how to be a creative and good writer (its very hard)
Hi, I’m Doc, and I write games, and people seem to like the writing I do, because over the years, I’ve received literally hundreds of messages from people asking me how to write, and for some reason, I’ve got a lot of recent queries about this, so I should probably do something about it.
My health being what it is, and writer’s block blocking what it’s blocking, I decided I would write this essay before getting back to the other essays I’m working on (there’s like 30,000 words in my half completed essays folder right now lmao). Every once in a while, when I presume to write somewhat authoritatively on a subject, some people who disagree with me will, rather than saying “i disagree with you,” go “how dare you presume to speak from a position of authority!”
Seriously, one guy told me that “how to build a PC” was an arrogant article title because it presumed anyone who saw the article didn’t know how to build a pc. And it’s like, dude, do you know how audiences work? You are making things for people when you write, so when I write “how to build a PC,” I’m not assuming nobody knows how to build one and that I am the sole authority, I’m writing for the people who are googling “how to build a PC.”
In other words, I cannot know who is reading what I am writing, nor can I control that. What I can do is say “here’s a question and here’s my answer.” If you are asking this question, then I hope my answer finds you and helps solve your problem.
How to write good, and other stuff, by me.
WRITING NOT EASY
If I draw something, you can tell I’m bad at it, because it looks like this:
In fact, if you look at a painting by Edvard Munch, you can tell he’s a lot better than me right away.
This is really hard to do with writing. Words can make sense at the start. They might even make sense the whole time. But… you might feel bored at the end, and you might not know why.
And the thing is, everyone knows they can tell stories. It’s baked into the very concept of language itself. It’s in our brains. We dream every night. People who proudly proclaim they don’t dream ended up being proven wrong when some Big Science Men with hooked the non-dreamers up to Science Guns and woke them up whenever they entered REM sleep and went BOOWAKEUPTELLMEABOUTYOURDREAM and the presumably disorientated “I don’t dream” guys were all like “OH YEAH MY DREAM WAS ABOUT…” and that’s when they realized they do dream, it’s just that some people forget dreams faster than others.
But you know how some people really fucking suck at telling you about their dreams? They’re like “i was at the store and then i was looking for an umbrella because it was raining and you were there but we were at home waiting for the kettle to boil” and okay, yo, no one cares. Dreams can feel really urgent, even after waking (to some people), but actually making the dream interesting? That’s super hard.
So, if you’re writing stories, and you’re thinking “I should be able to do this,” first thing you need to know is that everyone thinks they can write. Literally everyone. It’s why comic publishers will accept art submissions but not writing ones. It’s why I delete emails where someone emails me with “an idea for a game you should make” without reading the idea (also it puts me in legal hot water, I literally cannot do this, please never send me your ideas).
Don’t beat yourself up if something isn’t working; you are doing the hardest artistic task there is because with writing, it can be impossible to know if you’re doing it right. It’s why so many people love looking for books by the writer of “stop! or my mom will shoot!” that make writing sound easy and formulaic and comfortable, because the real truth is, it’s a craft, and like any craft, you have to spend a lot of time developing yourself to become great at it, and no matter what you do, problems will not simply leap off the page the way they do in a bad illustration or a song that’s got no rhythm.
The act of putting words on a page is generally pretty easy. The problem is that it can be very hard to tell that there’s a problem without really spending time with the writing; it can take hours or even months to realize something isn’t working in text that you can spot instantly in a drawing.
What you want to do, as a writer, is make those words compelling.
HOW TO DO WORD COMPELLING GOOD
You ever play tug of war?
You ever just, like, pull a rope?
Tug of war is fun because there is not only physical resistance, but emotional stakes. You want to win; if you do not pull the rope hard enough, you will lose. The more tension in the line, the more interesting the struggle is, but if you’re playing Tug of War by yourself against an elephant, it’s probably gonna pull without even trying, and you won’t make any progress, which means the line tension is so high there’s no point in playing.
As a writer, you’re basically creating a tug of war game for the audience, and you’re trying to make it interesting by making it so that it’s not one guy just pulling a rope that nobody else is pulling, and you’re also making sure it’s not one guy who immediately loses to an elephant.
Now, if you want to make watching that tug of war game exciting, make the audience care. How do you do that? Well, let’s say we have a guy who lost his job due to a recession, and someone is trying to take his child away. But that someone makes him a bet; if our protagonist can beat our antagonist in a tug of war game, our protagonist gets to keep his kid.
Okay, now we have stakes. If we spent time getting to know the character, we might really sympathize with wanting him to keep his kid. Maybe the tug of war is a metaphor.
Maybe we’re actually watching Kramer vs Kramer.
And that, my friends, is how to write good.
Here’s a person
We should care about this person
They have a need
Something is in the way of that need
How they overcome that something is what makes the story interesting
If you have a story with Superman, and you have a T-Rex, and Superman has to punch the T-Rex to save his friend Jimmy, the story might not be that compelling because, well, it’s so one-sided. Superman has reach and super strength, and the T-Rex has normal T-Rex strength and tiny little arms, so when Superman punches it once, it’s gonna go into orbit and instantly die due to space being a vacuum and T-Rexes not being vacuum-proof.
