Many storytellers like to comment on storytelling in their stories. That alone isn’t a terrible thing, except so much of this commentary is pompous, harmful to storytellers, completely wrong, or all of the above. These meta messages say a lot about fiction-writing culture, and most of what they say isn’t good. Let’s have a look at five ultimately silly stories about stories and what they are telling us about our craft.
1. Stranger Than Fiction
In this 2006 comedy, the main character, Harold Crick, starts hearing an omniscient narrator. She narrates whatever he’s doing, including private thoughts that he’s never told anyone. She also declares that he’s going to die soon. To prevent his impending death, Harold consults a professor of literature.
This professor is reluctant to help, not because Harold can’t prove he isn’t hallucinating, but because what Harold hears isn’t tropey enough. Harold finally convinces the professor to help him by quoting the cliché omniscient phrase “little did he know,” which the professor claims is profound. You might think this phrase could be profound if you generalize it to all forms of dramatic irony. However, the professor mentions that Harold is hearing dramatic irony as soon as Harold tells him how the narrator predicted his death. Even weirder, this isn’t actually dramatic irony, because Harold heard it along with the audience.
The screenwriters might have decided to be extra silly with this professor as part of their comic routine. Later, he tries to figure out if Harold is in a fantasy story by asking him if he’s made of wood or if he’s the king of the trolls. However, the professor does make some savvy observations on things that are probably closer to the screenwriters’ wheelhouse. He identifies the love interest of the story by how much she hates Harold, and he instructs Harold to stay in his home and do nothing to prevent the plot from moving forward.
Viewers also meet Harold’s narrator, Karen Eiffel. Besides being a woman, she’s every stereotype about famous literary writers condensed into a single person. She’s a dour and eccentric English chain-smoker, and as far as viewers know, her process is waiting for inspiration to strike, scribbling a draft on a physical notepad, typing that on a typewriter, and then giving this to her publisher. The literature professor raves about how good she is.
Some of her weird process is probably to support the conceit of the movie. If Karen could revise the words that became reality, it would be too easy to avoid catastrophe at the end. Instead, the moment she types her work is when it becomes true. But even if we forgive the idea that brilliant works come from this cumbersome process, there’s still the way the movie treats inspiration.
Karen hasn’t written Harold’s death yet because she struggles with writer’s block. Yet she refuses to even try her assistant’s suggestions for how she could cultivate inspiration. The only thing she’s willing to do is wander around watching things that remind her of death, and it’s clearly not working for her. This is especially silly because the movie could have raised tension by showing her make slow progress with her writer’s block, getting her closer to writing Harold’s death.
Once she finally gets a stroke of inspiration, she tells her assistant that “like anything worth writing, it came inexplicably and without method.” Oh dear. What is this brilliant death she’s envisioned that couldn’t possibly have come from any intentional method? Getting hit by a bus. That’s not cliché at all.
Then, the movie pretends that it’s worth killing Harold to give her magnum opus the perfect ending. Harold chooses to die for her masterpiece, and this choice convinces Karen that he deserves to live. Not, you know, the inherent value of human life.
To prop up this terrible idea, the movie has to sell viewers on the impression that this book is art of the highest order. It does that by leaning on the toxic notion that classic literature is spontaneously generated by people who are inherently genius. This is a big reason why new writers always have beginner’s hubris, and it isn’t good for anyone.
2. Voyager: “Worst Case Scenario”
The episode opens as two of Voyager’s senior officers start a mutiny against Captain Janeway. Almost a quarter into the episode, the screenwriters finally reveal that this mutiny is all a holonovel! Sure, writers, you do you. Anyway, word of the holonovel spreads among the crew, and everyone becomes preoccupied with it.
Unlike many other stories within stories, it’s actually believable that this holonovel would be a topic of discussion. The story is gripping, it’s about all of them, no one knows who the author is, and it’s unfinished, ending on a cliffhanger.
The senior staff discuss the story in a meeting, and Tuvok, the logical and emotionless Vulcan character, admits that he is the author. Just after the Voyager crew came together, he wrote it as a security training scenario in case some of the crew really did mutiny. When that became unlikely, he stopped writing the novel and instead tried to delete it. He tells Janeway that it should be deleted for real this time, because it’s likely to inflame the very tensions it was meant to address.
