Is Simplification A Good Thing In Storytelling? – A Ramble

Although this is an article about writing, I’m going to have to start by talking about computer games for a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

Anyway, one of the games I got after upgrading to a vaguely modern refurbished computer a couple of weeks before preparing this article was the 2013 remake of a 1990s first-person shooter game called “Shadow Warrior”. Although I don’t know when or if I’ll review the remake, one of the many differences between it and the original game is the highly simplified level design.

In short, the levels are fairly linear things where there is one “correct” path through a sequence of arena-like rooms. Even the game’s “secret areas” are often almost in plain sight when compared to the carefully-hidden item caches in the large, complex levels of the original game. Yet, I’m still having a lot of fun with the remake since the game has been designed around this loss. In other words, the remake is more of a “Serious Sam” style game where the emphasis is on thrilling fast-paced combat against hordes of enemies rather than on exploration, puzzle-solving and combat.

But, what does any of this have to do with writing fiction?

Well, since I got back into reading regularly about a year earlier, I’ve also noticed a very slight trend towards simplification in modern fiction. Of course, this doesn’t affect every modern book, but it’s noticeable when you do something like comparing a thriller novel from the 1970s to a more modern one. Whether it is a slightly less descriptive or less formal writing style, shorter chapters, shorter sentences and, in some cases, explicitly spelling out things that older novels expected the reader to work out on their own via observation and thought, modern novels are more likely to be less complex than older ones.

So, is this a bad thing? In some ways yes, in other ways no.

Simplification has happened for a number of good practical reasons. For starters, novels now have to compete with games, phones, boxsets, the internet etc… for people’s attention. So, a slightly more “matter of fact” writing style that can be read easily, moves along at a good pace and keeps the reader gripped is a way for writers to hold their own against the competition. It’s a way to make books a bit more readable in these hurried, overloaded times. And, given that the whole point of reading novels is to spend time in an enjoyable and interesting way, it’s good that books have become more optimised for this.

Secondly, everything is relative. Although older novels might seem more complex, they were probably just considered “ordinary” by the standards of the time they were written. For example, a typical 1970s novel might seem a bit more formal and complex than a typical “ordinary” modern one. But, in the 1970s, the 1970s novel would have probably been considered “simplified” when compared to one from the 19th century.

In other words, simplicity and complexity are relative to the time that a novel is written. With the exception of some literary authors, writers don’t usually set out to write novels that require an academic degree, an ultra-large vocabulary and/or lots of time and note-taking to read. Novels are meant to be something that the average person can pick up and enjoy. So, they will be optimised for whatever is considered to be this at the time.

Thirdly, it makes books more fun whilst keeping most of the good stuff. Although reading a more complex or formal novel can be a really satisfying experience (in the way that playing a challenging computer game from the 1990s can be), there’s something to be said for a book that is just effortless fun to read. Not only that, “simplified” modern books will often keep a lot of the essential elements of a good novel (eg: atmosphere, descriptions, characterisation etc..), but spread them through the novel more evenly or get them across to the reader in ways that don’t slow down the pace of the story. So, “simpler” modern novels can often be a lot more fun to read.

On the downside, this simplification does have some problems. For starters, it makes it slightly harder for writers to use a really distinctive narrative voice. Likewise, unless it is done very well, the story will seem very slightly less atmospheric and immersive. The reader also doesn’t get the sense of achievement that might come from finishing a more complex book.

In addition to this, it also slightly limits what stories can do. Since film and television have had such an influence on more modern fiction (eg: the “show, don’t tell” rule etc..), many modern novels are less likely to do the kinds of interesting things that only novels can do.

Whether it is using language in clever ways, spending significant time focusing on a character’s thoughts/emotions, using more unusual narrative styles, clever literary experiments or even just creating a really vivid sense of place through sustained passages of description, books can do a lot of cool and unique things when they don’t have to worry about being similar to film or TV.

So, yes, “simplification” in many modern novels is both an awesome and a terrible thing. But, if there’s one constant with novels, it is change. Books are a response to the time and place that they are written.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Differences Between 2010s and 1980s Horror Fiction

Well, since I’m reading a modern horror novel (“The Deep” by Nick Cutter) at the moment and have read both older 1980s horror novels and more modern ones (like Edgar Cantero’s “Meddling Kids” and Sarah Lotz’s “Day Four) recently, I thought that I’d offer a few general observations about how modern horror novels differ from 1980s horror novels.