To make a story with Superman interesting, you have to come up with some kind of narrative tension; maybe it’s that Lois Lane really likes T-Rexes and hates animal cruelty, and she’s watching, and Clark Kent, Superman’s alter ego, really wants to go on a date with Lois, so he’s gotta stop the dinosaur without upsetting Lois. Okay, there’s tension.
Now, I said “we should care about this person,” but that doesn’t mean we have to like them. Take the television show Breaking Bad. In it, Walter White is a bad person; he has the option to get the medical help he needs, but he chooses to sell meth because of his massive ego. Still, Walter is interesting enough that we want to know what happens next; we don’t need to like him to care about him, but we do need to feel something that makes us want to know what happens next.
While stories themselves are very mechanical in their construction, the art of storytelling comes from that emotionality. And that? Well… that’s harder to write about because feeling is, y’know, feeling. You have to have lived life to really understand feelings.
Think about this Raymond Chandler quote:
My theory was that readers just thought they cared nothing but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialog and description. The things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of his death he was trying to pick a paper clip off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half open in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn’t even hear death knock on the door. That damn little paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers.
The plot of a story is the series of events that happen from beginning to end. A beginning writer’s job is to become good at plotting, though, surprisingly, a lot of people suck at this.
Good plots are pretty simple; they’re cause and effect machines. I opened my fridge, and found out I was out of milk, so I drove to the milk store to get milk, but when I was there, a man tried to rob the place, and that was really scary, until a punk with a skateboard ran up and hit him in the head, which made him drop his gun. The robber started sobbing and said he was trying to pay for bus fare to get to the hospital on the other side of town where his dad was dying of cancer, and I offered to take him. The clerk said he wouldn’t call the cops. Then, on the way we got a flat tire…
I can take that premise (I had to go to the store, because I was out of milk) and spin it into a more interesting premise (a man accidentally bonds with a man who nearly killed him), and I can do that by creating a series of scenes where the characters have emotional needs that must be met.
If we make those characters into people the audience wants to see succeed, then people will like our story a great deal. If we keep the plot and characterization interesting enough the whole way, we’ll have created a compelling story.
So, if we know the robber is really just desperate to see his dying father, and then we get a flat tire, you can see how there’s tension, right? Not just because we know this man has just threatened violence if he can’t get to his father earlier, which can create emotional tension within the scene, but because if the writer’s good, we really do want him to see his father, and he’s running out of time.
There are so many ways to make the audience care. A look. A gesture. A quivering in their voice.
But what you shouldn’t do is just rely on stakes. If someone says “the world is in danger,” that can feel too big to care about. But if you spend time with a character, getting to know them, their family, their reason for living, and then you jeopardize that, it feels really good.
You also can’t just have them say it, because then it’s like that awful line in Tenet where a character goes “the whole world is in danger… and my Son” or whatever, and like… lol yeah that’s implicit, dummy. That takes us out of the moment.
I think the main thing here is that there’s no formula for this. There’s a framework, though, and the best way to get at it is to ask yourself “why do I care?”
Like, okay. We’re working on Adios 2, a sequel to the first game, Adios, which I wrote myself (someone else wrote a joke ending that didn’t make it in the game). It’s very different now, writing with my long time friend Phil Bastien and my newer friend Kevin Fox, but it’s been really enjoyable working with them.
What we’re doing with every scene in Adios 2 is asking why we care; we’re finding relationships between our ideas — for instance, we know in Adios that the Farmer cares greatly for his American Chestnut tree, because nearly all of them went extinct. So if we come up with a character who threatens to cut the tree down, the audience, sympathizing with the farmer, will worry about the tree’s safety.
We’re also asking ourselves if the scene is interesting. So let’s say we’ve got a scene where a character played by Betty White asks the character Hitman if he’s married. The utility of this scene might be to show that Hitman has no attachments to anyone, but what makes it interesting? Well, what if Betty White has a throwaway line that goes something like “after they let me out on good behavior,” which is interesting, because she’s like 90 years old, and it’s hard to ever envision her as being a convict in prison. There’s just a little friction there that makes the audience sit up and take note.
So there’s no one way to make a scene emotional or make the audience care. All you can really do is just, well… ask yourself. Is this interesting? Do I care? If I don’t care, why not? What can I do to make me care?
The biggest threats you’re going to face are either distractions or exposition.
Exposition is where you just tell stuff to the audience. Now, I dunno about you, but one of the big frustrations I have when I’m on the phone is when someone just starts Telling Me Stuff and I’m unsure why I’m supposed to care. “Oh, you remember Margie? Yeah, she went to church with us back in Graceville. I guess that would have been about 1970? She’s Wade Johns’ son. Oh, you know Wade. He was a Priest at the Ten Lights Congregation before it burned down and they all moved over to Coburn.”
Like, ok… why do I care about this? Any of this? I never knew any of these people, why are you telling me about some old friend of yours I don’t know? What exactly am I supposed to get from this?
Remember, you’re speaking to an audience, and they’ll get bored if they don’t care. So if you’re just giving them Lots Of Information, even if it’s Very Cool Information about how fish in this fantasy world you’ve got can breathe oxygen and speak, they won’t care. What excites you about your world isn’t what makes the scene exciting to experience. It’s like a dreamer telling you about their dream; they have all these feelings associated with that the audience doesn’t have.
