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Sunday, May 24, 2009

continue extrapolate repurpose

1 5 6
I apparently am in love with three notes, since they start a lot of my pieces. They are: 1 5 6. … The 1 grounds it. "Here is what you're standing on." The 5 brings that to its natural conclusion, fifths being the most pure interval. … 6 changes the meaning of the chord. In minor it's just the tiniest bit removed from 5, but flips the whole chord's meaning upside down. See, 6 is just two notes under 1 (or 8), which means that that's suddenly the "real" base of the chord. A tiny little half-tone increment, and suddenly the chord isn't what you thought it was. That's interesting to me.
With any long-running series of fiction I care about, I have a very specific idea about where I'd like to see it go in the future. The hope is that someday I'll be so rich and famous that I'll get to do it myself, but realistically that's never going to happen. The ideas are going to stay in my head as fan fiction.

It recently occurred to me that all my ideas are following the same formula. First I establish my take in accepted continuity, using as many past elements as I can. Then I try to imagine how that would naturally play out, connecting all the pieces together and going farther with them than their creators intended. And then I flip the whole thing around, so that it's actually not the same kind of story at all as the ones it's following.

The story wouldn't necessarily happen in that order; that's just the order I'd figure it out in.

I really love the idea of continuity. (You may have guessed that from the way this blog is presented on the main page.) A long-running series is like a person, and each thing that's happened in it is like another aspect of its personality. So the way I would continue a series is by trying to remember everything- not just the universally-loved stories, but the terrible and ridiculous stories too. What you call a flaw, I call an interesting aspect to the continuity. Writers often try to cherry-pick continuity, sweeping away those flaws in favor of a cleaner status quo. That feels as fake to me as people under heavy make-up. The only story which should be forgotten is a story which can't be reconciled with the rest of continuity.

Every time a new ingredient is added to continuity, it increases the number of stories that can be told in the future. Every character arc has a logical next step to take. Furthermore, if story A introduces a character or idea, and story B introduces a character or idea, you can usually infer a story C which involves both of those elements knocking into each other. Obviously the thematic connection isn't always straightforward, but that's why it's good to take a very analytical view of continuity and figure out how everything fits together before writing a single story. (You may have gathered from this blog that I like being analytical.)

Once I decide how I think everything fits together and where it would naturally lead, I need to flip it around so that it feels like a fresh story. Just a few new characters or ideas thrown in can change the whole perspective of the story, making you think about it in a way you otherwise would have overlooked. The idea is to find some new angle that hasn't yet been explored, by putting in one or two small elements that you'd normally never think would go together with the story. That way, each time you see the next chapter of the story, you get new ideas about what the whole series was about all along.

I guess I must have picked up this formula from what Straczynski did with Amazing Spider-Man. He pointed to all the animal-based villains which Spider-Man faces (Vulture, Rhino, Doctor Octopus, Vermin, Scorpion, etc. etc.), and suggested that there was a subconscious effort there to adopt animal "totems". Then he threw in the idea of a "Spider-God", which chose Peter Parker as its champion, and suddenly the whole series seemed to be a mythological epic. I think that whole run is brilliant.

One of my favorite pieces of comics writing, Dan Slott's first twelve issues of Avengers: The Initiative, also seems to follow the formula. It has a starting point of the entire Marvel Universe in its current status quo, brings in as many old characters as it can stuff in along with a bunch of new characters whose origins make sense given what's been established in Marvel Comics so far. The whole premise of the series is based on what logically would be there if you take the post-Civil War status quo seriously. Then it adds in government bureaucracy, and suddenly it seems like the whole Marvel Universe is a tragedy about how governmental interference can sap the life out of people.

Anyway, these things have inspired me and now I think that the "continue extrapolate repurpose" formula is the best way to continue most long-running series. Of course, that's not how I think about it when I imagine how a series should continue. I just get ideas from watching what's already being done; I can't help that. And it turns out (in retrospect) that all my ideas do pretty much the same thing with their respective series. Here's what I'd like to see:

*psst* Stop reading now. The rest of this post is gonna be unbelievably annoying in its fanboy geekishness and ooh-look-at-me self-congratulation.

Star Trek: Federation
It would be set a while after all the series so far. Potential wars have been averted or won (including one with the Vaadwaur race, met in Dragon's Teeth, a lousy episode of Voyager's last season), all their former enemies are either dead or allies. The Klingons and Ferengi are full members, the Vaadwaur and Dominion are being welcomed into the Alpha Quadrant, the Romulans are mostly wiped out from the destruction of Romulus. Even the Borg have found a place in the great Federation of Planets, giving an optional home to the many people who want to be assimilated but otherwise leaving the universe alone. It's Gene Roddenberry's utopian vision taken to its ultimate realization. Everyone is under the umbrella of the Federation. The question is what comes next.

