Reinventing the Wheel
A Look at Sources of Inspiration and What to Do with Them
Saturday, September 1, 2018
Remember that time when Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Edward James Olmos, and Harrison Ford all got together in one of the most underrated cities of our time—scenic Los Angeles—to teach us a lesson about the true meaning of life while Vangelis blasted out some hella tunes?
You just don't catch lightning in a bottle like that twice. Those moments are a one-of-a-kind, and because they are one-of-a-kind they are imitated—over and over again—by the generation they animated.
This week in Curious Tale Saturdays, we're looking at the quest to reinvent the wheel, including how it applies to the Tale itself.
Everyone has their formative experiences. Nor is it strictly a youth thing; formative experiences can continue throughout a person's life.
By virtue of human nature and the definition of "formative," many people have an insatiable desire to take their formative experiences and relive them in some way, out of a fervent hope—though usually futile—to experience that magic again. To learn again. This drive transcends most people's understanding of what they are even doing. I think few would have the self-awareness to recognize, if asked, when they are caught up in their vain chase.
I say "futile" and "vain" because the thing itself, like lightning in a bottle, will never be caught again. But, crucially, this does not preclude new lightning strikes. Blade Runner gave us Ghost in the Shell, which has become a major inspiration in its own right.
For most people, especially the less creative and more passive types, their desire to relive the magic manifests itself in a taste for repetition, for doing the same things over and over again—watching the same movies, going to the same hangouts, playing the same types of games—all because there was that one hallowed night in the beginning when the oijua board really worked.
But for other people, the desire can come out as something more: a reflection of the source material in a new form. It spans all the arts, but we shall call this "storytelling."
Not all stories come from this particular source. In fact, most don't. But plentiful nevertheless are the ones that do. I could have picked Ridley Scott's more famous work, Alien, which arguably spawned an entire genre of new stories, to better illustrate that particular point. But Blade Runner is special because, even though its overt impact was smaller, it inspired a hell of a lot of very quirky creative people, and their storytelling has arguably been more important to the development of science fiction and fantasy in the decades since.
To use the older, academic sense of "meme," these moments of lightning in a bottle—Blade Runner, Harry Potter, Super Mario Brothers—become the equivalent of "reproductively successful," for they influence great swaths of cultures like few stories can. They become very powerful memes indeed: story-progenitors, whose tropes, themes, or styles become widespread in other people's storytelling.
Packaged Stories vs. Real-Life Experiences
It's not just packaged stories (e.g., books, films, games, albums) that can create a magical experience for somebody, of course. It can be a party, or a car ride, or a restaurant experience, or a really cool summer break, or a song, or a relationship, or, hey, even an actual séance where the floorboards rattled. It can be almost anything.
But we look in particular at inspirations that come from packaged stories, because the objective face of those experiences is transmissible and therefore far more scalable. Packaged stories are far more likely to become story-progenitors than real-life experiences are. No one can join you back in "that day on the coast," but millions of people were moved by Final Fantasy VI, and can replay it at any time. Never mind that people's individual experiences playing that game were different; that's not the point. The existence of a physical medium containing the objective experience means that packaged stories are more relatable, more widely experienced, and therefore a lot more convenient to riff on.
There's even a self-reinforcing mechanism here: The packaged stories that aren't as widely experienced in the first place typically have a correspondingly smaller impact culturally. There are exceptions—after all I just argued that Blade Runner is more significant than Alien despite having reached fewer people—but the point I'm getting at is that, as statistical distributions often so neatly do, when it comes to chasing and reliving the magic of formative experiences that also happen to be packaged stories, most people spend most of their time focusing on a small percentage of very popular story-progenitors, and those are the stories that people keep referring back to.