1) Psychological horror: The popular horror fiction of the 1980s (in Britain at least), mostly consists of ultra-gory splatterpunk fiction, grisly stories about giant animals/monsters etc.. This type of horror fiction is really dramatic, wonderfully cheesy and just generally fun to read, but it often isn’t really that scary. In a lot of ways, this is actually a good thing, since it makes the reader feel more courageous/tough than they actually are.

However, with the exception of the zombie genre (which is the last remnant of classic-style splatterpunk fiction 🙂 ), modern horror fiction has moved away from stylised, fantastical ultra-gruesome tales of the macabre. Yes, modern horror novels do still have grisly moments when required, but the focus often tends to be more on psychological horror.

This is mostly because this type of horror tends to be considerably scarier due to it’s realism. After all, we all have worries, uncertainties etc..

Although this is also something of a move back to the classic traditions of horror fiction (eg: mysterious ghost stories, H.P.Lovecraft etc…), it often tends to have a more irreverent, quirky and/or “realistic” tone to it these days. This lends modern horror novels a level of chilling relatability that more stylised 1980s novels may not have.

This focus on psychological horror also extends to stories about monsters too. For example, both Edgar Cantero’s “Meddling Kids” and Nick Cutter’s “The Deep” both include some kind of mysteriously malevolent antagonist. However, more emphasis is often placed on how the presence of this affects the characters psychologically rather than just on “Boo! A scary monster!“.

Likewise, a lot of the horror in Sarah Lotz’s “Day Four” and Nick Cutter’s “The Deep” comes from the bleak and desolate nature of the settings. In both stories, the characters are cut off from the rest of the world by the sea and this is used to create a lot of realistic suspense and tension. Yes, isolated settings are a traditional feature of the horror genre (and turn up in 1980s novels like Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” and “The Skull), but the focus on how this isolation affects the characters is slightly more prominent in modern horror fiction.

So, modern horror fiction often tends to focus more on psychological horror than 1980s horror fiction does.

2) Nostalgia:
Although 1980s horror novels are wonderfully “retro” when read these days, they contain considerably less nostalgia than modern horror fiction does.

In 1980s horror fiction, the world of the novel is often just the “ordinary” world of the 1980s. Although some ’80s horror novels do contain historical flashbacks (eg: Whitley Strieber’s “The Hunger” and James Herbert’s “The Jonah), the tone of these segments is often anything but nostalgic.

On the other hand, modern horror fiction tends to focus a lot more on nostalgia. For example, Robert Brockway’s “The Unnoticeables” has lots of atmospheric segments about 1970s New York. Likewise, Edgar Cantero’s “Meddling Kids” is not only set in a vaguely “Twin Peaks”-like version of the early 1990s, but it is also a bit of a homage to the 1960s TV show “Scooby Doo” too.

There are a lot of possible reasons for this. First of all, contrasting the nostalgic warmth of the past with horrific stuff is one way to unsettle readers. Secondly, the past was a less technologically sophisticated time (allowing for the use of classic pre-internet/mobile phone horror tropes).

Thirdly, readers are likely to either have their own nostalgic memories of the 20th century or be curious about this part of history. Fourthly, it’s often a bit of a homage to the historical heyday of the horror genre. Fifthly, it’s kind of fun to see writers doing new things with established horror tropes.

3) Complex protagonists: Whilst the horror fiction of the 1980s did sometimes feature morally-ambiguous, complex and/or flawed protagonists (Strieber’s “The Hunger”, Clive Barker’s “Cabal” and Nancy A. Collins’ “Sunglasses After Dark” spring to mind), they weren’t really as common as they are these days. Often, the main character would just be an ordinary person who heroically stops the world from being overtaken by evil forces (or at least tries to do this).

Following up with my earlier point about psychological horror, modern horror protagonists tend to be a lot more complex, “realistic” and flawed. For example, the main character of Cutter’s “The Deep” is haunted by a terrifying past. The main characters in Sarah Lotz’s “Day Four” are a realistically complex and/or flawed assortment of people. Likewise, the main characters in Cantero’s “Meddling Kids” are a group of misfits whose lives have been ruined by one terrifying week during their youth.

But, why? Simply put, by making the protagonist a bit more conflicted, uncertain or vulnerable, the audience is less likely to assume that they are going to win or survive. It instantly adds extra suspense to a story. Likewise, making the protagonist less “authoritative” or confident also adds an unsettling element of unreliability to the story too.