My answer to that is that a moral decline begins. The different value systems begin to clash with human values, and the new races vying for power (Klingons and Ferengi in particular) start to corrupt the entire Federation. The humans are the good guys of the show, trying to balance their idealistic acceptance of other races with the understanding that there is not as much middle ground to stand on as they would like. The Federation would gradually begin to shift its power toward Vulcan, and away from Earth. In parallel, the proliferation of personal time travel devices and holodecks starts to give ordinary people all over the galaxy the idea that nothing they do matters, that life is no more sacred than holograms and whatever timeline you're in is no more important to save than another.

The twist is that the structure would be more like an anthology show. Each episode would be self-contained, showing one or two characters (or a group of characters) somewhere in the galaxy. They'd be introduced in that episode, have a story, and get to some kind of ending, and that could cover as much time (in-story) as the story calls for. There would be recurring themes and technologies and planets and species, but very rarely recurring characters. That would make the whole series feel very different to any previous Trek, getting at the broad strokes of history if you watch more than one episode of it.

The Legend of Zelda: Broken Duet
There would be two playable characters: Link and Enria, an old-girlfriend type character along the lines of Saria and Illia. The basic premise of the story (after a one-dungeon introduction to the characters as kids) is that it's what happens after a typical Zelda quest. Teenaged Link is known throughout peaceful Hyrule as the hero who saved them, he lives in the castle with Princess Zelda, the king sends him off on errands which are all really easy for him. Enria has been left behind at the village where they grew up, being pushed by her family to settle down and get together with a nice local boy, but always wishing she could have adventures with Link.

The gameplay for Link is action, and the gameplay for Enria is climbing. The game would (without spelling it out) expand on the usual "balanced-hero" idea by suggesting that neither Link nor Enria is balanced without the other. As Link, the player is encouraged to solve problems through brute force. As Enria, the player is encouraged to avoid confrontations but explore. And every now and then, Zelda will pop in as a non-playable character and solve "puzzles" with her magic.

The idea is to split up the three parts of the Triforce -Power, Courage, Wisdom- so that future Zelda games can play with the dynamic between them in different ways. For instance, there could be a nonviolent Zelda where the player needs to explore and solve puzzles, but where the Power part of the equation is included by having Ganon -the usual bearer of the Triforce of Power- as a non-playable ally. Or a Zelda game where the player can choose which of three characters to bring into a dungeon, so that the solutions to problems are approached with different kinds of gameplay. Also, the basic gameplay can be different from one Zelda game to the next just so long as a balance is maintained between the three elements. Power can be action, but it could also be real-time or turn-based strategy (strength in numbers). Courage is always exploration, but each game could have a different kind of movement to explore in. And Wisdom is usually puzzles, but it could also be perception. So the idea is create a framework from which many new Zelda games can be made without just repeating what's already been done.

The twist in Broken Duet specifically is that it doesn't exist for the gameplay, but for the characters. It would have dungeons no less abstract than in any other Zelda game, but where you are meant to understand things about the character's personalities and moods from what you're walking through and being asked to do. If one character misses the other, it's represented by an obstacle which the other character would pass easily but this character can't deal with. When Enria is scared about commitment, she finds herself in a claustrophobically tight dungeon with monsters where the only way to continue is toward some monsters. If Link is supposed to be overconfident, then a bunch of giant scary-looking monsters will run at him, do minimal damage and go down in one hit. It all is rooted in the character's personalities and emotions.

The Amazing Spider-Man: "Endgame"
A year-and-a-half ago, there was a lousy editorially-mandated-revision-masquerading-as-a-story called "One More Day". I have no great love for it. But it is a huge part of continuity, so it bothers me greatly that its (very interesting, I think) implications haven't been dealt with. In the issue of Sensational Spider-Man immediately before "One More Day" began, Spider-Man meets God. Not a god, not the spider-god, but the one true god. Who appears to him as an old man, for some reason. God says to Peter: Yeah, I know this is really tough. Your aunt is dying, your life is a wreck, but hey- what you're doing is important. And then "One More Day" happens, in which Mephisto appears to Peter. And Mephisto isn't portrayed as a random demon, he's portrayed as The Devil. And he says, hey, your life sucks. Make a deal with me, and you'll be happier. Which is what Spider-Man does, and we get to the current (very enjoyable) status quo which is a lot more cheery.

