Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Pulp Philosophy: Create a Damn Good Onion!

Every night before bed, I watch around an hour of television and then settle in under the covers with a book or comic.  I find that in most instances I can feel the sleep overcome me in about 15 minutes and I pull off the spectacles, close the tome and turn out the lights.  This is the general routine that keeps me relatively sane and well-slept.

But there are those occasions where I've watched a show and/or read a book and I am instantly charged with enthusiasm to keep watching or reading until I'm finished. It's rare, but it does happen.  When it does I take note and file it away in the brain pan.  After all, as writers/ creators we are sponges whose mission is to take in and squeeze out a filtered version of what we've ingested.

In keeping track of these events, I've found that a definite pattern emerges - especially when it comes to modern genre fiction, that is built upon all that has come before.

The point is that I'm finding that the best fiction media - movies, TV, books, comics - is based on the structure of an onion.

(No, I have not been watching too many episodes of TOP CHEF or KITCHEN NIGHTMARES)

Let me explain:

We've reached a point in our culture where our genre media is fully cataloged and is accessible 24/7. I can find out any bit of trivia or access a work using a simple wifi connection.  As a result we have a generation or two with a large knowledge base when it comes to the variety of genre media.  We've all seen or know of just about every genre book, comic, game or tv show and movie.

We are really hard to surprise.

So what's come about is that creators are using that knowledge base against us and subverting...no, that's not right... redesigning our expectations to create multiple layers of meaning, depth and breadth to their works.

Now this isn't new, but it is being done in new ways and more frequently. Chaucer and Shakespeare used tropes that were available to them (example: the metaphorical rose motif to signify a woman's genitalia), but in this case creators are using other creators' works more and more to create a greater cultural context.

What's interesting to me is the pop culture metaphors being employed as a means to add meaning and engage the audience.  These pop culture land mines again add new layers of fun and taste... yes, just like a good onion.

Okay Bill - WTF are you talking about here? Give us some examples!

I was reading Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's genuinely excellent LXG: Century 1910 and kept finding new layers to the story thanks to the careful placement of bits of pop culture within the context of the story.  As I saw more elements to the story come into play working in characters like Carnacki and Raffles as well as dates, and the whole of the Three Penny Opera, I began to appreciate the depth of the story in new ways.

Page after page of new story elements came in to create one big blooming onion.

A recent episode of LEVERAGE directed by our pal, John Rogers and written by Geoffrey Thorne had another layer to it that made me laugh out loud. Specifically the computerized security system for the building Parker broke into was called a Steranko.

(Again, you didn't need to know that Steranko the comic artist was once an escape artist, but if you were in the know it added a whole new layer of meaning whenever they mentioned the term).

Now what's really good about both of these examples is the fact that in both cases the additional layers of meaning were left to the audience member to uncover.  They weren't called out to be this monstrous "look how clever we are" moment, but rather were the product of being good sponges. Taking in knowledge and filtering it properly.

(and there are more tidbits in both so I would suggest a rerun of Leverage and a reread of Century:1910)

And if you're in today's genre media game it makes sense to add new levels of meaning to your audience in order to engage them... to add the layers to the onion. It allows you to 'shorthand' and concentrate on plot knowing that certain character or tone elements are set in the audience's mind (if only on a subconscious level). It allows you engage your audience, and it allows you to mine the vast library of culture that's available at your fingertips stroking your keyboard.

Just be subtle about it.


Deka Black said...

"After all, as writers/ creators we are sponges whose mission is to take in and squeeze out a filtered version of what we've ingested."--> Universal Truth

For example: I created a character for a story who have 1-A certain point: psysical look modeled after japanese hensin heroes. and added a thing as a nod to the Zork interactive ficition series (more exactly, a brass lantern). and named it after a pulp writer, and his wife after one of his female characters.

Thngs like that. Is a play very fun. And when is well used and done, add plenty of charm to a work. But must be used wisely. A good work is composed of many things, not only obscure references.

Said this, i must admit it: References are fun!

Scott Eggleston said...

Great post, Bill!

There is definitely much to be said for subtext. A well crafted story is one that can be enjoyed on the surface as well as all those 'easter eggs' for those with prying brains.

This can even happen subconsciously. Sometimes I notice things about older projects I've constructed that I never knew about at the time. I guess it's creation by osmosis, as all of our influences will involuntarily permeate our work.

Submitted for your approval: pardon me while I put on my dark suit with thin tie, light up a cigarette and speak with stilted inflection.

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