11:13 pm

How not to Write: Tragedy

I'm not against bad endings. I'm not against tragedy in media, or literature that looks long and hard at things most of us flinch away from. I'm not against bittersweet endings; nothing makes triumph more poignant than sacrifice. I'm not against even the most hopeless of hopeless downer endings--if they're written well.

Some of the people who perpetrate that sort of ending do not write them well. They're amateur authors trying their hand at injecting the most EZ-bake anguish they can find into their story--that being death, cancer, or a freak accident between two trucks carrying payloads of newborn kittens. Here's a message for you folks: don't do this. There's nothing more painfully pointless than invalidating the main character's 300-page long struggles by having him trip over a plot doorstep and decapitate himself. If the protagonist is going to die, have them do so in a way that matters--and no, I don't mean slapping some ham-fisted, meaningless symbolism on there and calling it a day. This isn't a guide to 90's comics. What I mean is this: have them accomplish something. Whether that be stopping the bad guy's plan, having an emotional scene, coming to peace with their sins, or whatever--have the death mean something. Or else it's just going to come off as cheap, two-for-99-cents drama, because that's exactly what it is.

"Extra, extra! Kirby has polio, read all about it!"

For instance, say you're writing a story set in the present day. A stream-of-consciousness autobiography narrated by your main character, who is at a high point in his life; he got the girl, the job, and has a kid on the way. But, after a routine trip to the doctor, he learns that he has [INSERT FATAL ILLNESS HERE] and will only live for another year or two. From here, you could just write about how tragic and sad and Oscar-baity this all is. That would be bad. No, I'm not saying the plot point itself is bad, but here are better ways to do it:

1: He realizes how much everything in his life matters to him, and vows to make the people who supported him happy. He splurges on gifts, trips, all he can afford without draining the family account. He makes up with old enemies, and meets up with old friends. He does the things he always told himself he would do, but never did. He can, and does, die fulfilled.

2. He feels betrayed. How could random chance, genetics, or whatever else is responsible take his life away from him? He gets a drinking problem, starts arguing with his wife, loses his job. All he can think about is the deadline, the time he has left. Tick tick tick, drink drink drink; it keeps slipping by. He's hounded by regrets; debts unpaid, people unmet, ends not tied, and things both done and not done. Perhaps he makes peace with it by the end; perhaps he finds meaning in the old family religion, or in a book, or a cloud, or a past acquaintance. Perhaps he never does, and dies angry at the world that gave him it all only to yank it away without cause.

Those are by no means the only ways to proceed, or the most original; they're just examples of how to use tragic events to flesh out and enrich your plot, as opposed to just throwing them in like ghost peppers in a pasta sauce. Carelessly adding such potent ingredients to a recipe is a bad idea, and it's the same thing with a story; fuck up bad enough and both scenarios end with someone taking an apocalyptic volcano shit, be it in your bathroom or your comments section. Handle with care; do whatever you can to ensure that the tragedy isn't meaningless. After all, meaningless is the worst thing that a tragedy can be. 

Tragedy is not inherently a bad narrative tool; neither is death, or heartbreak, or a case of spontaneous combustion at a wedding. The thing is, they need finesse to be properly handled--a hell of a lot more finesse than it takes to write most other things. They need purpose. A bad ending isn't good writing just because it's sad--and it's quite awful writing if it makes your reader go "Wait, what?" instead of reaching for a box of "I'm not crying, there are onions committing seppuku on my counter" brand tissues.

Or "Decapitated Shakespeare's Thousand-Yard Stare" (tm) by Downy. 

So please, authors and authorettes, before you pen the dark, existential final chapter of your Dora the Explorer fanfiction, take pause and make sure you aren't tossing in Swiper's tragic death to lung cancer just for kicks. Make the slow, agonizing slip of a cartoon fox into the talking object-filled afterlife matter, dammit. 

1:43 am

Monday Music Post #3 -- The Super Thing by Devo (New Traditionalists, 1981)

Three songs in and we're already getting weird. Devo is one of my favorite bands, despite the fact that my first impression of them was that they didn't actually know how to make music. Past me wasn't exactly wrong; their lyrics range from from barely making sense, to not making sense, to a 12-minute saga that I'm halfway sure is about a guy masturbating to save the dystopian future. So why do I like them? I have no bloody idea. It's probably the guitar, the synth, the funny hats, and the fact that they're a bunch of disgruntled nerds writing music about disgruntled nerd things.

Over their life as a band, they went from angry, raw punk music with electric guitars and homemade electronics to something hewing much closer to the synthpop of the time. As you can probably tell, this song is right in between. It's got some awesome, heavy synth on the low end, and a decently righteous guitar solo. Google says it's about being the one who pushes the button to launch the good ol' nuclear salvo, but as with at least half of Devo's songs, it's really whatever you want it to be. Mostly because the lyrics are almost infuriatingly simple and opaque. Such is the way of the spud boys.

Before you say anything, yes, I am aware that it's Wednesday. This is my internet realm, I can do what I want.

9:17 pm

Stupid Wrestling Gimmicks #1 -- The Shockmaster

Since most people reading this probably aren't as well-versed in the history of man-grappling as I am, I feel it would be only polite to give you a starter course before I dip you scrote-deep in the stupid.

