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.
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.
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!
As explained in my last post, I’m doing a series on my series, Radio Room, specifically how the idea for my piece, Queens of the Sapphire Sea, evolved over time to the point where it could go into production. My first attempt at pitching the idea hadn’t worked, but I liked the core of the piece and wouldn’t let it go.
How long do you think I worked on Queens before it came up again? A year? Two? Try four… with another thrown in for writing and production. It wasn’t that I ever stopped working on it, but that it went into the background, along with my many, many other projects that will hopefully see the light of day but (as of this writing) have yet to emerge from the fertilizer that is my subconscious.
I knew that something was there, but considering that it was so niche, where could I pitch it? I worked on versions that were designed to be YA fiction, a video game, a feature-length screenplay, and more. Each wasn’t really working, however, because I was so focused on the pitch that I’d forgotten about the fundamentals. For any franchise, those fundamentals come down to message.
I’m not talking about didactic Aesop stuff. I’m talking about the emotional impact that a piece has on someone who experiences it. What was Queens of the Sapphire Sea saying about our world? How were the characters going to express it? What was it really all about?
For me, that boiled down to the basic nugget of an idea: a tough-talking older woman and her wide-eyed young niece. Experience vs. youth. Pessimism vs. optimism. The past vs. the future. The natural conflict in each episode (or issue or whatever) would emerge from how these characters viewed the world, as well as how they dealt with each other in the process.
That meant that I had to explore who these characters were. If a whole series was going to be built on them, I had to know just who they were. I looked into Regina and Beatrice, and found them… not quite as deep as I needed them to be.
It wasn’t shocking (I was just pitching an idea at first) but if there was going to be growth, both characters would need a place to grow from. That is, they needed to be flawed and retain some of those negative attributes throughout the course of their adventures. Regina couldn’t just be the lovable cigar-chomping grandmother-type. Beatrice wasn’t going to be the sweet, capable, spunky young upstart with something to prove. I tempered the personalities of both so that I could bring other aspects to the front, fleshing them out so that there would always be something new to explore.
I’d argue that this is an issue that every creator deals with. Like in life, we all want our heroes to be perfect. Like in life, this is does a disservice to them and to us. The people we look up to–our parents, political idealists, sports figures–are not superior because they never make flaws but that they can grow from their flaws. From a narrative perspective, this makes them interesting. From a human perspective, it makes them believable.
Because I wanted to focus on this believability, I dropped the high fantasy angle. It was a bit too off-the-wall anyway, and besides, there are real eras in history that were just as fun to explore (and didn’t require nearly as much world-building, to boot). I tamed the villains, roped in the overt themes of sexism, and focused on airplane combat rather than grandiose political intrigue, too. All of those elements are still there but they are much less on the nose. Like in life, the more insidious aspects of them are those elements which are unspoken, that people can pretend to ignore.
When I say believability, I don’t mean hyper-realism. I still wanted this to keep the swashbuckling adventure that bent the rules from time to time. I chose to keep a certain rose-colored romance and humor because I simply didn’t have the time to do as much in-depth research into pre-WWII France as I would have liked. It also allowed for emotional exploration and a reflection of that conflict between “idealism vs. realism” that I was talking about earlier.
Finally, I tapped into this via the framing device: having Beatrice reflect on her past by telling stories to her granddaughter, decades after her adventures in France. It allowed for a little fudging of the facts–is this real or just her memory of the event?–and gave a mirror for the older/younger dichotomy that was central to the story.
With that in place, I finally had something that I felt could hold together over the course of a series. You can find the near-final logline here:
The French Riviera is protected from high-flying brigands by the finest seaplane bounty hunters in the world: Belle Bernassi and her niece, Beatrice. The pair escaped the suffocating social mores of Paris to set up shop with the rest of the oddballs that roam from Genoa to Barcelona, but trouble is afoot. Suitors, mercenaries, the mafia, gun runners, and the rising tide of Fascism all threaten to rob the Bernassis and their comrades of the freedom and peace they’ve found in the air, but if there’s anybody who can stave off war, it’s the Queens of the Sappire Sea!
There were still issues that needed to be ironed out. I wound up renaming Beatrice (her name was just too similar to Belle) and would touch up some of the history as I worked on the actual stories, but the touchstones are all there. Adventure, society vs. individualism, romance, a hint of outlandish humor, and a real world setting that reflects bits of our own without being a direct mirror. Plus, I managed to keep the sky pirates.
