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Musings Upon My

Stylistic Limitations

This week I've been thinking about the stylistic limitations on The Curious Tale. Specifically, I've been thinking about two such limitations, which, upon closer inspection, are actually one and the same: the limitation on comedy, and the limitation on energy.

By definition any writing style imposes stylistic boundaries, and it is these boundaries that set a story's stylistic limitations. Even a supposedly unbounded style, or "no style at all" (impossible), causes negative-space limitations, such as the limitation on stylistic coherence.

Over the years I've optimized the style of The Curious Tale to minimize the stylistic limitations that are likeliest to make me feel constrained. In particular, it is a highly serious work. That seriousness dial is ratcheted up pretty high. This allows me access to considerable emotional and dramatic depth. That depth is why I've set the seriousness level so high.

It comes with a caveat, however: It severely constraints the freedom of the narrative to be funny.

Now, I don't mean the characters (or other in-world situations). The characters are allowed to be as funny as temperament and circumstance provide for, and I do try to find their comedy wherever I can, not least because I recognize that The Curious Tale is short on humor. But much of a story's humor doesn't come from in-world sources. It comes from the narrative itself. This narrative humor is what a highly serious style doesn't permit.

To put it informally, narrative humor is when you're laughing but the characters aren't. Such humor tends to depend upon the audience's ironical knowledge and their distance from the in-world situation. In essence, the narrator is winking at the audience, saying "Here's a joke." For example, in Home Alone, Kevin's not laughing, and the burglars sure aren't laughing. To them, nothing funny is happening. If you were in any of their positions, you wouldn't be laughing either. But your removal from those situations, and your ironic knowledge, allows you—or at least your childhood predecessor—to find it all quite hilarious.

The reason this isn't permitted in a highly serious work is that it cuts off the depths of dramatic and emotional potential. It's not that no dramatic or emotional depth is allowed. Obviously there's still quite a reasonable amount of depth available. But the presence of narrative humor causes the audience to be aware that what they're looking at is fake. That awareness diminishes their immersion, which in turn cuts off the fullest depths of emotion and drama. In a fully serious story, you can be drawn in completely. That makes you more vulnerable, and in turn opens you to the full depth of drama and emotion.

And The Curious Tale needs access to that depth more than it needs narrative humor.

Nonetheless, there are many times I wish I could inject my favorite flavors of humor into the narration. Readers of Empire on Ice know well of my comedic style, my love of the intermingling of absurdity and delight. In Empire on Ice, Afiach Bard can be completely unaware that the burger on a billboard isn't to scale with the real offering. In The Curious Tale, something like that just wouldn't work. It would make her look stupid or it would make the circumstance unbelievable. Either way it would curtail immersion.

Likewise, Galavar and Grieve wouldn't be able to have a ludicrously yet completely coincidentally identical lifestyle. Silence wouldn't be able to be so completely unaware of her own buffoonish gluttony. Aroen wouldn't be able to be a Victorian aristocratic Moriarty who's down on his luck and is reduced to operating out of an abandoned industrial warehouse. And Josh (who technically isn't in The Curious Tale) certainly wouldn't be able to preside over such a preposterously dysfunctional Empire while still being able to serve as a credible exponent for imperialism.

There are times in The Curious Tale where I dearly wish to give one character or another some kind of anime moment, where they raise their arm high and point at the sky heroically, and the music plays, and the go-faster lines start popping up, and they go over 9000, and they shout and perform some kind of preposterous, impossible feat. But I just can't do it, because that doesn't happen in real life, and real life is what I'm trying to portray.

That's why I said at the beginning that the limitation on comedy and the limitation on energy are really one and the same. For me they are: The energy of characters—those explosive "anime moments" and so forth—are a facet of my sense of humor. I can only dial up a character's energy so high before it starts to run up against the line of ludicrousness.

My feelings of constraint peak whenever I'm exposed to a work that allows its narrative comedy to flow freely. This week it was Undertale, which I think is a terrifically funny game. My favorite character is hilarious. There's a scene where they inadvertently burn down their own house as a result of trying to have an anime moment. (If you haven't played or seen the game, don't look this up. It's a big spoiler.) That character is reminiscent of some of my own. Yet my characters, at least when they're in The Curious Tale and not Empire on Ice, can't be hilarious in that way.

I miss that!

Unfortunately, I'll have to go on missing it, because the limitation on narrative humor is by design. Such is style. You have to give up some things in order to achieve other things that you value more.

I swear, though. If I had the extra time, energy, and talent, I'd love to do a webcomic or an animated series of Empire on Ice. It'd be in an alternate continuity, and I'd be able to show you a side to my characters that doesn't easily get to come out in The Curious Tale. The absence of such expressions is keenly noticed by me, because I myself often dwell in the space of absurdity and delight. Yet I can only ask so much of the narrative to allow situations to arise where the characters can be funny in-world. (Too much of this and it would become a significant source of verbosity and distraction from the plot.)

I've toyed with engineering funny situations: both in terms of creating funny in-world situations and in terms of testing the limits of how much narrative comedy I can include before unacceptably cheapening the work. For instance, see this scene involving Silence, Jei, and Jei's father, which represents the current frontier of how much narrative humor I'm willing to allow in The Curious Tale. And to be honest, it may actually be a touch too much.

Anyhow, that's all for this week. May you find the best style for your own needs of self-expression. And may you be able to find peace with the stylistic choices you must make, and the limitations that result.

O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!