On Writing Comedy


I recently wrote a short story for a writer’s workshop I’m in that was meant to be funny, and that I’m told was, in fact, funny.  The thing is, it didn’t make me laugh.  I don’t think I smiled while writing it.  What was in my head while writing it was a series of calculations along the lines of “HUMANS WILL LAUGH AT THIS WITH PROBABILITY 0.57.”

Partly I felt the story didn’t have enough funny lines–look at a page from Pratchett or Douglas Adams, and you’ll see nearly every paragraph is funny.  Partly I didn’t like the flow / pacing / transitions between topics / lack of story structure.

There are some lines I think I would have laughed at if someone else had written them, but plenty that I don’t know if I would have ever found funny.  I was definitely not consciously writing for myself.

It was a rushed job.  I still find myself not knowing whether it’s not funny, funny but not my thing, funny and my thing but I can’t laugh at it because I wrote it, or funny and my thing but I’m suppressing that knowledge.

But that’s usually how I feel when writing comedy.  Even if something is funny at first, it stops being funny after I’ve read it 10 times.  A stand-up comedian isn’t laughing at his own material; he’s laughing at the game he’s playing with the audience.  Writing comedy is like taping a stand-up comedy routine with no audience.

I felt a little better about this when one of the speakers at the 3 Rivers Screenwriting Conference said that writing comedy was so hard because, unlike all other kinds of writing, you can’t tell from your feelings whether your comedy is any good.  Comedy shows are written in a “writer’s room,” a big room with a round table and several comedy writers throwing lines and ideas at each other.  This speaker said he had never been in a writer’s room for a comedy show where the writers were laughing.

If you write something sad, you know it’s sad if it makes you cry [1].  If you write something uplifting, it makes you feel good.  But comedy relies on surprise, and you’re not surprised after the first moment a joke occurs to you, and the joke isn’t quite right the first moment it occurs to you.  The wording is wrong, the context is wrong, and you have to fiddle with it until it can sound funny, and by then it doesn’t surprise you anymore.


Maybe dividing our feelings into neat categories–comedy, tragedy, romance–is a modern thing.  The separation of reason into the rational and the emotional is a thing that happened at least twice in history, first in Plato, then again in the 18th century.  The Elizabethans, like Shakespeare and the “metaphysical poets” like John Donne, united rationality and feeling in their writing.  The phrase “metaphysical poet” almost means “a poet who uses a precise, scientific metaphor to convey passionate feelings”, as in Donne’s Valediction.

This includes comedy.  Shakespeare wrote a bunch of “problem plays” which people don’t know how to deal with now, because they aren’t strictly comedy or drama.  A few years ago I wrote on this blog that Shakespeare used cheap alternations between the comic and tragic, but that’s not always right.  The gravedigger/Yorick scene in Hamlet, or maybe some scenes with Shylock in Merchant of Venice, are funny, but in an almost cruel or ironic way that we don’t write humor anymore, a way that you might need to be less “Enlightened” to appreciate.

[1]  Not me, of course.  Super villains never cry.  That’s just eye-venom leaking out.

The Mystery of Mysteries, part 3: Sub-genres, conclusions


(continued from part 1 & part 2)

The Sub-Genres of Mystery

Notice now that the only examples that don’t fit A, B, C, or D are Stephanie Plum, the cozy mysteries, and the two cross-cultural mystery series by Tony Hillerman and Alexander McCall Smith. At this point I’ll pause and divide mysteries into sub-genres. These sub-genres may have different core narratives, or we may see the same narrative components appear in different ways in the different sub-genres, or be inverted. I stole the attributes of the first 2 from The Thrilling Detective Web Site, which stole them from T.J. Binyon’s Murder Will Out: The detective in fiction:

– The genteel private detective, e.g., Sherlock Holmes:

– Detective is hired to solve a crime

– There are a limited number of known suspects

– The police are honest

– There may or may not be one or more violent scenes

– There is no sex

– First-person POV of the Watson

– The hard-boiled private eye:

– Always in a big city

– Hired to investigate something relatively trivial, which unravels the web of a major crime

– The web of suspects grows over time; everything is connected to something else

– The police are corrupt

– There is constant violence throughout the story

– Sex is omnipresent, but the hero abstains from it

– Lots of alcohol

– First-person POV of the PI

– Cross-cultural mysteries

– May be rural or urban

– Detective (or team) may be a cop

– Detective/team and the crime both span two cultures, one of which is dominant

– The mystery requires respect for the less-dominant culture to solve

– Third-person interior POV

– Romance mysteries

– I’m only familiar with Stephanie Plum

– Many “romance novels” are mysteries, like Key of Light by Nora Roberts

– I don’t think these have much in common with the first 3 kinds

– Cozy mysteries:

– Female hobbyist crime-solver

– Commonly involve cats, cooking, tea, sewing

– No violence except perhaps for the crime

– Solving the crime requires talking to lots of people

– I don’t think these have much in common with the first 3 kinds

– Solvable mysteries:

– Solvable mysteries follow rules of fairness so that the reader has a good chance of solving the mystery before the detective reveals its solution

– I haven’t thought of any famous examples of these! Interesting.


I will ignore romance and cozy mysteries from here on. In light of the literary insignificance of solvable mysteries, I will draw my first conclusion:

1. The purpose of mysteries is not to give the reader a chance to solve the mystery.

I have a very small sample of cross-cultural mysteries, but I notice they don’t include any magical detectives. What is it with these magical detectives?

I think they’re a variant of “Book smarts, but no street smarts” (BS-no-SS). Call it “High IQ, low social/emotional intelligence” (Hi-IQ/low-EQ). The detectives are (allegedly) brilliant logicians, yet they’re single, have at most one friend, and are seldom financially successful.

I think Hi-IQ/low-EQ will come from the same angle as BS-no-SS: told to reassure an insecure audience that their lack of some ability is unimportant, and maybe even a virtue. I’ll draw another conclusion:

2. One core narrative of genteel and hard-boiled detective stories is that human relationships and human society cannot be analyzed logically.

The mystery narrative tries to deal with the evident fact that scientific analysis produces much knowledge that makes us intensely uncomfortable by making a “separate magisteria” rebuttal: The detective can use scientific analysis to solve crime, but not to solve his own life problems.

If we think about superhero stories as offshoots of detective stories, the core narrative for them becomes: Human relationship problems can’t be solved with force.

I originally argued for the possible alternative

2b. One core narrative of genteel and hard-boiled detective stories is that neither logic nor feelings is sufficient by itself to deal with all of life.

