Random Thoughts About “Style Vs Substance”

2015 Artwork Style vs substance article sketch

A few weeks ago, I read a really interesting article about comics by Yo Zushi on the New Statesman’s website. The whole article is worth reading, but the part that really caught my attention was probably the first two paragraphs.

These paragraphs are about the whole subject of “style vs substance” and, although they’re probably too long to quote in full – the basic point of these two paragraphs is that, in many types of creative works, style matters as much (if not more) than substance does.

I don’t know why, but I’d never really thought too much about the whole “style vs substance” thing in my own creative work until I read this article. But, looking over my own art, it usually tends to be a lot more about expressing a thought, a particular atmosphere, a moment in a story or just something random (that looks cool) rather than anything deeply symbolic or meaningful.

Likewise, when I wrote a lot of fiction, most of my emphasis was on telling a funny, dramatic,futuristic, erotic, scary and/or cool story than on trying to make some deep point about the human condition or anything like that. Yes, sometimes ideas and emotions that were prominent in my mind at the time would find their way into my fiction in some kind of oblique or symbolic way, but they were rarely the main point of the story.

So, counter to what I expected, I really do value style over substance in my own work.

In many ways, I’d argue that art lends itself towards this kind of thing because you’re usually just creating a single visual image. You can fill that image with deep symbolism and meaning but, unless it looks interesting, most people won’t be bothered with it.

Likewise, “style over substance” works of art can become a lot more popular than more “meaningful” works of art for the simple reason that other artists will look at it and think “that looks cool. I’ve got to find a way to sneak it into my own work“. Interesting pieces of “style over substance” art can effectively end up spawning lots of other works of art.

Ironically, trying to add substance to a work of art that doesn’t have it can completely ruin that work of art. A good example of this would be some of Damien Hirst’s conceptual works (and conceptual art in general) – these artworks consist of things like a shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde and stuff like that.

If Damien Hirst had just said “I made it because I thought that it would be funny” or “I made it because it looked weird“, then I could respect this. But, most of these random works of conceptual art have incredibly pretentious-sounding titles like “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living“.

Trying to add a deeper meaning to something that doesn’t really have one (after all, it’s just a dead shark) shows how many people tend to insist that art must have some kind of greater “substance” to it. But, more often than not, art is just art. It looks cool, it evokes emotions and/or it sparks the imagination. If there’s a deeper meaning to it, then this is a bonus – but it shouldn’t be a requirement.

When it comes to fiction, this subject becomes a lot more complicated. After all, stories have to tell.. well.. a story. And, well, most stories tend to have some kind of meaning to them for the simple reason that they both show a series of events and how the characters in that story are affected by these events. This, in and of itself, shows us something about humanity and the human condition.

But, at the same time, I’d argue that a good story tends to see deeper meanings etc.. as a secondary thing. A good story might contain a deeper meaning or some kind of “substance”, but this is often hidden in the background because the emphasis is on telling an enjoyable story that people will actually want to read.

I mean, it’s very telling that literary novels (which have a lot of “substance”) often have a fairly low readership compared to more interesting genres like sci-fi novels, thrillers, romances, fantasy novels etc..

So, in conclusion, style probably does matter a lot more than substance.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting :)

Mini Review: “Blood – Cryptic Passage” (Expansion Pack For “Blood”)

2015 Artwork Blood Cryptic Passage Review

As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve been playing a classic 1990s FPS game called “Blood” quite a bit recently. So, for today, I thought that I’d look at one of the expansion packs for it (anyone remember those? They’re like modern “DLC”, but much better) called “Cryptic Passage”.

I got “Cryptic Passage” when I bought the “One Unit Whole Blood” collection on a website called “GoG” a while back. You can also get this package on Steam and it contains the original “Blood”, along with both of the official expansion packs and some other bonus content too (at least on GoG, I’m not sure if the Steam version comes with bonus content).

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Cryptic Passage”:

Hi there!

Hi there!

One of the first things I will say about “Cryptic Passage” is that, unlike the other expansion pack, it contains no new weapons or new enemies. All it contains are nine new levels and one secret level (which I actually found this time). This is also why this is a mini review rather than a full review, since there isn’t too much to say that I haven’t already said about the original game.

But, saying this, the levels in “Cryptic Passage” are surprisingly well-designed and, most importantly of all, there’s a really good variety of settings on offer here. In fact, this may well be my favourite “Blood” episode for the simple reason that most of the levels are completely different from each other.

Duke Nukem might get to visit a cinema, but Caleb has far more sophisticated tastes....

