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A thread on storytelling...


#221

This is something you can’t see, but DUNE is the perfect example of what I mean. The “world” created in DUNE was entirely designed to make Paul the most important person in it. After Paul’s story, the most interesting work done on DUNE was not found in any of the sequels, but in fleshing out the world itself - but that is not writing, storytelling or even all that creative. It’s not a great world for any other story as the sequels prove. Even those that Herbert wrote himself don’t compare to the original and the novels of his son are just hackwork which is about the best that world can support.

The Matrix is similar as trying to expand upon a world where a lone, antisocial, immature hacker is the most important person in the world is not really good ground for a new story. Or a world where a backwoods Hobbit is the most important person in it. There is a reason that a hundred times the number of people have read Lord of the Rings and not the Silmarrilion - there are lots of reasons in that case.

Star Trek is probably one of the most well-developed worlds, but if you watch the series, they are introducing new things all the time that we had never heard about even though they could be something as huge as an entire faction of the galaxy rivaling the Federation,Romulans and Klingons. The writers didn’t have hard and fast rules in the original series about the world - instead, they were about what stories they could tell and if their world needed something to make the story work, then it was going to be added and if something in a good story contradicted a previous episode, they were going with the story and not the world.

However, now we have a whole generation of new writers who think the world matters as a setting for any number of stories rather than focus on the story and characters. So we end up with world after world of messy stories and writers wondering why they can’t get published because their ideas are so great. A great world never got anyone to read or watch anything. It will always be the characters and whatever terrible crap they go through. The implication is that writers create a world and harvest a story and characters from it, but the world worth reading is created by a good story with good characters. the world doesn’t exist separate from those characters and the actions they take. it bends and changes according to the needs of the story.


#222

There’s a difference between world-building and storytelling, but it’s not that big. It’s like how we tend to, as nations, shape the course of history as between “us” (the country the narrative is based out of) and “them” (all the other countries that the given country has interacted with over the years). And I have to assume that every country does this. Americans tend to believe that the British are going to have an equal focus on the Revolutionary War as they do, because…! But as far as I can tell, the British…don’t. It’s just a footnote, just another of the colonial situations that didn’t pan out the way they thought it would. And you can’t focus on the tangents, in that overall history, because the main thread of the narrative would become so sidetracked as to become impenetrable. And you can’t teach history that way. So when you see efforts to create a kind of complete world history, events are still happening in complete isolation. It takes a highly disciplined mind to keep it all straight, and most of us are too subjective or reactive to have something like that, whether we admit it or not.

And so any fictional story, set in any particular world, is a lot like that. You stick to the overall narrative (the “world-building”) but otherwise tell little snippets of that history. Those snippets have to make sense in the greater context, there has to be a cohesive quality. Otherwise you’re just telling random stories loosely connected together, which I’ve mentioned before in the context of, say, Star Wars fans who don’t get why the films keep circling around the Skywalkers. It was established, by the second film, as the definitive narrative, and Lucas and Disney were wise enough to recognize that in subsequent efforts. But fans complain, because they just don’t…get it.


#223

Some novels do exactly that. If we’re lucky, an editor tells the writer to stop being stupid. (Les Miserables is one that immediately springs to mind, with the completely irrelevant chapters on Waterloo and Convents, but there are others.)


#224

I agree for the most part except I don’t find the continuity of the fictional worlds are all that important and honestly neither do most of the audience. Dead characters return to life. Worlds are reset. Everything can change.

Most fictional worlds that endure came into being simply because people loved the characters and hated to see them go when the credits rolled. The world simply existed as a very malleable stage set for the heroes and their stories. That’s why honestly many of the most successful worlds are actually pretty shoddy. Star Trek is probably the strongest, but weaker worlds like Whedon’s Buffyverse, Star Wars and Harry Potter also have massive fans, but it is mostly due to the characters who created the worlds from their adventures.