This casts the story as the kind of dialectical, tension-filled structure that literary critics (not just post-modern ones) are fond of. We can certainly view (2) as (2b). But it feels dishonest to me. All it does is take the statement in (2) and add the statement “Logical analysis is good for solving crimes”, which is neither controversial nor interesting, to come up with a phony claim to be a dialectic. The only claim of interest is that logic is not helpful in everyday life.

Why magic instead of logic? The simplest theory is that writing logic is hard, and writing magic is easy. I’m not satisfied with this theory, because some of our detectives don’t just use unrealistic logic, they’re often downright idiotic. Their stupidity and trust in luck strikes me as too excessive to be accidental. (It may be literally accidental from the point of view of the writer; it could easily happen that a thousand writers write mysteries, and the detectives that become famous all have some crucial property, which the writers each wrote by accident. But that crucial property, while an accident of the writer, has an effect that is not “accidental”; it is consistent across stories. That’s what I expect to find in a core narrative: a structure that has evolved by random story creation and reader selection.)

Here’s another theory: If the detective were merely super-humanly smart, he might apply his logic to his personal problems and solve them. If he’s magical, intuitive, or lucky, there’s no obvious way for him to make his magic or intuition apply to his own problems. (The magician who can do magic only for others feels like it ought to be a trope, though no examples come to mind.)

This would make the use of magic the kind of straw-manning you’d find in BS-no-SS. Fitting mysteries to the same pattern would be nicely parsimonious. But I’m not happy with this theory either, because very smart people often are socially stupid and have screwed-up lives. There’s no need to fake it.

Here’s my favorite theory at this moment: You don’t want a clever reader to think he’s as smart as the detective! If the reader identifies with the detective, the Hi-EQ/low-EQ narrative would make the reader anxious instead of reassuring him. Therefore,

3. The genteel or hard-boiled detective is a misfit and a magical being in order to distance the detective from the reader, to avoid frightening the reader with the loneliness of the detective.

However, Poe spelled out his reason for making Dupin irrational in a long introductory essay to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, and that wasn’t it. It was worse: He didn’t want to endorse logic at all! The whole story was a deliberate attack on science. (I didn’t realize this until after writing the first draft of this post, because the essay was cut from the condensed version of “Rue Morgue” that I had.)

That first essay contrasted chess with whist. A second essay in “The Purloined Letter”, given by Dupin rather than by the narrator, said the same thing, only instead contrasting math with poetry. In it, Poe tried to re-purpose both the words “abstract” and “analysis”, to exclude mathematics and to include… poetry. It sounds preposterous, but he was quite explicit about it, and at great length.

Poe attacked chess and mathematics as developing abstract skills that are useless for everyday life. It’s a bit confused, since he used the word “abstract” to mean what we would call the real and concrete, and called real life “abstract” as opposed to mathematics. He considered logic to be a system that could be applied to either kind of entity, and said it was useful for life only when applied to “abstract” (concrete) entities. This implies deep misunderstandings of both mathematics and logic. Yet his conclusion, that logic can in some way apply to all of life, is closer to truth than is the standard narrative of artists, which assumes that ordinary life cannot be represented in mathematics. In its particulars Poe’s position is most similar to Aristotle’s, which was that numbers are all well and good if you want to build a boat, but they aren’t logic.

A small excerpt from Poe’s second essay:

“You are mistaken; I know him well; he is both. As poet and mathematician, he would reason well; as mere mathematician, he could not have reasoned at all, and thus would have been at the mercy of the Prefect.”

“You surprise me,” I said, “by these opinions, which have been contradicted by the voice of the world. You do not mean to set at naught the well-digested idea of centuries. The mathematical reason has long been regarded as the reason par excellence.”

… “The mathematicians, I grant you, have done their best to promulgate the popular error to which you allude, and which is none the less an error for its promulgation as truth. With an art worthy a better cause, for example, they have insinuated the term ‘analysis’ into application to algebra…. I dispute the availability, and thus the value, of that reason which is cultivated in any especial form other than the abstractly [concretely] logical. I dispute, in particular, the reason educed by mathematical study. The mathematics are the science of form and quantity; mathematical reasoning is merely logic applied to observation upon form and quantity. The great error lies in supposing that even the truths of what is called pure algebra are abstract [concretely applicable] or general truths. And this error is so egregious that I am confounded at the universality with which it has been received. Mathematical axioms are not axioms of general truth. What is true of relation—of form and quantity—is often grossly false in regard to morals, for example. In this latter science it is very usually untrue that the aggregated parts are equal to the whole. In chemistry also the axiom fails. In the consideration of motive it fails; for two motives, each of a given value, have not, necessarily, a value when united, equal to the sum of their values apart. There are numerous other mathematical truths which are only truths within the limits of relation. But the mathematician argues from his finite truths, through habit, as if they were of an absolutely general applicability—as the world indeed imagines them to be…. In short, I never yet encountered the mere mathematician who would be trusted out of equal roots, or one who did not clandestinely hold it as a point of his faith that x squared + px was absolutely and unconditionally equal to q. Say to one of these gentlemen, by way of experiment, if you please, that you believe occasions may occur where x squared + px is not altogether equal to q, and, having made him understand what you mean, get out of his reach as speedily as convenient, for, beyond doubt, he will endeavor to knock you down.

Edgar Allan Poe. Essential Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (Kindle Locations 6981-7013).

The Sherlockian narrative is a Hegelian dialectic between common sense and scientific thought, claiming neither mode is strictly superior. Poe was instead saying that poetic thought is strictly superior!

Poe’s mystery, written in 1841, tries to deny that quantitative analysis is analysis, or that it produces anything useful. Poe meant his Dupin stories as a last-ditch defense of conventional thought against mathematics and the scientific method, using instead psychological analysis and intuition. I did not expect this, since he published another mystery at the same time, “The Gold Bug”, which was largely mathematical.

Greg Sevik’s article “Enlightenment, counter-enlightenment– detection, reason, genius in tales of Poe+Doyle” (Clues v31n2) says that many critics have recently caught on to this anti-rational undercurrent in mysteries, but he doesn’t say that the genre is against reason.  He says the detective is a dialectic between the enlightenment and romanticism. The police represent the sterile “enlightenment” machine (e.g., the police in “The Purloined Letter”, who follow their logical procedures and fail). The police are merely rational; the detective uses reason dusted with his own mystic powers, to prove that reason must be guided by intuition or spirit.

To me, though, horse of the Enlightenment, saying reason must be guided by spirit is like saying it must be guided by the Church, which I would call being against reason. So Sevik’s article, which he framed to sound like the mystery is very even-handed about it, is to me even more anti-rational than just saying reason can’t solve your personal problems.