It’s kind of like the difference between, say, “Resident Evil 3” and “Silent Hill 3“. In one of these horror videogames, your character is a confident and well-armed ex-police officer. In the other, your character is a frightened teenager. One of these games is considerably scarier than the other…

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Why Is It More Difficult To Make “Nostalgic” Art, Comics, Stories About More Recent Times? – A Ramble

2017 Artwork Recent history nostalgia article sketch

Even though this is an article about making comics, art etc.. I’m probably going to have to spend several paragraphs talking about a strange experience that I had shortly before I wrote this article. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

As regular readers of this site probably know, nostalgia is one of the things that inspires a lot of the art, comics etc.. that I make. Most of the time, this is nostalgia about the 1990s (I grew up in that decade, but wish I’d been older during it) and – accidentally – possibly the early 2000s too. Sometimes I even get nostalgic about decades that I haven’t even lived in.

However, I recently had an experience that made me feel very nostalgic about a very specific period of recent history (mid-2009 to mid-late 2010).

Whilst looking through some old desktop icons, I decided to dust off my old Spotify account and take a look at some of the playlists I’d made back then. Instantly, I was transported back to a very rose-tinted version of this very specific period in time. It suddenly almost seemed like it was a whole decade in and of itself.

It was a time when pop music was, very briefly, actually good – where “popular” bands (eg: La Roux, Metric etc..) had a slightly 1980s-inspired/indie/sophisticated kind of sensibility. It was a time when many people didn’t quite have smartphones just yet.

It was a time when websites were still primarily designed for desktop computers, rather than for phones or tablets. It was a time when DVDs still felt like they were modern and timeless ( I still use DVDs regularly, but people these days obviously use video streaming services a lot more- despite the fact that they don’t actually get to own copies of any of the TV shows or movies they buy..).

It was a time when the UK’s Tory/Lib Dem coalition government was still new and exciting, and “austerity” was a dusty old word that only appeared in history books. It was a joyous time when people of my generation actually used to go out drinking and clubbing slightly more often. It was a time just before indie games really had a resurgence, so retro gaming was perhaps more popular than it is now. It was the glorious last days before the UK Government tried again to price everyone out of going to university.

It’s an oddly difficult time to describe concisely, but it feels like it was very different from the present day. As I said, this 1-2 year time period almost feels like it was a different decade altogether.

This, naturally, made me wonder why it’s more difficult to make “nostalgic” things that revolve around more recent time periods. I mean, this is something that I’ve even joked about in one of my more recent webcomics – but it’s something I’ve never really thought about in depth:

"Damania Resolute - Four Nights" By C. A. Brown

“Damania Resolute – Four Nights” By C. A. Brown

I think that part of the problem is that it’s very difficult to spot what is and isn’t memorable when you’re actually living in a particular decade. Likewise, it can often be next to impossible to predict how the subtle facts of everyday life will change in the future.

Plus, we’re often also already comparing the present day to the past most of the time – so the idea that the present day will become “the past” isn’t something that is easy to think about. Then again, this probably depends whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist.

I mean, if you think that the world is constantly getting better, then the thought that the present day will become the past isn’t too unsettling. However, if you think that the world seems to be on an unstoppable trajectory towards more misery, gloom, petty restrictions, authoritarianism etc.. then the idea that the present day may eventually seem like “the good old days” in comparison to the future is a deeply frightening one. And a thought best avoided.

Then there’s also the fact that “nostalgic” things tend to be more distinctive when they’re noticeably “old”.

I mean, if you saw someone using a portable cassette player then it would probably seem more noticeable and “retro” than if you saw someone using a MP3 player – despite the fact that *ugh* smartphones have all but replaced good old MP3 players these days. Portable cassette players became “obsolete” in the 1990s (thanks to portable CD players), but MP3 players only became “obsolete” less than a decade ago.

Plus, unless you’re the kind of person who is hyper-modern in every possible way, it’s probably more likely that (in some way) you’re still living in the age that you’re trying to get nostalgic about.

Whether it’s the technology you use, the TV shows/games/books etc… you really like, your fashion sense etc.. we’re all living in the past in some way or another. Which is probably for the best, given that the present day probably won’t be worth getting nostalgic about until sometime in the 2030s…..

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