Key Points: It's exciting and interesting to take a ridiculous, over-the-top idea and humanize it, to bring out the characters and story in a realistic way. Put people in incredible situations! Give your story a real core of emotion. For example, when a superhuman character looks at someone they are saving and realizes that they can never go back to that life. "You can do almost anything ridiculous as long as you go back to the core of emotion."
To flesh out the completely ridiculous premise, try "How could this possible have happened?" and "What are the ramifications?" Use the 1000 why's. Why is it like this, and how did we get here? Also, look at how it affects the richest and poorest person in society. Also, try "given this, what does the character want? Why?" Finally, look for the conflict. Where are all the points of friction?
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Season Six, Episode 24, From the Ridiculous to the Sublime.
[Mary] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Dan] And I'm Dan.
[Howard] And joining us is...
[Mary] Andrew Mayer.
[Howard] Andrew Mayer!
[Andrew] Andrew P. Mayer, officially, if we're clever.
[Mary] Oh... Sorry about that.
[Dan] Andrew P. Mayer, an author with Pyr. And your first book is called The Falling Machine?
[Andrew] That's right.
[Howard] Tell us a little bit about yourself. Now that Dan has told us a little bit about yourself.
[Andrew] About me or about my book?
[Dan] Either and both.
[Andrew] Okay. Gosh, I'm... This is my first novel. Through Pyr. A second book is coming out in November. I've been... When I'm not writing, I'm a video game designer. I've been doing that for a long time. I've been writing for a long time, but I finally put the nose to the grindstone and got the novel finished and cleaned up and out and sold.
[Howard] Well, fantastic.
[Dan] What video games have you worked on that our listeners might recognize?
[Andrew] The main one that I did long ago and that is still around is Dogs with a V. Dogs and cats. Most of...
[Dan] Dogs and cats?
[Andrew] Yeah. And pets with a Z. Horses, babies, they still push 'em out.
[Dan] Oh. Yeah. Actually I had...
[Andrew] Long since I've had anything to do with it.
[Howard] Babies. They still push 'em out.
[Andrew] That's the [garbled]
[Dan] There's your writing prompt. Thank you for coming.
[Howard] All right. So we're talking about taking ridiculous elements, taking ridiculous concepts, premises, whatever, and what the sublime mean? Help me out here? What are we doing?
[Mary] This was an idea that Andrew brought up when we were talking. His novel is basically... It's a Steampunk superhero novel.
[Dan] Which sounds awesome, by the way.
[Andrew] Thank you. I like it.
[Mary] Yes. So you were the one who pitched the idea, so why don't you talk a little bit about what your concept is with...
[Inaudible background noise. There appeared to be occasional background thunder during this segment. Perhaps the superheroes were restless?]
[Andrew] Sure. So, the idea of it is... Like with... When I... One thing I really enjoy with genre fiction or any genre stuff... A lot of this comes out of my love of comics, but... I think, in general, is... The idea that you can take... The more ridiculous and over-the-top an idea it is, the more exciting and interesting it is to humanize it, to make it character driven and story driven in a realistic way, right? To put people in incredible situations. I think it's interesting with like genre films, like with all these Marvel movies coming out now for instance, right? You see something like Thor where they actually had to tone it down a little bit for the film, right? It's like Gods come to earth. Well, they're science gods, they're not actually gods gods. But I look at what I like in comics, I look at what I like in genre fiction of any type, and I love it when they push it to the edge and then somehow tell a realistic story. The Japanese do that really well in anime as well.
[Dan] Well, and in... On the subject of comics, that's one of the things I loved so much about the Bryan Singer X-Men movies. The X-Men had already kind of dealt with that issue, but just the way he brought it out as here's these ridiculous superheroes with these crazy powers, and yet made it... Gave it actually some very plausible, very heartstring tugging ties to the Holocaust and to racism and discrimination of all different kinds. "Why don't... Have you ever tried not being a mutant?" Little lines like that really grounded it and gave this ridiculous story a really solid core of emotion.