Anyway. Father Brown, Doctor Who, and Daneel Olivaw seem to belong in the genteel detective camp, but none of them fit the complete pattern. The Doctor is generally happy, and Daneel’s crime-solving ability can in no way be interpreted as the cause of his being a robot. Father Brown is also cheerful, and though he may be a “misfit” in society at large, he fits within the Catholic church far better than anyone can fit into modern society.

The keys to the Doctor must be those ways he diverges from the pattern: his lack of Sherlockian angst, the magical way the universe’s coincidences accommodate his lack of planning (rather than disrupting his plans, as it does most protagonists), his God-like status as protector of humanity and the universe, and most especially his embracing of conventional morality and virtue ethics over reason (unlike the other detectives!). Like a traditional detective, he holds up our culture for inspection. (This is why he spends so much of his time on Earth, rather than exploring new worlds, as is more common in science fiction.) But he doesn’t represent the logical, as Sherlock does. He represents the authors’, and the audience’s, ideal, the supra-logical God who has the right to judge humanity. He’s a Christianized Sherlock Holmes. He still functions to reassure us that our foolishness is wisdom. Not by contrast with it, but as the Platonic ideal of it, the wise fool who always wins.

That’s my theory today, anyway.

My memory of R. Daneel Olivaw is dim, but those stories certainly weren’t meant to reassure us about conventional morality. Humans were inferior to robots physically, intellectually, and morally. I think that Asimov was inverting the mystery narrative to fit it to the science fiction narrative: Knowledge is not bad, but good for us. The traditional mystery says logic and humanity are opposed, presumably because humanity is spiritual. Asimov’s stories say logic and humanity are opposed, because humans are stupid. Robots are more logical and as a consequence more spiritually developed.

Getting back for a moment to observations on the full set of genteel, hard-boiled, and cultural mysteries:

E. Mysteries comment on society

Most mystery stories include commentaries on society. Sherlockian detectives often reach their conclusions not by reasoning about the particular criminal they’re pursuing, but by applying a broad cognitive or cultural observation to the criminal.

– The solution to “The Purloined Letter” is that people won’t think of looking for something hidden in plain view.

– In “A Scandal in Bohemia”, Holmes deduces that Irene Adler has hidden the letter in her own home partly because “women are naturally secretive, and they like to do their own secreting.”

– In “The Copper Beeches”, Holmes critiques country life: “It is my belief, Watson founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside…. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish.”

– Father Brown mysteries sometimes hinge on dispelling the idea that a secular worldview is more logical than the Catholic one. The Father detects the thief in the very first Father Brown story (“The Blue Cross”) because the thief poses as a priest, and dismisses rationality as he imagines a priest might. Father Brown’s response is, “You attacked reason. It’s bad theology.”

– Spade and Marlowe continually meditate on the corruption of society.

– Hillerman’s novels repeatedly contrast modern American and Navajo society.

Hillerman’s and McCall Smith’s books are in third person interior, and reveal the thoughts of the detectives as they proceed. I predict these cross-cultural books represent some variation on the pattern. In the standard detective novel, we have two worldviews: the conventional worldview, and the world of the detective. I expect that in the cultural mystery, the two worldviews are those of the two cultures coming into conflict, and the detective has one foot in each. The detective then doesn’t need to be especially odd, nor to stand outside both cultures.

In both cases, Sherlockian and cross-cultural, one of the worldviews is that of the reader. (Even in the South African mysteries, the dominant culture, while it diverged from Europe in the 19th century, is recognizably European.) I take it that the reader’s culture is the point of contact with the reader.

Putting all of the above together, I conclude that

4. A mystery scrutinizes the reader’s culture from the outside.

I’ll break the rest of my conclusions into 2 parts: detective mysteries, and cross-cultural stories.  (Remember my dataset for detective mysteries is all stories where there’s a single detective. Buddy-cop TV shows, forensic shows, procedurals, aren’t represented.)

Detective mysteries

Westerns also have an outsider who comes to town and “critiques” it, usually with lead. Hard-boiled detective novels differ from genteel detective novels, and resemble westerns, in their constant violence, and the need for a macho hero who will use violence against violence. They differ from westerns in their cynicism and widespread corruption.  Hookers don’t have hearts of gold. Crimes and suspects are gradually discovered by threads leading to other threads, to imply that all of society is complicit in all crime. I’ll summarize this as:

4a. Genteel detective novels study the reader’s culture, attempting to understand and systematize it, and criticizing individual cases of hypocrisy or moral weakness.

4b. Westerns criticize the reader’s culture as morally corrupt, and call for heroes to fix them.

4c. Hard-boiled detective novels criticize the reader’s culture as morally corrupt and unredeemable.

Post-apocalyptic novels are to westerns something like what hard-boiled detective novels are to genteel detective novels. They succeeded westerns (though later than private eyes succeeded genteel detectives), and they’re stories in which good people are few and the heroes can never save themselves.

Post-apocalyptic stories are post-modern in many ways, such as their total “mash-up” junkyard aesthetic. One way is that they’ve taken one more step toward the romantic, anti-rational, cleansing apocalypse:

4d. Post-apocalyptic stories critique the reader’s culture as morally corrupt and unredeemable, but after it finally destroys itself, its last ugly remnants can be washed away and a better society can be built.

Genteel detective novels came first, then westerns, then hard-boiled detective novels and movies, then post-apocalyptic stories. This suggests a gradual increase in cynicism from 1850 to the present. Logically, there’s just one more genre left to invent in our grand progression from the romantic, through the modernist, to the post-modern:

4e. The Horsemen of the Apocalypse story will critique the reader’s culture as morally corrupt and unredeemable, and the heroes must destroy it and wash away its last ugly remnants before a better society can be built.

Probably the heroes in the earliest ones will have to be forced reluctantly to destroy it in a morally ambiguous story. Once we’re over that hump, more and more stories will take it for granted that society ought to be destroyed.

Oh, snap.

There is definitely more judgement and moralism going on under the hood in westerns, hard-boiled detective novels, and superhero comics, but I haven’t parsed it all out. Here are some parting thoughts along those lines from The Thrilling Detective Web Site:

My personal take is that the private eye story is an American attempt to update the earlier cowboy mythos, placing them in a contemporary American urban setting. But it’s not that simple. The cowboy mythos is merely a frontier update of a much earlier tradition. Grab a piece of chalk, and trace a line from Three Gun Mack to Nick Carter to Sherlock Holmes to Wyatt Earp to Hawkeye in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales, and then continue to Robin Hood and Ivanhoe and Lancelot and King Arthur et al. Draw another line from Hawkeye and Chingcachook (think of ’em as an early version of Spenser and Hawk) studying some footprints in The Last of the Mohicans to that scene where Holmes explains the significance of footprints to Watson.