Now, though, they are marketing tools to maintain audience engagement and it’s almost the tail that wags the dog. Also, I think it gives us movies like SOLO that are really a series of “Easter eggs” I certainly think companies that paid fortunes for the IP would like to think the fictional worlds have inherent value but I think that’s just smoke. It’s a nice thought that you don’t have to depend on the talent and creativity of your employees to sell your products.

You can tell people they are Star Wars fans so they should like this movie, show or toy, but what attracts people to Star Wars is less the world but their specific relationship to a story that made them fans. Whether in the originals, the prequels or the novels and comics. The Skywalker saga is probably the biggest attraction though I think some might get into other characters BUT if they let the world dictate the story rather than the reverse, they won’t reach the audience they want.


#225

I completely disagree. Herbert’s sequels all have stories of their own that propel them forward and the relationship between Dune’s universe and those stories is exactly the same - even if those stories themselves are maybe not as compelling as Paul’s in the first novel.

Lord of the Rings is another great example for what I mean - the Silmarillion was never meant to be read, but Lord of the Rings is so compelling because you can feel and taste all those stories in Middle Earth’s past; those novels wouldn’t be half of what they are without that background.

The Matrix sequels are a good example for bad to non-existent world-building - Zion’s society and characters are paper-thing, the machines have neither history nor a discernable society, none of the minor characters feel three-dimensional. Too little world-building has gone into that one.

So, you are still talking about fan-fiction…?

(And I do agree with the Star Wars example, but that’s a failure of the specific approach Disney have been taking with that one.)


#226

Well, okay, some novels do go off on tangents (although I find it hard to think of an example in the gernes we’ve been discussin here), but again depending on what story you’re telling, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. One of the greatest English novels consists of nothing but tangents, with the protagonist’s story never quite starting.


#227

You’re talking about Jerusalem, right?


#228

Still haven’t read it, but the statement might well apply to it :slight_smile:


#229

It always astonishes me when people criticize the Matrix sequels by claiming they don’t develop anything…

On the one hand (red pill? blue pill?), the end of The Matrix itself is a lot like A New Hope, and seems to be too often mistaken for something it’s not, basically enough of a concluding statement that doesn’t really leave room for satisfactory follow-up material (a logical fallacy that came about only after the “disappointing” sequels). At the end, Neo does in fact overcome Agent Smith in spectacular fashion, and flies off having evolved to his ultimate self…But? How does this mean he’s anywhere close to actually achieving his end goal of freeing humanity from the machines?

So then in the sequels, we get a better sense of what the machines are by how they developed the coding features of the Matrix. We learn, unexpectedly, that the beloved Oracle is herself Matrix coding, just as Agent Smith is, just as Neo is. That’s the whole point of the Architect’s seemingly impenetrable dialogue, that everything we assumed about the world of the Matrix, both inside and out of it, isn’t true at all. This is not the Wachowskis slapping fans in the face. This is the story of Neo once again being awakened to truths he hadn’t previously known existed, just like in the first movie, but now learning what even Morpheus didn’t know, what no human knew, and couldn’t know, unless they were, y’know, the “chosen one,” the only person and/or program capable of seeing the Matrix in its totality.

So Neo meets other fascinating programs, like the Keymaker, the Merovingian, and even the kindly family on the train, the most obvious embodiment of the most inconvenient truth of all, that the machines, and thus the Matrix itself, don’t actually despise humanity, much less are inherently evil, but that humans and machines previously…lacked a proper understanding of each other, a common language. Or, Neo, in other words, the bridge who could broker the big deal at the end of Revolutions.

And in Zion, we quickly learn…Neo isn’t universally embraced as humanity’s savior, and that’s like a slap in the face to fans, and Morpheus isn’t anymore beloved. In fact, the decision-makers in Zion don’t seem to have room for that sort of thing, as they’re busy just trying to survive, after having each learned the same basic truth about the Matrix, so that it’s the fight, and the ridiculous truth of reality, that consumes them, not pseudo-religious nonsense. Modern society, I think, has reached that point again. Shouldn’t be so foreign.

But then there’s the elder councilor played by Anthony Zerbe, who has an incredibly interesting and ironic conversation with Neo concerning the fact that humanity, despite pitching a war of survival against machines, still powers Zion by machine.