[Andrew] I mean, in some ways it's a trick because I think people... I think you can constantly surprise people by finding emotional moments in it. There's a few tricks that I've been noticing as I've been thinking about it a lot. Like one thing that really affects me is to have a character, for instance... And I'm giving away the secrets... But the character... A character for instance who's a superpowered character or superhuman character and looks at someone they're protecting or saving and realizing they've lost that life. That they can never go back to it. That's... If you think about that moment in the movie, it's always a good tearjerker moment. It always instantly grounds and humanizes the characters. Because it's a sense of loss, it's a sense of becoming something else and not being able to go back.
[Howard] Let's take a few minutes and talk about films or comics or books... Especially books if possible because that's what people read. But... Places where we think this has been done really, really well. And if we've got some examples, places where we think it's been done just execrably badly.
[Dan] Well, one place this has been done very effectively was Children of Alera, that epic fantasy series...
[Mary] By Jim Butcher.
[Dan] By Jim Butcher. Where basically, as I understand literally on a dare, he decided to take the Pokémon concept and treat it as a serious epic fantasy premise. The books work marvelously.
[Howard] So Pokémon isn't real?
[Andrew] Well, Pikachu's real.
[Dan] Oh, crap, I forgot we were hiding that from Howard.
[Mary] Pika! Pikachu, pika. Oh, pika.
[Dan] We know Pikachu's real because I've seen at least seven people dressed as her at this convention, so...
[Andrew] That gets into the whole thing of the trainer and the relationship there, but we'll not talk about that.
[Dan] Well, see... That's exactly the thing. If Pokémon were real, that relationship would have to be dealt with, and Children of Alera does. It goes into all the different kinds of things, of catching monsters and taming them...
[Howard] Well, what was the T-shirt or the bumper sticker that said, "Pokémon taaught me that it's okay to make animals fight?" Which, when you think about it, if you're going to make this serious, you have to deal with that.
[Dan] Well, yes. To make them fight and to keep them locked up when you're not using them.
[Andrew] That's one thing that does fall out of it, right? Like, as you start to put more realism into it, you find yourself having to deal... Like, you'll have that aha moment, where you're like, "Oh, this is easy." And then you'll be like, "Wait. Uh-oh. Okay, there's a whole thing there." I have a... One of the main characters in my book is a mechanical man called the Atomaton. There's a lot of readers that are convinced that there should be a romantic relationship with him and the main character... The girl that's the main character in the book. It's not like it hadn't crossed my mind, but like the complications of... And the ramifications of that, and how that would change that in terms of what kind of book it is...
[Andrew] Is big.
[Dan] Well, as we learned from Data. He was... Fully functional.
[Andrew] Fully functional. That was an early on decision they made that I wonder if they ever regretted.
[Dan] I suspect they did, but they never came back to it.
[Howard] I remember one of my favorite lines in Star Trek where Data said, "Yes, she gave me what might be called a passionate kiss in the torpedo bay." And I realized that they had...
[Dan] And we've just lost our clean rating, Howard!
[Howard] No we haven't. We're still okay.
[Andrew] Double entendres are okay, as far as I know.
[Howard] Apple won't catch that.
[Mary] So can I tell you about the time that I wrote a story on a dare?
[Howard, Dan] Yes!
[Mary] So, evil robot monkey was...
[Mary] I know. So we had a running joke at Shimmer Magazine about terrible submissions we would get. The training title that we used when we were training a new slush reader was Harry Potter and the Evil Robot Monkeys. I said I am someday going to write a story called Harry Potter and the Evil Robot Monkeys and make you weep. So I wrote this short. The only thing I knew going into it was that the title had to be Harry Potter and the Evil Robot Monkeys. So it was about an uplifted chimpanzee who was doing pottery and so...
[Dan] You can see where this is going.
[Mary] So he was a hairy potter evil robot monkey. I wound up editing the title later, but that was my first Hugo nomination.
[Howard] Did they cry?
[Mary] They did cry.
[Dan] They cried when they realized the pun you were making.
[Mary] Well, yes. That was when my editor made me change it. But this...
[Howard] But that's a perfect example of going from the absolutely ridiculous... The title is a pun.
[Mary] Yeah. This is what we're getting back to, is that the way to handle this is to... You can do almost anything ridiculous as long as you go back to the core of emotion. Something Carol Burnett once said when talking about comedy was that she just played it straight. She played it as if her character completely believed and was existing in this situation, and let everything else happen from that. I feel like when you're dealing with the ridiculous, that you can take this premise, but you do have to treat the characters in them as complete humans who are dealing with all of the emotional ramifications of wherever you've put them.
