Two Reasons Why Writers Include Metafiction In Their Stories

If you’ve never heard the word “metafiction” before, it’s a fancy word for “stories about stories”. It can also refer to references to other stories within stories. And, one of the interesting things I’ve noticed since I got back into reading regularly a few months ago is how often it can appear in novels.

Yes, it doesn’t always appear – but I’ve seen it in sci-fi novels like Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age“, noir/horror novels like Jack O’Connell’s “Word Made Flesh” and dark fantasy novels like Clive Barker’s “Weaveworld” – and it’s something that always catches me by surprise whenever I see it.

So, I thought that I’d list two of the main reasons why writers include metafiction in their stories.

1) Influences and culture: Generally speaking, if someone is writing fiction then they’ve probably read quite a bit of it too. And, whilst this won’t teach you literally everything about writing, there is no better way to learn what does and doesn’t work in fiction than reading lots of it. Likewise, if you want to develop your own unique writing style and sensibility, then you need to read lots of different things by different writers.

As such, writers can end up including metafiction in their stories as a way of paying tribute to the writers who have influenced them and/or made them interested in writing. This is exactly the same as film-makers and game designers including references to other films/games in their work in order to both provide something for their fans and to tip their hats to their inspirations.

But, it is more than this. It’s also about culture too. Just like how films from the 1980s/90s onwards will often reference older films out of a sense of tradition and to reward those knowledgeable about the history/culture of cinema, writers also do something similar – but in a more general way.

In short, whilst novels are one of the older storytelling mediums out there, they aren’t really part of popular culture in the way that films and videogames are. Because there are so many novels out there and they aren’t usually that widely-advertised, it’s very easy to find lots of awesome novels that no-one around you has even heard of before. As such, reading can feel like a somewhat lonely activity when compared to watching films or playing games.

So, including stuff about the magic of stories, reading etc.. in stories can be a way for writers to make their readers feel like part of a culture or community. It’s kind of like how the indie computer game “Retro City Rampage” includes lots of references to other obscure indie games – these games may not be ultra-popular, but they are referenced in a way which makes them seem like they are. It’s all about creating a feeling of culture and community.

2) What books can do (that everything else can’t): Another reason why writers include metafiction in their stories is because it allows them to highlight what books can do that no-other medium can. Every medium has it’s own strengths and failings, and creative people will usually find interesting ways to highlight these strengths.

For example, a well-edited and visually-striking montage sequence in a film can’t easily be replicated in a stage play. Comic makers can use things like panel layouts and art styles in inventive ways that film-makers can only dream of. Game designers can use gameplay mechanics to create experiences that can’t appear in any other medium. I’m sure you get the idea.

And, the written word can do so much stuff that visual media can’t. It is a truly unique medium in a lot of ways. Not only is it ten times more vivid and immersive than even the most modern virtual reality games, but no two readers will imagine/interpret a story in exactly the same way as each other. Books can do things like altering the rate that time flows (where the events of a single second can take several pages, and a century might be covered in a single sentence). Books can linger in the imagination like nothing else can. I could probably go on for a while.

So, yes, writers include stuff about stories in their stories because it’s a way of showing what books can do that nothing else can. And, as I mentioned earlier, this also probably has something to do with how books are often overlooked in modern popular culture too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

The Joy Of… Alternative Mainstreams

The day before I prepared this article, I happened to hear about a couple of long-running BBC radio shows (one of which had been running for more than sixty series!) that I’d never even heard of before (which have possibly inspired more popular TV shows on the BBC). This intrigued me because radio seemed like a totally separate media ecosystem with it’s own traditions, history etc… that runs parallel to the more well-known one on television.

In other words, it was an alternative mainstream. I vaguely remember finding something similar whilst playing a low-budget computer game called “Retro City Rampage”, which also references well-known indie games in a similar way to how it references well-known films, old “mainstream” games etc.. This made me think of the idea of there being a “mainstream” for indie games, and how interesting this would be.

