When I was in my early twenties there were parties to go to every weekend. And if there wasn’t a party, there were bars on every other corner (usually the ones not already occupied by a church) in Buffalo. Some of my favorite memories of that time in my life, insofar as I have memories of those nights, was the unplanned and unexpected conversations with strangers. I loved sitting at a filthy, beer-stained and ash-littered table in some small apartment getting to know someone.
I remember often feeling like I never wanted the night to end, especially if a cute girl was involved.
I think that feeling of wishing a night could go on forever is a pretty universal feeling. But, like anything we might wish, what are the actual consequences of that wish coming true?
In this story I tried to explore that. The elation, confusion, horror, and resignation that realizing a night will continue as long as you want it. I hope it captured some of those feelings for you.
Way back in the halcyon days of 2014 I wrote a blog post about the Hope Machine and how it affected me. I don’t think about the Hope Machine much anymore. I honestly can’t say my motivations are that different, I’m just in a different place in my life. Recently, though, I’ve thought about it more.
First, some context.
Since 2014 (actually, starting approximately two months after I first published that blog post) I’ve had a stable, well-paying job. I’ve gotten married. Bought a house. Adopted cats. Sired a child.
My situation has changed. And so my mindset has changed. I keep coming back to the odds.
A few years ago, John August and Craig Mazin discussed the odds of becoming a professional screenwriter. I don’t remember the exact episode, and I can’t find it via searching, so I’ll just link to Scriptnotes generally because it’s great. Anyway, if memory serves, they assigned any particular person’s chance of becoming a professional screenwriter at less than the chances of someone becoming a professional athlete–somewhere in the vicinity of >1%. The difference is that when you’re competing to become a professional writer, the pool of competitors is much larger than athletes have to face, since athletes have such a limited window to be competitive.
I’ve often heard it said that only the top 1% of the top 1% (so, something like, .00001%) of people can make a living in the arts. But there is a huge pool of competition vying for eyeballs. In considering my career options, I’ve been thinking a lot about, and researching, self-publishing, especially for my less commercial writing. The numbers are intimidating. According to this chart, there were over 1,500,000 new self-published books in 2018, and that number has only been going up.
How do you separate yourself in that kind of environment to get noticed? It’s a problem that has a solution–others have done it quite successfully–but it’s one that intimidates me.
Last year I set a 3-5 year goal to replace ~40% of my income with money from writing. I drew up a tentative plan (which included this website and these blog posts!) and have stayed the course. But the further along I get, the more I think about the odds, the more I wonder if I’ve chosen the best strategy, or the right path, or even if those things exist. I don’t think they do.
And, of course, I don’t have much data to draw from. So, all I’m really going off of is anecdotal observation, paranoia, and ignorance. Which, of course, is the best way to live ones life and make important decisions.
I don’t have a strong conclusion or anything, this is just something that’s been on my mind as my wife and I await our first child, I get further ahead in my day job, and the constant push and pull between money, time, and writing tears at me a bit. I’ve always been risk averse, and am not one of those people that can get by on four hours of sleep and spend that time writing. My brain is too mushy for that. Which leaves me navigating the “safe” route to writing success and happiness.
The best course of action, at least to the rationale mind, is to keep on keepin’ on. So that’s what I’ll do. Maintain this site, publish a novella and short story collection next year, and work on my next novel. If nothing else, I do love storytelling.
There are several ways to help an audience connect with the relationships between two or more characters. (In)Famously, there is the meet cute, wherein two people meet in a contrived, coincidental, but “cute” way, like bumping heads when reaching for the same dropped book or something. There are also “frenemies,” who begin as diametrically enemies and slowly become friends, investing the audience in their transformation, like Crowley and the Winchesters on SUPERNATURAL. And there are always the diverse group of people thrown together, like the study group on COMMUNITY or Leia, Luke, and Hanh in STAR WARS.
With the right dynamics, these are all legitimate ways to invest an audience in a set of relationships. However, I think one of the most effective ways of connecting an audience with two characters is to pair contrasts together. The Amazon Prime show TRUTH SEEKERS relies on this dynamic for several of its characters to great effect.
