The Fault In Ourselves

I find it amusing to notice how a lot of writers and critics like to talk about the literary fashions of the day as though they are eternal truths rather than today’s fads. In the past week, I’ve seen writers bashing on J.R.R. Tolkien for writing long, info-dump chunks, both in descriptions and dialogue, not to mention for creating scenes (Tom Bombadil, anyone?) that had very nearly nothing to do with the major plot of the books. I’ve also seen another writer taking down Tom Clancy for, again, huge chunks of meandering text explaining the minutiae of the military, and giving huge chunks of backstory for minor characters. In both cases, the writers said something like, “I feel these works succeeded in spite of their flaws.”

Well, all works do, to a certain extent. I mean, Dan Brown can make money by publishing his grocery lists, and he wrote passages in The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons that conclusively prove that he doesn’t know how either cell phones or air travel work. But these same writers, who will tell you, “You can’t write the way people did fifty years ago and expect to sell” are saying in practically the same breath, “These thirty-to-seventy year old books sucked.”

Well of course they didn’t suck. The standards just changed. Hell, a lot of people didn’t like them then, but the point is that a whole lot MORE people did, and pretending that the books (any books) both violate fundamental rules of writing AND aren’t in tune with the times is just silly. It’s like saying that Shakespeare succeeded in spite of his obsession with writing in iambic pentameter, or that Sophocles succeeded in spite of insisting on having a chorus parade around the stage narrating it. Obviously, they succeeded either because they did these things and people liked it, or because that’s just how things were done and nobody cared. And they remain classics because they are such good works that even these strange features can’t turn people off to them now.

Now the observation that fashions and styles and expectations exist is a vital one for the young writer to understand. I don’t care how good you are, you are not selling the next fantasy epic in iambic pentameter. But we mist not mistake our preferences for the eternal rules of good fiction, or one day it will be us who are wondering why no one will buy our ten-years-ago styled fiction.

Black Panther And Infinity War: Choosing Who Dies On Your Hills.

So, to continue my earlier post on Black Panther, I just really want to know what the MCU was thinking when they allowed Black Panther to die as a result of Thanos’s snap.

And here, I’m not talking about the insensitivity toward a whole lot of Black fans felt by MCU making that move. That’s been discussed, in depth, by Steven Barnes and a whole lot of other people better qualified than me to do it, so I’m not bothering to recap it here. Put simply, it was really bad writing that took a dump on a franchise that MCU had obviously tried to elevate.

I mean, in a sense, Avengers: Infinity War really wrote itself into a corner. Thanos is essentially Sauron, trying to get his hands on a six-part One Ring that makes him invincible. The idea that Frodo has to win by first allowing Sauron to succeed is really fascinating. But they have Wakanda playing the role of Minas Tirith, and losing the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. But killing off all of Wakanda’s men, save M’Baku, was really foolish. Firstly, you never alienate an entire franchise’s fanbase. That’s just bad marketing.

Secondly, it really doesn’t matter that T’Challa et al. are coming back. Because now, they can never really be the ultimate heroes. They will always be the ones who had to be rescued by the real heroes. And it doesn’t matter that it was random, or that it was unfair. It’s unfair in sports when, say, a wide receiver misses a catch in the end-zone under double coverage that would have been almost impossible to catch, and then a kicker who makes a 25-yard field goal is hailed as the hero for winning the game. The kicker’s job was MUCH easier. But in sports and war that’s just the kind of unforgiving valorization of results that we have to have. In the end, victory is all that really matters, and anyone who’s ever played a game knows that this is so.

In the end, it’s just bad writing to set up characters to be the kind of heroes that Black Panther’s characters were set up to be and then kill off the main hero. It would have been far better to leave T’Challa alive and the king of nothing. Then he can redeem his failure by resurrecting the nation. And it’s not really fair either to point out that other franchises lost their heroes, too, even though it’s true that they did. Peter Quill died, yes, but in some ways, Thanos’s victory was his fault for spoiling the Removal Of The Gauntlet, so he had it coming. Spiderman died, but compared to the rest of the Avengers, he was a kid, hardly expected to pull his own weight. Only T’Challa was a king.

The only way I can see for MCU to come close to redeeming this is for the defeated characters to somehow be brought back prior to Thanos’s defeat, and being absolutely key to that defeat. In other words, for T’Challa et al. to rescue the survivors of Infinity War right back.