However, a better computer game-related example of this type of thing would probably be games in the hidden object genre. Although it’s been quite a while since I’ve last played a hidden object game, this is a genre that is pretty much never mentioned in mainstream gaming media, yet it pretty much has it’s own ecoystem – with big name publishers, smaller developers and long-running series (eg: “House Of 1000 Doors”, “Twisted Lands” etc.. ). It’s like an entirely different gaming culture that exists in parallel to the more well-known one.

Then there’s music. I remember hearing part of a fan recording of an Iron Maiden concert where the lead singer, Bruce Dickinson, went on this absolutely brilliant rant about how their music is never played on the radio, how it doesn’t appear in the most music magazines etc… and yet they still have literally millions of fans, because people can make up their own minds about music. It made me think about the contrast between the mainstream mainstream and alternative mainstreams.

Because Iron Maiden is, quite rightly, one of the most popular heavy metal bands out there. They were the band that introduced me to heavy metal and, even in the days when online shopping was still a relatively new thing, you could always find their CDs in even the most mainstream of high-street record shops. This made me think of the idea of a more meritocratic mainstream, where (like with heavy metal bands like Iron Maiden), popularity is determined entirely by quality and musical skill rather than celebrity.

Then there’s the TV show “Eureka”. This is a sci-fi TV series set in a secret town in America where all of the country’s top scientific geniuses live. One of the interesting things in the show was how it would reference real 20th/21st century scientists in the same way that famous historical figures etc.. are usually referenced.

Although this idea isn’t entirely new (it reminded me a bit of an old episode of “Sliders” where academics are treated like famous sports stars), it made me think about how fame in certain spheres rarely translates to fame in the everyday world. In other words, it made me think about alternative mainstreams again.

So, why are alternative mainstreams such a fascinating thing?

In addition to all of the stuff I’ve mentioned about how they often tend to work differently to the actual mainstream (eg: they can be more meritocratic, they can be less commercialist, they can be more tradition-based, they can place emphasis on different qualities etc..), there’s also the intriguing idea of these things quite literally “hiding in plain sight”, like some kind of secret parallel culture or something like that.

But, more than all of this, alternative mainstreams are fascinating because they show us how culture works. They hold a mirror up to “mainstream” culture and allow us to see which parts of it developed “naturally” and which parts of it were due to celebrity, advertising etc…

Finally, they are also reassuring because they show us that “the mainstream” isn’t the only mainstream out there. That, hiding in plain sight, there is a “world” where bands gain popularity purely on musical merit, where low-budget 2D games can be popular and where well-known programs can run for over sixty series.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Four Reasons Why Things From The 1990s Can Seem More Creative

Whether it’s games, films, (non-superhero) comics or TV shows, it can be easy to think that the 1990s was a more creative decade than this one. As a fan of the 1990s, I often tend to think this way. At a glance, the 1990s just seems more creative. But, I thought that I’d take a deeper look at this today.

Since, in boringly practical terms, the reality is somewhat more nuanced. These days, mainstream films are often less creative because TV now fills the role that films once used to. Likewise, modern indie games often contain the creativity that used to be an integral part of large-budget mainstream games.

So, on the whole, the 1990s was probably no more or less creative than the present day is. But, I thought that I’d look at a few possible reasons why the 1990s seems more creative than the present day.

1) The internet: I’ve talked about this before, but the internet was a lot less mainstream during the 1990s than it is now. Whilst this certainly had negative effects on creativity, such as making traditional publishers, large film studios etc.. the sole gatekeepers of which creative works were available to the public- it also had several positive effects too.

The first is that the lack of online video, online game shops, e-books etc… meant that the mainstream had to serve a wider role. What this meant is that things like mid-budget films and mid-list authors would often enjoy more popularity. There was more of an incentive for larger publishers, TV stations and film studios to cater to a wider audience, since they were pretty much the only game in town. Again, this was also a barrier to creativity – but it did lead to a better range of stuff being published formally during the 1990s.