Because Tuvok is the best character up until Seven of Nine arrives,* it’s no surprise that he’s right. The holodeck simulation is extremely realistic; how would people look at each other the same way after getting into shootouts? Even if that isn’t a problem, writing a story about the people you know is a terrible idea. Inevitably, someone will be insulted or hurt by the way you depict them. Case in point, Neelix protests that he would never betray Janeway like he does in the simulation. Even though he totally would have during that time period, he still shouldn’t be humiliated before the entire crew.
Like usual, Janeway just tells Tuvok to “loosen up.” Then since Tuvok doesn’t agree that the story should be finished, renegade white boy Paris volunteers to do it, saying he “always wanted to write a holonovel.” Janeway agrees, because supposedly this will stop the crew from getting mad that the ending is missing. Apparently, she did not research the history of the Game of Thrones TV series, in which everyone had a collective fit after a couple dudes bungled the ending to another guy’s story. And those dudes at least had some storytelling experience.
Tuvok later approaches Paris while he is working on the story, and the two have a debate about storytelling. Paris is just making up the story as he goes, whereas Tuvok insists that stories must be outlined first. Paris is planning a twist where Janeway decides to execute a bunch of people because audiences like exciting twists. Tuvok says this twist is incredibly illogical because Janeway wouldn’t do that, and according to the Vulcan Dictates of Poetics, “a character’s actions must flow inexorably from his or her established traits.”
Since storytellers in the real world have these debates all the time, this is probably the most realistic depiction of writers I’ve seen. It’s difficult to say who is supposed to be right. Tuvok has been established as a successful storyteller, but Paris is a favorite of the show’s writers. Since the rest of the episode has a buddy-cop feel, I think Paris and Tuvok are meant as opposing extremes who balance each other out. But while Tuvok’s insistence on outlining is overzealous, he’s obviously more right than Paris is. Paris is the embodiment of beginner’s hubris.
Then, Tuvok decides he wants to cowrite the end with Paris to prevent Paris from messing it up, and Paris tries to refuse. This is wild. Besides the fact that Tuvok has a right to his own story, Paris would be strung up as soon as fans discovered that he denied them an ending from the original author. Luckily Tuvok is the only one with access to edit the file, giving him the leverage he needs to make Paris agree to a partnership. Tuvok, why do you need Paris again?
Granted, if this was actually realistic, they would just copy the holonovel. Then Tuvok would write the end, and Paris could write his own fan fiction. All the people who are giving Paris and Tuvok suggestions for the ending could write fan fiction too. These suggestions are clearly inspired by real comments that the Voyager writers receive, and most of them are humorous as intended. Unfortunately, these jokes venture into romance shaming.
The chief engineer, B’Elanna Torres, asks them to add a romance subplot. She tells them that every story has room for a little passion, and she’s basically right. But instead of saying no for the right reason – these are real people they’re writing about! – Tuvok dismissively says the story “isn’t a romance” and Paris mocks her. This exchange is especially weird because it’s Janeway, not Torres, that’s been established as a romance fan. But since the writers felt they had to give Janeway a constant diet of candy, they romance shame the Hispanic woman instead.
To raise tension and give the episode an exciting climax, the writers could have used the holonovel to resurface old animosities like Tuvok warned. But since the show is afraid of its own premise, instead there’s a Paris-style twist where a previously defeated villain found the old holonovel before the crew did. It turns out that she reprogrammed it to be a sentient being that rewrites itself to torment and kill the author, putting Tuvok and Paris in peril. Sure.
3. Deep Space 9: “The Muse”
This episode of Deep Space 9 features the teenager Jake Sisko, who is working toward becoming a fiction writer. He’s out getting character inspiration by watching new arrivals on the station when a sexy alien woman steps on board. Their eyes lock dramatically. Later, she sees him writing in a public area and approaches him. She name drops a famous architect and tells Jake that she helped that architect become famous.
This “muse” was clearly drawn from some male writer’s wet dream. She speaks in a sultry voice, tells Jake he’s a chosen one, and invites him to her private chambers to learn writing techniques from her. Her quarters are filled with candles and covered in dark gauzy curtains. As Jake writes, she whispers seductively in his ear and massages the back of his neck. It’s amazing he can focus on writing while she’s doing that.