Storytelling is the process of creating feelings, and you don’t get feelings via association, especially when the audience might not share the associations.
Distractions are the same as exposition; instead of information overload where the reason you should care isn’t clear, distractions are things that can take you out of the work because they’re just… not relevant. Like, one of the worst bits in Mass Effect Andromeda is a line where your character is talking about their father’s death (which was recent and very traumatic) and a character in clown makeup stops to yell “it’s ‘to whom,’ and your goddamn father.” Why is she so angry about you, having just lost you father, getting your grammar wrong? She isn’t. The writer was trying to be clever about grammar.
References are another way to be distracting; we had a scene in Adios 2 where characters were arguing about whether or not a hot dog is a sandwich, but the thing is, that’s a memetic internet argument; does that really feel right in the summer of 1998? Probably not. It’s just going to make the reader leave the story mentally and start thinking about the meme. You don’t want that.
Another kind of distraction is code. If you name your space ship Icarus, and it’s doomed to crash, well, congratulations, you aren’t being clever, you’re just giving something away to the audience. When you try to give every name a Meaning or a Theme that relates to the matter at hand, you’re pulling the audience out of the work by encouraging them to both think outside the work and run ahead of you. Do you really want that? If you name this planet Pandora, they’re going to know that bad things will happen; it dulls the edge of your narrative blade!
So of every scene, you should ask yourself:
- does it make the reader care?
- is it absolutely essential to advancing the plot or making the audience feel something? (if it’s information, you should cut it; the audience needs less information than you think and a lot more emotional connection than you may realize)
- is it interesting to a skeptical audience?
- what purpose does it serve?
“But, Doc,” you may protest, “this scene does make the reader care. Johnny Protagonist just found out his dog has rabies, and he has to take the dog out behind the barn and shoot it!” To which I’d say, yes, yes, that does make the reader care, but I’ve already seen Old Yeller. If I know how the scene ends, then caring isn’t enough. The scene has to be interesting too.
So if your protagonist attempts to put the shell in the shotgun, but fumbles, drops it on the ground, reaches down, and the dog tries to attack, causing the protagonist to fall flat on his butt and hurriedly try to load the shell he’s just recovered while the once-loyal companion strains, frothing with rage, against its chain, you’ve made the scene a bit more interesting than just retreading Old Yeller.
And then there’s the question of purpose.
Let’s say you have a scene where a character says “help, I’m trapped in a glass cage, and it’s filling with water, and I will drown if you don’t get to me in time,” and then your character goes to save them, but stops to get a bagel along the way and waxes poetic about how good New York bagels are.
Here is what will happen.
First, your audience will not understand why they’re stopping at such an urgent time.
Second, the audience may hate your character for being the kind of asshole who ignores someone who’s dying for a hot dog.
Third, they might get bored, because this scene is irrelevant and because bagels from New York aren’t really that special to them, especially if they’ve never been or had one.
Fourth, they might hate you for pontificating.
Cut the scene. You might like your New York bagels, but it’s not relevant to the story at all, it bogs the pacing down, it’s a complete waste of time.
A lot of what we’ve talked about so far is intra-scene ideas. When something is “intra-” that means “within,” and we also need to talk about “inter-scene” ideas, or the ideas between scenes, the ideas that happen when we put one scene next to another.
Take Adios 2. We have a scene where a character is shopping for groceries; the scene is very brief, a matter of seconds, and we’re spending time letting the character emotionally ruminate on their current plight. Then we cut to a flashback with that character and some coworkers. The scene itself ends on a dramatic reveal.
Emotionally, what we’re doing is building up some tension, then letting the audience wind down a bit with some banter between coworkers, before cranking the “what the fuck?” dial up, then cutting back to their current situation. We keep the audience engaged with the story through peaks and valleys, keeping our emotional variety interesting through careful placement and contrast with the emotions we have. It’s not just about thematic ideas — we’re not just going “here was character in past, when emotionally available, and here is character now, when not emotionally available, him different now,” we’re also creating emotional variety to maintain interest without falling off from boredom.
Boredom isn’t just something that happens when you’re getting information overload or irrelevant facts, it can also happen when the emotional notes are all the same; you need that variety and explicit contrast between emotions to avoid exhausting your audience’s “feeling reserves.”
Storytelling, like architecture, is structural, but you don’t want to be like the infamous Le Corbusier, an architect who said that his cities would be perfect if people didn’t have to live in them, and whose work in city planning created cities with poor living conditions that people tended to flee because they didn’t center human lives within them.
Bad architects often focus on utility; we need X every Y feet, streets need to be Z wide, etc etc. The problem is, people don’t work that way, and a lot of cities are constructed based on how people work.
That’s where this meme comes from:
Someone might make a beautiful grid, but people are trying to find the shortest route between two common destinations. There’s all sorts of writing we could do for this, like discussing how the US Air Force designed seatbelts for average measurements, but very few people actually fit within the average measurements so the seatbelts were ineffective and had to be redesigned, but the point I’m making is a brief one, and it’s this: structure isn’t everything.
Take Adios. I know, overall, that I want the structure to build from a tense moment to two friends bonding with each other, but the story captures the roiling sense of knowing the end is near as the clock runs out. One of the moments I knew I wanted to get was the sense that you can’t solve every problem.