So, if you're noticing that I'm jumping back and forth between two seemingly distinct topics here—the desire that people have to relive certain formative experiences (which may or may not have involved a popular "packaged story"), and the factors that go into making some stories more successful than others in reaching a lot of people—then well spotted! Here's where those topics come together:
I have observed that, when people do take a source inspiration and channel it into a new form, it is these more easily transmissible packaged stories that more often get propagated this way: They are more likely than real-life experiences to spur someone to create new stories in the first place, and, regardless of whether the inspiration for somebody's new creation is a packaged story or a real-life experience, some amount of the conceptual framework of a packaged story of some kind is more likely than not to comprise the skeleton for the new work to take form around.
For example, my real-life inspiring experiences are far more likely to drive me to conceive of ideas for new Curious Tale story events or Star Trek Ripoff story events than to inspire me to make changes or additions to my real life so as to reflect my inspiration in my personal physical space. And my "packaged story" inspiring experiences, like Kill Bill, are exceedingly more likely to inspire story ideas as opposed to life changes. For better or worse, I treat my creative work as the main outlet for my personal inspiration. It is far easier, and often more gratifying, to imagine stories than to try and physically live them. That mentality is not without its drawbacks, but it is the mentality I have.
Likewise, story-progenitors are usually packaged stories, simply because they reach so much farther by virtue of being shared so much more easily.
Not Original but Resonant
Few of the great story-progenitors are deeply original. They have their own inspirations, and contain their own riffs and reactions. They often have original aspects too, but originality isn't the source of a story-progenitor's mimetic power. What gets them hooked into mind after human mind is that rarefied "lightning" aspect: These stories possess an overall quality—or sometimes a particular quality—that is central and relevant and of deep interest to a society at that moment in time. They resonate in some way, with a great many people.
My insights aren't keen enough to consistently say exactly why the great story-progenitors caught on as well as they did. Would Harry Potter have been as big if it premiered today instead of twenty years ago? I have no clue. The safer bet is "probably not," but I couldn't tell you why, other than resorting to talking about the incredible statistical unlikelihood of something catching on in the first place. Presumably, cultural factors are different enough today that Potter just wouldn't be able to dig in the same way.
What I can say, however, is that this resonance drives the forms of the ensuing storytelling that inspired people undertake. People see something they like, and, in their own way, they want to recreate it.
Sometimes people come up with painfully literal representations of whatever they're riffing on—for instance, not merely adding "replicants" to their dystopian sci-fi story but actually calling them replicants, giving them physical and mental grades, the same short lifespan, and so on. This can embarrass the audience. On the opposite extreme, sometimes people make their new material so different from the original that there's no discernible inspiration. This doesn't embarrass audiences, but it does make them less likely to show up in the first place.
The best storytelling pays clear homage to its source(s) of inspiration, but without blatantly ripping off the source material. (That's why my "Star Trek Ripoff" is strictly a working title, and firmly tongue-in-cheek.)
If we think about that metaphor of "reinventing the wheel," this is essentially the challenge. It's all about figuring out how to channel some inspiring source material into a new story. In order to relive that magical experience, you can't merely resort to slavishly reproducing the original. You have to reinvent it. But it still has to do the job of a wheel. The things that made the source material inspirational in the first place have to be accounted for, and, more or less, recognizable.
Reinventing the Wheel for The Curious Tale
I think I gave away my lean when I called one extreme "embarrassing." In my work, I definitely lean toward making a source of inspiration too obscure rather than too literal. Other storytellers might prefer things differently, or pay no heed either way. But for me, it's important that my work, no matter how rich with homage it may be, be its own beast—an original work.
Correspondingly, I pay the penalty of not being able to draw upon other fandoms as a way to gin up audiences for The Curious Tale. I really am starting from scratch, and that's hard.
But far, far harder is actually reinventing the wheel. When something inspires me, my first impulse—like many people's, I assume—is to relive the experience more or less literally in my imagination. A direct lift, except that I'll usually change the characters. Silence is my go-to generic protagonist, so I'll usually try something on her first, unless another character leaps out at me.