And, of course, under her influence he becomes a literary genius. The episode gives a specific explanation for what makes him so good, and it’s copied straight from the same toxic literary tropes that Stranger Than Fiction uses.
First, the muse tells Jake that he should start working on his half-formed idea for a magnum opus. Jake describes this story as being about “a lot of things,” which is not a great sign. Incredibly, Jake’s been putting off this exciting project because he knows he can’t do it justice yet. Since Star Trek takes place in a utopian future, I guess it’s possible that in this future, new fiction writers know they have skills to learn. Not if this episode has anything to say about it, though.
Next, the muse makes Jake write the old-fashioned way, with physical paper and a fountain pen that a famous writer she worked with gave her. She calls this “visceral writing.” Uh-huh. Then she insists he write his entire magnum opus via stream of consciousness. She does tell him that he can edit it later. However, since this ad-hoc novel is supposed to be real good, either she’s just saying this to get past his reluctance, or by “edit” she means fixing spelling and punctuation errors.
After getting Jake to “stop censoring himself” as she calls it, the muse rubs some Vulcan pressure points around his head and neck to increase his creativity. Voila! He is now a brilliant writer, all without having to attend the “Pennington School on Earth” like he planned or learn pesky principles like “show don’t tell” and definitely not “kill your darlings.” Writers automatically know these concepts once our creativity increases.
Of course, it turns out this sexy alien is feeding off Jake’s brain energy. Viewers are treated to several scenes where as she feeds, she gently rocks behind Jake and gasps like she’s having an orgasm. Soon it becomes apparent that her method of unlocking an artist’s potential kills the artist.* While it’s not entirely clear if he knows what he’s doing, Jake seems all too ready to throw his life away for the perfect story. The episode climaxes as Jake’s father rescues him from his muse, leaving the story unfinished.
Given that the muse’s literary method was lethal, you might hope this episode had a message about the toxicity of these ideas. If so, you’d be disappointed. The episode actually affirms them in several ways.
- Though the muse is driven away, she’s never defeated. Instead of getting arrested, she turns into a golden ball of light that flies away into space to find more artists to inspire. She’s romanticized from start to finish.
- As Jake recovers, his father reads the story he wrote under her influence and confirms that it’s very good. This means that even if Jake was taking a shortcut by partnering with the muse, tapping into his creativity really was all he needed to write masterful prose.
- At the end, Jake’s father delivers the takeaway: this great novel was inside Jake all along,* and he just has to learn how to reach it!
My list now has two stories about people who want to become artistic martyrs for some literary work. Honestly, literary folks, this is more than I wanted to know about you.
4. The Ten Thousand Doors of January
In this Hugo-nominated novel by Alix E. Harrow, the Earth is filled with hidden doorways to other worlds: a symbol for stories. The novel is narrated by the protagonist, who learns about these magical doors by reading. The antagonists of the novel want to destroy all of the doors. Why? Since they are powerful men, they are eager to maintain the status quo, and these doorways are responsible for all change in the world.
Okay look, we at Mythcreants believe that stories matter and are capable of creating change. That’s why we have lots of material about ethical storytelling. But saying that stories are responsible for all change is out there. I suppose if I reclassify the majority of human communication as stories, which businesses today love doing, then maybe I could have an argument. But seriously, do you want literary martyrs? Because this is how you get literary martyrs.
Ten Thousand Doors also contains commentary on stories throughout, and it’s pretty head scratching. First, the book is insistent that people should believe that these doors and all the speculative fiction creatures that come through them are real. The protagonist and her mother have to take this leap of faith to break free of their dreary lives or toxic abusers. That’s fine; there’s little harm in playing make-believe about fantasy stories being real.
The issue is that as this happens, the narrator also insists that the story she’s telling isn’t like all those other fake stories, because hers is real life. Addressing the audience in second person, she informs them that she won’t be meeting their expectations for a good story because life isn’t like a story. This gets even more bizarre when you look at how Harrow is claiming her story is not storylike. Spoilers: it is incredibly storylike.
