A Duel Upon the Razor’s Edge: Escalate to Ludicrous Phase!

Give that Spaceballs reference some love, it almost didn’t happen. You may be aware, oh readers mine, of a little (it’s not) form of visual media called Anime. You may have watched it once or twice, or even be a huge fan. Well, ever heard of a certain Saiyan-toting, planet-busting franchise, the one we call Dragonball Z? Do not write like you’re writing for Dragonball Z. You are not Akira Toriyama, and no one is going to let you get away with it. Even if you ignore me, another writer with vastly more prestige will soon tell you not to, and to prove how tough he is, he’ll beat the crap out of me too!

There’s a horrible temptation if you write fantasy or Sci-Fi. It’s that oh-so-human itch to make the next installment bigger, beefier, and more explosive than the last one. If the recent Transformers films have taught us anything, it’s that more explosions do not equal a better product. Those explosions need context, something to give them meaning, and most importantly, there can’t be so many of them that they all just blur together. Admittedly explosions tend to do that if you put several of them next to each other, but in your writing you can avoid this in a way that artillery coordinators and Michael Bay can’t. And here’s step one: Don’t try to wow your readers by having all the action in the universe! You are a writer. Number one on the list of things that you just can’t do is compete with Hollywood, or even more so the almighty digitized fist of the electronic games industry.

Do not write like you want to be Call of Duty. It won’t work. You’ll alienate other writers, you won’t get many readers, and you’ll manage to feel like a sell-out without pulling in any sort of money, which is the kind of remarkable achievement you want to avoid like a CoD AI dodging a frag grenade (I swear they have precognition for grenades and only grenades). The kind of people who are satisfied by limitless explosions are already watching them on TV, so the only thing you’ll achieve by trying to include them in your writing is total incoherence, and Postmodernism already lets you do that without needing any gunpowder, so just don’t do it. 

I understand, really I do. You don’t want to disappoint your readers by making every threat the same as the last one, but bigger isn’t a solution, especially if your first threat is already outside human comprehension. If I couldn’t grasp the power of the first threat, then saying that the new, bigger one is even more impossible to understand doesn’t do much for me. “Beyond the limits of human understanding’ is a binary thing- you really only get to use it once. More importantly, though, is the tiny problem that this immediately renders the previous threat insignificant. There’s only room for one threat at the top of the narrative ladder, they can’t all share. By explicitly stating or showing that each threat is greater than the last, everything that came before is devalued.

This is an issue that can only affect an ongoing narrative seriously, which is exactly the place where it’s most cancerous. If you constantly tell your readers that things are back to square one, that everything their heroes have learned along the way is insignificant, then they’re not going to have much reason to stick with you. If your only trick is ‘make shit bigger’ then all they have to do is wait for the final part of the story- of course, then you won’t get to that final part, given that no one’s going to want to publish the last book in a series that tanked because the author couldn’t get away from the idea that things needed to be frigging huge! You know I hate cliches, but that attitude really seems to be compensating for something- say, creative bankruptcy.

Here’s where this gets finicky, though- it’s fine to build up the same threat to increasingly high levels,  a la the Galactic Empire in Star Wars, who show a pretty marked growth in on-screen power between each film of the Original Trilogy, or most opposing forces in Fantasy novels. What you want to avoid is implementing another, entirely different threat, then saying, “No, these cosmic horrors are the best! Forget the last bunch, they suck!” If Lovecraft had decided to suddenly undermine Cthulu and the other Old Ones by introducing some other, exponentially more powerful group of unbelievably powerful creatures, he wouldn’t be quite the horror icon that he is now, would he? And especially if you’re not writing Horror, your readers may come to like your villains in a roundabout sort of way. They may want to keep your first group close to heart as favorites- you make that a lot harder for them if you demonstrate that the first group didn’t really matter much to you by immediately discarding them when they don’t hold your interest. Please don’t ever do that. Readers will have a much easier time getting attached to characters who the writer him or herself values, and it’s never a bad thing for us as writers to have our readers like our characters. 

So don’t try to make threats bigger. Make them different, make them unique and interesting and new. If bigger threats make better writing, then every angry flamewar between Star Wars, Star Trek, Halo and Starcraft fans over whose orbitally bombarding manhood is the largest must, by definition, be the highest form of writing on Earth. If the idea of throwing around words like ‘petatons VS. Teratons’ and ‘plasma torpedo Vs. superlaser’ appeals to you as a writer, save that crap for the expanded universe guides. Don’t let it seep into the novels. And if you’re writing high fantasy, with dragons and elves and so on, please stop trying to make every damn encounter world-shattering. All that does is devalue the imminent threat of dark forces annihilating all life on the world, and that’s impressively bad. Unless you can make every single one of those threats have a character of its own, they shouldn’t be there, end of story (pun intended). And even Frieza was different from Cell. They’re both bipeds with tails, but one of them was definitely Cooler than the other.

I’ll show myself off of WordPress now.

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