TRUTH SEEKERS makes the audience care about the relationships between its characters by making them odd pairs of contrasts who have a singular thing in common. The two core pairs in the show lean on this with the relationships between Gus (a middle-aged widower who is interested in the paranormal) and Elton (a single wanderer that attracts the paranormal), and Richard (a lonely old man) and Helen (an agoraphobic young woman).
For Gus and Elton, they both have the paranormal in common. Gus is attracted to it, mostly because of his late wife, while Elton is repelled from it due to an experience when he was a child. Unfortunately for Elton, but to Gus’s delight, the paranormal is attracted to him. This automatically introduces conflict into their relationship, so the audience is immediately invested in seeing them work together and come to an understanding.
Richard and Helen have loneliness in common. Only in Richard’s case it’s because he’s old and stuck in his house all day, while Helen is young but afraid to leave her house. The audience roots for them to solve one another’s loneliness and for Richard to help Helen overcome her agoraphobia.
These types of dynamics are shortcuts for the audience to identify with and latch onto characters. TRUTH SEEKERS does it especially well, in my opinion, because of the commonalities between the characters and how that allows them to help one another grow.
In thinking about the type of writer I want to be, I’ve begun to consider what attracts people to stories. Obviously, there are a lot of different genres, each with its own audience expectations to be fulfilled. Beyond that, there is high-brow and low-brow entertainment, right? Your WAR AND PEACE and your TWILIGHT. I’m not talking about either of these things, as those are just a matter of preference. What, at a fundamental, elemental, atomic level attracts us to storytelling? What are we searching for in stories?
To be clear, there’s probably no universal answer. Just like genre or high-brow / low-brow art, different people search for different things in their stories. So, I can really only speak to what I want in a story, and what all the writing advice I’ve consumed tells me most other people want in their stories. Things like story structure, the “Hero’s Journey,” and other classic storytelling traditions aren’t accidents. They work.
In my opinion, people like me, MR(S). EVERY(WO)MAN, seek out things that reflect us and give us resolution. Let’s talk it out.
People are vain, self-absorbed creatures, which is why we only ever tell stories about ourselves. Even stories with non-human characters assign them human traits. Emotions that are not natural to an animal, for example, like envy. When there is a purposefully inhuman character, it’s more of a contrast than a true other. Spock, for example, is an alien character whose primary trait is a lack of emotion.
There are lots of reasons for this, not the least of which is that stories are told by people. In that fact alone we’re limited by our experiences. If, somehow, we came across a story that showed truly alien things we probably wouldn’t even be able to recognize it as a story.
But reflection is more than a limitation on our experience. In fact, I think it’s the opposite. We tell stories that reflect us because they help us to understand ourselves. As far as we know, we’re the only creatures in the Universe that are consciousness of our consciousness. That’s confusing! We understand our own mortality, we have notions of abstractions like “justice” and seek order in an inherently chaotic world.
Reflecting our emotions, our social structures, our politics, our dynamics, our everything back to ourselves through art and storytelling helps us to make sense of it. To pull it apart a little bit and put it back together in a different, perhaps better way. We want stories to reflect ourselves not only because we relate to it, but because we want to better understand ourselves.
I don’t believe we only want to better understand ourselves. In some sense, I think story helps us to enact some control over things we inherently have little to no control over.
Every day new mysteries come and go, in our personal lives and in whole societies. The sock that goes missing. The serial killer that goes uncaught. The $5 bill you found in jeans that you don’t remember wearing. The thought-extinct fish that suddenly shows up on shore.
It’s rare we get answers to these things. Our lives are an increasingly silly machine we’re building piece-by-piece, with little insight into its inner-workings. Stories give us the opportunity to step inside the machine and swap out its parts so that all the pieces fit.
In that sense, I think stories are about resolution. The happy ending. The mystery solved. The family gaining closure, either through understanding or not. In life things are rarely explained, and things rarely end conclusively. Storytelling gives us that satisfaction.
These are the conclusions I’ve come to as I’ve thought about the type of stories I want to tell, and the types of stories I think people want to hear. It may sound obvious (because it is), but I firmly believe that sometimes in order to make progress you have to start with the absolute basics and then let those principles guide you.
Craig Gusmann is a writer currently stationed in PA with his wife and two cats. Sent from the future in a clear homage to The Terminator, he wanted to get a head start on perfecting his use of words. Feel free to let him know how he’s doing.