For instance, in the beginning the narrator states that her introduction doesn’t sound very heroic because she’s a skinny-legged girl who ran away twice in a span of a couple hours. Except this sounds like countless protagonists at the beginning of a story, especially young women protagonists. Later, she says that a good heroine is supposed to hate the story’s villain, but she can’t hate the man who practically raised her. Totally different from all of those others stories where not-quite-fathers are evil and the protagonist feels divided about them!
The narrator’s idea of a story seems to be a stereotypical penny dreadful or pulp action novel. While Ten Thousand Doors takes place in the early 20th century, we can’t chalk this up to the protagonist feeling inadequate next to the stories she’s personally read. All the conflicted feelings she has during the events of the story are told in past tense as those events occur. But this “story versus real life” commentary is addressed to the audience in present tense, like facts. This gives them strong authorial endorsement.
When you look at these “real life” comments together, it becomes apparent what their actual purpose is. They make excuses for why the protagonist does whatever irrational and contradictory thing Harrow wants her to do to prop up the failing plot. If the protagonist had a developed personality that her actions were consistent with, that would be one thing, but she doesn’t. You see, Harrow doesn’t subscribe to any of that prescriptive Vulcan Dictates of Poetics nonsense about character consistency.
Like the Voyager episode, Ten Thousand Doors also has a story within the story. Unlike the Voyager episode, it’s not in the least bit believable that the main character finds it as riveting as she does. For one thing, the whole story is told in summary, essentially one big exposition dump. For another, it centers around a romance with no development: two kids from different words briefly meet, decide it’s true love for some reason, and then spend twelve years studying doors so they can get back to each other.
I should mention that I’m scoffing at true love because I am a pitiable person who has never experienced love for myself. Or at least, that’s the reason Harrow gives for why anyone wouldn’t like her love story.
On that same note, the narrator also states that “every story is a love story if you catch it at the right moment, slantwise in the light of dusk.” I guess that’s true if you expand the definition of “love story” until it’s meaningless.
Naturally, Harrow also provides an explanation why the protagonist finds this exposition book so engrossing.
I’d certainly read better books with more adventure and kissing and less pontificating, but none of them had left me with this fragile, impossible suspicion that maybe, somehow, it was all true. That there were Doors hidden in every shadowed place, waiting to be opened. That a woman might shed her childhood skin, snakelike, and fling herself into the seething unknown.
This can be interpreted in two different ways. One, that it’s engrossing because in the context of the story, it’s revealed to be a work of nonfiction. It is literally true. In that case, we should all cut out this speculative hogwash and dedicate our lives to narrative nonfiction because that clearly provides superior entertainment. Two, that saying the book feels true is code for “it’s good,” in which case the passage contradicts itself and we’re back to wondering what is supposed to be so good about it.
I guess it’s possible that the narrator just loves epistolary stories, which can have an extra ring of credibility because of their likeness to real documentation. Ten Thousand Doors and its interior story are both technically epistolary, though neither have enough authenticity to feel credible. In particular, the inner story starts as an academic paper and then cuts off mid sentence before starting again as a biography. Apparently the author decided that the scrapped introduction to his paper would be a great way to open the biography? It’s not like writers can just throw that away and start on a fresh piece of paper. Impossible.
The glorification of this inner book reaches ridiculous levels. At one point in the novel, the protagonist is imprisoned in an asylum, and her love interest somehow manages to sneak through security and get right outside her window. Then, instead of helping her escape out the window, he just gives her the book through it. Hey, kids at home, you should know that while stories can provide valuable escapism from harsh realities, they are not a replacement for an actual escape. Please only use your books for their intended purpose.
Harrow almost certainly wrote this turn of events because she wanted the book to inspire the protagonist to use magic in her escape. The love interest had no way of knowing this was possible. However, I’m sure his decision is fine because in real life, people are nonsensical sometimes.
5. The Ending of the Game of Thrones Series
This isn’t an entire story about stories; this is one scene. But boy is it a scene. For anyone who’s been living in Antarctica and communicating only by messenger pigeon, the Game of Thrones TV series (and the books it’s based on) spent its run building up the question of which of the many warring nobles would end up on the Iron Throne. Then instead of letting someone win the conflict of the story, the series knocked out the biggest contenders and had everyone else meet to choose someone. This was not a good idea. It only guaranteed that no matter who was chosen, it would feel arbitrary and contrived to fans.