The second was the lack of social media. Although critics obviously existed during the 1990s and are necessary (so that audience members can make informed decisions, uninfluenced by advertising), the lack of a way to instantly respond to a creative work often meant that public criticism was a lot more considered, professional and based on the quality of a work.

The third was that it meant that detailed data was a lot harder to obtain. This meant that studios, publishers etc… were forced to take more risks since they didn’t know literally everything about the audience. This probably meant that marketing departments, accountants etc… had very slightly less influence over major creative works. And this resulted in more creativity.

2) Another time: When we look at things from the 1990s today, we probably don’t see them in quite the same way that people from the 1990s did. This can be because they give us a glimpse at a world that is both similar to and different to our own. This can be because they evoke lots of wonderful nostalgia. This can be because we are comparing them to stuff from the present day.

In short, we’re seeing things from the 1990s through the lens of the present day. But, during the 1990s, these things were just ordinary films, games, books etc.. and were probably viewed in the same way that we think of modern games, books etc.. today.

For example, the innocent optimism that makes many creative works from the 1990s so wonderfully reassuring, inspirational and enjoyable wouldn’t have been a big deal at the time. After all, the reeason why things from the 1990s can often seem a lot more optimistic and light-hearted than modern stuff is because they were made during the brief time between the end of the cold war and before things like 9/11 happened.

In other words, people had a reason to be optimistic about the future – so, it seemed perfectly normal back then. But, when compared to the modern world, it seems a lot more noteworthy.

3) People knew less: In short, the sum total of humanity’s knowledge was less during the 1990s than it is today. As such, there was more reason to “explore” and try new things, because they hadn’t really been done before.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in computer and video games. Large-budget games from the 1990s are often considered to be much more innovative and creative than their modern counterparts. Because they almost certainly are! The main reason for this is that gaming was much more of a “new” medium during the 1990s. It hadn’t been carefully studied and many of the tropes of the medium were only really beginning to emerge.

As such, game developers had to try new stuff – if only to see whether it worked or not. They had to experiment with different genres, gameplay mechanics and graphical techniques. Because, if they didn’t, then who would?

4) We remember the good stuff: This is the obvious one, but it is worth mentioning nonetheless. The best and most creative things from any period of history tend to be remembered more than less creative things do. This gives the impression that the past was more creative than the present.

Again, games spring to mind here. Although some people decry the fact that first-person shooter games are pretty much ubiquitous these days, it is important to remember that 2D platform games filled this role during the 1990s.

Although 2D platformers are something of a niche genre these days, they were everywhere during the early-mid 1990s. They were the generic “standard” genre of action game back then. When early FPS games like “Wolfenstein 3D”, “Doom”, “Rise Of The Triad”, “Duke Nukem 3D”, “Quake” etc.. emerged, they were a breath of fresh air compared to the glut of 2D platform games at the time. As such, they are (rightly) remembered as classics.

So, yes, people tend to remember the best and most creative things a lot more easily than everything else.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Finding Good Things In The Mainstream – A Ramble

Although I sometimes take a somewhat cynical view of modern “mainstream” culture, I had a rather interesting experience that made me think about it in a slightly different way.

This was mostly because, during a nostalgic moment, I remembered that there was a brief period during the late 2000s/early 2010s when modern British pop music was actually really good.

In 2009-11, La Roux had released songs like “Bulletproof”, “In For The Kill” and “Tigerlily”. Tinie Tempah had released songs like “Pass Out” and “Written In The Stars”. Ellie Goulding put out a song called “Guns And Horses”, Clare Maguire put out a song called “Ain’t Nobody”, Jessie J released “Do It Like A Dude” and Mini Viva released “Left My Heart In Tokyo”. For a couple of years, modern mainstream pop music here was actually worth listening to.