Cross-cultural mysteries

In the cross-cultural novels, the contrasting culture is not kept mysterious; rather, the writer tries at length to explain it. Assuming that the contrasting culture serves the same basic function as the Sherlockian detective’s worldview, I infer that the detective’s thoughts are kept hidden in the latter kind of story not because the detective’s worldview must remain mysterious, but because authors who aren’t anthropologists aren’t capable of preserving a consistent alien worldview under close scrutiny. The Watson character was introduced to maintain the illusion that the detective was a legitimate outsider.

The Father Brown series has traits of both the Sherlockian and the cross-cultural, with the second culture being Catholicism. It keeps Father Brown’s thoughts hidden, but has a real and elaborate worldview behind them, which it tries to explicate in many stories.

5. The social function of a cross-cultural mystery is to contrast two cultures.

Hillerman and Smith’s mysteries are noted for the respect they show for Navajo and traditional Botswanian culture, not for the respect they show for Western culture. The Father Brown stories are meant to heighten respect for Catholicism.

Does a cross-cultural story necessarily praise the other culture? I could imagine a mystery similar to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which contrasted the writer’s society with medieval Europe, and concluded that the writer’s was much better. I wouldn’t be surprised if Charlie Chan mysteries cast Chinese culture in a dim light. In either case, though, I think the point would be to praise our society, not to write an entire book to critique some other society that the reader’s didn’t particularly care about. I will posit:

5a. The social function of an enlightenment cross-cultural story was to contrast an unenlightened culture with an enlightened culture, and praise the latter, likely invoking the march of progress.

Connecticut Yankee would be an example where the enlightened culture is our own. Stories like that don’t get published anymore. I bet they were common in colonial days, though. Another kind of story where the enlightened culture is our own is the dystopia, though typically the dystopia is an extrapolation from our own culture, to what it will be if those people the author doesn’t like keep getting their way. When the unenlightened culture is ours, we often have a utopia.

5b. The social function of a contemporary cross-cultural mystery is to contrast a “de-privileged” culture with a culture that now dominates it, and heighten respect for the former culture, negating the idea of a “march of progress”.


Genres: What good are they?

In this analysis, I ended up comparing the detective story to westerns and apocalyptic fiction, and contrasting the cross-cultural mystery with science fictional utopias and dystopias. The discussion in the comments brings up buddy-cop dramas, police procedurals, CSI, and swords & sorcery.

I’m beginning to think that there isn’t so much a thing called a “genre” as a set of common elements with different affinities for each other. “Figure out what happened”, “watch the misfit try to understand humans”, “the lone wayfarer”, “honest defenders of society fighting both the criminal and the bureaucracy above them”, “violence”, “moral decay of society”, “romance”, “the damsel in distress”, “street smarts”, “personal moral code”, “revolutionary consciousness”–these are strips you can weave together in many combinations. There’s a set that go together well, or at least frequently, to give us the closed-room mystery, and a set that gives us the western, and adding one or two more strips to the weave could give you swords & sorcery or a science fictional utopia. Stories that appear on the surface to belong to the same genre, like detective novels and cross-cultural mysteries, may on a deeper level be more closely related to stories from “different” novels: detective stories with superhero and western stories, and cross-cultural mysteries with utopias, dystopias, and other stories of cultural comparisons.


And… that’s all I got! Thanks for reading this far. I spent months writing this.

What is Love


They say the Eskimos have 50 different words for snow.  Or they used to; it’s become a bitter debate among linguists, made worse by the fact that you can’t call people Eskimos anymore.

But anyway, those northern Native Americans distinguish many types of snow.  If you’re going to walk five miles across ice fields to hunt seals when it’s fifty degrees below, it matters what kind of snow it is.

But 50 terms for snow would hardly be excessive.  thesaurus.com lists 52 synonyms for the adjective angry in English.  And 53 synonyms for the verb hit.

It lists only 18 synonyms for the verb love.  I’ve used thesaurus.com for years, and that’s the fewest synonyms I remember seeing for any word.

If love is important to us, why have we got so few words for it?  Even the “synonyms” we have are no good; the top of the list is admire, cherish, choose, and go for.

We haven’t got a word to distinguish romantic love from motherly love or brotherly love.  We haven’t got a verb for ‘lust’ or ‘friendship’ that takes a direct object.  We have a shocking paucity of words for love.  So few that ‘love’ is barely a word.  It’s used in so many ways that it hardly means anything at all.

If the Eskimo Inuit, Yupik, and various other tribes have many words for snow because it’s important, does that mean love is unimportant to us?

No; just the opposite:  We have only one word for love because it’s so important that it’s dangerous.

When you talk about snow, you want people to know precisely what kind of snow you’re talking about.  When you talk about love, you want people not to know what you’re talking about.

Imagine you’re a man, and your girlfriend or wife asks you, “Do you love me?”  You are, as stipulated, a man, so odds are your greatest act of introspection into your feelings was two years ago when you finally decided to switch from Busch to Yuengling.  How strong does liking have to be, to be love?  “Do you love me more than you love the Steelers?”  Let’s be honest:  there are many women in your state, and only one pro football team.  It’s not a fair comparison.

Now imagine there are 50 words for 50 different types of love, and each night, she asks you about a different one of them.


If we named as many varieties of love as we’ve named ways of moving slowly, I suspect the word for the predominant romantic emotion that most women feel when they say “love” would be one that most men have never felt.  And wouldn’t that make for some interesting late-night conversations?

But that’s not an explanation.  If there’s an international male conspiracy to obliterate synonyms for ‘love’, I wasn’t told about it.

(Though that’s just what I would say, isn’t it?)

I think ‘love’ is like ‘God’ with a capital ‘G’.  When there were many gods, people ascribed different qualities to each.  But after Plato said ‘god’ had a single abstract essence, and Jesus said that essence was perfection, every good thing became part of God’s definition.  (Hence some philosophers believed God must be a perfect sphere.)

So every good and positive human emotion got sucked into the word ‘love’.  Still, that doesn’t explain why any more-specific terms disappeared.  And it’s still suspiciously convenient.

Thoughts on listening to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony three times in a row


In “The annihilation of art”, I griped about the path toward ever greater chaos and dissonance that orchestral composition has taken, to the point where it sounds random to me. I tried to appreciate Brian Ferneyhough’s music, but couldn’t. The folks who like it claim that it’s a natural progression from Beethoven to Ferneyhough. I figured that to understand Ferneyhough, I’d have to back up a half-century or so and first try to appreciate something in-between Beethoven and Ferneyhough. So while driving across Pennsylvania, I popped in a CD of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (1902).