Okay, so, that’s structure. What I could have done was simply created a scene that checked off that box, but it wouldn’t have worked. Sure, the bigger my production values are, the easier I can ape those emotions, but to really get at it, I needed to establish some ideas early on that would come back and keep coming back until I let it pay off.
To create the tragedy of the scene called The Boy, I peppered the script throughout with little asides, like Farmer implying that he made Bill butcher his own pig when he was younger, or the conversation about fathers and sons (including a single reference to Hitman’s dead son, Roy, and a reference to the protagonist of the original game we were making before we scaled down to Adios, featuring a character named Slick) in The Way. I had to contrast this with giving you the sense that Farmer is, or was, a good man; that’s what the Vietnam (establishing that he doesn’t enjoy killing, but also suggesting to the player that he isn’t afraid to, and has; he is not a weak, cowardly man simply dying — he could fight back if he wanted to, and he has chosen not to, because he is profoundly moral, in some sense, even if not a good person) and “Why I’m Doing This Deal” conversations do.
You spend the entire game with the Farmer, and you get to know him, and I hope you believe that he’s a good man, trapped in a circumstances because one day he offered to assist evil men so that he could save the boy he loved so much. He sold his soul for his son, and because of that, his son hates him, even though his son can never know why.
I had to create an impossible dilemma to hit the emotional structure I wanted the story to have, and I used the “words you can think but not say” mechanic to make it clear to the audience what he was feeling. That scene hits people hard not just because of the subject matter, but because of the context; if he could only explain why he had to be absent, because he’d sold his soul to save his boy, everything would be alright, but if he does, then the boy dies. He can’t. He just can’t.
If you go read a bad writing book like Robert McKee’s Story, you’ll see all sorts of stuff about scene construction; it’s all architecture with no soul. The chapter on “character” is one of the shortest in the book, as I recall.
Characters are everything, because stories are about people and thus everything that happens must be because of character. We feel things because the characters do; construction is how we set up those moments. It isn’t the end result — unlike Le Corbusier, we’re designing our proverbial cities to be lived in, not simply seen.
So, we have a plot, which is “a series of events.”
These events happen because of our characters.
We need to make the audience want our characters to do things, like “I want them to kiss at the end!” or “I want him to prove he’s not a loser and he can be a great boxer!”
We need to put enough friction— blockers in front of our characters’ goals — that the struggle to get past these blockers is stimulating on an emotional level.
We should cut the things that don’t do this — information, theme, whatever — because these things are all external to the work itself, rather than why people care about the work.
(Facts can be interesting and themes are what high school English teachers tell you about to introduce you to the idea that stories can be more than plot, but Theme isn’t the be-all, end-all of a work, and no writer worth their salt writes theme first. When I write about homelessness or anticapitalism, I am not trying to write a sermon; the themes are in my work, but they are not what the work is. You can read more on that thought process here. Good writers aren’t trying to preach to you, only bad writers do that, and people conflate “baby’s first introduction to the idea that story is more than plot” with “this is ALL you need to know about story.” You already learned what you needed to in high school, we’re past that now, we’re waaaay past that. Theme is the ‘see spot run’ of narrative learning.)
Once we have got scenes that exist and are interesting, we want to consider how scenes create meaning through juxtaposition; if you put a scene where a character is happy next to a scene where a character is sad, how does that make the audience feel?
We should do all of the above while constantly asking ourselves: Is this scene interesting? What is this scene’s purpose? Why do I care?
A story is like a dish; you don’t want to eat a raw fistful of cinnamon (lore, trivia, distractions, you name it), you want to use the cinnamon to flavor the rest of the dish. What’s the main ingredient? How does our narrative tomato work alongside that narrative peanut butter? Maybe it doesn’t, maybe that peanut butter belongs in a different dish, because tomatoes and peanut butter aren’t that compatible.
(please don’t get caught up on the metaphor if you like tomatoes and peanut butter together, just substitute it with something else — the point is that two perfectly good ideas might not work next to each other)
So we take these emotions and we build an arc out of this: a character loses his son, he fights to get his son back, he gets his son back. We cut out the shit that waters it down, because who wants a story where the narrative glue has the consistency of skim milk? We spice up every scene we can so that it’s interesting and engaging in some way.
OK BUT HOW I KNOW TO GOOD STORY??? HOW???
This is very simple, my friend.
I’m not talking about “being able to read,” like, knowing your phonics and so forth. I’m talking about media literacy, where you’re exposed to so many works that you can take and synthesize what you know in interesting ways.
All good fiction is about people. Even Bambi is really about people, because it wouldn’t be about a talking deer if it wasn’t. Ever read a story about a cat? It’s very different than watching a real cat, which will just sit and stare at a wall for an hour and then randomly begin sprinting around your room.
We write fiction about ourselves. That’s why humans make fiction. It’s a way of understanding who we are and what we have lived. You think Verhoeven made Robocop out of thin air? When he was a boy, he saw the charred remains of a British Spitfire pilot pulled out of a plane; that experience did something to him. Humans make art from human perspectives about human feelings and emotions. If you had the incredible ability to write outside the scope of human experience and tell a story about a seahorse’s life, most people would feel some kind of emotional detachment, nothing more than clinical interest, because you have no concept of what it’s like to experience emotions outside of the human frame of reference.