I'll start with something you probably do know already; what they call "professional wrestling" is scripted. Storylines are planned out, wrestlers are given characters play (called gimmicks), and rivalries (called feuds) are set up. The matches are choreographed, usually to the extent of a few big events, the time limit of the match, and the finish--the rest is up to the wrestlers to ad-lib. Though many people call it "fake," that's not quite the right word--after all, you can't fake a guy getting thrown through a table, or breaking his leg at a 90-degree angle when landing wrong after a jump. It's certainly not a competitive sport, like MMA, boxing or UFC. It's actually the opposite; everyone in the ring has to co-operate or somebody gets hurt. Who wins is dictated by the writers, called bookers, and what they think is best for the storyline--or for business.

Because wrestling is all about getting as many people to watch as possible, be it on TV or in the arena, bookers are under heavy pressure to create captivating storylines and interesting characters. With wrestling's history--in public consciousness, at least--stretching back to the 50's, sometimes the well of characters gets a little dry. Sometimes a bad gimmick is the result of said creative burnout. Some are good ideas, but fall flat in execution. Some are just completely unexplainable clusterfucks, such as the case of The Shockmaster.

What you see above is probably the most notorious debut in all of wrestling. It's a comedy of errors on a colossal scale, and this wasn't during a taping--this was live TV. So hundreds of thousands of fans got to see this guy come Frank Drebining through the wall with the force of a thousand Twinkies and fall over, depositing the bedazzled Stormtrooper helmet on the ground with an light thud. It doesn't get any better after that; you can clearly hear the British Bulldog loudly exclaiming "He fell flat on his fucking arse!" in the background (he gets shushed), while Sid Vicious can only manage a pained "Oh, God." Pretty much everyone there has an immediate vocal reaction; Colonel Robert Parker lets out the most Southern "My lawd" you've ever heard, and Booker T. chimes in with "Who is this motherfucker?"

The motherfucker in question was Fred Ottman, who previously worked in the WWF as Tugboat and Typhoon. He was quite popular; as Typhoon, he held the tag titles with future Stupid Gimmicks inductee "Earthquake" John Tenta. For such a big guy, he wasn't a bad wrestler, either. He had a good idea of how matches should be paced, he had a fair amount of moves, and he could even do some more acrobatic stuff like standing dropkicks in addition to the usual slams. If you couldn't tell, dropkicks are pretty hard to do--especially for a guy weighing somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 pounds.

"My career can't possibly take a massive nosedive after this!"

Too bad, then, that he had to be The Shockmaster. Attempting to salvage the situation, he begins gesturing to what he thinks is Ole Anderson doing a voice-over, but is actually Sid Vicious saying his lines. When the voice-over does come on, Ole can't help but chuckle at the beginning before launching into his speech. Nothing else goes wrong, mercifully, but at this point, it doesn't matter. The crowd is speechless; confused. This is Sting's tag partner that they'd been hyping up for weeks? This is their equalizer? A fat man in a Stormtrooper helmet? Even for fans at the time who were used to some cartoony shit, the whole situation was simply unbelievable.

That's the thing that made the Shockmaster gimmick so bad; not the entrance, but every single part of it. If he came through that wall perfectly, and if everything afterwards went off without a hitch, you'd still end up with the following:

1. A man wearing possibly the most non-threatening, unflattering outfit possible short of a bikini. Seriously, a fucking sleeveless fur jacket? Just because Aladdin can pull it off doesn't mean a guy with the physique of a taller Pillsbury Doughboy can.

2. That helmet. Need I say more?

3. A voice-over that sounds like a talking Christian Bale Batman toy with low batteries and water damage.

Yes, the Shockmaster was doomed from the start. That didn't stop WCW from ham-fistedly attempting to salvage the character, though, because if WCW did anything well it was taking already bad ideas and running them into the ground. The previously-feared mystery tag partner of Sting and the British Bulldog was now a clumsy oaf who wore a hard hat to the ring and had a fucked-up version of "Day Tripper" as his theme. Very subtle, guys. Also not helping was his mustache, which gave him a striking resemblance to that one uncle who peaked in Grade 11 and really, really likes Van Zant.

Rusty late 70's Pontiac not included.

And in case you thought his original intended ring attire would be better... well. You're clearly not seeing the pattern here.

I should make it clear that I'm not making fun of poor Fred, who either had to work with all of this or get fired (he did make the wise decision to go back to the WWF later). If you look up some of his interviews, he seems like a really nice, down-to-earth guy. Most people would be bitter about their entire career, their livelihood, and all their achievements being overshadowed by three minutes that will live on forever. Not Fred. He's taken lemons, fallen through a wall, and made lemonade.

I'm making fun of the people in charge who decided that a Stormtrooper helmet covered in glitter and a jacket most grade-school theatre classes would throw out made an imposing ensemble. The people who decided not to remove that shin-high 2x4 because "Eh, he'll just step over it." The people who thought that this:

Was better than this:

And would look threatening compared to this:

Trust me, WCW and its weird addiction to making wrestlers wear jeans to the ring is going to be on this list a lot. Of course, they never tried to make a well-known, beloved black wrestler into an African tribesman named "Saba Simba," so they've got that going for them.

See you next time.