BY NICO VREELAND
It’s easy, as an aspiring writer, to pick up a bad book and take heart that your writing is better than its. The problem with that thinking is that authors these days aren’t competing just against other books, they’re competing for the leisure time of their audience against every other form of entertainment available.
Books have a sizable handicap in this fight. An avid reader might read 50 books a year (or about .025% of the nearly 200,000 titles published every year in the U.S. alone), whereas a casual movie watcher might see 100 movies without really trying, and an avid movie watcher can see almost every movie that comes out.
Most people would rather give up sex than music; the same can be said, I would wager, of few readers with books. With TV, you can get a decent feel for a show in half an hour, without much risk if you don’t like it. If you don’t like a book, you feel tricked and trapped into reading the whole thing.
So the odds of finding a book you’ll like are lower than with other media (and with more risk if you don’t like a book), plus reading lacks the universal appeal of music and the ease of use of TV and movies.
Here are a few examples of excellent writing in non-book media. For aspiring writers, consider this your competition.
Writing a video game must be especially difficult. A game doesn’t need a story to be good, but can easily be ruined by an attempt to wedge in a boring, slow-paced drama. The challenge is to write a story that entertains and doesn’t drag, for an audience interested more in submachine guns than subplot.
Bioshock is quite simply the best-written game there’s ever been. 90% of its fun is in premise (it’s relatively short on character, by contrast), but it has such a well-realized world and such an intricate, captivating plotline, that I found myself actually looking forward to the story bits, rather than dreading them like usual.
The game creates not only an interesting world, but a world that’s intrinsic to the playing of the game. The plot isn’t especially non-linear, but it’s immersive and entertaining, and the story has layers of meaning (from the ethics of genetics to the philosophy of choice and identity) that a lot of contemporary novels can’t touch.
It’s simple, dramatic game writing at its best.
There’s a certain boldness of concept capable with graphic novels: a title can be about fairy tale characters transplanted into New York City and can still be taken seriously.
Fables takes as its subject matter the darker, more human sides of storybook characters we all remember as cute and relatively harmless. It’s not a mind-blowingly original premise, but it’s well executed. Prince Charming is an ass, The Big Bad Wolf (who can take human form) is a detective with a violent streak, and Gepetto is… well, he’s not what you’d expect.
There’s plenty of sex and violence, and the episodes contained within the 11 collected volumes (the 12th is due out later this year) cover everything from murder mysteries to war stories to old-fashioned interpersonal drama.
I’ve found this series much more compelling and fun than Gregory Maguire’s series of other-side-of-the-story fairy tales, including Wicked.
Honorable mention: The Sandman series, written by Neil Gaiman
In this category, you can put pretty much any show from HBO’s golden age: Six Feet Under, The Wire, The Sopranos. These were the shows that redefined the capabilities of great television, and unseated the assumption I had that all the best writers were novelists.
Indeed, there’s a novel-like richness to the story of Deadwood, it has a good premise (Deadwood, South Dakota, was the unannexed, lawless gold camp where Wild Bill Hickok was shot and killed in 1876), and consistently engaging plotlines. The real appeal of this show, though, lies in its ability to provide a string of consistently spine-tingling scenes. That requires great characters and great dialogue, as well as plot; Deadwood has all three in spades.
It’s also got a parlance unique to television, one littered with expletives but also possessing an ear for a tuneful phrase, and a fair portion of humor. For instance, when Calamity Jane, drunk, gets eyeballed by a passing roughneck, she bellows, “If I had that mug on me, I believe I’d cut down on getting told how butt-fucking ugly I was by not staring at fucking strangers.”
An odd historical note for previous fans of the show: many of the characters (Al Swearengen, Seth Bullock, and Charlie Utter, as well as Wild Bill and Calamity Jane) were based on real people. Interesting tactic when you consider the often unflattering light in which they’re portrayed.
Honorable mentions: Arrested Development, and the other HBO shows mentioned above
The National’s Matt Berninger writes songs like abstract poems, mixing oddly modern references (“under the silvery, silvery Citibank lights”) with timeless scenes described with Tom Waits-like surrealism (It’s a common fetish for a doting man/ to ballerina on the coffee table cock in hand”), and often hitting simple, brilliant turns of phrase (“I wish that I believed in fate/ I wish I didn’t sleep so late/ I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders”).
People like to call The Decemberists “literate” or even “hyperliterate,” but Colin Meloy doesn’t often achieve the quality of poetry in his lyrics that Berninger produces on a regular basis.
Plus when I went to their show in Boston in May, Berninger said “dude zoo,” a substitute for “sausage party” that I made up more than a year ago. Great minds…