Black Panther, The Oscars, and the Writing of Really Great Superhero Movies

So, Black Panther was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and I’ll be the first (actually, the millionth) to say that it deserves the nomination, at least as much as Star Wars did in 1978. Whether it wins or not, it’s a stunning film.

I’m going to preface this with a note: I’m pretty sure that I will never feel, on a gut level, how important Black Panther was to Black Americans. My Black friends who care about such things are absolutely in love with the movie, and I suspect, were I Black, I would be, too, and for a host of reasons I can only partially fathom. I think it is an awesome movie.

And yet… somehow, for me, it doesn’t quite measure up to the very best of the best movies in the superhero genre, and it took me awhile to figure out why. There was just something about it that kept me from putting it on the same level as Captain America: Civil War and The Incredibles. Because these are the superhero movies I watch again and again.

I finally figured it out a couple of days ago, and when I did it hit me like a freight train, because I’ve seen the exact same flaw in my own work, and in other unpublished novels. The problem is that it’s hard to explain. The best way I can say it is this: when you are working with complex characters, it is often very tempting to put them on the stage alone, or with only one other character. Doing so allows you to make the audience focus on them. In addition, it is VERY tempting to make especially your villains into ultimate badasses. After all, the more powerful they are, the more glorious your hero’s victory over them.

Black Panther does this with Erik Killmonger. Killmonger arrives, having killed his former partner, Ulysses Klaue — which T’Challa could not do* — and leverages this into a bid for the Wakandan throne, revealing his identity as an abandoned Wakandan prince of the blood.

But unfortunately, this screws with the film in two other ways. Firstly, it forces the film into a scene that is almost purely repetitive. We have to go through the entire “duel for the throne” that T’Challa just won against the Jabari challenger. It forces us to tread over ground already covered. Secondly, it throws the whole Wakandan throne — or T’Challa’s judgment — into question. If the throne is permanently open to challenge, then how stable can it be? It can’t and the film implies that T’Challa, already having gone through the challenge, would have been well within his rights to refuse the challenge. But he accepts, in what I consider to be the weakest part of the film. It actually makes T’Challa less of a hero, because he places Wakanda at risk of being taken over by a monarch who will have absolute power, who has shown the willingness and potential to brutally destabilize the world, and who has no reason, really, to keep Wakanda safe: Killmonger pretty much blames Wakandan inaction not only for his own terrible life, but for the unopposed colonialism and conquest of the developing world. Why does T’Challa do this? Because of guilt at his father’s action? Because he believes he can’t be defeated? Neither is a good reason.

With the admitted benefits of hindsight, I think that there were ways to avoid this. For example: Suppose the coronation itself is interrupted by the need to apprehend Klaue and the stolen vibranium. T’Challa points out that a true king must prioritize the defense of the nation over his official coronation. Then, while having the wounded Ross airlifted out by Okoye and Nakia, he chases down Klaue and Killmonger. Killmonger shoots Klaue in the back, and then proceeds to fight T’Challa and lose. Upon surrendering, he is taken into custody.

Back in Wakanda, Killmonger asks only one favor for his plea of guilt: he asks, as a descendant of the African Diaspora, to witness the Wakandan coronation ceremony. T’Challa accedes to this harmless request. At the coronation, the Jabari challenge. T’Challa wins as we saw in the film (which already hints that the Black Panther must face any and all legitimate challengers). As T’Challa rises in victory, Killmonger reveals his identity as N’Jadaka, before everyone, and claims his right to challenge as a prince of the blood. He is fresh, and T’Challa is tired, but he is within his rights. He has orchestrated the entire situation to be where he is at the right time. It makes him a little less physically imposing, but it makes him frighteningly smart. It makes T’Challa less of a dupe, because how could he have suspected such a plan? His own father unwittingly set him up. And halfway through the duel, of course, Killmonger can start telling him — and showing him — that their “fight” before had been Killmonger deliberately losing. And since it’s all one scene, we don’t have any feeling that this is covering old ground.

Even better, when T’Challa’s mother recovers him and the heart-shaped herb and takes him to the Jabari, it is discovered that Killmonger, in secret, provoked the Jabari to the challenge (we never do get a very good explanation for why they broke their isolation in the film) and used their chieftain as a stalking horse to weaken T’Challa to ensure his own victory. This can be the reason that the Jabari decide to back T’Challa, to avenge their having been played by the usurper.

