Saturday, March 10, 2012

Ordering, or, What Pushes YOUR Buttons?

No awesome accomplishments to detail this week; real life has sucked me up altogether.  (Well, I did go to a pretty kick-butt author-reading session at the local B&N today; that was rad.) 

You know what I've always liked in fiction?  Ordering.

And when I was a kid, I didn't care if it was ham-fistedly done: I was consternated and delighted when I got to the top of the Tower of Zot and had the showdown with Sandy, Cindy, and Mindy (there's an order to taking them down, and you are screwed without it!), and just because you knew from the get-go that there were four Elemental Fiends didn't make them any less thrillsome in turn (all right, she's the Fiend of Air, what's she going to - OH GOD WHAT.) 

As I've gotten older and harder to please, though, what really pumps me up are the stories where the ordering is less rote, more subtle.  A truly excellent example is the matching of the Ur'Ru and the Skeksis in The Dark Crystal: in the movie, it's no secret that their lives are linked, but the finer parallels are laid out in the book: the Alchemist shares his soul with the Scientist, the Cook with the Gourmand, and so on.  Or (for real thematic whiplash here), there's the Seven Evil Exes of Scott Pilgrim: you know the number from the get-go, but the numbering under the numbering is sublime.  I hardly need to nerd at length about it when the Wiki spells it out so much better than I could.

To be sure, this is the WORST of all plot elements when it's abused.  (Man, I was SO INTO InuYasha for the first... what, four or five episodes.  Then the shikon jewel shattered into a MILLION tiny little pieces, every one of which would have to be individually collected in what promised to be a truly bloated and episodic saga, and I was done.)  At its worst, it makes the story obscenely predictable, and cuts the tension down to zero: if it's said outright that the hero has to collect seven magical plot-coupons in order to save the world, is anyone really on the edge of their seat thinking that he might die trying to win coupon #4? 

But when it's done right, ordering is a SUBLIME way to ratchet up the tension.  Every deadly sin in Se7en nudges up your horror and nausea as you try to imagine the next ghastly atrocity - and I don't know about you, but knowing that three of the five Gates have already been destroyed is leaving me right on the edge of my seat as The Order of the Stick tries to save at least one of the last two before the bad guys can get at them and ruin the world.

You know, for a wannabe author, I have a suspicious dearth of books represented in all this.

Anyway!  So that's my rambling; let's hear yours.  What particular fiction elements get YOUR creative brain-sensors all a-tingling?

I'm Ramona's FIRST evil ex-boyfriend.


  1. Interesting take on how formula structures can work, and not work. The structure you're describing is such a staple of so many genres, all the way back to folktales, and you're absolutely right. Sometimes it builds the tension and sometimes it just renders the story predictable.

    BTW I LOVE the movie DARK CRYSTAL but somehow this is the first I've heard of the book. Will put it on my reading list.

  2. It is a GREAT book! But just to be clear, it's not a novel version of the story, not like The Neverending Story or some of the other book-to-movie fantasies out there. It's called The World of the Dark Crystal, and it's basically this grand, gorgeous collection of all the supplementary material that went into the movie. Although it's got loads of gorgeous artwork and much the stuff you would usually see in a behind-the-scenes DVD featurette nowadays, what I really like about it is how much 'world-lore' made it in there. Characters who never had a single speaking line in the movie have whole personalities fleshed out in here, and a lot of what's only touched on in the movie (like the history of the Gelflings) gets much fuller treatment.

    Short story: it's not a novel, but it is a TERRIFIC book. Do please treat yourself forthwith!