I’ve long been frustrated by my inability to remember Mahler’s compositions. Beethoven’s can get stuck in my head for days, to the point where they give me migraines. Mahler’s, I can only remember snatches of. I was determined to play the CD until I could remember how it went.

I played it all the way to Pittsburgh, and still can’t remember it. Mahler’s Fifth isn’t going to get stuck in my head anytime soon.

The symphony opens with single trumpet repeating a few ambiguous notes, then rising in a dramatic minor chord. Suddenly, the entire orchestra joins in a triumphant shift to a major key. And just as suddenly, it shifts back to minor. That exemplifies everything that is wrong with Mahler’s fifth symphony.

When you have a host of brass make a sudden dramatic reversal like that shift from minor to major, it should mean something. But it doesn’t, because we only stay there for a few seconds before there’s another, equally-dramatic reversal by that same brass section back into a minor key. And that doesn’t mean anything either, because we were in major for all of about two measures.

Observer 1: Look, up in the sky!

Observer 2: It’s a bird!

Observer 3: It’s a plane!

Observer 1: Naw, it’s a bird.

The dramatic equivalent of the opening of Mahler’s Fifth.

The piece didn’t earn that shift back to minor. And that’s what it’s like throughout: Sudden, ostensibly dramatic transitions between keys, tempos, rhythms, and motifs, in a desperate attempt to be unpredictable. All those transitions did nothing for me, because they were so unpredictable that I didn’t care where the music went. It was like an action adventure flick that, to keep you entertained, jumps from one cliff-hanging action sequence to another without ever letting you find out who the characters are. Too try-hard, Gustav.

This is especially apparent in the fourth movement, which is the most boring piece of classical music I’ve ever heard. I am definitely in the minority about this, as it’s regularly found on “The Most Soothing Classical Music” collections, but then I don’t listen to music in order to cure insomnia. I could not pay attention to nine minutes of very pretty but disorganized wandering about in various major and minor keys. I find myself repeatedly zoning out and ignoring the music every time I listen to it. Music this slow and lacking in harmony needs more repetition and regularity for me to grasp hold of.

In “Information theory and writing”, I said art should have high entropy. The entropy of a thing is the number of bits of information you would need to replicate that thing. Something with high entropy is unpredictable. The huge caveat is that random strings have very high entropy, and yet random strings are boring.

The British mathematician G. H. Hardy once visited the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan in the hospital:

I remember once going to see him when he was ill at Putney. I had ridden in taxi cab number 1729 and remarked that the number seemed to me rather a dull one, and that I hoped it was not an unfavorable omen. “No,” he replied, “it is a very interesting number; it is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.”

If we could perceive the unique qualities of each random string, we might find each random string as interesting as Ramanudran found each number. But we don’t. Random strings are boring because we can’t tell them apart. What we want is an entropy measurement that tells us how many bits of information it would take to replicate something like the item of interest, from an equivalence class for that item. Something sufficiently similar that we wouldn’t care if one were substituted for the other. (Assume we have a random number generator available for free; randomness does not require information.) A random string of 16 bits has 16 bits of information, but it would take zero bits of information to make another string “like” it, if any string will do.

This equivalence-adjusted entropy would be a measurement of complexity. Measuring complexity is a difficult problem in the study of complex systems.

Cellular automata (CAs) are simple model complex systems. A CA is a set of rules that operate on cells. The cells are usually laid out as squares. Each cell is in one of K states. (For the game of Life, the most-famous CA, K = 2.) Each rule says which state a cell in state k should change to on the next turn, given the states of itself and of its neighbors in the current turn.

Steve Wolfram, studying cellular automata (CAs), found that there was a class of rules that quickly produced static, unchanging CAs, and a class that quickly produced random noise, and a narrow class in-between that produced strange, beautiful, non-repeating patterns. He called these patterns “complex”. He found a single parameter that predicted whether a CA would be complex. Probably he could have used entropy, but he did not. He used λ (lambda), which he defined as the fraction of transition rules that turn a cell “off”.

These three graphs below from (Langton 1992) show typical results, for four-state CAs: A set of rules with λ = .40 quickly leads to a static, “dead” state, and a set with λ = .65 quickly blows up into random noise, while a set with λ = .50 shows interesting, non-repeating patterns for quite some time:

Langton 1992- Life at the edge of chaos figure 2 lambda=.4 Langton 1992- Life at the edge of chaos figure 2 lambda=.5 cropped Langton 1992- Life at the edge of chaos figure 2 lambda=.65
The curious thing is that entropy (unpredictability) is maximal for these four-state CAs when  λ = .75. Increasing λ increases the apparent complexity up to a point, but past that point, although it  it is still increasing unpredictability, it generates noise, not complexity.

Figure 3 from (Langton 1992) plots transient length (one measure of complexity) versus lambda. Transient length peaks suddenly in the area with middling lambda, then just as suddenly falls off again as lambda and unpredictability continue to increase:

Langton 1992- Life at the edge of chaos figure 3

Gregorian chant was very predictable: one part only, no instruments, and almost no rhythmic or dynamic variation. Music became steadily more complex and less predictable over the next several hundred years.

It seemed like a good rule to say that the less-predictable music became, the more complex and better it would be. And in fact, the commentaries on Mahler’s Fifth are full of references to the “complexity” and “interest” generated by its dissonances and irregularities.

But music does not become more complex the more unpredictable it is. After some point, increasing unpredictability makes it less complex. Instead of complexity, we get mere noise.

This, I speculate, is what happened to music. Composers internalized the theoretical belief that unexpectedness made music more complex and interesting, rather than just listening to it and saying whether they liked it or not. They kept making things less and less predictable, even after passing the point where complexity was maximal.

Once they’d passed that point, unpredictability only made the music boring, not complex. Like Mahler’s Fifth. That created a vicious circle: New music was noisy, unstructured, and boring. Composers believed the way to make it less boring was to make it less predictable, which only made it even more boring, pushing them to make newer music that was even less predictable. This led inevitably to Ferneyhough’s random-sounding music.

And the inevitability of the entire progression was taken as evidence that this was progress!

“But, Writing Guide,” you might protest, “you’ve based this on the idea that there are equivalence classes of musical compositions. But what counts as equivalent depends on the listener. To someone who understands music perfectly, each composition might be distinct! Then each equivalence class has exactly one member, and randomness equals complexity.”

There is something to that objection. The more one studies music, the more distinctions one can easily make in music. But if you really believe that’s a valid objection, you must conclude that all possible music is equally good.