If you write a story about a fish trying to find his lost son, people get that because they know what it’s like to lose someone as a human. Get it? All stories humans tell are human stories. Anything outside of that is a curious intellectual exercise with little value (“but what about Stanislaw Lem?” his stories were about humans experiencing unknown intelligences — still human).
The more life we live, the more stocked our narrative pantry becomes. If you only ever watch one kind of story, that’s like having a pantry with nothing in it but crackers. Surely you want to eat more than just one thing, right? Crackers are boring.
Okay, so maybe you go look at a list of “best movies” on imdb.
Several of these are movies I’d consider among my favorites. Several of these are irredeemable garbage, like The Dark Knight. But I’ll bet most of the people reading this article have seen at least 75% of the movies on this list.
Now, if these are the only things you have to reference, how interesting is your mental pantry? The answer is probably not much. It’s like going to someone’s house and seeing that they’ve got Cheerios and Welch’s Grape Jelly and Hamburger Helper. Very pedestrian, very boring. With the exception of 12 Angry Men, the list above is pretty dang safe. It’s pretty dang predictable.
There’s nothing wrong with liking things on the list, but because they are so widespread in their popularity, everyone is drawing from them.
If everyone is drawing from them, how will you stand out?
When a daring movie comes out, it’s often fresh and original. That’s why people love it; it’s different. People love that. Then a businessman goes “hmm, people really seem to like this movie about talking cars, we should make that too.” And then somehow you get Nickelodeon’s Monster Trucks, inspired by Pixar’s CARS.
In the businessman’s brain, stories work like toys. If people want this kind of toy, then making similar toys means people will buy it. It’s why we have so many failed attempts at franchises, like the “dark universe,” which was transparently trying to rip off the Marvel movie thing without interesting characters, or DC, which was trying to catch up with Marvel with a poisoned well of Randian Misogyny and absolutely zero likeable or interesting characters (it’s worth noting that DC’s best stuff — The Suicide Squad and Shazam, aren’t influenced by Nolan, Snyder, and Johns the way that a lot of its worst stuff was).
I don’t love Marvel movies, because they’re boring assembly line garbage, but Marvel did spend a lot of time perfecting that assembly line, and the people who rip it off don’t, which is why they can’t compete.
Every time something blows up and is a big phenomenon, it is speaking to a need. The hangers-on are like toy company execs in the wrong business; the need has been filled. All you can do is create something orthogonal to it. Find another need. But no, time and time again, they waste money and should lose their jobs for wasting money, trying to simply copy what exists.
This COULD BE you, cluelessly wasting everyone’s time, money, and attention if you aren’t careful. But you can avoid this pitfall if your influences are varied.
The more stocked your mental pantry, the more surprising your dishes will be. The more surprising those dishes are, the more likely people will respect your cooking, so to speak.
So how do you write good stories?
Live a lot of life and consume a lot of media. Not just the ‘good’ media, either.
Are you more interesting than a sponge?
Because this is a sponge.
A sponge is a filter feeder, which means it sits there and eats whatever comes through its filter and then it has to shit where it eats. Hard to imagine a filter feeder getting to eat some delicious fried rice one day and going out for ice cream the next.
This is most people.
Here’s how media consumption for the average person works.
You wake up and you go to work. Maybe you drive part way, seeing a billboard along the way for MASS EFFECT. Then you go into the subway, and you see signs for MASS EFFECT. Then you get to work, boot up your computer, check your email, and see a banner ad for MASS EFFECT. It’s in promoted tweets, it’s in ads on news articles, your friends are sharing the trailer around, everywhere you go, MASS EFFECT.
So you buy Mass Effect, not necessarily because it’s the best thing ever but because you were exposed to it so much, how could you not check it out? Everyone’s talking about it?
This is how giant marketing budgets work; they know that not every ad converts people to a sale. In fact, most ads don’t, at least on their own. But the more you hear about something, the more likely you are to think it has some significance or weight. That’s how propaganda works, and marketing is using the same mechanics as propaganda to influence you.
People will literally buy things they know they won’t like if they see it enough times and enough of their friends are talking about it in the hopes that maybe this time, they’ll understand the appeal.
This is the average consumer. You have probably done this, maybe even without realizing it. Out of everything you have ever consumed, how many things have you checked out because you heard about it first? Probably most of it, I’m betting? I can think of only a few situations where I checked something out without being introduced to it first (I went to the ticket seller and went “sell me a ticket to whatever movie is airing next” one day when I had no AC at home and just needed to hang out somewhere cold); usually I read a news article, saw an ad, heard about it from a friend, watched E3 (which is just an ad showcase), etc etc.
I can conduct a study where I show several people two games, put them side by side, and if one has a small marketing budget and one has a big marketing budget, I can guarantee you that most of the people responding will say they’ve heard of the bigger game.
I can then guarantee you that after watching the trailer for both, most people will say that the game with the bigger marketing budget seems more important.