I think this approach would have resulted in a more streamlined film, which would have made T’Challa more consistent with his awesome portrayal in Civil War, and does not require diminishing any other aspect of this very fine movie. Of course, it’s not going to happen. That’s not the point. The point is that I hope I — and you, if you’re a writer — can incorporate the techniques discussed to improve our own fiction.

*Actually, and this is a wonderful bit of subtlety in the film, he chooses not to to keep his people — and Agent Ross, his ally — safe. Because that’s the awesome kind of king T’Challa is.

The Challenge Of The Grind

Grinding. Can’t count the number of times I’ve heard gamers complain about grinding, that moment when the game becomes more of a chore than a form of fun, trying to rack up more and more currency of whatever form the game requires so that you can trade it in for the shiny spaceship, armor, spell, plot-point, etc. that’s necessary to be awesome and go have FUN AGAIN!

But I’d actually like to challenge the notion that grinding is, of itself, a bad thing.

No, before you get out your machetes to sacrifice me to the gods of terrible game writing, hear me out. Grind is an inevitable part of gameplay. In fact, it’s pretty much the core meta-mechanic: Do these things according to the rules and you win. You just have to keep doing them. The problem isn’t grind: the problem is BAD grind. I submit that bad grind occurs when the players get the sense that they are having to repeat the same onerous task (whether too easy or too hard doesn’t matter) in order to get the same inadequate reward.

But good grind gives you the sense that the game is worth playing. That the universe is a challenge in itself. I will use two examples of this to prove my point: The 1990s Star Control II and the present incarnation of Elite: Dangerous.

Star Control II was a resource-gathering and exploration game. But in order to explore, you have to strengthen the capabilities of your flagship and its attendant fleet. And for this you need to mine planets. The genius of Star Control was its sheer magnitude and variety: literally thousands of brightly-colored planets, filled with millions of brightly-colored minerals. The more valuable minerals were mostly on the most dangerous planets to explore, presenting you with a cruel dilemma: do you take the chance of mining a dangerous planet for the rich rewards and losing your valuable shuttle altogether? Or do you content yourself poking about the safer, poorer planets, losing valuable time? I never heard anyone complain about the “grind” in SCII. And yet, all the elements of the grind were there. What saved it was the inherent tension, and the ability of the player to set his own pace.

Elite: Dangerous has a different sort of grind: the grind of the journey. You can fly to the center of the galaxy. It’s likely to take about a month of game time, but you can do it. And on the way you’re going to discover nebulae, planets, wrecked ships and more. It’s a grind: a never-ending series of jumps. But you can play the game without doing it. And there’s always something new to see. And you don’t get the reward of taking the long journey without, well, the work of taking the long journey. Which is, of course, the entirely appropriate price to pay.

How Not To Pace Your Fiction

So, as I mentioned earlier, last year I got to spend most of the fall semester teaching a group of high school students the basics of fiction writing. I want to talk about the story of a particular young lady I’m going to call BR. BR is a very talented young writer, far ahead of the curve for being a senior in high school, certainly one of the two best in the class. She decided to try her hand at high fantasy. She wrote a D&D-esque story about a young girl, the tribal chief’s daughter, who goes out to slay a bear for her rite of passage.

Firstly, I was very impressed by the consistency of character and the beautiful, clear prose she used. I truly wish I had been that good in high school.

But at the very beginning, I was convinced that I was about to read the story of a Mary Sue who easily annihilated every foe before her. It took me almost to the climax to realize that I was wrong about this, and it took me even longer to realize why I had been so misled. Because it wasn’t a flaw in the character. It was a flaw in the pacing.

Like many young writers, BR had decided to establish her character early on in the reader’s mind. But the way she did this was to have the protagonist’s father organize this huge send-off for her while everyone on the tribe cheered her on. This had two unfortunate effects that BR did not intend:
1) It exaggerated her protagonist’s virtues. And we couldn’t know this, because we had no way of knowing that her father was blinded by his own pride in her.
2) For about the first two pages, nothing happened except the cheering, so the story seemed very static.

