Wednesday, March 11, 2009

And Now, On The Other Side Of The Coin--The Myth-Arc

Yesterday, we talked about the Shocking Swerve, specifically the overuse of it. At the end of the previous day's surely-boring discourse, I touched on the alternative to the "making it us as you go and pulling hotshot stunts to keep your readers guessing." That is the idea of tightly plotting out your arc and creating a template for your story to follow.

The TvTropes term for this is the Myth Arc.

The Myth Arc is nigh-impossible to pull off in superhero comics--so long as a new Spider-Man or Superman comic has to hit the stands every month, building to a definitive end where a price is paid and Nothing Is The Same Again is tricky when the next guy can reverse it all in one issue.

On Television, the Myth Arc is hard to pull off on television without compromises--always you will hear from people who say "what if someone comes in in the middle and doesn't know what's going on?" Usually, as a sop to this line of thinking, various "standalone" episodes will get sprinkled in to a season in such a way as to provide a good jumping on point for these potential new viewers. This is pretty much what Star Trek: Deep Space 9 did. It's certainly one way to do it.

The closest thing to a full-blown Myth Arc on TV in my time has been Babylon 5, even though it started with a number of standalone episodes, gradually the big arc took over larger and larger amounts of episodes until every episode during its 5 seasons was an arc season (until Season 5 got bungled and they needed to stretch to fill it, but I'll save that story for a big Babylon 5 write-up some day) It's another way to do it--it's not as accessible this way, but the people who like it and stick with it will feel rewarded enough to where they're Your Audience for Life (Or until you hit them with Legend of the Rangers and The Lost Tales and--nope, saving it for the B5 entry to come) It's what they used to call building a "cult audience."

What "cult audience" means in this day and age when every audience is so sectioned off is something for another entry.

Anyways, back to the Myth Arc. Reading the various commentary about BSG and those people who wish things were a little more planned out, the common rejoinder seems to be boiled down to "Well, what do you want? A tightly-planned out arc where nothing is really left to chance?"

This is a straw man argument of course-it's not like the Ten Commandments. Until it's on the air it's not written in stone--the arc can always be changed, or flexed or whatever, because life is change. If it's a TV show, actors come on and off the show, they may give notice and have to be written out, the show gets axed earlier than you thought, or sometimes you just have a better idea than before. These things have to be dealt with. Part of the process of writing Big Stuff is managing change.

This is Completely Wrong, and to refute it, I'm going to have to do something I'd hoped never to have to do here (as it is obnoxious and self-serving and I apologise in advance), and that's talk abut the things I write.

Because the two big projects I'm working on now both use Myth Arcs, but use them in different ways. Myth Arcs are long-term things, and occasionally some of the immediate excitement that seat-of-the-pants storytelling has is lost. What you have instead is a longer ramp-up for the bigger moments and hopefully the payoff will justify the buildup.

The trick is to make the trip not seem like a trip. Kind of like how parents would give you comics or activity books or play the radio or whatever they did to distract you on long car rides.

For the the projects I have going now, one is done in a very traditional Myth Arc kind of way--SEVEN SPHERES LEGEND (the newer version more than the original 1996 version) works in a pretty standard way--our characters start on the periphery of the main story, knowing very little and the reader follows along as they learn more and become more involved in the main plot.

It's slow work sometimes, and takes a bit of planning, but considering that I'm putting more forethought into it than I did when I wrote the original, it's no surprise. The cast is larger, I'm trying to open up the vistas I hinted at in the first version and generally inject a little bit more "epic" into it. We'll see how it goes--I'm still on the initial arc, but that's the plan.

GUNMETAL BLACK was something of a reaction to finishing the first version of SEVEN SPHERES LEGEND. At first it was less a Myth Arc than a concept. I had a character, I had a few associated characters, and a general idea of the things I wanted to do, but I didn't sit down and say "Right, I've got these things, let's play around with them and see what happened.

At first, it was more an attempt to tell stories in a different style and with a different voice, and somewhere along the way I found GUNMETAL BLACK'S Myth Arc. Upon finding it and beginning to work it all out, I wanted to continue to give it a different voice than the previous story, so I decided that this Myth Arc would work on a different model--rather than start at the outside of the story and work their way in, my characters would occasionally intersect with the Myth Arc, through various sub-arcs, and ultimately culminate in a situation wherein in the final novel, the Arc is satisfied and you know everything you need to know, but it hasn't been a let-me-hold-your-hand-and-walk-you-straight-through journey. It's been more elliptical. I didn't want it to seem like y'know, homework, this time.