Remember that top 20 IMDB list above? Yeah, nearly all of that has massive amounts of marketing or preexisting cultural cachet (Seven Samurai is the go-to for people who want to seem sophisticated because they watched one foreign film — it’s amazing, it’s just also the default and people rarely explore beyond that). It’s “important” because it’s “what has the most marketing,” and thus it gets outsized impact.
It’s what’s sent directly to the filter feeders, and as a result, it’s what they consume.
The problem is, if you make things based on what you’re consuming passively, as a filter feeder, then you’ll sound just like everybody else who copied the big popular things.
And if you sound like everybody else, not only are you failing to meet any conceivable need anyone might have (because that need was already met when they watched Inception or The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly), but you’re competing with things that almost definitely have way way way more power, marketing budget, and influence than you do.
How the fuck is anyone gonna notice you? If they’ve already seen everything you have to offer before, they’re just going to forget you! Remaking The Dark Knight won’t make you as well liked as The Dark Knight, it’ll make you a laughingstock as a copycat.
So you can’t be a filter feeder.
I knew a kid in film school who told me I didn’t deserve to be there because I didn’t like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. It’s not very good as an action movie, and we had been discussing what makes for good action, and I’d offhandedly remarked about how it has no sense of internal geography and how I thought that prevented scenes from really working. This kid prided himself on having seen all of the top 250 movies in the imdb or whatever, and ‘only’ watching good movies. I worked on his student film; it was horrible. Also he nearly got one of his actors killed by the cops, but since he didn’t, it was embarrassingly hilarious instead of tragic, thankfully.
Let’s get rid of the notion that consuming “the best” actually means that. Look at Steam. Every year, they have a “game of the year” competition, where everyone can vote. Of course, most of the games that win those votes are very popular games. Like, the reason that, say, Counterstrike GO wins when it’s up for awards is because it’s a game that gets marketing from Valve within Steam itself, so of course whenever the community votes for “best multiplayer game” or whatever, an immensely popular video game with tons of advertising gets lots of votes, and a game you’ve never heard of with very little advertising doesn’t get as much. It might be a better game that you’d have more fun with, but it’s not going to win because it just isn’t as popular. That’s what popularity contests are.
Most of the movies that have really influenced me as a storyteller aren’t in the imdb top 250, and I’ve seen most of the movies on that list. Many are quite good. But very few are among my influences. Consuming the media that was sent to you and nothing else doesn’t mean you have taste, it means you have none at all, because taste is something you curate. It’s a muscle you develop. A filter feeder has no taste because they’re not picky; they have to eat what comes their way. People who want respect for watching a curated list of “the movies with the broadest appeal and marketing budgets and thus the highest ratings” don’t deserve it; why would I respect you for consuming media sent to you by committee? I respect people who develop their own interests.
If you’re just sitting there passively consuming popular media and demanding respect for it, it’s like, I don’t know, someone insisting I call them a high society gourmand for going to McDonald’s every day. Like, come on, dude. Try for more than that. You don’t have taste, you just eat whatever’s in front of you. That’s tasteless, even if it’s collectively considered “good,” because you have to put effort into this.
Number one, you need to develop literacy so you can avoid simply doing what everyone else is doing and become unmemorable, and number two, you need to divorce your sense of self-worth from any pride you may have at checking out various things on the most easily accessible lists or marketing material, because all that arrogance will do is keep you from creating interesting things. If you’re willing to put effort into your literacy… only then can you actually start to make special things.
WHAT LITERACY DO
That saying “great artists steal” doesn’t really do the artistic process justice. What we actually do — and by we, I mean all artists, not just great ones, though I do hope to become a great artist some day — is more like what the original statement said, which is apparently T.S. Eliot, saying this:
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn.
Lot more nuance there, huh.
A filter feeder takes what’s sent to them and shits it out. A real poet redefines what they’ve experienced, and the best way to do this is to experience a lot. One of the reasons The Last of Us is so difficult to adapt to television, according to its creator, is that it’s hard to find what makes it unique — because it really isn’t. The Last of Us 2 lifts directly from other media, such as The Walking Dead (Joel’s death is virtually identical, in shot composition, editing, sound design, and even character power dynamics, to Glen’s), so once you put The Last of Us 2 on television, it no longer stands out because now it actually has to compete with its inspirations, which it can’t do without significant changes.
The Last of Us feels like it comes from someone with very little experience; the original premise, after all, was simply a gender swapped version of Y: The Last Man but obviously influenced by an article on Cracked.com that described apocalypses that might actually happen, including cordyceps making the leap to humans.
Found Art is a kind of art made up of the assemblage of existing objects the artist finds. They might get a bunch of tractor parts and reassemble them into a statue of a cow, deconstructing the idea of the tractor and reshaping it back into the original plow-pulling entity.
All art is like Found Art, though. We take the things we find and we stow them away in our brains and we pull on them when we make art. Everyone does it. It’s just that the best and most insightful artists out there are pulling from so many disparate sources. Take Martin Scorsese, right? A lot of people assume, incorrectly, that the man is a snob because he doesn’t like Marvel movies.