For instance, the two most compelling characters in Blade Runner, the replicants Roy and Pris, both look very interesting when I put Silence into their roles. With the character changed, my own storytelling starts to seep in. The scenes gradually begin to change. The outcomes change. The starting premises change. Perhaps the character changes from Silence (or whomever I started with) into somebody else. Slowly but steadily, the original experience is reinvented into something different.
Usually in my storytelling, the refinement process continues far beyond this point, and entails combining many inspirations, which makes it hard to identify single-origin inspirations for full scenes, because it's quite rare that a full scene of mine will draw continuously from a single source of inspiration.
One glorious example, however, is Galavar's first vision on the Day of the Dawn in The Great Galavar. Spread across two episodes (Recollections, Part 1 and Recollections, Part 2), that vision is almost exclusively a retelling of this deleted scene from Kill Bill.
You'll be forgiven for admitting that you'd never have guessed the connection in a million years. I consciously went far away from the source material, because I plan to relive that Kill Bill scene once again, more directly, in the future, simply because Bill and Beatrix and the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad are such a wonderful, if imperfect, analogue for Galavar, Silence, and the Guard of Galavar. But it is, nevertheless, a rare published example of me putting my spin on one specific source material in a direct mapping.
Usually, after the refinement process is finished, single-origin inspirations in my work are much smaller and more fine-grained.
For example, in the Prelude to After The Hero, the establishing shot over the Vedere, is an homage to the military parade from Porco Rosso. I even used that music in the unofficial Prelude soundtrack. And even though in the Prelude there's no parade, and it's nighttime, and there's no point-of-view character, the spirit bears some similarities: people, who have faced great setbacks, cheering for an impending war that is going to end up astonishing everybody by its destructiveness and scope.
Most of my single-origin inspirations in my published works are even smaller than that. The way Silence turns around during her first appearance in the Prelude is a reinvention of the way Ganondorf turns around at the top of his tower in Ocarina of Time, which looks almost quaint today, but when I saw it for the first time absolutely chilled me.
(I should point out here that I'm talking about direct inspirations of action here, not homages. The homages and allusions in my work are numerous as well—even more so—but separate from this topic.)
These reinventions capture, for me, the emotions and thrill and sense of adventure I felt when viewing the source material, yet do so in a way that is original to The Curious Tale. Now, they do fall far from the sweet middle, I think, in that you couldn't reasonably be expected to recognize the source inspirations, which, at some level, is a failure on my part.
Much more commonly in my work is that a given large-scale structure of action, such as a scene, or even a coherent part of a scene, comes from more than one source of inspiration if it has any inspiration at all.
The cinematic opening to the Prelude, with its sweeping portrait of the devastation after a battle, was inspired by many different sources, some of which were only visual in nature, and others musical (and you of course can't hear the music that I hear when I envision this scene). This scene is a great example of reinvention, because it takes a fairly common motif and puts a distinctly Joshly spin on it. Many readers remarked on the opening scene as one of their favorites in the Prelude, and no one called it derivative. I would like to think I succeeded in depicting martial devastation in my own voice. The value for me is both the success of the depiction but also the success in reliving some of the emotions I've felt when looking upon such wreckage in other movies, games, and so forth.
I don't need every single moment of The Curious Tale to be a reinvention of various inspirations of mine, but I would certainly feel like I were "doing it wrong" not to take those inspirations and imbue them heavily into this story. This speaks to the question of "Why write the story at all?" What motivates me to do it? And the highest answer is, to experience the story I want to experience—a story informed, heavily, by the many thousands of inspirations I've picked up over the years.
And that's another interesting point: Many people who tumble down this rabbit hole of trying to relive their magical experiences nonetheless have the good sense to only be fixated on a couple of inspirational sources. In contrast, I'm absolutely ludicrous. I'm always vacuuming up new inspirations, and I consciously allow myself to try and weave them into the Tale if at all feasible. It's one of the reasons I'm such a slow writer.