Despite the fact that modern mainstream culture is often eye-rollingly terrible, it does contain good things. Although lots of them rarely appear at once (eg: the only other recent example I can think of is how both a remake of “Ghost In The Shell” and a sequel to “Blade Runner” were released in 2017) and some even have high barriers to entry (eg: system requirements for modern “AAA” computer games etc..), they are certainly there. Not to mention that many of the old things from the 1980s and 1990s that I love so much were probably at least slightly “mainstream” when they were originally released.

Yet, finding good things in the mainstream is often either a rare surprise or more like panning for gold. This is, of course, why “mainstream” stuff from the past often tends to be far better than modern mainstream stuff. Leaving aside the awesome historical nostalgia in many “mainstream” 1990s TV shows, movies etc… History usually has a habit of ensuring that only the best things are remembered.

Although this isn’t perfect – since contemporary classics (like “The Matrix” or “Half-Life) can overshadow other good things in the same genre released at the same time – history does serve as a very good quality filter for “mainstream” things.

So, one of the best ways to find good things in the mainstream is simply to either wait a few years or to look at things that were mainstream a couple of decades ago. Generally, if something has stood the test of time, then this is usually a good sign.

But, often the best way to find good things in the mainstream is just to trust your own instincts. If something sounds like it could be good, then check it out (when the price has gone down a bit) and see how you react to it. I mean, some “mainstream” authors that I really like include Lee Child, J.K.Rowling, G.R.R Martin and Dan Brown. Yes, their popularity was the thing that first introduced me to their novels, but it was the quality and/or enjoyability of their work that kept me interested.

So, let your own quality standards be your guide (instead of advertising or whether something is “popular” or not).

Because, yes, sometimes good things become popular. Sometimes they don’t. Although there are a lot of criticisms to be made of the mainstream, the fact remains that there are occasionally good things that can be found there.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Let Enjoyment Be Your Guide – A Ramble

Well, although today’s article won’t directly be about creating things, it will be about all of the culture and/or entertainment that inspire us and drive us to create things of our own. So, yes, this is another article that is mostly about being a member of the audience.

A while ago, I started to think (yet again) about how I’m completely and utterly “out of date” with modern computer and video gaming- or, rather, more out of date than I used to be when I was younger.

I started to think about how I prefer single-player gaming to modern online multiplayer, how all of my knowledge of gamer culture is either first-hand knowledge from the early-mid ’00s or second-hand knowledge from modern Youtube videos etc…. How virtually all of the computer games I play these days are older games or more low-budget modern games. How the “newest” game consoles I own come from the early 2000s. And… I love it!

Although this used to make me feel like I was losing touch with a key part of who I am and made me worry that I wasn’t “cool” any more, it doesn’t really do this any more. Because, I realised that the whole point of gaming is to have fun. It isn’t to show off or to be part of a “culture” or whatever. It’s just sitting in front of a computer (or a console) and relaxing for a few minutes to a few hours.

The same is true for so many other things too. For example, I’ve always just listened to the music that I enjoy, regardless of whether it is considered “cool” or not. Whether it’s various old and new heavy metal bands, various 1990s punk bands, various gothic rock songs, a few pieces of rap music, various acoustic musicians, various pieces of old 1980s/90s pop music, a few classical pieces etc.. I listen to music because I enjoy it rather than because it happens to be trendy at the moment.

So, why am I rambling about all of this stuff? Well, it’s because the best approach to modern culture is simply to let enjoyment be your guide. If you worry too much about being “up to date” or being what other people consider to be “cool”, then you’re missing the point. The whole point of entertainment and culture in general is fun and relaxation. It’s meant to make us feel positive emotions, to expand our imaginations and to make us relax.

If you’re a creative person, then this also has another cool side-effect too – originality. If you focus on the things that you enjoy, then you are probably going to end up with a more distinctive and unique mixture of creative inspirations. This will make your creative works look a bit different to those produced by people who are eager to be “up to date” with current trends.