[Dan] I have a wonderful example of that, which we will do after our book of the week. Book of the week this week is Mainspring by Jay Lake. This is one that Andrew recommended to us. Tell us a bit about it.
[Andrew] Sure. Mainspring is a story of a boy in a... I don't think I'm giving it away, because the very first chapter he's... The world is a clockwork world. It's Earth, it's very similar, Victorian world, steampunk-ish novel. But the world is actually a clockwork universe. There's a big gear in the middle of the Earth, and it winds around the sun.
[Howard] The equator is a giant gear.
[Andrew] Big brass gear.
[Howard] And at midnight, local midnight for you, you can hear the tooth contact as the Earth spins by on the actual physical track it's on in the heavens.
[Dan] That's cool.
[Andrew] An angel comes to him and tells him that the mainspring of Earth is winding down. This young gentleman has to go and try to discover and rewind the Earth's spring.
[Dan] Excellent book from an excellent writer. We do give a bit of a content warning on it. But if you've never read Jay Lake, that's a great one to start with.
[Mary] And an excellent example of taking a completely ridiculous premise.
[Andrew] True enough.
[Mary] And making it into something quite magical.
[Howard] So head on out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Kick off a 14 day free trial membership, and download a copy of Mainspring by Jay Lake for free.
[Dan] All right. Now, back to the example I wanted to talk about, about taking something silly but then treating the characters within it as completely real people. This is... What I want to talk about is the song "I Google you" by Neil Gaiman which you can find on YouTube performed by Amanda Palmer. It's basically... Gaiman started with this silly premise of the Internet stalker. Someone who is hopelessly in love with someone and looks them up on Google every night. The first verse and a half... Chorus, whatever, of the song is hilarious. Because it's this obviously pathetic person who is just constantly googling this person. Then, as the song goes on, you start to realize how sad that really is, and how alone this person must actually be. By the end of it, it actually gets you a little bit teary, by really delving into that kind of loneliness and obsession and sadness. It's a wonderful example of this.
[Howard] So this is a case where Gaiman isn't making the ridiculous sublime. He is starting you from an actual point of ridicule. We are laughing at this person. Then at the end, we are realizing the seriousness, the legitimacy of this horrible human condition.
[Dan] Well, and wrapped around a very silly title and a very goofy concept.
[Andrew] One thing that's happened to me, because this is my first book, so I'm learning a few things. One thing is because I'm coming from a place with superheroes, I want to set up that contrast, like that that we are talking about. But because it's ultimately going to be a trilogy, I left some of that on the table. But people don't know who I am. So they're taking it... Like I'm getting feedback like, "Oh, well, these characters are just so broadly drawn. Like some of these characters..." It's like... Well, ah, all right, because you don't know that I'm going to take it there yet. You have no experience or expectation for that. It's interesting. People do take things as they are given, I think, especially when they're in a book or something like that, so a twist can work really well if you pull it off right.
[Dan] Yeah. That is difficult to do. I mean, most of our listeners are aspiring writers and they have much more of an uphill climb, I think, than others when they are starting with a premise like we're talking about. One of the examples of someone who's done this very effectively is Orson Scott Card. Again, essentially on a dare. He was at a convention talking about how you could take pretty much anything and turn it into a good science fiction story. Someone in the audience said, "Well, how about a culture that worships human excrement?" He said okay and he did it. It's actually a very good story. He would probably have a much easier time getting that story published then someone who'd never published anything before.
[Andrew] At the same time, there a lot of new writers... When people... I mean, there's ideas that you're excited about, that you want to write about, that are inspiring and they can often be pretty out there, right? So, I mean, I think the challenge... Learning how to control those instincts or get your skills around those instincts is a great challenge for people who are starting out.
[Mary] So let's talk about some of the skills that you can bring to bear on something that is a completely ridiculous premise. When you've got a completely ridiculous idea, what's the first step that you take when you're trying to flesh it out and discover whether or not there's a story in there that you can actually use?