Duke Nukem might get to visit a cinema, but Caleb has far more sophisticated tastes….

The scariest thing about this level is that the steamboat doesn't have enough lifeboats for everyone! Will someone PLEASE think of the zombies!?

The scariest thing about this level is that the steamboat doesn’t have enough lifeboats for everyone! Will someone PLEASE think of the zombies!?

Seriously, you get to visit a whole range of different places here, including an old steamboat, an opera house, some treacherous mountains, a creepy monastery and- at the very end of the game – a giant floating castle:

Yes, back in the 1990s, videogame villains lived in style!

Yes, back in the 1990s, videogame villains lived in style!

Not only that, one cool thing about “Cryptic Passage” is that most of the levels follow on directly from the previous level. In other words, you’ll start most of the levels near to where your finished the previous level.

In fact, you’ll sometimes even be able to see part of the previous level from the beginning of the next level and vice versa:

And, if you find the secret level, you'll be greeted by none other than the grim reaper himself.

And, if you find the secret level, you’ll be greeted by none other than the grim reaper himself.

As for the level design itself, it’s as challenging and as enjoyably difficult as you would expect from a “Blood” game. All of the levels require a lot of exploration and many of them are fiendishly difficult – so, don’t even think about playing “Cryptic Passage” until you’ve had some practice on the original game.

Even so, the first couple of levels are fairly easy – although this might just be to lull you into a false sense of security.

Don't get too used to it, the game will quickly get a lot more difficult...

Don’t get too used to it, the game will quickly get a lot more difficult…

Another interesting thing about this expansion is that it actually contains an ending cutscene when you defeat the final bosses. Yes, it’s just a couple of pictures and some text, but it’s still pretty good to see considering that the other expansion pack didn’t bother with cutscenes.

This expansion pack also has a story too. It's something to do with an old scroll, I think.

This expansion pack also has a story too. It’s something to do with an old scroll, I think.

One thing that I will warn you about is that, if you get this game on GoG, the “Cryptic Passage” expansion launches from a separate shortcut to the rest of the game. But, surprisingly, the save files from the game also carry over from each version.

What this means is if, as I once accidentally did, you start up the original game by mistake and load a save file, it will take you to the corresponding level from the first episode of the original game. In fact, I accidentally skipped two levels of “Cryptic Passage” this way (before getting an odd sense of deja vu and thinking “this isn’t right”) and I had to go back and use the “level skip” cheat in order to play them properly. So, be careful about this.

All in all, “Cryptic Passage” is a fairly solid add-on for “Blood”. Yes, it doesn’t contain anything in the way of new weapons or monsters, but the levels in this expansion are absolutely brilliant. They’re varied, well-designed and often enjoyably challenging. If you liked the original “Blood”, then you’ll probably love “Cryptic Passage” too.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, then it would get four.

Today’s Art (20th May 2015)

Well, I’m still feeling uninspired, so here’s another re-make of one of my old pictures. I made the original version of “Thunder In The Treehouse” back in 2012 after listening to “Fire In Cairo” by The Cure. And, since then, I seem to make a new version of it at least once a year.

Naturally, I’ll also include some of the previous versions of this picture for comparison (in reverse chronological order).

As usual, all of the images in this post are released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"Thunderstorm In The Treehouse (IV)" By C. A. Brown

“Thunderstorm In The Treehouse (IV)” By C. A. Brown

And here are the previous versions of this picture:

"Thunderstorm In The Treehouse (III)" By C. A. Brown [January 2014]

“Thunderstorm In The Treehouse (III)” By C. A. Brown [January 2014]

"Treetops" By C. A. Brown [March 2013]

“Treetops” By C. A. Brown [March 2013]

"Thunderstorm In The Treehouse (Remix)" By C. A. Brown [January 2013]

“Thunderstorm In The Treehouse (Remix)” By C. A. Brown [January 2013]

"Thunderstorm In The Treehouse" By C. A. Brown [JUNE 2012]

“Thunderstorm In The Treehouse” By C. A. Brown [JUNE 2012]

Three Reasons Why Some Novels Are Faster To Read Than Others

2015 Artwork quickly readable stories article sketch

After a conversation I had a few weeks ago, I started thinking about what exactly it is that makes some novels faster to read than others.

You know the kind of thing I’m talking about- you’ve got two books of roughly equal lengths by different authors and yet you can read one in a couple of days, but the other one takes at least a week to read.

Anyway, I thought about this for a minute or so and came up with some ideas about why this sort of thing happens. If you’re planning on writing a full-length novel or even just a short story, then these things might also be useful when it comes to working out how quickly-readable you want your story to be. But, I should point out that most of this stuff is probably fairly obvious though.