As I'm still working on that one as well, time will tell how successful it all had been.

But hopefully from my two examples you can see how mutable and flexible the idea of planning out a Myth Arc is. It's not written in stone, until the final draft (an issue of a comic, a TV episode) hits the streets. The idea that it's some kind of Manichean choice that, once made, can never be gone back on, is ridiculous.


Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Hmm... I'm going to have to disagree with TV Trope's definition of the Shocking Swerve; they're referring exclusively to last-minute ass-pulls, and that's fair enough, but if we take a BSG example, the discovery of Scorched Earth was a shocking swerve but didn't come off as an unplanned twist for the hell of it (note that I'm not saying it was planned - you never know with TV series - but it didn't feel contrived).

I think Myth Arcs can be done in superhero comics provided you're willing to accept modular storytelling as a valid method. Because then you can say Grant Morrison's "New X-Men" is a Myth Arc, Frank Miller's "Daredevil" is a Myth Arc, Brubaker's post-death "Captain America" is a Myth Arc, etc.

One series that handled the Myth Arc particularly poorly was "Supernatural". The mechanism for non-myth filler episodes was built into the series premise, but the allocation would be absolutely ludicrous: the season premiere would be a Myth Arc episode, then ten episodes of random filler, a Myth Arc two-parter, more filler, and a Myth Arc season finale. It never worked as well as it should.

Unfortunately, cult audiences don't hold the sway they used to (if they ever did): saving "Jericho" was impressive, except they only got seven episodes in which the Myth Arc was only partially resolved.

I love your structural analysis of what a Myth Arc looks like: you're right to point out that ellipses are a major tool for this sort of thing; foreshadowing also comes in handy and when it's done right, you can see all the pieces fit together.

I think the ability to cope with the Myth Arc depends greatly on what the Myth Arc is: "Veronica Mars" was very good at this because you always had the season-long mystery in the background, and Veronica would occasionally pick up another hint or clue, but in the meantime most episodes dealt with her solving unrelated cases so that by the end of the first season, you had a successful chain of done-in-one stories and a proper build-up to the Big Finish.

Kazekage said...

I'm with you that BSG's discovery of Extra Crispy Earth wasn't a Shocking Swerve at all. In fact, it was probably one of the few things that wasn't a Shocking Swerve.

Of course, it meant that it felt a little Golgafrincham Ark B when they found Original Recipe Earth, but I liked it--it totally fit with the tone of the show that Earth would be a dashed dream.

Yeah, you can do it, provided you're willing to put the toys back in the toybox for the next guy--Brubaker's actually doing a great job of doing that very thing, as is "New X-Men"--as it exists as a complete statement. It's when you don't play fair with the audience and act like Nothing Will Ever Be The Same Again that you get in trouble.

I never saw "Supernatural," but yeah, that sounds dreadful, because it pretty much encourages you to tune out the episodes that Don't Count and wait around for the ones that do. I hate to keep bringing up B5, but one of the things they did right is that even the tossed-off self-contained episodes has Myth Arc stuff, so it was worth seeing them through because there were always little bits and bobs that paid off later.

They never really do--the cult success is always strip-mined by other shows that come after it. The best that you can manage these days seems to be that the DVD will exist as a document of what Could Be.

Thanks! Usually I'm embarrassing when I'm trying to be analytical with a minimum of snark. :) It is amazing how many big epic stories conform to the "characters spiral in to the main story" model, I think. I never put it together until I actually started writing this.

While I didn't see "Veronica Mars" either--yeah, that does sound like a rewarding model for a longer Myth Arc that keeps the story progressing and rewards the returning viewer. Would that everyone spaced it out as well.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

You know what would've been nice? They could've explained it simply by having Starbuck jump Galactica through the black hole. At least that way you can justify that they ended up in another place and time altogether.

And at this point, I don't blame readers for shrugging apathetically at that Nothing Will Ever Be The Same line, because time's proven the opposite: wait long enough and the pendulum will swing back to the way things were before.