I don’t know how to deal with subjective equivalence classes, but we don’t have to base our measurements on something subjective. We can use an objective information-theoretic measure of complexity. Mutual information, for instance. The mutual information between two variables is the information they have in common. If both are very low-entropy, this is low, since neither contains much information. But if both are high-entropy and uncorrelated, it’s low again, since you can’t predict one from the other. Here’s a plot of mutual information versus lambda, again from (Langton 1992):

Langton 1992- Life at the edge of chaos figure 11

This appears to have a maximum around lambda = .25 instead of .5, which might be a problem. But I don’t think lambda makes sense as our measurement, since it depends so much on the arbitrary choice of which state is the “off” state. Entropy would probably be a better measure, and using it might remove the discrepancy between which lambda givese maximum MI and which gives maximum transient length.

My point is that we can choose some objective scheme for measuring the complexity in a score. For instance, go through the score three measures at a time. Call three measures in a row A, B, and C. You can measure P(C|A,B) and P(C|A) for each set of three measures, and then compute how much information about measure C you get from measure B but not from measure A. This will be small for compositions so predictable that measure B doesn’t add much information, and it will be small for compositions that are so random that neither B nor A helps you predict C.

We could argue about how to make the measurement, but we could actually make such measurements (if, say, you got an NEA grant to spend a few months on the problem). I believe that any reasonable measurement would prove that Ferneyhough’s compositions are less, not more, complex than Beethoven’s.

That wouldn’t mean everyone should start chasing complexity. I think the problems with modernism that I complained about can be summarized as “doing art according to a theory rather than according to what seems good”. Ideally, the result of proving this would be to incline people to trust their feelings more and their theories less.

Chris Langton (1992). Life at the edge of chaos. Artificial Life II.

Review: Shakespeare’s Henry IV, parts 1+2


This is a strange play or pair of plays. (I consider it a single play, though this is controversial. Harold Jenkins made a convincing case that Shakespeare planned to do it as one play, then changed his mind in the middle of Part 1, Act IV.) An editor, judging it by today’s standards, might say it was hopelessly broken and ill-conceived. Yet, like War and Peace, it has a different kind of greatness to it than is fashionable today. I expect this play will perform well by my measure of greatness, which is how often I’m reminded of it when thinking of other things. It left me feeling more charitable toward Shakespeare than I have lately.

If you want an adventure story with a villain to boo and a hero to root for, you won’t find them in Henry IV. The play’s “hero” is Prince Hal, who becomes Henry V at the end of Part 2. The characters consist of Prince Hal, plus Falstaff and the villains and rogues he associates with on one side, and/or King Henry IV and the even worse villains he associates with on the other.

Falstaff & Co. aren’t really on the King’s side; the King hates them, and their service to him is worse than none at all. There are three teams on the field, and you can’t root for any of them. The King is unjust; Falstaff is repulsive; and the order of events frames the rebels as the antagonists.

Hal is less dissolute than Falstaff, and less bloodthirsty and honorless than his father and brother. Falstaff and his companions are brigands who rob and murder, then spend what they’ve taken on food, drink, and whores. King Henry IV is a usurper who murdered the former king, and like Stalin after him, reflected that anyone who helped him become king might someday help someone else become king. At the start of the play, he faces a rebellion because his former friends are convinced he means to kill them all one by one. At the end of Part 2, those rebels who survive surrender to Hal’s brother John of Lancaster, under a promise of amnesty, and he waits until their army has dispersed and then murders them.

Here are three bad things and three good things about Henry IV:

Three Bad Things About Henry IV

I’m going to ignore the historical inaccuracies and anachronisms, such as having pistols in 1403, which are still a cause of consternation for English historians. I’m also not going to cut Shakespeare any slack for writing in 1597. It’s only fair to Shakespeare to note that nobody else writing at the time would have done any better; but it’s only fair to writers today, as long as they’re held lower in esteem than Shakespeare by critics, to hold him up to the same standards they regularly meet.

1.The bad guys win, and we’re supposed to cheer for them. I think.

The only admirable characters other than Hal are Hotspur, Douglas, Colevile, and perhaps Vernon and the Archbishop. The good guys kill all of them but “the Douglas” over the course of the play. Hal cleverly spares him by asking for permission to dispose of him and then setting him free.

If I were to pick one scene that conveys the mood of Henry IV, it’s Part 1, Act 4, scene 3. Colevile, an honorable knight, yields to Falstaff, apparently meaning some honor to Falstaff, who is so fat, lazy, cowardly, and winded that any man alive could beat him. They exchange words, Colevile showing his honor and Falstaff his ridiculous yipping-dog pride. Then John of Lancaster walks by, casually orders Colevile’s execution, expresses his scorn for Falstaff, and walks on. Then Coleville is taken away, and Falstaff monologues about… the virtues of hard drinking. The two villains condemn the noble man to death and immediately forget him. Falstaff is aware of his own moral depravity but doesn’t care, and is only anxious that he should get some preference out of John for capturing Colevile. John of Lancaster, like his father Henry IV, rationalizes his evil actions with lies. Falstaff is a coward in the face of battle. J of L (and Henry IV) are cowards in the face of the truth. Each of them has only scorn for the other.

This was not accidental. It’s one entire scene, and that’s all it consists of. Falstaff’s monologue about drink might be seen by insensitive louts as comic, but it’s vile coming only seconds after Falstaff has sent his better off to death. I believe Shakespeare wrote this scene only to highlight how nasty the victors of Henry IV are. Why?

One might speculate that this was for.3 political reasons, but no: Queen Elizabeth I was a Tudor, and her claim to the throne was through the House of Lancaster. Possibly Henry IV is all a set-up in order to show, in the upcoming Henry V, that Hal is all the more noble for having grown up straight among only crooked weeds. I don’t know. I haven’t read it. But S. didn’t write Henry V until about 2 years later.

2. Prince Hal’s character is unbelievable

Hal is a contradictory character. He’s not complex, merely incoherent. Hal was Shakespeare’s warm-up for Hamlet. Like Hamlet, he’s an active, intelligent, introspective prince who feigns wantonness while keeping his own counsel so closely that the viewer never really understands him. Like Hamlet, his primary motivation is that he judges himself by how well he honors the rules about inheritance and bloodlines, which is perfectly relatable to any viewer who is also a medieval prince.

The plays are about Prince Hal’s transformation from wastrel to noble king. Classic hero’s-journey stuff, except that instead of an Obi Wan to lead him he has Falstaff to mislead him. Also, there’s no transformation. We’re told Hal is a wastrel at the play’s start. Then he says in an aside to the audience that he has done all this to deceive people, so that he might have all the more honor when he reforms; and he behaves only honorably when we see him (possibly excepting when he steals his father’s crown). Then, a little later, in a separate and contradictory explanation of his actions, he resolves to reform to win his father’s respect. I would rather the first explanation had been omitted, for I doubt anyone in the history of the world has ever lived that way deliberately.