BR had fallen into the trap of trying to describe her character and the setting all at once. She knew that she needed to show this rather than tell it, but she used so much dialogue that she ended up more or less “telling” anyway. Note that nothing in her technique was necessarily unrealistic. But the technique set us up with false (and bad)  expectations anyway. She killed the story in the mind of the reader. Just being realistic is never enough to establish your story. You have to do it so that it grabs the reader’s interests. On top of this, BR was so focused on her dialogue that she ignored other parts of the story. For example, before she leaves, the protagonist is blessed by an orc shaman. And as a result, I wondered throughout the story whether she was an orc (which she was not).

Now the way to fix this would have been to cut down the dialogue and have a respectful silence while, say, the orc shaman was blessing the protagonist. Then, BR could have used some quick description and the protag’s thoughts to contrast with the exaggerated praise being heaped upon her and to establish the makeup of the tribe. Then, the protagonist leaves,and we’re right into the action. Probably even better would have been to do the intro in flashback and to start the story “hot:” with her tracking or fighting, or running from the bear. This would have the effect of bringing the readers right into the story until they were interested enough to read through the intro.

It’s a very typical error to make, and one I made often myself. I hope BR keeps writing, as I have.

Less Is Not More, And Deconstruction Does Not Build.

Last week, my retro review on the film No Country For Old Men got a fair amount of commentary from people (for my blog, anyway), from people who liked the film. One friend of mine said that he found its deconstruction and defiance of tropes refreshing.

Of course, it shouldn’t be necessary (but I admit that it is) to say that anyone can like anything, for any reason. We all have films we “just like” no matter what, either because we think they’re objectively better than most people do, and can defend that on some level, or they just tickle our “cool” centers in all the right ways. And if No Country For Old Men is to your taste, then far be it from me to say you can’t or shouldn’t like it.

But I do challenge the defense of the film on the grounds that it defies conventions. Nothing is good or interesting JUST because it “defies” anything. A raw onion sundae would “defy” the tropes and conventions of dessert. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

For too long, critics and authors who would claim the avant-garde position have used the term “deconstruction” as a defense for works that ignore or leave out major elements of storytelling, and use it to praise them as somehow being wonderfully creative or bold. And I’m sorry, but it’s past time for someone to say that The Emperor Has No Clothes. And I find that analogy strictly accurate. The Emperor’s problem wasn’t that he said, “Hey, everyone, I’ve decided that nudity is the way to go!” No, the problem was that he insisted that everyone admire his “new clothes” and threatened to call them fools if they refused and spoke the truth.

In the same way, works like No Country For Old Men provides less than a traditional story and their writers and admirers insist that they are more. That they are somehow “more real” or “more authentic” than a “traditional narrative” because it lacks what that narrative provides: structure, conflict and resolution. It’s like Raw Food fanatics who don’t cook and insist that they are superior for refusing to. And those are all the marks of a fad, not of penetrating insight.

Now, does that mean that deconstruction is always bad? Of course not. Especially as a writing exercise, it can be very good, because it can point readers and writers to fresh understandings of how and why stories work. Just like tasting raw foods can help people become better cooks and appreciate a wider variety of tastes. But acknowledging and using that fact is very different from plopping some artistically-arranged crudité on someone’s plate and telling them it’s better or more “authentic” because it defies the tropes of cooking.

And yes, of course “traditional narratives” can get old, tired and overdone. But that doesn’t mean that they are automatically old, tired and overdone simply by adhering to conventions of structure, any more than cooking or clothing can become passe by applying heat to food or cloth to bodies. In fact, what is more likely is that the “challenges” to these structures will become passe even more quickly, because they are by definition less complex and more reliant on a single factor to please their audience: the “defiance” of convention. They have little or nothing else to recommend them.

And when these avant-garde, deconstructionist, “challenging” scripts are themselves, in the normal course of things, challenged, too many of their admirers defend them by essentially saying, “If you don’t like it, you’re just too stupid and unsophisticated.” That this is not even an argument, let alone a good one, should hardly need to be stated. And if it is to be contended that the man who can appreciate more tastes is more sophisticated than the man who can appreciate fewer, the limits should be obvious. Certainly, a man who can only eat chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese is no better than a five year-old child. A man who can appreciate lobster, caviar, and balut is likely a passable gourmand. But a man who can appreciate eating wood-shavings and moldy tomatoes is at least flirting with insanity.

