Today I’m writing about fan service, and by that, I mean the “fan service” that has become meme-ified on the internet. These aren’t intertextual references that continue or resolve plot lines. I’m also not talking about the titilating sexual reveals that dominate anime. What I mean by fan service is the “material in a work of fiction or in a fictional series which is intentionally added to please the audience,” as defined by Valérie Inés de La Ville and Laurent Durup in their study, “Achieving a Global Reach on Children’s Cultural Markets: Managing the Stakes of Inter-Textuality in Digital Cultures.” In other words, these are the shout-outs, references, and callbacks to the previous work that created a fan base to begin with.
After over a year of production and release, we finally have the entire first season of my radio adventure serial, Queens of the Sapphire Sea, up online! Each episode can stand alone as you follow Belle and Madeleine Bernassi across the French Riviera in pre-WWII France, but put them together? You’ll find an high-flying action tale of romance and death-defying stunts as these two seaplane pilots take on the dregs of the Mediterranean underworld.
Episode 101 – An Air of Propriety
This piece is inspired by the artwork above, a parody of the famous Norman Rockwell triple self-portrait. This satire, like the original, speaks to the glamorized self we see in the mirror, demolishing and lightly mocking (respectively) their subjects. The depictions are not truth. They are the stories that people share in order to maintain illusions. And, like all stories, they are dependent on audiences in order to maintain their meaning.
Note first, however, that I am not a politician or a social scientist. Thus, any commentary on the mechanical issues that are devastating our society—namely, a failing educational system, a prison-industrial complex that favors punishment over rehabilitation, and a drug war that overwhelmingly castigates the poorest and most vulnerable citizens—would be purely opinion based. Get enough liquor in me and I’ll share them with you.
That being said, I am a narrative designer who has come to specialize in demographic analysis and story-sharing. I’ve worked with organizations, universities, and nations to help build narratives to embolden people and change lives. I’ve seen how people intertwine their personal stories with those of a larger group, for good and ill effects, as well as how to make sure this remains a conversation without turning into propaganda (more on this in a second, I promise). I’ve worked with people who have had their tongues torn out because they spoke the wrong words to the wrong people.
It is the lessons I learned from them that embolden me to say that we can assuredly beat the Narrative of the Nazi. If we can couple that with the physical means to make sure that Nazis can’t gain a new foothold, we can make that ideology so untenable that all but the barest few crazies remain, so few that they cannot make any meaningful change to the world.
This essay was inspired by this piece by Ian Bogost in The Atlantic, the title of which reads: “Video Games are Better Without Story.” I encourage everybody to read that piece first before continuing. As always, I will be leavening the serious stuff with funny pictures. I apologize in advance.
In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud discusses (among many other topics) the aforementioned gutter. It is here, between the images, that sequential art separates itself from other media. The white space holds the imagination of the reader. It makes that person complicit in the narrative. The creator(s) has done the heavy-lifting but the burden of filling in the blanks is on the part of the person holding the book.
“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual.”
If you’ve ever been to a movie or a show on Broadway, you know what I’m talking about with the title: people’s seeming inability to turn off their phones for two-to-three hours while they take in a bit of Kylo Ren or Mufasa. For the most part, these are tiny indiscretions: a few blips, a mild (or moderate) expletive, a couple seconds of fumbling, and then blissful silence just as Alexander Hamilton is about to lay down a few choice rhymes regarding fiat currency. At other times, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s journey in (and out) of love seems to be set to the tune of a “Kim Possible” ringtone.
…you didn’t think I was just going to GIVE it to you, did you? You’ll need to listen to the episode to find that out! If you’re interested in more, though, check out our website for the pre-show notes!
We rejoin our narrative after two previous installments for this penultimate episode, in which we discuss my show, Queens of the Sapphire Sea, and how it went from nothing to something. And it only took five years!