And Morpheus’s new hire, played by Harold Perrinneau, has a wife who can’t stand his job…

So I really think that all of that has less to do with what the sequels do and more how they do it, by constantly telling fans that everything they assumed was…wrong. And that the only way Neo could actually win was. To die. For reals.


#230

I think most people probably understand those elements of the story pretty well.

I think the problem with the Matrix sequels wasn’t so much with telling fans that what they thought was wrong - that’s something that can be done really well and lead to some well-loved twists, like Vader in Star Wars.

I think the problem was that the storytelling didn’t manage to integrate the various elements of the story as smoothly and perfectly as the first film did. So you had the movie trying to lay out complex ideas about the backstory of the Matrix and how various elements of it worked, you had Zion and all the new characters there, you had a plot involving new characters like the Merovingian, Keymaker and Architect who weren’t introduced in a way that made them particularly interesting or understandable, you had them trying to depower Neo from the end of the first film so that it wasn’t all too easy for him… and it didn’t all hang together as an elegant story.

Even the action scenes didn’t feel like they really moved the story forwards like they did in the first movie - instead it felt like everything stopped for a fight, and then resumed afterwards.

And you also had quite important elements of the story that were parcelled off to tie-in stories like the Animatrix shorts or the Enter The Matrix videogame, when they really belonged in the movies.

I actually like the Matrix sequels quite, a bit, but I think that’s partly because I was invested enough in the world of the franchise to push past the weaknesses of the movies to see the good stuff. And there is good stuff there - some of the action is spectacular, the ideas underpinning it all are still compelling, there are some nicely-written moments, and some of the design work is amazing.

But I think attributing the mixed reception to fans learning that ‘what they knew was wrong’ is a bit disingenuous. They received a mixed reception because they were flawed (but still good, in my opinion) movies.


#231

I don’t know that they failed to integrate things as well as the first one. At any rate, I never had a problem. But, perception. Although that’s funny for movies about perception…


#232

I guess it’s about elegance and logical progression - for me, it feels like every scene in the first movie flows into the next, you have one idea leading into the next naturally and the action scenes and wordier scenes all feel like they work together and pull in the same direction.

In the sequels it felt a bit more like a jumble of ideas, and it didn’t all sit comfortably together.

Maybe that’s partly due to the wider canvas of the two-movie story - lots more different moving parts and subplots, which weren’t always pulling in the same direction because they were serving a wider range of different ideas.

I don’t think you can fault them for ambition, either way.


#233

You think that the Animatrix was a mistake then?


#234

I liked the Animatrix a lot, so I wouldn’t call it a mistake. A lot of the shorts were great in their own right.

But I feel like some of the information in them would have been useful to incorporate into the movies proper.

It’s a little bit like the Blade Runner 2049 shorts that came out ahead of that movie. They all contained information that deserved to be in the film.


#235

The Matrix was a cool action movie with underlying ideas that fueled the narrative. The sequels were a mix of some actions setpieces and some vague babble.


#236

I agree. In a sense, it was too much of a focus on world building rather than on the story and its primary driver - the characters.

In the Matrix sequels, the world is constantly being developed. If you took a drink for every time someone simply explains something to Neo throughout the first Matrix movie, you’d be very drunk by the end, but you’d be in a coma if you did that for the sequels.

The difference for me was that everything we learned about the “world” in the first one had to do with the basic question of the plot - “was Neo ‘The One’?” The sequels were ostensibly about “What is ‘The One’ supposed to do?” but they focused way too much on fleshing out the world rather than on letting telling the story.

At the same time, it was not necessary to try to go back to that “world” from a creative standpoint and try to ask the question “what is ‘The One’ supposed to do?” There was not really any more story to tell just as the original three Star Wars movies didn’t need prequels or sequels. Money is the only reason to do it. The world emerged from the story, so they fit like second hand suits. You might as well make a new suit. It’s useful to making a living off your work, but detrimental in the long run. I think it hurts budding writers more than readers/audiences, though.