(as an aside, do not talk to me about your takes on Scorsese if all you’ve ever read is the headline; I had so many people telling me that “both gunn and scorsese were bad” for their takes, and none of those people actually read Scorsese’s own words on the subject, which wasn’t jealousy, as Gunn put it — it was just that someone had asked him if he would direct Marvel movies and he explained why he didn’t think he would do a good job directing them)
But Scorsese is far from a snob. The man has a literal dorky shrine to movies in his office. He funds the preservation of movies, he helps marginalized creators around the world — people without equal access to creation like rich dudes in Hollywood like himself — get their movies made and distributed. And he fucking loves genre movies. The man fucking loves schlock. David Lynch? Same way, though the schlock he loves isn’t often genre. Lucrecia Martel makes all these really artistic feminist films, but she loves action movies and was upset with Marvel for offering her Black Widow on the condition that she wouldn’t be allowed to direct the action; she wanted to direct that too! But apparently “they have men for that” and that understandably pissed her off.
I guarantee you that all the great masters you know, the people whose names are plastered all over museums and text books, consumed media with the same joy as a raccoon diving into a dumpster. Artists fuckin love trash. The ones who pretend they don’t tend to be solid Z-listers who nobody’s ever heard about. The good ones never pretend to be the best in the world.
It shouldn’t surprise you that David Bowie fucking loved internet forums or that Jim Morrison was saying the future of music would be in the kind of sampling that rappers do today. Real artists aren’t high-falutin’ assholes who try to control your perception of them as some sort of sacred saint. They’re human beings who really fucking love the human stuff that other people make. They’re excitable. They’re curious. They’re vulnerable. But they ain’t fuckin’ snobs.
But here’s the thing: nearly every artist I know is incredibly particular. They’re not snobs, who are out there demanding validation for their consumption, but they do have very particular tastes. They know what they like and they know what they don’t, and they’re absolutely unafraid to discuss their particular tastes because they know the consumption doesn’t really shape how they’re perceived. Werner Herzog knows what he likes and he likes Wrestlemania; he isn’t afraid of you saying “wow, but that’s trash.” Plenty of great artists will go “oh yeah I hate that” and you’ll be like “WHAAAAA???? BUT HOW” and it’s just because they have extremely refined taste.
Because that’s the thing: taste is personal. If you’re out there trying to demand respect because you consumed an easy list someone sent to you, you won’t get it because why would you deserve respect for being lazy? Taste is really about you developing your preferences of the world around you; good taste, refined taste, is being discriminate. That means not liking things; it doesn’t mean looking down on people or demanding that people look up to you because of what you consume.
Maybe me disliking Half-Life 2 makes my taste refined; that doesn’t mean I look down on you for liking it, nor does it mean I want attention for holding an iconoclastic belief. I know myself, though. I know what I like and what I don’t. This is a good thing for me. If you know it about me, you know me a little better.
I think there are people who accuse me of being iconoclastic for the attention because they can’t imagine genuinely disliking something; this is the realm of people who are unimaginative and unwilling to see people as humans on their own merits. Does it suck to know that some people hate Once Upon a Time in the West? Sure. I wish we all loved it. But that’s the thing; other people are different from me, and I could never begrudge them for seeing the world in ways I don’t. People disliking the things I like is a beautiful thing because it shows me how unique everyone is; if you can see and accept that people are different than you, rather than assuming they can’t possibly dislike what you like, or what’s approved on some website somewhere, if you accept them as being honest and human about it, you’ll open yourself up to being a better artist.
In Adios, I have a bit where Hitman and Farmer talk about their dislike of peppers in their scrambled eggs. Sadie, Farmer’s recently-deceased wife, loved them. If I wrote a world in which every single character loved eggs without peppers in them, I wouldn’t be seeing the world as it really is; so we have to accept that people enjoy things we don’t or hate things we do and depict them without malice or disdain to get truly human characters across.
I have an affection for all my characters, despite how different many of them are for me, and I think most of my favorite work has some affection for its characters as well. One of the most exciting characters for me in Adios 2 is a character that was originally just a role in a scene.
We have a pastor, we have a secretary/assistant type guy to bounce off him. A lot of work was put into making the pastor the way we wanted to make him — we’d even written a flashback to his youth, long before the events of Adios 2 — but something in the scene didn’t click until we shifted our attention to the assistant. Once we brought him to life and realized an entire chapter of Adios 2 could be dedicated to the guy, played entirely from his perspective, the entire scene clicked into place.
I know a lot of my writing is very stream-of-consciousness, but please consider this: the media you consume, that attempt at getting to know yourself, and the realization that everyone around you is distinct from you and not like you can help you see your characters the same way, and when you do, you can write great characters. Heck, as an exercise, try writing characters that you love writing but give them some detail that you absolutely hate. Maybe you don’t like people who put toilet rolls on the wrong direction. Cool, make that a habit of theirs. And love ’em despite it. Or maybe because of it.
One of my favorite art teachers ever — and I’ve told this story before, so sorry if I’m telling you this again, but I figure not everyone reads every one of my articles, and it underlines the point beautifully — told me about how a mother of one of his student’s dropped by to pick up her kid and found his drawings strewn about. She started gathering up his drawings and shouting at him “how could you just trample over all this art?”
“It’s not art,” said my teacher, a portrait painter who did beautiful work, “they’re just drawings.”