The big controversy about the story was that this deal-with-the-devil eliminated Peter's marriage to MJ Watson. But that seems to me like a small part of the story. The bigger story is what was supposed to happen next that was so huge that God and the Devil appeared to Peter Parker to sell him on their preferred continuation. I think the answer comes from a story a year before any of this, entitled "The Other", which was worse than "One More Day" in almost every way. (As I said before, this is no obstacle to my wanting to focus on it.) In it, Spider-Man dies. And is resurrected in the very next issue. That seems like a pretty huge event, no? Funny how nobody remembers it. The justification, in-story, for the resurrection, comes when the spider-god appears to Peter in a dream. It basically tells him he still hasn't figured out what he's supposed to be doing. And the idea of the resurrection is to push that process along. He gets a bunch of new magic-based powers (such as poisonous spikes which pop out of his palms), and is told that finally he'll figure out why he was made Spider-Man to begin with. Immediately after "The Other", the storyline is derailed by the current politics of the Marvel Universe, and then comes "One More Day".

Here's what I'm thinking. I'm thinking there's a whole hierarchy of gods, where the spider-god is on the side of God (though it might not realize it) and other gods (such as the Norse god Loki, who incidentally owes Spider-Man a favor) are on the side of the Devil. So if I continued Amazing Spider-Man, I'd start moving in this grand dualistic direction. The idea would be to show how even gritty, street-level crime stories of the sort typical to Spider-Man comics are just part of a big cosmic conflict between ultimate good and ultimate evil. (Which is not how I see the universe, but after "One More Day" it's clearly how Spider-Man comics work.) I'd pull in every character from Spider-Man's past which fits the white-vs-black symbolism appropriate for this kind of storyline, including Cloak and Dagger, the Punisher, Spot, the Black Cat, Will-o'-the-wisp, The Answer, Mr. Negative, Venom and Anti-Venom, etc. What role each character would play in the story would depend both on that character's history in Spider-Man comics and on what color they represent. (Obviously, the color would need to be worked in very subtly. No one could be acting in a way that's out-of-character just to justify my own love of symbolism.) Characters who don't fit in quite as easily (Dr. Octopus, Kraven the Hunter, the Vulture, a generic mafia, Ka-Zar, Morlun) would also be present.

New York City would be played on three levels: At first it needs to seem realistic. Then it needs to seem like it's a jungle, that the "totemistic" behavior of criminals is not restricted to people dressing up like animals but that the kill-or-be-killed mentality pervades all of society. And finally, once the whole world seems like a barbaric jungle with a thin façade of being civilized, the curtain is pulled back and it's made clear that all the good guys are going to have to fight all the bad guys in an end-of-the-world kind of scenario. And it turns out that the only one who can save all of humanity is Spider-Man, because in the grand scheme of things he tips the balance one way or the other.

During this whole massive (likely around three or four years) buildup, there would be "What If?" back-up stories in each issue showing how Spider-Man's life would have continued from "One More Day" on if he had turned down Mephisto's offer. His Aunt May would have died, and with her all hope of a normal life. His marriage to Mary Jane would keep him grounded and human, but he'd always be miserable. Spider-Man would develop his magical powers more, and finally put his scientific genius to good use, and with all that and a cunning understanding of how the underworld works and with all sorts of technological and mystical traps he'd set like webs, and with The Punisher as his sidekick, he'd take down the entire criminal underworld. The back-ups would end with Spider-Man being shot down by the police exactly as he was in the flash-forward of Amazing Spider-Man #500, having created a better world for his and MJ's two kids.

The timeline followed in regular continuity would be much less dark, but be played as much more tragic. Peter Parker's mundane, happy life feels empty to him, and as Spider-Man he feels like he's locked into the same loop he's been in ever since he started. When the endgame finally comes, he's not ready for it. In fact, he's decided to give up the role of Spider-Man to the teenage girl Araña and live a happy life with Gwen Stacy's clone. (Believe it or not, this all has a strong basis in continuity.) And when the world is about to be destroyed, and the Gwen Stacy clone dies, Spider-Man tries to start on the road to his spiritual self-fulfillment but it's almost too late.

Basically, this is a textbook example of the "continue extrapolate repurpose" formula, though really this is such a complex story that maybe it's more a philosophy of storytelling than a simple formula. But what I'm doing here is taking all the elements which have already been there, mixing them all together (even the really wacky parts which come from bad stories) to get a unified vision of Spider-Man's world, and then twisting it all around so that instead of being a generic superhero story it's a religious epic.

I'm obviously not going to get to tell any of these stories. I don't even know if they'd appeal to anyone other than myself. But I sure do wish someone would do it. Every time I see Star Trek, or play Zelda, or read Amazing Spider-Man, I appreciate what it's doing but in the back of my mind I'm thinking how much more I'd like it if it were my way.



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