I find no good way of making sense of this Hal who spends his life with a small set of boon companions, then coldly sends them off to prison at the end of Part 2. Who has lived his entire life as a lie for no convincing purpose, and/or is a paragon of virtues which he acquired overnight with no convincing cause.

This is made worse by the long and painfully-phony odes to Hal that Shakespeare has Vernon deliver in two separate parts, each time telling his lord and Hal’s rival for the crown, Hotspur, how noble and godlike that rake Hal has suddenly become. They’re just… so very purple, inappropriate, and implausible. They’re like the requisite ode to the proletarian worker inserted into a play sponsored by the East German communist party.

To “fix” the play, you’d need to show Hal’s transformation and its causes, not just tell us he has reformed, or that he was faking it all along (Hal says both, in different scenes). This is one of Shakespeare’s key problems: He strongly prefers telling to showing.

However, the play might not be about Hal. It seems clear to me, but Hal wasn’t even considered a central character until the 20th century. It also isn’t clear that Hal transforms into a good king. The scene near the end of Part 2 where he takes his still-living father’s crown is hardly admirable, and his actions seems more plausible to me as realpolitik than as reform.

3. Falstaff is two-dimensional

Falstaff personifies what I find so puzzling about how people react to Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s works are supposed to exemplify literature. Yet many of the characters and plays that people love him for–Falstaff, Lear, Lady Macbeth, his comedies–are what you find in “commercial fiction”, which is regarded today as the “opposite” of literature. They are loud, larger-than-life, simple, and memorable. They’re interesting in the way colorful noisy things flapping in the wind are interesting to livestock.

Shakespeare wrote plays, not literature. Literature means, at least, stories written down in order to be read. Epic poems are a more appropriate model for literature than plays are.

A play, like a movie, is a large part spectacle. Drama overlaps with literature, but is different, in the ways that the J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson versions of The Hobbit are different. Many of the things we call good in movies, we call bad in novels. Characters especially so. A play’s stage is slanted toward the pit. Simple characters play better on the stage than on the page. The most exciting drama is when an actor’s emotions are so clear that the muscles in your face tense as his do, bringing those same feelings into your head. This doesn’t work with subtle or conflicted characters. This was even more true on Shakespeare’s stage, where the audience, lacking glasses or electric light, probably could barely make out the players’ faces. So a Lear on stage, railing into the storm, carries us with him, and we feel he has greatness because his emotions are great; whereas thoughtful reflection on the words he speaks profits us little, and may impress us more with what a great ass he has been.

At least, that’s one of my theories. Another is that the type of person who goes to plays or watches movies is different from the type of person who reads books. But for whatever reason, bold simple strokes are more respectable in drama than in literature. This would be no problem, except that people keep taking things from Shakespeare that may be great drama, and insisting they are the marks we should aim at to make great literature. This muddies the water for any writer trying to figure out how to write.

If you love Falstaff, you’ll love Shakespeare more than I can. He’s bold, brash, and spouts witty sayings nonstop. He is all fireworks and spectacle outside and hollow inside. It’s interesting to see how he will turn each situation to his advantage. It’s interesting to see Hal characterized by his reactions to Falstaff, especially at the end of Part 1 when Falstaff tells Hal that he killed Hotspur, without knowing Hal was the one who killed him. His opinions on honor and drink are cleverly-worded enough to rise, for some (though not for me) to the level of humor. But his character is so predictable and so monotonously depraved, and his speech so padded out with sex puns, that it’s tedious for me to get through scenes with him in it. Har, har, “thrust” has a “ribald second meaning” for the third time in this scene; thank you, Signet Classics. And Falstaff has more words in this play than any other character. Too many for me. The notes in my edition say that Falstaff’s role was greatly extended from the original play because the audiences loved him best, so perhaps Shakespeare agreed with me.

Think of any vaguely similar character from literature–say, Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones, or Milo Minderbinder from Catch-22. Which one is more interesting? If you say Falstaff, you’re not interested in the same things I am.

I will say one thing in favor of Falstaff as character: He exemplifies the banality of evil. I’m tired of grand villains seeking empires, or cackling evilly as they tie damsels to railroad tracks. Falstaff wants nothing but drink, food, and women, and that is what makes him evil. Not the wanting of physical pleasure, but the not caring about anything else. He wishes no one ill, not really. He just doesn’t care. Commercial fiction would be several notches greater if it used fewer Nazis and more Falstaffs.

Most critics don’t consider Falstaff evil at all, but merely comic:

The grandiose humorous effect of a figure like that of the fat knight SIr John Falstaff rests on an economy in contempt and indignation…. His doings are on the whole harmless, and are almost excused by the comic baseness of the people he cheats. We admit that the poor fellow has a right to try to live and enjoy himself like anyone else…

— Sigmund Freud, Jokes and their relation to the Unconscious

Falstaff’s wit is an emanation of a fine constitution; an exuberance of good humor and good nature; an overflowing of his love of laughter and good-fellowship; a giving vent to his heart’s ease, and overcontentment with himself and others…. we no more object to the character of Falstaff in a moral point of view than we should think of bringing an excellent comedian, who should represent him to the life, before one of the police offices… for no mischevious consequences do result…. The truth is, that we could never forgive the Prince’s treatment of Falstaff…. Whatever terror the French in those days might have of Henry V, yet, to the readers of poetry at present, Falstaff is the better man of the two.”

— WIlliam Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, 1818

We see that Falstaff is a professional highwayman, a career unlikely not to result in corpses in 1403. We see him bankrupt his regular inn-keeper by conniving her, through false promises of marriage, into lending her everything she has. But all that’s trivial compared to the body count Falstaff racks up in Part 1. Falstaff has authority from the King to conscript men into military service. He uses this authority to conscript only men too sick, old, or feeble to serve, to frighten them into bribing him into letting him go. He takes 300 pounds in bribes and ends up with 150 sickly conscripts who couldn’t pay their way out of it, mostly from prisons. Hal comments on their pitiful appearance, and Falstaff says,

Tut, tut! good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder. They’ll fill a pit as well as better.

By the end of Part I, Falstaff tells us that all but three of them are dead, and those three so maimed they’ll do nothing more but beg at the end of town. Falstaff is noticeably not dead, so we presume he led his men from behind.

[url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commission_of_array]Henry IV conscripted men for this battle using a Commission of Array, which charged the conscripting officer with providing training and equipment for those that served, using money taken from those who would not or could not serve. Falstaff took that money for himself, and threw his sick, unfed, and probably unarmed conscripts into the battle to be slaughtered.