[Howard] I ask the question, "How could this possibly have happened?" I world build backwards from it a little bit. Then... Part and parcel with that... Same side of the... Different coin, same side... No. Whatever. What comes next? What are the ramifications? I start painting to the left and to the right to see what it looks like. As I'm doing that, I'm doing that is seriously as possible.
[Mary] Yeah. I do something very similar. I look at it... How did... I use the thousand why's that Scott Card talks about? But you basically... Well, why is it like this? How did we get here? Then going backwards and then going forwards, too. But I also look at... So if this thing exists, how does it affect the richest person in society and how does it affect the poorest person in society? That kind of starts to give me a broad spectrum of... Around whatever this ridiculous idea is.
[Howard] So you actually have tools for measuring these ramifications, where I just forge blindly ahead.
[Dan] Hey, forging blindly will eventually work.
[Andrew] It's interesting. Because I have what I call... One of the things that pushed my writing career back for a long time is I had what I called RPG disease. So like I would world build and never get around to the story, or I'd wall myself in and never actually get to the writing. So I know I can do the world building part, so for me, the first question is, "given this craziness, what does the character want?" Right? Like just go back to the basic question saying now... Like... That really leads to interesting stories. Like, given that there is a God in the world, if you have a villain or something, it's like... Well, if I kill him, I take his power. So that's excellent. Like... Then the character motivation happens, right? So I always think that there's an answer to why. I think if you just sit down around the table for long enough, you'll come up with something. Like, if you're a good nerd, you'll figure it out. The fun part is figuring out, "Okay, what does a character... Like, in a world where that exists, for whatever reason, we'll come up with it later... What does this character want and why? How do they..." That's where the excitement, I think, starts to happen for me. Right? And the motivation for the story.
[Mary] Yeah. And the thing that grounds the story as well. That what-does-the-character-want is the thing... There's... In theater, we talk about the viewpoint character, which is the character... It works for fiction, too. But it's the character through which the audience connects to the stage... To what's happening on the stage. I think that by finding those basic human core emotions and wants and needs, that helps the reader connect and understand with whatever is happening. It also allows you to draw analogies between the crazy that you have put on the page and with real life.
[Andrew] With human emotion, right? Like, I have a need, right, that's going to be fulfilled?
[Dan] Very quickly, we need to end, but one of the tools I always use what I come up with an idea is figuring out what the conflict is going to be. Where are all the points of friction? A good example of where this could have gone wonderfully and didn't was the third X-Men movie.
[Howard, groan] Yes.
[Dan] That started with the premise of "There's a cure." That, sociologically, if there is a way to suddenly not have whatever it is that makes you different from everybody else? That's an incredibly deep idea, that could have gone so well, and creates wonderful conflict within every character in the story. Then they just kind of glossed over it. Didn't do much.
[Andrew] I mean... It's what... Yeah... It's what... It got close, right? It's what makes Magneto work, right? He's a... When he... Magneto's a great character because he's a villain who loves being a mutant and believes that mutants deserve a place on the top of the chain. Right? So it's always a great conflict with him.
[Dan] Exactly. All right. We need to wrap this up. But first we need a writing prompt. We're going to go ahead and do our traditional rude, mean thing...
[Howard] And ask Andrew to give us a writing prompt?
[Andrew] Okay. Um.
[Howard] This is for our many thousands of listeners. Who have just been...
[Mary] But no pressure.
[Howard] No pressure at all. Who have just been told that it is possible to take something ridiculous and make it sublime. If you want to work in those lines, you can. Or if you want to, just do something... Completely different?
[Andrew] Sure. How about a story about a character who discovers that there's a pill out there that gives you the powers of a god?
[Mary] And you can pick the god.
[Andrew] You can pick the god, but it comes in pill form.
[Dan] Can I get a bottle of Thor, please?
[Howard] Very good. One bottle of Thor coming up!
[Dan] Prescription strength Thor.
[Howard] Prescription strength Thor.
[Dan] The over-the-counter Thor is just not doing it for me.
[Mary] But you can't... No driving... Or...
[Dan] Yes. No operating heavy machinery.
[Mary] No, heavy machinery is totally fine.
[Howard] Heavy machinery... You're required to operate heavy machinery.
[Andrew] Heavy machinery is fine. Not Thor's beam. It's just Thor.
[Howard] All right. Fair listener, you are out of excuses. Go write.