And even then, it's not enough - those kinds of DVD editions can leave you scratching and cobbling together some kind of closure that's never actually there.

To be fair, most of the problems that provoke either of us into commenting deserve all the snark they get. :)

I wonder if it was especially compatible given the genre - having a detective chase smaller mysteries within a larger mystery seems a better fit somehow.

Kazekage said...

That might have worked--and it would have been just as plausible as anything they did, but then, that would have required a line or two to justify what had happened, and that's probably a bit too much to expect from BSG.

And it's been pulled so many times now it's been exposed for what it is--bogus. I think sometimes if comic creators actually explored trying to build and maintain a status quo for once rather just just constantly blowing up the new ones, maybe comics would be in better shape. It certainly hasn't been tried.

Well, they can, or you can just accept something was cut down in its prime for whatever reason and enjoy it for what it is. I can usually do it, although I damn sure would have liked more episodes of Crusade--never let it be sad I'm not a hypocrite. ;)

Sort of a "they called down the thunder, and now they have it," you mean? :)

It probably does, to a certain extent, although you'd be amazed just how often you can kind of section off arcs and isolate them as small but integral parts of the larger puzzle. A lot more maps onto it than you might think.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

That's probably an unfortunate side-effect of the Stunt Sales mentality: if the only thing that produces upward mobility in sales is one Shocking Swerve after another, you're not going to have any kind of normalcy to compare against (which is pretty much the state of the Marvel Universe since... Avengers Disassembled, I think).

Eh, the lack of closure in situations like that just drive me insane. I'd rather miss out on a good story with no ending than get emotionally invested just to be left perpetually hanging.

Indeed. :)

The question is whether those puzzle pieces stand on their own without the bigger picture involved...

Kazekage said...

The problem is, the overuse of the Shocking Swerve is the surest way to burn it out. Ask anyone who sat through WCW in 99-2000 how quickly "nothing will ever be the same AGAIN" wears on your soul week after week.

I know the feeling. It can be maddening, but I just try as best I can to appreciate the little of it I got to see. It's small comfort, but it's something.

Well, as someone who tries to do it in is own work, I liken smaller stories that plug into the Myth Arc like cells--they're small self-contained units, but they contain the information of the larger organism. The tricks is to make people satisfied with the story they got, but also entice them to read more. All you have to do is provide enough of a satisfying "meal" for the reader, which will then keep you in their mind the next time the reader feels "peckish" (To beat the metaphor into the ground)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Which is where Marvel's at right now, I suppose - the status quo is arbitrarily thrown over so often that no one seems to care anymore.

That's exactly the right approach: your readers get to enjoy the various "cells", but once the Myth Arc is concluded, they look back and get an added bit of enjoyment by putting the pieces together. And if they fit, so much the better.

Kazekage said...

Well, it's not so much a "status quo" as "we push this to reinforce the product line we're pushing, slap an ugly trade dress on it, and then pitch it in the bin six months down the road and replace it with something even more inane."

If I worked at Marvel, I would keep my head down, drink a lot, and learn to hate everything.

That's exactly it! Again, why is this lesson lost on so many people who do this for a reason?

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

You know, for all that the trade program caused immeasurable damage to storyline structure, I do appreciate that the "six-part mandate" was done with an eye towards getting TPBs out as fast as possible for the non-floppy crowd. I'm not clear on why they didn't try two storylines of three issues each, but that's why I don't run Marvel. :)

Isn't that your current status anyway? ;)

Kazekage said...

Well, probably anything less than four is less likely to recoup its production costs than a full six-issue collection and it seems like anything above that is hitting the $30 US range, so. . .yeah. Noble intent, but by getting trade of collected stories out ASAP, you're basically having the trades take over from single issues in the same role.

Sometimes I smile. Twice a year. :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

What I'm getting at is the story-to-issue ratio - six issues per TPB may be necessary, but why do those six issues have to present only one story? They could do two three-parters for the same amount of pages and at least let the reader feel like they're getting more for their money.

Birthday and New Year's? :)

Kazekage said...

That's what I'm talking about--the idea that you can only do stories in six to eight issue increments is really limiting. Sometimes you need a one or two-issue story as a breakpoint between major arcs, and isolating a "catching your breath" moment in a single issue is much better than dragging it out over an arbitrary span of issues.

Something like that. ;)