. Even not catching allusions but seeing them discussed in the comments and realizing.

    I’m going to put “mathematical allusions” here even though I don’t know if they are a thing. For example, in’s Fine Structure (which I confess to not having read through in its entirety — the plot structure got too confusing for me at some point — although I definitely plan to try again in the future), one of the subplots is that

    1. Every year, a randomly chosen person on Earth is struck by lightning and gains superpowers.
    2. Each new superhuman is twice as powerful as the previous one.
    3. This has been going on for (ten | eleven) years.

    Amusing ways in which this is used: firstly, these superhumans are very matter-of-factly referred to as Powers, and secondly, when some of the protagonists are preparing for the eleventh power in Exponents, they say the person is

    …going to become a superman more powerful than all the previous Powers put together.

    I’d also like to take this opportunity to note that in “Power of Two”, Jason shows his Genre Savviness by discussing (? does narration count?) the Required Secondary Powers when first introducing this plot, so bonus points.

    Also, in the comments section, Word of God suggests (sarcastically? unsure) “Power of Two” is also an allusion to the Pokémon movie Power of One (not to be confused with The Power of One or yet another obligatory xkcd:)

  5. Predictable comedy staples. Ironic Echo Cuts and Gilligan Cuts and Brick Jokes and Bait-and-Switch Comparisons. Lists: Bread, Eggs, Breaded Eggs and Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick and Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking. Breaking the Fourth Wall and Leaning on the Fourth Wall. The occasional Pungeon Master.

    One would think that realizing how clichéd these comedy tropes are would make me get bored of them eventually. Yet somehow, like the scientist whose science helps him see more beauty in a flower, I find recognizing the trope name and knowing it’s been a staple of comedy for possibly centuries or more somehow makes it funnier.
  6. Awesome things. The subjective moments are Crowning Moments of Awesome. As I’ve already stated and should have made obvious by now, I am particularly partial Instant Awesome, Just Add Dragons, but this is half the tropes on Garnishing the Story (aka Instant Awesome Just Add Indexes) or, even more generally, Rule of Cool.

    A different subjective awesome thing: I love reading or watching when people reveal their secret identities and amaze people, or when The Gloves Come Off and/or they use their Cover-Blowing Superpower and/or up the ante in a climactic battle with I Am Not Left-Handed.

This is not to say that these elements I like are absent from the “deep” literature we read in school. A Tale of Two Cities (link to TVTropes page) is sitting on my desk now so I’ll use that. Carton is a pretty cool Deadpan Snarker and has an awesome scene where he faces off Barsad. I think “Recalled to Life” qualifies as Arc Words. This certainly qualifies as an Ironic Echo Cut.

He [Doctor Manette] was happy in the return he had made her, he was recompensed for his suffering, he was proud of his strength. “You must not be weak, my darling,” he remonstrated; “don’t tremble so. I have saved him.”
“I have saved him.” It was not another of the dreams in which he [Charles Darnay] had often come back; he was really here. And yet his wife trembled, and a vague but heavy fear was upon her. (Book the Second, Ch. 6, 7; p. 341–2)

And I marked up this curious bit of list humor (emphasis mine):

That Providence, however, had put it into the heart of a person who was beyond fear and beyond reproach, to ferret out the nature of the prisoner’s schemes, and, struck with horror, to disclose them to his Majesty’s Chief Secretary of State and most honourable Privy Council. That, this patriot would be produced before them. That, his position and attitude were, on the whole, sublime. That, he had been the prisoner’s friend, but, at once in an auspicious and an evil hour detecting his infamy, had resolved to immolate the traitor he could no longer cherish in his bosom, on the sacred altar of his country. That, if statues were decreed in Britain, as in ancient Greece and Rome, to public benefactors, this shining citizen would assuredly have had one. That, as they were not so decreed, he probably would not have one. That, Virtue, as had been observed by the poets (in many passages which he well knew the jury would have, word for word, at the tips of their tongues; whereat the jury’s countenances displayed a guilty consciousness that they knew nothing about the passages), was in a manner contagious; more especially the bright virtue known as patriotism, or love of country. That, the lofty example of this immaculate and unimpeachable witness for the Crown, to refer to whom however unworthily was an honour, had communicated itself to the prisoner’s servant, and had engendered in him a holy determination to examine his master’s table-drawers and pockets, and secrete his papers.

I’m not sure if this is a recognized trope or common enough to count as one. The best I can do is say that it’s to Bill… Bill… Junk… Bill… as Weird Aside is to Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick.

So it fares okay by my criteria. But compared to Ra, probably now my favorite piece of fiction since I finished reading it last month:

  • First chapter: averts and lampshades Bond One-Liner, among several other combat tropes I don’t know well enough to link.

    There are no badass quips.
  • Second chapter: Title is well-established sci-fi allusion, the second half of which has already been used in Fine Structure, so a double allusion? Averts and lampshades Courtroom Antics in a simple, beautiful paragraph:

    Surprise witnesses don’t appear. Unexpected damning evidence isn’t introduced. All hope isn’t lost right at a critical dark point two-thirds of the way through the trial and victory isn’t triumphantly clawed back in the middle of act three. It’s lengthy and gruesome and tedious and involved and expensive and unpleasantly detailed and at times it seems like it’s never going to end. But she wins. She straight-up wins.
  • Third chapter: not so much obvious lampshading, but a nice aversion of anglocentrism, and lots of science! There’s mathematical and statistical phrases, including “partial differential equations” (which, as shown two chapters later, is not entirely random inserts) and a “two standard deviations above the global mean in raw mathematical capability”.
  • Fourth chapter: “Magic Isn’t” are almost Arc Words. The start shows a steady understanding of bad romance tropes. Then a subtle Ironic Echo Cut:

    By the time either of them realises that they should have been counting from somewhere… neither of them will remember what day this was.
    Precisely six months later they’re in the pub again.

I’m stopping here. You can’t mix these up. And I haven’t even mentioned the amazing Driving Questions — of how magic works, and of why Rachel Ferno was so good at it — and their beautiful resolutions. But there’s a reason, and a trope, for that too: Seinfeld Is Unfunny. Fiction evolves. Most tropes have to be played straight for some time before they can be subverted (exceptions are called Dead Unicorn Tropes.) And obviously I can’t fault writers from the 1800s for not using statistical terminology or the scientific method wherever possible, nor the school system for picking something employing terms that don’t require such a mathematical background to understand or appreciate the rhetorical value of.

Hmm, I don’t know. Maybe I unconsciously use a different analytic mindset for reading school-required classics and for reading fun online material, and I could enjoy the former category of fiction more if I let my troper mentality free. I tried that yesterday while my family watched Interstellar and had fun noticing a few staple cuts and Arc Words (which I had forgotten the name for), but my strongest eventual reaction was that I couldn’t stop facepalming at the depictions of AI.

Is this a conclusion? Does it even pretend to be?

Mirroring the 2013 post, some later part of this will deal with my thoughts about writing fiction, although I might come back and realize there’s something in the reading section I wanted to hit but didn’t.

(note: the commenting setup here is experimental and I may not check my comments often; if you want to tell me something instead of the world, email me!)