Interrupt your safe scenes

I was watching Psych. It was season six or seven. Shawn, our fake psychic protagonist, and Juliette, his police officer lover, were at a wedding enjoying a touching moment of alone time. The officer who got married was the happiest he had ever been. Shawn’s friend, Gus, received the long awaited phone call from his long distance girlfriend. Everyone was happy, a crime was just solved, we had five minutes left in the show, nothing bad could happen. There was nothing out there on the plate. We were happy. We were safe.

Then Shawn walked away after giving Jules his suit coat, and she had a look of consternation as she reached into a pocket. The camera panned panned away from her, to Shawn at the bar. Did she find the ring he was going to use to propose? It would be a tense moment, a moment of truth, but a happy moment. At that time, it was the only possible thing I could think of at the end of the episode.

For over a minute or so we were stuck at the bar, wondering what she found, wondering how this would change Shawn’s life. Meanwhile, Shawn sat at the bar, admiring how good life was. He was in a safe scene, where his world could not be rocked and he was going to get laid that evening.

When he returns to Jules with the drinks, she looks like an injured doe. There was a ticket stub from earlier in the show, where she realized he was not psychic, but immensely perceptive and a great guesser. My world was shattered. Things deteriorated, and soon he had wine thrown in his face. We were faced with one of the forms of death, the death of a relationship, and at a time we thought everything was gold.

For whatever reason this made me comprehend the tactic of interrupting the safe scene more than all the GRRM weddings in the world. A part of me died, and I was just thankful I had it on Netflix and could stay up until 2am watching through until some sort of resolution for the act occurred. I don’t know how you cable people live through those moments without weeping for the next week.

Having the safe scene finally clicked, I took to analyzing it.

We are so blowing this sucker wide open! Photo by Brent Moore

There are three parts to the interrupted safe scene. You have a scene where the reader or viewer feels safe, alongside the characters who are likely destressing. After that is a tell. The audience, and perhaps protagonist, is tipped off that not all is right in the state of Denmark. Finally, the interruption, or hammer, which shatters the glass state of safety. Something horrible happens that we should have seen coming, there were hints, but we lost sight of what was in front of us.

First, a safe scene is a scene after something stressful, which had a happy resolution. Everyone is having a good time, everyone is happy, any wronged parties have been rectified. In the episode of Psych, they helped catch a mob boss to help a detective’s wedding go smoothly, Shawn had recently went through a lie detector and passed as a psychic, and he was considering proposing some time soon to his girlfriend. We were in the last two minutes of the show. Everyone was happy and there were no hints towards a hard crash.

In Game of Thrones, this is the Red Wedding. Waldor seems content, someone is marrying one of his daughters. He compliments Robb’s wife. Everyone is happy, all wrongs between the two parties are seemingly mended.

The next part is the tell. A sign something is wrong. I think Psych did the better job. In the Red Wedding, Catelyn sees the chain mail on Roose, and seconds later everyone dies. Shawn doesn’t even notice that Jules went into his pocket. He didn’t see the look of perplexity. We knew for a good minute that something was amiss, and our minds were allowed to wallow in the mists of uncertainty. But it was a safe moment, so it couldn’t be bad.

After the tell is the hammer. To create tension in a story you need the threat of death. Maybe I didn’t click as well with Game of Thrones because it was literal death. There are other kinds of deaths, whether relationships, jobs, research, or so on. In Psych, we suddenly have the death of a relationship thrust upon us. I was able to see death in a more abstract manner.

With the hammer, what you have to ensure, is it’s something that is always looming overhead, but we think it’s a nonissue. While there were signs, there were no signs immediately. Though you set it up perfectly, in that final moment, surprise us. “Remember how I put the ticket in the pocket? No? Well now it’s important, because it’s going to unravel everything.” And it only happened twenty minutes earlier.

So spend all your time planting the seeds. Create the tension, seemingly solve or push the tension aside, create happiness, and then slap the reader in the face. And there you have it, interrupting the safe scenes.

Using Bias in a Story

This great piece is done by Vladimis Gasai!
This great piece is done by Vladimis Gasai!