But, most of all, you’ll have fun. And this sense of fun will remind you why culture and entertainment matter so much. There’s a famous quote from Alan Moore, where he talks about how “art is magic”, because of the way that it can affect how people think and feel. So, if you focus on the parts of culture that you enjoy, then you will get to experience this a lot more often. And, if you’re a creative person, then this can also be a great source of motivation too.

So, yes, let enjoyment be your guide.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Short Story: “Culture” By C. A. Brown

Vicky had never seen a real, honest-to-god goth club before. It wasn’t what she’d expected. For starters, there were people who weren’t wearing black. And, the music! It was some kind of strange groaning, droning, mumbling dirge that sounded like it came from an old vinyl record. Even the walls of the club just looked ordinary, they weren’t painted nail varnish black or blood red. They were magnolia. Magnolia!

It wasn’t what she’d prepared for. And, how much fun it had been to prepare! She’d cranked her Evanescence playlist as loud as the computer speakers would go, she’d re-read random passages of her favourite Shaun Hutson novels and chosen the darkest and gnarliest Cradle Of Filth top in her wardrobe. There was a feeling that none of this could be real. Like all of the movies she’d seen over the years actually existed, like there were actually other goths and that she’d finally get to meet them.

Because, dammit, there had to be. In every Hollywood comedy movie she’d seen when she was growing up, there was always a goth or two. Even in Podunk, Arkansas – there would be a goth who wore eyeliner, talked about death and hung out with a few other goths.

On one level, she knew that was Hollywood. In Britain, things were different. She’d never met another goth in all of her two decades. Sure, there had been skaters, nerds, that emo guy with the floppy hair who had run a mile when she asked him if he was a goth and even a few friendly stoners. But, no other goths. Such things, apparently, didn’t exist in towns over here.

So, she’d had to work it out as she went along. She’d bought every gnarly-looking vintage monster, zombie and werewolf-themed horror novel she’d seen in the charity shops – the grislier the cover art, the better. After all, she thought, horror is awesome and therefore I must be a goth.

Ever since she heard “Going Under” on the radio, she’d bought and worn out two copies of Evanescence’s Fallen album. Then, after they were mentioned on TV, she’d picked up more Cradle Of Filth clothing than she could shake a stick at. Their music, she thought, wasn’t bad either. It was angry, it was about death. And the lead singer looked like a zombie from one of her horror novels. She loved it. So, of course, it must be as goth as goth could be.

And, of course, there wasn’t a single episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer that she couldn’t quote from. Every frame of every episode had been imprinted in her mind ever since she’d first seen it on TV and stood there in catatonic amazement until the credits rolled.

And, finally, thanks to an off-hand comment from a guy called Garth who had moved into the flat next door, she’d learnt that there was a goth club in town. Ironically, she’d walked past it more times than she could remember and had always thought that it was some grim old working man’s club or a run-down community centre or something like that.

But, after Garth offered to meet her there and she’d asked around, it was apparently a goth club. It had been there the whole time and she’d never noticed. It was like something from a vampire romance, if she could ever lower herself to read such obviously non-goth things.

And then she’d put on some eyeliner, picked up her leather trenchcoat and got a taxi to the club. And Garth wasn’t there.

Maybe, she thought, it was the wrong club. Maybe it was all an elaborate joke on Garth’s part. More to the point, where the hell was Garth? She checked her phone again, the amber LCD screen showed that she had one new message. She read it. Garth was running late. At least he’d texted.

She stood nervously beside the entrance and watched the people. They almost looked like a crowd from an ordinary pub. No-one else was wearing a trenchcoat. A couple of bearded men were even wearing Indiana Jones hats. The few people who were dancing to the dirge were dancing too slowly. She didn’t recognise anyone.

Remembering a line she’d seen in a comedy on TV, she nervously walked over to the bar and – putting on her most serious voice – asked if they sold absinthe. They didn’t. She bought a bottle of Vodka Tropical instead, and stood near the end of the bar sipping the bright orange liquid and staring out at the club.

