Sunday, September 29, 2013

All I Really Need to Know About Fiction, I Learned From "The Order of the Stick"

So today is the tenth anniversary of a webcomic called The Order of the Stick.

It was in the news last year when its creator, Rich Burlew, launched a Kickstarter campaign to reprint OotS books that went on to raise $1.25 million - yeah, that's million with an M - through crowdfunding alone.

That is as it should be.

It's easy for me to say that, because it's easily my favorite comic (web- or otherwise), and one of my favorite stories.   Certainly the only one for which I've woken in the middle of the night and checked for updates.

This is the webcomic wallpaper equivalent of "Ode on a Grecian Urn":
forever wilt ye be oblivious to the monsters, and they be one second away from stomping you flat.
But if I were to distill my unrelenting enthusiasm down into something coherent and halfway meaningful, I would say this:

1.  I love what Burlew's success says about us as an audience.  You know, it's easy to get bitter and cynical when a terrible movie makes eleventy-billion dollars, or when your favorite show gets cancelled after like, an episode, or when Twilight of the Vampire Spankings outsells the Bible.  It is so nice to be reminded (and Burlew is certainly not the first to do it) that there is still room in the world for intricate, thoughtful, entertaining, first-rate fiction, and that we don't have to wait for it to be handed to us from the exalted offices of New York and L.A. - that we-the-people can hoist our favorite fictioneers up on our shoulders and reward them with success all on our own. 

2.  I love what Burlew's success says about him as a creator.  Yeah, he made a million bucks off of Kickstarter - but before that, he was working for nine years on his own initiative.  And maybe that is easier to do when you're posting weekly pages of a webcomic - getting feedback on the spot from your readership - than it is when you are slaving away for months at a time on a novel or some other massive Frankenproject, feeling trapped in the sweaty dark pit of your lightless word-hole as you sink into despair and wonder if you'll ever finish, or whether anyone will care when you do.  But I have no doubt in my mind that he started with the right question - not "how can I make a million bucks and be famous?" (because a webcomic is NOBODY'S answer to that one), but "how can I tell a really fun awesomecool story?"

3.  I love what The Order of the Stick has taught me as a storyteller.  I'm not kidding.  If you look on the ingredients label for One Night in Sixes, you will find that it is at least 18% OotS.  Which might sound weird, given that one is a fantasy Western steeped in blood and history, and the other is a comic about DnD stick figures.  But man, those little sticks have seeped into my porous wrinkled head-sponge like nothing else.  There in two brightly-colored dimensions is proof positive -

--that you can tell a story bigger than any single character's narrative arc

--that a complex story with multiple main characters is not doomed to bog down or burn out

--that "funny" and "epic" are not mutually exclusive

--that epic fantasy can be momentous and significant without disappearing up its own asshole

--that worldbuilding, setup, and backstory can and should be just as entertaining as the rest of the story

--that blood and sex and eye-candy are optional, but characters worth caring about are not

--that good and evil are not fixed, static alignments - no matter what the Player's Handbook says.

I could go on, but if there's one other thing that The Order of the Stick is good for, it's reminding me that a head full of story is only worth as much as your ability to sit down and keep knocking out the pages. 

Anyway: happy birthday, little sticks.  Thank you for lighting up my life.  And good luck with those velociraptors.

--But if we don't have noses, how do I smell?
--Like cheetos, you diminutive wastrel.

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