John wanted me to know that the sacredness of art is just a construct. What we’re actually doing is much more workmanlike than that. There are entire essays you can read on this — like Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction — that deal with the idea of art possessing an intangible, unquantifiable, but nonetheless present sense of “presence” that inspires awe (think about going to see the big statue of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial and the hushed reverence you find there, or how going into a library can make you feel a subdued reverence that a Wal-Mart doesn’t, despite them both having Big Size).
A lot of people I know who want to be artists — and they’re so often the most toxic, abusive ones — are people who pride themselves on ‘good taste’ by only consuming ‘good media,’ which results in them having a very limited range of material to draw from, which is why their work is so often uninspiring. They’re in it to be perceived as brilliant artists, rather than people with rich, full lives expressing the experiences they have had. It’s wanting to be hailed as a rockstar without making any music.
If you want to be a real artist, then you need to live richly. One of the reasons so much Christian conservative art is bad is because so much Christian conservatism is about limiting as much of your life experience as possible while simplifying all art into simple Lessons To Teach People. It’s crass and joyless because it’s some white guy who won’t ever go to a movie theatre or listen to any music or know anybody outside of his very limited set of white conservative Christian friends trying to write a song about the most inane shit.
A real artist is just that. Real.
A real artist is someone who gets how people works and how to interest people in things.
A real artist knows that you can’t just throw lots of facts at people, or foist lofty ideas and themes on them like preaching a sermon.
A real artist can reach into your soul and bring the feelings out, because as a human, that is how you live your life. Even the most emotionless people I know — people who even claim not to have emotions — are boiling over with them. Think about all the stupid ‘science’ nerds online who liked to think all their decisions were made purely on reason and not emotion; they were lying to themselves, there is no such thing as an emotionless, objective decision-making process. Emotions are always there. They’re baked into the programmatic architecture of the brain; you can’t help but feel things about the world around you.
I’ve been diagnosed with a major depressive disorder. It gives me a strong flat affect. I don’t always express emotion well. But man, oh man, can certain things bring me to tears, like the manga Pluto. And I mean, look at the game I made, Adios; people said it made them cry too. Clearly I have emotions, even when I don’t express them with my face like a cartoon.
All the good artists feel shit and they make shit about feelings.
Art is about processing feelings. That’s what it’s there for. We play to feel things. We read, we watch, we listen, we sing, we dance, we do all of this because a healthy mind is one that experiences and processes feelings, and art helps us with that. That is its primary purpose, it’s real, true function.
Art is not sugar to make the medicine go down. It is not a way for Teaching Lessons. It is not Just A Product.
It’s a way for people to feel things.
So when you’re telling a story?
What does this scene make someone feel? How do these two scenes together make someone feel? When you put all of the scenes together, how do they provide the audience with an overarching set of feelings, and how does the conclusion put a cap on them, whether that’s closure or a lack thereof?
Figure that out and you know how to tell a good story.
btw one reason u want to consume bad art is because you can then go “oh, wow, I wouldn’t do it like that if I did it, what I’d do is…” and look at that, now you’ve just come up with an idea for how to tell an interesting story. Hell, two of my games are because I played a game I didn’t like and tried to figure out why and ended up designing something based around how I might enjoy playing this style of game.
Another reason you want to consume as much art as possible is because you’ll see how widespread derivative things are; one really common mistake in both non-writers who think they can write (EXECUTIVES) and real writers who are simply new at writing (THE PEOPLE WHO ARE READING THIS TO LEARN TO WRITE AND WHO ABSOLUTELY CAN AND WILL WRITE GREAT THINGS AS THEY DEVELOP THEIR SKILLS; I’M VERY PROUD OF ALL OF THEM), is that they go for the first thing that pops in their mind, but the first thing that pops in their mind?
That’s right, it’s whatever they saw last.
So someone will like, literally watch the movie Alien one night, and then the next day, in a brainstorming session, be like “ok, but what if like… we had a female lead, who was tough, and not the captain of the ship, and she was fighting an evil pregnancy monster…” and you have to be like “well, that’s Alien, dude.”
Sometimes it’s a bit less obvious, like maybe someone’s just watched a bunch of anime dubs recently, so they’re trying to write and their writing sounds a bit clipped and weird because they’re unintentionally basing the timing off of anime dubs where characters can only speak when the mouths are moving, but in a different language, which limits what can be said.
So if you have a lot more stuff to pull from, you have a lot more tools to help you avoid the common pitfalls because you aren’t just pulling from The Most Obvious Thing and thus making your story Predictable And Soulless.
I did this in the twitter thread where I first roughed out these ideas, but you know, if you only have a limited set of sources, what you end up doing is basically taking in all that you noticed (so only part of the thing — human brains, especially adult brains, are structured to optimize out seemingly irrelevant information from our sensory perception to offload various tasks, and are optimized for certain elements like threats and stuff, which is why you will notice different things watching movies a second time, because your cognitive load is diminished since you already know what’s going on), and then, taking just what you noticed, cutting out what is crucial to the work but what you might not personally find suits your tastes without replacing it with anything else, or replacing it with things that don’t work (because if you have few sources, you won’t have enough tools to figure out what’s missing)… it’s uh
it’s like when you save a jpg over and over again until it loses picture information and ends up looking shitty. like this picture of jpg compression i found on google image search
alternatively “it’s like a game of telephone” but i couldn’t find a good picture to illustrate that.