I never realized what role bias could play in a story until I played Guild Wars 2, a game by ArenaNet. In the original Guild Wars, there are the charr. The charr are this ornery cat like race which had once ruled over the lands of man. However, man came in and kicked them out hundreds of years ago. Since you are man, they play this down and focus more on how the charr enslave, toy with, and eat people while worshiping a mysterious god of fire. Even though the charr were out of the story a quarter through the game, they had caused so much hurt, devastation, and displacement, I loathed them. I didn’t realize I loathed them in Guild Wars, though. I just knew I liked killing them.

Then Guild Wars 2 came out. The game took place 250 years later, give or take a decade. The charr were made out to be victims trying to reclaim their homeland. The charr which you fought all the time in the original game were a cult which oppressed the vast majority of the populace. The charr weren’t really bad, ArenaNet told us, they were misunderstood. Dragons were ripping the land apart, so the races were joining together, including the humans and charr. On top of that, the charr were a playable race. I recoiled at this announcement. I felt like I needed a shower. The creatures eating humans, making orphans, and praying to world ending gods were playable and simply misunderstood? No! These cat creatures were evil. They were everything wrong with the world. They deserved only death. After nine months, my charr is still at level nine, neglected and loathed.

Without realizing it, I became racist against the charr. ArenaNet made the charr so monstrous that I could actually hate them. While it makes it almost impossible to find players using charr out in the world, the company was still very capable of instilling a deep seated hatred, and emotion that can quite honestly be very difficult to ingrain that thoroughly.

Bias can be more than just racism, though. There are numerous boundaries which can all be used as heavy dividers. In your own story, a nation could have conquered numerous smaller kingdoms. Anyone from those outlying kingdoms is considered a lesser citizen, no matter their worth. Perhaps centuries ago refugees came from far away claiming some threat destroyed their homelands, and now the refugees live in ghettos filled with poverty, crime, and disease. The ability to create social tension is incredible, if that’s what you want in your story.

But how do you create that tension? Use the same methods utilized by people in real life. Look carefully at your outcast group. What are the strengths and weaknesses of that group? In the past, what has happened which could be shone under a negative light? Due to the way the faction was treated, but negative impact has it had on their life and how are the actions required for their survival considered taboo by the ruling class? Generally strengths are turned against a group to make them into superhuman monsters, while weaknesses are laughed at. Generally, weaknesses in the dispossessed groups are due to neglect from financially more powerful people.

gw060Any slight past event will be blown out of proportion to show that the people are wicked. A rebellion, some major social gaffe, a riot in the ghettos, or any other act which could be seen as infamous. Very few people died in the Boston Massacre, but because of how it was named and promoted it led a lot of people to hating the English. Misinformation and exaggerated facts are the cornerstone to creating a biased against groups. On a smaller scale, there are the every day acts of a downtrodden minority group. Generally they are financially less well off. Crime becomes an issue in such areas and the group will be known as thieves, murderers, and the list goes on. The sanitation is usually worse, so they’ll be known as plague carriers or savages uninterested in their own hygiene. Maybe it’s not even that the minority are uninterested in hygiene, but simply aren’t given the required facilities and flowing water for it. In more modern societies, they will also be uneducated, adding to the savage imagery.

Use bias to tell a story. Don’t just throw in racism to be cruel to one group while elevating another. Racial, political, and social groups can be as much a character in your story as anyone else. It can show how those factions change or don’t change with time and events. In Guild Wars 2, it’s telling that when a large enough threat reared it’s ugly head, the charr and humans could play nice. It’s also telling that there are certain groups within both races which do all they can to create war between the races. A character you have could be getting over his xenophobia, or perhaps he was always a tolerant and accepting soul, and this is a great way to show either of these personal traits.

Create two conflicting groups, one majority and one minority. Create a history for why the unfavorable dynamics exist and how small events were exaggerated to the point only the writer knows the truth. Then come up with the current tension. Throw some characters in there with different attitudes, and you have a story about bias. Give it your best shot!