Somehow, the showrunners managed to make the choice feel worse yet. Tyrion, the character who is supposed to be clever but hasn’t been for several seasons, gives everyone a big speech to advocate for his pick. He starts by saying that what unites people isn’t armies, gold, or flags, it’s stories. Sigh.
By “story,” Tyrion seems to mean any supposedly nonfiction narrative about past events. When used politically, this might also be referred to as “propaganda.” Since Game of Thrones is a fiction story, I bet the showrunners are trying to use the word to encompass both their own show and propaganda. But a story that everyone knows is fiction is clearly irrelevant to this argument. So for now, I’ll fly with Tyrion’s definition.
It’s true that having a common narrative about the new monarch would be helpful in uniting the kingdom. However, this probably wouldn’t be more helpful than bringing people from around the kingdom together to fight side by side under the same flag. A narrative also wouldn’t be more helpful than spreading gold around so everyone prospers under the new leadership. Stories are great, but if people have to choose between food and stories, they will choose food.
To justify why stories are most important, Tyrion states there’s “nothing in the world more powerful than a good story” because “nothing can stop it” and “no enemy can defeat it.” While he’s right that it’s difficult to keep information from spreading, that doesn’t mean this information is powerful. Stories generally have the most impact on a population of people that are already looking for an outlet for specific grievances, beliefs, or behaviors. Stories about religious heretics may be a rallying point for people who already want to take the lands of those supposed heretics. People looking for a reason to use force to keep their president in power might respond to a story about a stolen election. But alone, a story isn’t enough.
Moreover, while there are plentiful examples of stories that inspired violence, Tyrion wants to use them to unite people. Sadly, using a story to create peace is more challenging. The easiest way to unite people around a narrative is to create an enemy, but that wouldn’t be a positive ending for the show.
Then Tyrion declares which character he thinks has the best story, bringing in the events of the series. For reference, the characters below were among the many possible contenders for the throne.
- Sansa, who was repeatedly sold into marriage. She escaped from her violent husband, took back her family’s lands from him, and executed both him and the dude who sold her off.
- Arya, who studied under magical assassins to get revenge for the slaughter of her family. After using her assassin skills to get revenge on her family’s enemies, she kills the king of the undead in battle.
- Jon, who was thought to be the bastard son of a lord but was actually the legitimate heir to the previous royal family. He leads the northerners against the undead and is betrayed and murdered by his own people. That’s okay – he comes back to life.
Instead of these characters or the many others with incredibly eventful stories, including himself, Tyrion says that it’s Bran who has the best story. Bran is disabled, and Tyrion’s reasoning is incredibly ableist. Let’s look at the quote, and then I’ll break down the ableist messages in it.
And who has a better story than Bran the Broken. The boy who fell from a high tower and lived. He knew he’d never walk again, so he learned to fly. He crossed beyond the world, a crippled boy, and became the Three-Eyed Raven.
First, in this story Bran is defined by his disability. “Crippled” is a slur, and “broken” might be worse. The guy isn’t lying in pieces on the floor. Whereas the other characters get badass titles like “Breaker of Chains,” Bran is instead stereotyped.
Then even though Bran’s deeds are less remarkable than many of the other characters, Tyrion claims Bran’s story is more profound because of his disability. This is called “inspirational disability,” in which disabled people are praised just for living their lives. It reveals the insultingly low expectations able-bodied people have for what disabled people can accomplish.
Last, Tyrion frames Bran’s magical powers as a way to overcome his disability. While Bran fits a disabled psychic stereotype that in itself isn’t great, his powers are at least pretty interesting. Making them all about his disability reduces him to a caricature.
Finally, Tyrion makes the argument that Bran’s magical knowledge of history would make him a good ruler. I’m not saying we should crown our best historians, but compared to the other things Tyrion has said, I’ll take it.
Of all of these stories, the Voyager episode has the least bizarre things to say. That’s because the writers were discussing their day job instead of portraying some romanticized version of what storytelling is. While wanting to idealize our work is understandable, it makes us feel inadequate, sabotages our work, and is insufferable to boot.
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