Is that not bad enough? Then back up a moment: Why would Falstaff recruit men from prison? They wouldn’t be able to bribe him.

Because the Treasurer of the War would pay the conscripts wages. Presumably Falstaff wanted them dead, so he could collect their wages.

So let’s not hear anything more about Falstaff being a harmless buffoon.

Three Good Things About Henry IV

1. It’s got a theme about the meaning of honor, which is a kind of Rosetta stone one can use to compare the characters. One can see how their opinions of honor have made them who they are, particularly in the cases of Falstaff and Hotspur. This makes the character set as a whole deeper than the characters taken individually.

2. The plot and subplot fit together perfectly. The plot is about Hal needing to rise to the occasion, save his father’s throne, and then rule after him. The subplot is about Hal breaking free of Falstaff. Henry IV and Falstaff are Hal’s two father figures. The King, one could argue, taught Hal words about honour, while Falstaff, who never pretended to be honorable, taught Hal to be honest with himself and true to himself. This is a beautiful parallel. It’s unfortunate that it was executed imperfectly. There’s no suspense over which way Hal will go; he declares early in Part 1 that he will cast Falstaff aside. It’s the “right” decision, but Shakespeare didn’t give me anything to let me root for the King and feel happy about this outcome. We saw nothing of Hal’s relationship with his father until Act 4 of Part 2, and what we did see was so filtered through the doubtful honesty and self-honesty of both parties as to be nearly opaque.

This brings us to Good Thing #3:

3. It doesn’t simplify the conflicts or answer its questions for us.

Each side, and many of the people, are by turns admirable and disgraceful. The rebels lose because Northumberland incites his son Hotspur to rebellion with the promise to join forces with him, and then changes his mind and stays home, apparently out of groundless and foolish cowardice. Then he weeps and rages about the death of his son, as if it weren’t his own fault. Then he does exactly the same thing again to the remaining rebel forces. One can only pity a man forced to choose sides in such a war.

The play is concerned with what makes a king legitimate, but provides no clear answer. I said earlier that Hal may not be virtuous, but merely a good player of realpolitik. But this may itself be virtue in Shakespeare’s eyes! Henry IV rules with paranoia and a willingness to spill blood. Hotspur would rule with pride, disdain, and a delight in spilling blood for honor. Hal may be a wiley actor who can play whatever part is to his own advantage, creating only incidentally the peace that others desire; but that might be enough in a king for Shakespeare.

We begin analysis of any story by asking whose point of view it’s told from. Asking that of Henry IV only reveals how many devices contemporary authors use to indicate which characters we’re supposed to sympathize with. Shakespeare didn’t make me sympathize with any of the characters. I don’t know whether the techniques for doing so hadn’t been developed yet, or he didn’t want us to sympathize with any one viewpoint. I find the play more interesting when I assume the latter. And doing so raises the question whether the entire literary tradition of having a point of view is a good thing. If literature is about finding truth, telling a story from a single point of view is counter to that purpose. Henry IV feels truer because it doesn’t take sides.

These subtleties are why I compared it to War and Peace. It isn’t on that level of character realism; not even a tenth of that level. But it has something of that kind of greatness: Rather than being a carefully-crafted story to carry us on an emotional rollercoaster ride, with thrilling but precisely-calculated highs and lows, it’s a train wreck, a view into the heart of darkness, where men are constrained by their characters and circumstances to doom each other. It is great only when it is doing something different than conventional literature does. If you take it as a standard dramatic story, or a coming-of-age hero’s journey, it falls down completely. If you take it as a story to awe you with the fearful chaos and heartlessness of history, it may succeed.

Did Shakespeare achieve this by plan, out of incompetence, or as a side-effect of living at a time when children watched public executions for fun? I don’t know. Perhaps more importantly, is this effect something we should aim at today in our own stories? Personally, I think that we need only a very small number of such stories. There’s value in confronting this feeling, but you shouldn’t stare into the total perspective vortex on a regular basis. Developing a traditional dramatic story structure is much more difficult, but much more versatile.

Philip Roth on the Importance of Knowing What People Fantasize About, and of Hating Things


From his Paris Review interview. Emphasis is mine.

INTERVIEWER: What about England, where you spend part of each year? Is that a possible source of fiction?

ROTH: Ask me twenty years from now. That’s about how long it took Isaac Singer to get enough of Poland out of his system—and to let enough of America in—to begin, little by little, as a writer, to see and depict his upper-Broadway cafeterias. If you don’t know the fantasy life of a country, it’s hard to write fiction about it that isn’t just description of the decor, human and otherwise. Little things trickle through when I see the country dreaming out loud—in the theater, at an election, during the Falklands crisis, but I know nothing really about what means what to people here. It’s very hard for me to understand who people are, even when they tell me, and I don’t even know if that’s because of who they are or because of me. I don’t know who is impersonating what, if I’m necessarily seeing the real thing or just a fabrication, nor can I easily see where the two overlap. My perceptions are clouded by the fact that I speak the language. I believe I know what’s being said, you see, even if I don’t. Worst of all, I don’t hate anything here. What a relief it is to have no culture-grievances, not to have to hear the sound of one’s voice taking positions and having opinions and recounting all that’s wrong! What bliss—but for the writing that’s no asset. Nothing drives me crazy here, and a writer has to be driven crazy to help him to see. A writer needs his poisons. The antidote to his poisons is often a book.

Saving The World vs. Kissing The Girl


Lindsay Doran isn’t a writer, but an executive and producer (Spinal Tap, Dead Again, Stranger than Fiction, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Naked Gun, Ghost). She gave a good TED talk on what movies are really about:

Summary: People don’t care about achievements, they care about relationships. The success at the “end” of a movie isn’t an end until we see its impact on relationships.

She’s right that a good story is about “a thing and another thing”, a plot and its personal significance. The “other thing” isn’t always a relationship. In “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” the “other thing” is personal growth.

(Her take on Rocky is odd. IMHO the Rocky-Adrian relationship isn’t powerful enough to bear the weight she attributes to it, and the achievement in the end is beating the world champion in a fight. Rocky doesn’t “win” the fight, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t accomplish what he wanted to. He proved himself, and he realized the actual achievement was more important than whether or not the boxing authorities acknowledged it. But though she might have chosen a dubious main example, her point is still good.)

She was mentioned in the Black List blog a little while ago for a completely different theory she calls the Three Rules of Drama, on what a movie should be:

It must address the question, “How should we live?”
It must address the question, “How does the universe work?”

It must be arresting and amusing to the drunk.