That’s essentially my point. A good story will build the world it needs to tell it - and it doesn’t have to be a well-thought out, consistent world that could tell many different stories. In fact, the less developed and set it is - like with Harry Potter, The Matrix or Star Wars - it still supports the story. The story is the fire and the setting is just the smoke. Just because it sticks around after the fire is out doesn’t mean anything is still burning.

Skills to build a consistent world separated from the narrative are pretty useless when it comes to writing movies, comics, novels or television. Or four panel comic strips, even. Hell, the Bible is all over the place. Focus on telling a good story and it will flesh out the world you need.

Except - and this is a big exception - in video games like Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto, Warcraft, five nights at freddy’s even or table tops and RPG’s like Warhammer 40k and AD&D. That’s where world-building is the most useful because the players are essentially also writer-directors when it comes to the narrative elements of the play experience. Games are something outside narrative media or, more to the point, the narrative elements in some games are not the entire point of the experience playing them. So that does require some skill since the creative teams behind them will not, sometimes cannot and often don’t want to provide a set narrative, but in movies it usually becomes something like an amusement park theme ride where the characters are more or less costumed tour guides trying to keep up with the scenery.


#237

That fight between Neo and Smith is jaw-dropping, even today.


#238

True - I can’t deny the Animatrix and a few of the shorts like that are pretty entertaining. High class fan fiction at heart and a lot of fan fiction is actually entertaining too. But more like writing exercises or class projects.

Blade Runner 2049 is an interestingly bad film. Bad in interesting ways. However, even though it was a sequel, it was in many ways separate from the original. So much time had passed that it wasn’t really the same world as the original anymore except for the visuals.

However, it was a movie that didn’t define its story as well as the world it introduced or reintroduced.

I think Villenueve is not a director you want to hand $150-200 mil to make a movie for mass audiences. I don’t think he’ll really deliver an entertaining DUNE movie any more than David Lynch could have.

The novel DUNE is overrated as a piece of literature. At its core, it’s much closer to Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and Twilight than to any classic text. Paul Atriedes is Katniss Everdeen crossed with Harry Potter, Neo and Bruce Wayne. A child who is exceptionally different from everyone else in a world designed to make him its most important person. I imagine most of its strongest fans were close to Paul’s age in the book when they read it. I certainly was.

The movie doesn’t need a “visionary” director, it needs a David Yates, Francis Lawrence or Matt Reeves. Someone who can tell that sort of story without insulting the intelligence of the audience. I just think Villenueve will overdevelop, overthink and overwhelm what is essentially a very simple and even childish power fantasy with some smart insights into politics, hero worship and environmentalism.


#239

Except I don’t really have a problem with people just sitting around talking about stuff. That’s the essential quality of literary fiction. That’s what ostensibly sets apart “smart conversation” (people talking about things) from “dumb conversation” (people talking about people). That’s kind of why I never had a problem with the Matrix trilogy’s storytelling. You can tell the level of initial penetration by how much the ideas of a thing are discussed. And The Matrix had a lot of people talking about its ideas. But there really would’ve had to be a cool new twist in one or the other sequels, the Empire Strikes Back effect. The Yoda effect was already there; you could argue that the Matrix phenomenon was really just pop culture finally finding something that was all about the Yoda effect. But there was no Darth Vader moment. Me, I would’ve revealed that Agent Smith, or the shmuck who was taken over by him, was really Neo’s brother all along (but a lot of my stories have that trope, so it wouldn’t be entirely out of left field), just to deepen that aspect, not even merely to try and duplicate the Vader moment, but so that Smith was no longer just the bogeyman, just as Vader was no longer just the bogeyman, which was why he ended up seeming so cool and why that moment resonated so much. The Matrix sequels don’t have that. That’s what was missing. Instead, they swap out the general format of the first one for increased style (which I also loved; that flashforward with Trinity is a killer set piece; the highway chase is likewise my favorite sequence of the trilogy) and the old serials-style ending to the second one.


#240

I hope you mean the one in the first movie, that was amazing. The repeats in the sequels were snoozefests.