Finally, I reject the contention that deconstruction or defiance is necessary to engage with the full range of human experience. Certainly, there is value in pessimistic themes, such as memento mori, or the idea that fate will work against the righteous and support the evildoer. But as I pointed out previously, that was being done as long ago as Oedipus Rex and arguably, Gilgamesh. In fact, Llewellyn Moss’s character in No Country For Old Men bears some resemblance to Gilgamesh: a “hero” who essentially wants to steal happiness and yet finds out that he can’t because fate will not allow it. Therefore it is disingenuous — and in fact objectively false — to argue that the expressions of such themes are somehow objectively “new and refreshing.” In fact, it is just another well-known trope with “the gods” and “fate” filed off and replaced by labels saying “chaos” and “real life.” It is, as I said, Satanas ex machina, with the writers taking the side of the villains rather than the heroes.

Furthermore, were we to hold the sequence of events laid out in No Country For Old Men up to a mirror, with the heroes in the place of the villains, with Chigurh running stupidly after Moss but being thwarted at every turn by the power of the hero’s… well, purity and righteousness (since the only explanation we ever get as to how Chigurh can vanish in the middle of gunfights, and appear noiselessly behind ex-special-forces officers is that he’s a relentless psychopath), the story you’d get would be somewhere between the fantasies concocted by my 9-year old (in which the Rebel Alliance has 5 Death Stars and destroys the Empire with contemptuous ease) and bad anime, where the heroes laugh/sneer at the bad guys while kicking their ass. And people would justly say, that it is puerile and simplistic. But somehow, when nihilism and brutality are held up as the bestowers of supremacy, rather than faith and chivalry, we are to believe it is thoughtful and sophisticated.

And this is simply wrongheaded. It is false sophistication, similar to the college student who sneers at his middle-school brother for slurping down strawberry soda while extolling black coffee and chugging Budweiser. It’s saying, “Look how grown-up I am!” It says more about the critic than it does about the film when what is NOT there, (character motivation, backstory, plot structure) is held up as a virtue. It’s not a virtue. It’s actually less. And it can be a very well-acted/directed “less,” (which I will stipulate that No Country For Old Men is) just as bad anime or science-fiction can LOOK awesome. And of course, it’s possible for that to be more enjoyable. There’s LOTS of “traditional narrative” films worse than No Country For Old Men, just as I’ve had lots of “apple pies” that have tasted worse than a really good raw apple. But a true judgment will be found in comparing the best of both.

 

 

 

Retro Review: No Country For Old Men… Or Anyone Else.

Spoilers Be Here, for anyone who still wants to see it.

So, having nothing better to do while I wrapped presents, I decided to fill in the gaps in my filmography and watch NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN on Netflix, having heard that it was good from… well, lots of places.

Tell me, when did Tommy Lee Jones let people convince him that it was intellectual to appear in movies where nihilism got substituted for plot? For that matter, when did Americans get convinced of that? And can we all finally agree that it’s basically the professorially approved version of the neckbeards who go around thinking that reading Ayn Rand makes them edgy?

This movie is basically The Hunted with two more characters, and a less-satisfying ending, which up until this point I would not have believed possible. But no, we’re not supposed to be disappointed with the ending, in which the supposed protagonist gets killed off-screen by random Mexican drug-lords, the villain walks away from a random car crash, and Tommy Lee Jones literally never sees either of them. No, we’re supposed to admire, as one critic tells us, how “The Neo-Western which builds on recognizable Western imagery to reach a very different conclusion and worldview. ” One in which “We’re left with a frightening interplay of the arbitrary and the inevitable, in which we must fear both moral punishment and the total lack of moral order , yet can’t trust in either,” because Moss the thief protagonist is killed, the sadistic villain Chigurh gets away, and the sheriff never comes close to saving or catching anyone.

We’re supposed to believe that this symbolizes the triumph of chaos and nihilism, and that Chigurh’s ending — that Chigurh himself, symbolized by his coin toss — is a sort of avatar of merciless fate. Which is absolute and total bullshit for any constructed story as a claim. Because there is no structure here. There is no overwhelming weakness of the protagonists that leads to their downfall, nor any strength to the villain that ensures his triumph. The only chaos that is generated is that which the Coen brothers generate themselves. Which is, of course, as all bad writers know, MUCH easier than writing characters. Characters have to have consistent motivations, skillsets, ethics, etc. But Fate can do anything, at any time. Can’t question it; it’s Fate! This is not innovative writing nor is it new. It is a mere funhouse reflection of the old, a Satanas ex machina in which the forces of evil obey the writers’ command to turn everything to shit.

