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The Empty Story

Speaking of things I didn’t realize early in my writing career, did you know there is more to a story than a simple gimmick? It’s easy to break my novels down into gimmicks (Xronixle – VR, Veneer – AR, Perion Synthetics – Robots), but those don’t really encompass the totality of those stories.

For every novel I publish, there are dozens that never get past a handful of chapters. I used to wonder why that was, and I was able to put a name to it the other night while watching the Westworld premiere.

Every story that stalls out… is empty.

What does that mean?

Suppose we start with an idea: a tornado full of sharks is making its way up the coast of California. Well, as undeniably awesome as that idea is, it is nothing without real human drama added to it. Imagine you made a movie about that very idea, but you didn’t add any humanity to it, didn’t give the characters feelings or identity or motivation. That’d be a pretty shitty movie, wouldn’t it?

The idea of a theme park full of pseudo-artificially intelligent robots is a gimmick plain and simple. It’s nothing more than a setting. If you want to make a good story out of it, you have to add something more to it. Make no mistake, I enjoyed every minute of the Westworld pilot, but it didn’t click for me until Anthony Hopkins was interviewing Dolores’ dad.

The dad says something along the lines of you’re living in a prison of your own sins.

Suddenly the story is about more. There’s something LARGER than the story INSIDE the story. There is more to Westworld than a superficial gimmick. At least, that’s the promise.

Por Vida is a novel about synthetic transcendence, obsession, friendship, mental health, y más y más, but I struggled for a long time to write it. Initially, it was just a guy and a girl in a bunker at the end of the world. Just that idea alone makes me think oh that’s neat, but how do we change that to oh that’s compelling?

A great example of what I’m still failing to articulate is the movie Inception. Without the Cobb-Mal subplot, I don’t think that movie would have worked as well. As it is, once that twist is revealed, subsequent viewings of the movie become less enjoyable. The dreams are an interesting idea, and the visuals are stunning, but without those core human emotions of betrayal and love and regret… it’s not the same movie.

It’s hard to enumerate the steps that take you from superficial to deep while writing a story. For me, it has only happened four times in 16 years. I try not to worry about it, and instead choose to focus on my ability to recognize when a story is empty

Ah, the life of a writer: knowing you suck, but not knowing how to fix it.

But at least we’re self-aware, right?

Further reading: The Dunning-Kruger Effect

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