Did I manage to pull it off? Find out this week, as I continue this series and head towards April 15th and the release of episode one! Next up: construction of the series and scripts themselves!
As some of you may have gathered, I have been working on an audio drama. You can find it here on iTunes, or here on Soundcloud, or here at its own website. You can also find it on Pocket Casts and Stitcher and a whole host of other podcast catchers. But you didn’t hear about it here, because I’m lazy.
So, in return, I’m going to be doing a series on the evolution of my piece, Queens of the Sapphire Sea, which is being broadcast on April 15th. This is an old, old idea of mine from back in the Antediluvian Era, so I figured it might be fun to show you how it transformed from a seed of something into a full-fledged thingiemawhatzit.
Here is the original pitch piece I did for it, back when Starlight Runner was first accepting ideas for the development of internal IP.
Queens of the Sapphire Sea
Trouble is brewing on the Range Territory, but it has nothing to do with the criminals and outlaws that waft on the breeze this far from law and order. After all, none of them are a match for seventy-five year-old Regina Oliotone or her teenaged grand-niece, Beatrice. The two of them control the Range Territory from the sights of their seaplanes’ gun scopes. They’ve become the two best (and richest) pilots along the Sapphire Sea.
All of that is about to change.
The Commonwealth of Liberi is set to annex the Range, and bring with it its code of laws, including a prohibition against women from legally owning property. What has taken a lifetime to build up may be washed away with a signature from the High Council. Suitors are lining up outside Regina’s door just as political machinations threaten to rip the Range apart at its seams.
Regina and Beatrice aren’t giving up, though. The two each have a plan to save their business, their farm, their nation, and their way of life. It will take daring, but if there were ever a pair of bounty hunters that could topple a nation, it would be the world-famous Queens of the Sapphire Sea.
I was rather proud of the piece back then, and there are certainly elements to it that strike me now. It was steampunk fantasy set in a different world, with engaging and unusual characters that weren’t TOO off the wall. It had easily recognizable goals with plenty of room to grow, too. In fact, as you will see if you listen in…
…the main thrust of the piece hasn’t changed all that much.
That being said, I can understand why it was turned down at the time:
- It’s too niche – As that pitch stands, it would appeal to a sub-demographic of a sub-genre, and was written by an inexperienced and unknown writer. I’m not saying that this kind of thing shouldn’t be written, but I’ve learned a lot in the five years since I first wrote this piece. Stuff like it has to be grand slam material or, at the very least, come from a recognizable name that people will be willing to follow to an uncertain place.
- It’s too expensive – With something as fantasy-driven as that piece, it would have had to function as a comic book or piece of animation. Even then it would have been too expensive to produce. I was imagining water colored pages, farflung locales, and high-flying action. It would’ve required top-end talent to pull off and that doesn’t even get into the actual hard costs of production. I probably could have gotten away with a novel, but then again, I was too inexperienced to get it picked up.
- It’s too on-the-nose – It seems to me that the themes were too direct and overt, particularly for something that was supposed to be all about the fun. You can chalk this up to changing tastes but back then, I wanted to make deliberate statements that could not be misconstrued, whereas now, I want more moral ambiguity. My opinions haven’t changed all that much but my dedication to allowing the audience to pull the themes they find has.
I didn’t expect to create something that–out of the blue–would wow my bosses (there are some quality issues there that you can definitely tell could use a bit more thought), but still, I felt disappointed when this came back with a “pass,” but it was a learning experience nonetheless. I could have tossed it aside. Instead, I realized that there was something there. I just had to think it through more. It was also a little similar to another property I was working on, so I decided to differentiate it a bit more, as well.
That was the key for me, and what should be the key for you, the creators reading this. Don’t throw anything away. Keep it socked in a drawer if you must, but better yet, get a Mega.co.nz account and store everything there. Who knows what amazing stuff you’ll find there when you’re cooking your way through in prep for a pitch years from now? Your patience, aided by experience, will show you the why’s and wherefore’s of your previous struggles to set you up for the successes of tomorrow.
Failure is the fire that tempers our talent. Or, it can be, if you don’t let it get you down.