In so doing, the film recapitulates the old saw that gets trotted out in every shitty graduate English Studies department in the world when you dare oppose the orthodoxy of nihilism and the Miserific Vision of the senseless, the brutal, the chaotic world: “It is questioning the idea of meaning.” I remember asking, when I was still in one of those programs myself, “Well, do I get to question the utility of that question?” My professor just looked at me and said, “No.”

And that is why films like NO COUNTRY are symbolic, not of some transcendent truth about the triumph of chaos, but of the infantilization of studies of Literature. You’re just not allowed to question the question. Essentially, the writers of such films get to put their fingers in their ears and scream “I asked first!” and pout at you for not playing their game. But it isn’t a game. It’s not that interesting, because the outcome has been predetermined from the start. It’s Oedipus Rex with the basic goodness and nobility of Oedipus subtracted from it. Instead of a man who wanted to be a hero brought low by the machinations of the gods, we have a low opportunist smacked down by fate and a sadistic hit man elevated because reasons. This isn’t a reexamination, much less an insight, into old themes, it is their parody and degradation. It is, as Chesterton said, “the thought that kills thought.” And as Roger Ebert said of another film, “It is like the story of a man falling off a cliff. There is no possible action but that he continue to fall, and no possible outcome but that he hit the ground and die.” The only difference in this film is that we are made to think that there might be a different outcome for most of it. In other words, NO COUNTRY was a bait-and-switch that robs not only old men of their country, but the rest of us of two hours of our lives.

And the sons-of-bitches who committed it ought to be made to give it back.

 

Writing Roundup 2018: The Bad, The Good, and The Beautiful

Well, for the last blog entry of the year, it’s time for 2018’s Writing Roundup. I’ll start with the bad news.

2018 was my worst year for short story sales since 2014. I was only able to sell two stories to new markets, though I am proud of both sales. “Iron Out Of Vulcan,” about a strange apocalypse that spared only the disabled, appeared in the anthology Battling In All Her Finery, and “In The Republic Of The Blind,” a military Space Opera originally written for (of all things) an anthology on Space Marine Midwives (which as far as I know never launched) sold to Amazing Stories. Of course, it is always nice to crack a new pro magazine market, so that is the silver lining.

However, 2018 was also my best year for actually writing, possibly in my life. The first part of the year was taken up by receiving my very first novel contract, which takes a bit of the sting out of the aforementioned short fiction sales slump, from Digital Fiction Pub, for a 53,000-word middle-grade science-fiction adventure on the moon with the tentative title of The Girl Who Wasn’t There. This should be released in 2019.
The next major project that I tackled was the rewriting (at the request of a Publisher-Who-Cannot-Be-Named) of a manuscript I had previously submitted, tentatively titled Beneath The Verdant Tide.
And finally, I finished the draft of the full novel-length version of A Doctor To Dragons, which is tentatively titled All Things Huge and Hideous. I hope to have this released in early 2019, but if you want an early look, the chapters are being released each month to my Patreon backers.

My first novel manuscript took me five years to finish. This year I knocked out two while revising a third, so I’d say that this represents a major leap forward in my production, including the discovery of the fact that I am indeed capable of writing a novel LESS than 125,000 words in length.

All in all, a good year, and I can’t wait for the next one. I hope all my readers feel the same. May the New Year bring you all the best.

Scott Huggins

Fallen Horseshoes To Appear In Anthology!

I’m very happy to say that I got confirmation that one of my earliest published stories, “Fallen Horseshoes” which concerns a blacksmith with a haunted forge, will be reprinted in an anthology this coming year. Details will follow, but for now, I’m going to link to the sample snippet and be happy that this story will appear somewhere other than the back issue of a not-very-well-known magazine.