Maybe, Vicky thought, she wasn’t a goth. But, that didn’t seem right. She always wore dark clothes. Songs about death were her background music. The horror genre was her genre. But, why did her supposed home look so different? A flush of fury spread through her chest. Where had these people been when she had been growing up? Why was she left to come up with her own version of what a goth was, pieced together from whatever she could find, only to discover that no-one else had had the same ideas?

Vicky felt alienated. And, suddenly, everything around her made a lot more sense. A smile crossed her face. She was, she realised, more of a goth than everyone she saw around her.

The Democracy Of The Written Word – A Ramble

One morning last spring, I found myself worrying about international politics and the future. To distract myself, I started imagining somewhat unrealistic and fanciful “alternate history” scenarios about how things could somehow turn out for the better. As I daydreamed, I noticed something interesting – most of my daydreams were more influenced by things like TV shows and computer games than any other type of cultural work.

This then made me think about how cultural influences have changed over the years. Half a century ago or more, a well-written novel by a single author could have a surprising impact on culture and politics. The most recent example of this is probably Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” from 1949, which is still referenced in political discussions. But, there are plenty of other historical examples, such as the “invasion literature” genre that was popular in Britain in the years before World War One.

Yet, I realised, the idea of novels having such an influence on people is very much a thing of the past.

Even during the 1960s and 70s, protest songs probably had more of a cultural impact than opinionated novels did. Although there are probably famous opinionated novels from this time period, they usually tend to get a lot less recognition than musicians do.

In more recent years, if someone wanted to make a political point to everyone, they had to do it through something like a TV show. For example, shows like the various versions of “Star Trek” helped to promote a more utopian vision of the future during the 1960s-1990s. They also probably had some level of influence on our current technology too (eg: tablet computers, automatic doors etc.. were probably at least partially inspired by “Star Trek: The Next Generation”).

Of course, culture changes and the shift from novels to protest songs to TV shows as a way of making a political point is an example of it. I mean, in the near future, computer and video games will probably be the main tool that creative people use to make some kind of political point. They’re becoming more mainstream, indie games are more popular than ever before and games are finally starting to be taken seriously as an artform by mainstream culture (at least when they don’t do stupid, greedy things like including loot boxes etc..). So, they’ll probably be the next evolutionary step of opinionated creative works.

But, with all of this progress, I can’t help but feel that we’ve lost something.

Basically, in order to produce a TV show or a computer game, you need a team of people and a budget. Although novels used to require a traditional publisher, all of the actual creativity just involved one author. One person with a typewriter or even just a pen and paper. This lends opinions expressed in fiction a certain individuality which is much harder to achieve when a group of people are involved.

Likewise, there’s something oddly democratic about the idea of one person writing a story that makes some kind of difference. Yes, in practice, the publishing industry was almost certainly fairly narrow-minded during the heyday of the opinionated novel, but the idea that anyone could write a novel that made a point is an interesting one. After all, the materials needed to make it were cheap and easily available, and almost everyone learnt how to read and write at school. So, theoretically at least, anyone could do it.

The same, of course, cannot be said for more complicated things like TV shows and computer games. Yes, you might argue, “people can make Youtube videos” or “there are ‘game maker’ programs out there which don’t require programming“, but they don’t really compare to the large-budget offerings from more well-financed teams of people.

As such, they lack the meritocracy of the written word. Basically, if a story is good then it is good. If it is well-written, then it is well-written. It doesn’t matter who an author is or how wealthy they are – if they write well, they write well. if they don’t, they don’t. There’s no such thing as “large-budget special effects” in a novel – words are words.

However, with a game or a TV show, the quality and appeal of it depends on a whole host of other factors. Money matters more, a larger team of people are required, technology plays a role etc.. in other words, they miss out on the “anyone can, theoretically, do this” element that prose fiction has. And, when it comes to expressing opinions in a creative way, I think that this makes the world a slightly poorer place as a result.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