Jul
8
2013

Choices of Establishment: The Spiderman Effect

The first of many things I love about improv is that no matter what I establish, I am right. Whatever I choose to establish as true is true, no matter of how ridiculous.  When I play, or write for that matter, I create a space in which I control the reality of the universe.  For a self-proclaimed control freak, it’s a heady feeling and part of the reason I find so much joy in writing.  Super powered aliens secretly policing humanity?  No problem.  Global warming as a conspiracy in a genocidal war against sentient ice? Sure.  A human colony on planetoid where gravity noticeably, cyclically wanes and waxes?  Sounds awesome, let’s go.  However, I always have to remember the Spiderman Effect: with the great power of creative freedom comes the great responsibility of choice.

My story is entirely dependent on audience buy-in to lend it meaning.  Like any choice, establishment has consequences.  Therefore, I must be aware to the realities of the choices I make.  Audiences are intelligent.  They will call shenanigans when what I have established grossly conflicts with scientific principles.  That is, unless I have also established ground work to support the deviation.  The audience will spot inconsistencies with previously established cannon.  I must therefore be careful to not be self-contradictory.  They will lose faith when something is confusing, frustrating or doesn’t make sense to them.  Authorial trust is a precious commodity and should not be wasted.

The effort necessary to justify a choice of establishment depends on the audience I am trying to pitch to.  And I mean just that, a choice of establishment is a sales pitch.  For example, fans of military SF often want detailed descriptions of the capabilities of the ships and weaponry in play, while space opera fans often won’t care as much.  When the Death Star destroyed Alderaan, a military SF fan might ask how a laser caused a planet to explode with one blast and why the Death Star remained relatively stationary after it employed so much force.  The space opera fan might simply accept that the planet blew up because of the cool factor.

Choices of establishment are not good choices or bad choices, wrong choices or right choices, but rather strong choices and weak choices.  A strong choice plays on, with and to audience expectations.  A strong choice cleanly fits within and enhances established cannon.  Though a strong can be and often is unexpected, it leverages proper foreshadowing and makes perfect sense in hind sight.  Most importantly, a strong choice adds value to the work.

Improv taught me to approach each choice of establishment and pick the strongest option available.  Often, the strongest choice in the long term is not the strongest immediate choice.  Often choices are strong because of the options they make available.  It’s up to me to decide which option provides greatest benefit.  As master of my creative space, I must learn to exercise my great power with great responsibility.

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2 Responses

  1. Loved this post and it rings true both as an avid reader and a writer. I can get pulled into the post outrageous story ever (i.e. Global warming as a conspiracy in a genocidal war against sentient ice) but it must be REAL to me as I’m reading it. If concepts or images don’t line up, if inconsistencies become apparent as if a scene was an afterthought, or a sudden burst of inspiration that went no further, I have to call BS and I’m going to lose faith in the writer.

    Great post.

    Keep Reaching!
    Miranda

    • Nathan Barra says:

      So true, Miranda! I think the difference is in the characters. I’ll buy whatever you are selling in milieu or plot if the people feel real and true. After all, good character development is the greatest source of reader sympathy.

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