A Modest Proposal: The Bombadil Scale of Sidequests

A friend recently asked in a open forum what the proper size of a sidequest in a novel should be. We all know sidequests: those are the moments in which the characters pause in the middle of their Main Quest to do Something Else. What the Something Else may be has a huge (but not the only) effect on its proper size. This got me thinking, and I would like to propose the following system of measurement:

The SI unit of measure for a sidequest is the bombadil. One bombadil is the amount of gratuitous sidequest necessary to make 50% of readers give up on their first readthrough. No sidequest should ever measure more than 0.05 bombadils, though famous authors may push it to 0.1 bombadil.

The amount of prose necessary to comprise a bombadil is variable, and depends on the general tediousness of the sidequest, the characters involved in the sidequest, how much they grow in the sidequest, and how it affects the progress of the Main Quest. Of course, it also depends on the raw length of the sidequest, but that is not as important as you might think. A truly gifted writer can make the sidequest just as important as the Main Quest.

So let’s look at the archetypal case. In The Fellowship Of The Ring, our heroes, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, all get ensorcelled by an evil tree and freed by Tom Bombadil, a mysterious humanoid who takes them home to his just-as-strange wife for dinner. Bombadil later frees them from an evil barrow-wight and arms them with the treasure it was guarding. Breaking it down we have:

T = general Tediousness: Very High. The characters eat and sleep and listen to childish lyric poetry (10), slightly offset by them getting into two spots of serious and interesting trouble (-2): 8
S = characters exclusive to the Sidequest: 2 (lowest value for this variable is 1)
M = characters on the Main Quest: 4
g = growth of the characters because of the sidequest: Significant, but small. Frodo shows that he is capable of thinking, fighting and securing a temporary victory at need: 4
D = What it Diverts from: Walking to the nearest town. This is difficult, because on the one hand, diverting us from something that should be skipped right over adds tedium, but diverting us in the middle of something absolutely critical to the main plotline is worse, so this defies an easy, linear scale. Allow negative numbers on this one, with zero being the value at which the plot is progressing at a steady, unhurried, pace: Just walking along: -2
Finally, we introduce 4 as a constant, because all great equations have constants, and because a sidequest is only about a quarter as interesting as the main quest at best, a fact writers should ALWAYS remember, regardless of how clever they find themselves.

This gives us the following equation:

TSD²/4Mg = Qs (Sidequest value in bombadils)

And plugging in our values, we get:

8*2*2²/4*4*4 = 1 bombadil.

Initially, I had been going to factor in the sidequest’s ultimate importance to the story, whch would have made the score lower because one of the hobbit’s weapons, acquired on this sidequest, ultimately helps to destroy the Lord of the Nazgul. But the point is that we do not know that, and therefore it has no effect on whether or not the reader gets bored to death and puts the book down.

So, for some examples:

The Empire Strikes Back: Luke’s training sequence on Dagobah: Qs = 0.05 bombadil
T = 5 (cool Jedi powers and a fight with ghost-Vader, offset by boring platitudes on Planet Swamp).
S = 1
D = 0.5 (an increasingly-tense hunt for the Falcon, but Luke has to have a storyline of his own)
M = 1 (no, Artoo doesn’t count)
g = 6 (Luke becomes at least half a Jedi, but undisciplined.

The Eye Of The World: Perrin and Egwene’s sojourn with Elyas: Qs = 0.25 bombadils
T = 4 (It’s Jordan’s incredibly-detailed prose, but the whole thing with the wolves is awesome)
S = 1 (Elyas)
D = 1 (It’s about on pace with everything else)
M = 2 (Perrin and Egwene)
g = 8 (This sidequest basically starts Perrin’s character arc as a badass)

Moby Dick: The chapter on whales: Qs = 36 bombadils 
T = 9. A lecture on whales. In the middle of a novel. Only not a 10 because whales are inherently cool.
S = 1
D = -2 (for being Moby Dick. They’re sailing.)
M = 1 (Ishmael)
g = 1 (he learns about whales)

It: That one scene near the end as the kids escape the recently-defeated It. Yeah. THAT one: Qs = 96 bombadils
T = (the exact number defies description, but the Ick factor makes me conservatively estimate it, on a scale of 1 to 10 at) 27.
S = 1
D = 5 (seriously, the book was OVER).
M = 7
g = 1 (in a really disgusting way)

Note that when main characters are uninvolved in the sidequest, you are approaching infinite bombadils, and should just stop.

So, there you have it, a completely objective and indisputable method for solving the worth of various sidequests. You’re welcome.