Things came to a head last summer after a reading of radio shows between myself, Tyrant Rex, and Adam Lance Garcia. These two rapscallions and I put on a small performance in Park Slope, Brooklyn, of some of our work. Wouldn’t you know? It went over really well! The fact that it was free didn’t hurt, but hey! We thought we had something. So we began brainstorming and came up with what would become Radio Room.
Now, how/where/when/why Radio Room came together could be a whole series in and of itself, but–in short–it would aspire to be a writer’s room for our various projects: Rex’s established Tales of the Halloween Team, Garcia’s anthology series Smoke Without Flame, and my own…
…whatever that might be.
I had dozens of ideas, of course, but something about Queens stuck out to me. It was adventurous, fun, and featured the kind of stylizations we were looking for. Radio Room was to be a loving homage to serials of the 40s and 50s, but with updated storytelling techniques. Romance, patter, a focus on thrills… Queens seemed to fit the bill, and when I pitched them the logline, they wanted to see more.
The first thing that was required was a mini-bible. Not only would this sell my partners on the idea as well as it’s potential for longevity, but it would function as a foundational piece for their own writing. I don’t recommend writing a mythology or bible for every project that you work on–there’s always the opportunity that you’ll never stop world-building–yet when you work with others, there should always be ground rules. This includes:
- A basic overview
- A rundown of the characters, particularly with regards to personalities
- A pilot episode treatment
- Springboards for future episodes
- Other extra stuff (locales, magic, etc.) that feature heavily into your property.
That’s it! Don’t go nuts! You’ll overthink it. Your producers will change it. Your actors will finagle it. And you’ll have spent a lot of time hammering stuff into stone that could emerge organically!
This was then workshopped outside of the group. I feel that this is an important step that not enough writers get: go to someone outside of your social circle for advice. They won’t have the same kind of connection to you, personally, that might temper their opinion. It might not be nice (in fact, it shouldn’t be). It might not be fun. It will show you what’s wrong before you get too far down the rabbit hole.
Next came the recrafting of the property. This was done in a series of emails and in-person meetings, in which Tyrant, Adam, and I honed the episodes. From my work before, I knew what I was trying to say with the piece and what couldn’t be changed. At the same time, I was willing to allow the guys to shift the tone and characters so that they would find a spark that would inspire them. This was to be collaborative. I had to allow them to collaborate on this.
Most of all, I had to shift the property into something that worked via audio. Don’t make the mistake in thinking that your great idea can transfer media without work. There’s a reason why most video games-turned-films are terrible, and why most films-turned-video games are also just as bad. Interactive media has a whole different rule set than traditional media. Ignore these at your risk! If you don’t understand the strengths and weaknesses of your chosen platform, you’re doomed to failure from the start.
Auditory storytelling is the oldest form of art, and it is a mixture of both passive and active media. It is passive in that the audience listens to a linear story that is told to them. It is active because the audience must construct the world inside their minds and envision what is being told to them. That means you have to give the audience juuuuuuuuust enough to set the picture, but allow their mind to fill in the blanks.
For Queens, I had to do more spelling out than I’d like to do. A lot of subtlety that I had planned on was made more overt (again). Belle and the newly-renamed Madeleine had to play much more grandiose, much more like cartoon characters: the audience had to understand everything from their vocal range, since facial expressions and body language don’t translate to the airwaves. At the same time, I had to pull back the villains even more. They couldn’t become too outlandish, or else the entire piece would seem like a send-up.
The only problem was that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it until I dove in, head-first.
I’d written small bits for radio and audio comedy before and full television scripts, video games, and screenplays, but this was something entirely. My co-producers liked my pilot treatment but wanted to see it on the page. This was a gamble: I would have to produce 30-pages of material in the hopes that it would impress, but with the chance that it’d be terrible and I’d have to start all over again.
So, how did it all turn out? That’s for tomorrow’s installment, the first in Radio Room’s series on Show Notes. Tune in then!