1) Action vs. Description: Generally speaking, the ratio of action (eg: things happening, drama, events etc…) to descriptions tends to be a lot higher in novels that are quicker to read. Likewise, if you want your novel to be enjoyed at a more leisurely pace, it may be worth ensuring that there are as many descriptions of things as there are dramatic events in your story.

In other words, the faster you want your novel to be read, the shorter the descriptions should be (because, if you can’t just describe things, then you’ll need to actually show things happening).

To give you an example of what I mean, I can usually read a 400-600 page Lee Child novel in a couple of days and these novels often feature relatively short descriptions, like this one from Lee Child’s “The Enemy”: “Made it through gloomy tiled corridors and came to a door with a pebble-glass window set in its upper half. The door had light behind it and Lt/Col. A. Norton stencilled on it. I knocked and went in. I saw a small and neat office. It was clean and it smelled feminine. I didn’t salute again. I figured we were past that point“.

Notice how, in this quote, every individual thing that is being described is only described using one or two short words. Likewise, the descriptions are interspersed with actions too (Eg: walking down corridors, knocking on doors, deciding not to salute). This means that this story is rather fast-paced.

Now, let’s look at an example from a much slower-paced novel. The novel I will be quoting from is a 661- page (including appendices) fantasy novel called “A Storm Of Swords: Steel And Snow” by George R. R. Martin which took me about a week or so to read. It’s the first half of a much longer novel, but it’s a roughly similar length to the Lee Child novel I mentioned earlier

Anyway, let’s take a look at a quote from it: “Two days’ ride to either side of the kingsroad, they passed through a wide swath of destruction, miles of blackened fields and orchards where the trunks of dead trees jutted into the air like archers’ stakes. The bridges were burnt as well, and the streams swollen by autumn rains, so they had to range along the banks in search of fords. The nights were alive with the howling of wolves, but they saw no people.

Notice how, although there are a couple of actions in this quote (eg: travelling by horse), most of these few sentences are taken up with detailed descriptions of the landscape around the characters. Due to the fact that this novel contains lots of passages like this, it’s a lot slower to read than the Lee Child novel was.

2) Language: If you want your novel to be quickly readable, then you need to make sure that you use slightly simpler and more informal language.

This doesn’t mean that you need to “dumb down” your story or anything like that, it just means that you should mostly use words that don’t sound too “fancy”.

If you use more basic descriptions and language, your readers can “process” it a lot more quickly and, therefore can read more of your story in a short amount of time.

Going back to the quotes I showed you earlier, the Lee Child quote uses fairly basic language like “a small and neat office” whereas the G R. R. Martin quote uses slightly more complex language like “a wide swath of destruction“.

3) Plotting: Another thing that can determine how fast your audience can read your story is what kind of plot your story has.

Generally, if your story has a plot that contains lots of mysteries (that make your readers curious and eager to read more) or lots of fighting (which makes your readers eager to see who will win and how they will win), then it will be a faster-paced story for the simple reason that your readers will want to read more of it as quickly as possible.

Of course, none of these factors exist in isolation – since the Lee Child novel and the G.R.R Martin novels I mentioned earlier both contain lots of mysteries and fighting. So, both of them contain things that make people want to read more quickly, but the reading time for these novels still differs quite a bit because of the two things I mentioned earlier.

Even so, I very much doubt that I’d have been able to read the G. R. R Martin novel in just a week if it wasn’t for the fact that it contained lots of battles, adventures, dramatic plot twists, intriguing mysteries and things like that. If, for example, it had been a comedy or a romance, then it would have probably taken me more than just a week to read it.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful :)

Today’s Art (19th May 2015)

Well, I was feeling uninspired again and I’d originally painted a rather generic-looking landscape for today. But, well, there have been too many of those on here recently. So, instead, I thought that I’d paint another new version of one of my old pictures from 2013 that I also re-painted last year too.

There isn’t a huge difference in quality between the new version and the previous version, but there are a few subtle improvements at least.

Naturally, I’ll also include both previous versions of this picture here for comparison too.

As usual, the three pictures in this post are released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"Desolation Station (III)" By C. A. Brown

“Desolation Station (III)” By C. A. Brown

And here are the previous versions from 2013 and 2014:

"Desolation Station (II)" By C. A. Brown [August 2014]

“Desolation Station (II)” By C. A. Brown [August 2014]

"Desolation Station" By C. A. Brown  [December 2013]

“Desolation Station” By C. A. Brown [December 2013]