For instance, Blade Runner, which is my de facto "running example" for this article. I was not actually one of those people who was heavily influenced by this movie. I only saw it for the first time in the past few years. I found it to be an enjoyable watch but by no means profoundly impactful upon me. Nevertheless, there were moments that got to me. The one I remember most strongly was Pris' terror at knowing Deckard was closing in on her and likely to succeed in killing her. That fear was inspiring; I immediately wanted to incorporate it into my own storytelling. So unjust, so motivating. Pris did her best. It wasn't enough.
With all the refining I do, it's quite likely to be the case that this meme, once reinvented, will look very different in my work from the actual scenes with Pris—especially since those scenes are so stylized. And that's how it tends to go for me. I'll take an inspiration, and then the final version of that inspiration doesn't necessarily show up anywhere in an explicit way, because it's baked into the story at such a fine-grain level—which means these inspirations have the drawback of not being recognizable to the audience.
On the other hand—and this could probably be an article on its own—I do like it that people can't generally peg me to an inspiration. Many of my readers have commented, in their own way, that I don't sound all that much like other storytellers they know. And I like that. I like that my melding and fusion of inspirations is so thorough, and also so extensive, that I can't be immediately dismissed as "a student of X." Because I'm not of X. I have exactly two authorized sources where I have allowed myself to borrow so heavily from their style that I am okay with being described as drawing upon that style myself: Tolkien and Miyazaki. But it isn't actually a goal of mine to follow either of their paths. I wouldn't mind my writing occasionally being compared to their styles, but I wouldn't want myself, as a whole, to be characterized in that way.
So perhaps the disadvantage has a silver lining.
This is kind of an odd section out, because it's not in the topic of this article, yet coincidentally overlaps with the theme. I know I've talked about this before, though I don't recall at what detail: Relance is a different world. It's not Earth.
Apples? Chess? Free Doppio Fridays? Coca-Cola? Do these things exist in Relance? Well, they shouldn't, because such things are extremely specific and unlikely to identically arise in the universe twice.
I'll buy that fruits could arise many times, and I'll buy that there could be many worlds that have the concept of a week, and I'll buy that there would be beverages similar to coffee (which, after all, is just a kind of tea) and games similar to chess. But those exact things? Nuh uh. Not gonna happen.
Which creates a huge storytelling problem, because in those cultural fixtures are endless reservoirs of collective knowledge. There are so many metaphors and images and idioms contained in things like chess or apples. On Relance, no one would say "An apple a day keeps the doctor away."
And so there is a great deal of literal wheel-reinventing that has to go on. That's why Relance has ofwas, which serve a similar cultural role to apples but are actually more like avocados in texture. And there's no "Friday," but there are days that occupy a similar space at the end of a period of working days. There's no chess as such, but there are strategy games.
It's a lot of work, and it sucks because I lose all those reservoirs of cultural knowledge. There's no Coke on Relance, and thus, if I want a symbolic generic universal beverage that has a comparable cultural register as Coke, I have to introduce it to the story at some point. It's quite a lot of work indeed.
I do make some exceptions, when I feel there is a strong enough case for it. For instance, there are horses, foxes, and wolves on Relance, as well as ravens, opilions, and a few other animals. They have those exact names, and more or less look the same too. That's statistically impossible for a different planet, but it's not so in-your-face that I feel it would spoil the story—whereas something like a Coca-Cola probably would. In other cases there are de-facto crossovers, like "viutars" instead of humans and "cluckos" instead of chickens.
But, much of the time, I have gone to the trouble of actually reinventing the species, concepts, tropes, idioms, and so forth of Relance. And, while it is a lot of work, it's rewarding too. The chance to dig deeper, to know Relance better and better. That's gratifying.
Will It Spin?
So there's a look at reinventing the wheel for Relance. I hope you enjoyed it! That's all for this week. Join me next week when I talk about the not-so-universal translator.
Until then, may Vangelis be with you.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!