News, LARP writing, Pomodoro

One of my writing group friends suggested I try writing in 30 minute sprints, with a little (also pre-measured) time off between sprints for breaks, other work, other projects. It’s a minimally different variation on the Pomodoro technique. I’m surprised I hadn’t learned this work method before.

I was hesitant to take their suggestion. I usually struggle to fall into the zone that I find so helpful for writing. Writing without being in the zone feels like pulling teeth, getting into the zone takes a while, and… round and round the problem goes. But I’ve been pretty desperate to get more writing done, so I tried it.

It’s fucking phenomenal. I don’t know why it’s working for me right now. And I’m not going to look a gift writing-hack in the mouth.

The other important piece of implementing this for myself has been stricter limits on what I can and can’t do before I start writing in the morning. Listening to music is good, physical movement is good, but reading anything is dangerous, and watching a video is right out (doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s news, documentary, someone’s Let’s Play, or what). I could probably find something that would be okay for me to watch (maybe a sped up painting process for a fantasy landscape), but that would require me to navigate past lots of other enticing videos which would drag my eyes in.

Safer not to risk it. More productive not to risk it.

This is a little awkward, since it means I can’t safely read news before writing. Not even the tech news I use to doublecheck my various sci-fi projects. I also have to avoid responding to any notifications on my phone, which pile up quickly. In fact, this makes it difficult to use my phone at all, even though it’s currently my alarm clock, morning music source, and timer for this approach.

But the upside to this improved morning mental hygiene is that when I set that 30 minute timer I make significantly more progress.

A little context.

I used to regularly produce 2k words a day, mostly without a struggle. Being in that rhythm felt a lot like any other fitness regimen: it hurt to get up to speed, and every so often one of those days would be a total drag. But when I was regularly writing 2k a day, it felt… familiar. Not necessarily comfortable, but certainly not onerous. And at the end of producing that 2k, I felt good. Energized.

Writing with this timer system, with better morning mental hygiene, feels like that. I’m reaching rates close to my 2k a day. It feels great. And when the timer goes off, I can do something else that’s been weighing on my mind before I go back to writing… because I’m free of the need to be writing. I’m not constantly should-ing myself, scolding myself for insufficient focus or insufficient productivity.

I think that’s the biggest lesson I’ve found so far. This external practice frees up my internal judgements. When the timer is on I know it’s time to go. When the timer is off I know it’s okay that I’m not going. That state of being okay with not writing is incredible for my state of mind.

I’ve felt able to let go and make more new stuff that isn’t connected to anything else (yet). That isn’t helpful to my pre-existing projects, but it feels good, like I’m clearing out old pipes that had rusted nearly shut with arterial blockage. Setting aside time like this lets me turn off the voice that’s constantly worrying about what I should be doing right now, what I should be doing next, and just make stuff.

I guess what I’m trying to say is… I’m really appreciating this. I don’t know to what degree this is better brain weather, or better mental hygiene, or a useful way to guide my brain in the right direction. I don’t especially care. I’ll probably try tweaking the lengths of work sprints and breaks, but I’m definitely keeping this.

It’s even helped me feel so much less stuck that I’ve felt free to help friends with material for their LARP. I’m putting together group backgrounds based on a few objectives and a thin thread of preexisting setting, and its rewarding to quickly share those with an appreciative audience. Helps to remind me that I’m competent at this, pulling voice and larger worlds together from a few scraps.

She-Hulk (2022)

She-Hulk has been both fun and a little odd.

I’m enjoying the acting—Tatiana Maslany is great as usual. I like a lot of the writing choices. They’re often hilarious, and neatly fit the genre I think She-Hulk is aiming for. 

This show is a comedic personal drama about the life and times of Jen Walters, following the everyday trials (heh) and tribulations of her experience as an up-and-coming lawyer. It adds an extra dash of “you just can’t win” via all the ways in which getting super powers doesn’t solve Jen’s personal struggles. That almost feels like an homage to Molly Ostertag & Brennan Lee Mulligan’s Strong Female Protagonist… except this show doesn’t (yet) pay attention to the deeper ethical questions that excellent comic focused on. That’s the bit that feels odd to me.

Only a few episodes are out so far, so maybe it’ll go deeper, but…

She-Hulk is very aware of the fact that it’s commenting on struggles women (or femme-presenting people) face in their day to day lives. It brings those up in frequently hilarious (sometimes painful) ways. I appreciate and enjoy that, and I don’t want the show to stop doing that. But so far She-Hulk seems hyper-focused on those struggles from the perspective of the wealthy and privileged. It hasn’t dug much deeper, it hasn’t (yet) pushed towards deeper potential intersectionality or towards struggles beyond Jen’s. For lack of a better word, the show’s focus so far is both expansive and self-centered.

Insofar as I want to watch a slightly shallow comedic personal drama with superheroes that (thank fucking goodness) isn’t yet another male-centric story—one that does focus on the experiences of female characters—this show is great. I’m here for it. I’m glad that it’s being made. I hope She-Hulk does well, I hope it goes places and does more fun things. This show helps ease the poverty of representation for female superheroes in the MCU, and goodness knows the MCU needs that.

We still need more stories like this though, as well as more different ones. Less personally focused ones, and/or personally focused ones that include other people. This show can’t solve the issue on its own.

And there are other elements that feel like they’re fertile ground for good stories, but which have lain fallow for years (if they were ever included at all). She-Hulk has referenced them in passing so far, but hasn’t focused on them.

Specifically, I really enjoy the ways in which this show has poked at the personal and emotional lives of the various superheroes it’s mentioned. I like how it has pointed out that being a superhero doesn’t pay the bills, and that most of the existing superheroes are otherwise rich. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage and (to lesser extent) Daredevil all gave this some attention, with JJ and LC also including other intersections of gender and race. But those shows were and remain a side show in the larger MCU. Again, we need more.

And I’d really like that “more” to be good! She-Hulk nearly lost me with the fight sequence in its first episode. 

As someone who cares a lot about fight scenes, the first episode’s fight between Bruce and Jen wasn’t interesting to me. I hope the show didn’t spend too much money on it (though they probably did), because it seemed like a fight in search of a reason. There weren’t meaningful stakes or potential consequences, no meaningful discovery was made for either of the characters, it didn’t even feel like there was real character growth for anyone. It was a CGI punchfest for the sake of having a CGI punchfest.

The show has been far better on this front in the episodes since: fights haven’t dragged on, they’ve felt like they had pressing stakes, and they’ve told us new and interesting things about the characters involved and the world around them. All of that is pretty much perfect in my book. I really hope they don’t lose sight of that excellent focus in the remaining episodes. I think lacking that focus has been one of the ways other superhero movies and shows most frequently fall apart, narratively and tonally.

We’ll see.

Contracts, Art, and making World Seeds

My World Seed creation process has slowed down. The hard part isn’t the words, though.

The hard part is finding artists. Locations keep coming to me, but without art I’m reluctant to publish the Seeds. I know I have good written content, but the art really helps. It convinces me that I’m offering something more than my own words (the value of which I’m far too ready to dismiss).

Sorry, I was wrong about the hard part. The hard part is having a contract I’m willing to use with artists. I’m sure I can find artists via several different channels, if I reached out through those. I have a short list of places to put calls for art, after all. But I don’t want to reach out without a written contract.

I might be letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Unfortunately, from the horror stories I’ve heard I’m also confident that having a bad contract can and will come back to bite me.

My first two World Seeds have art made by people with whom I have some kind of personal relationship; either I know the artist myself, or they’re within my immediate circle. There’s some basis for mutual trust. There’s some history of collaboration with myself or with someone else I know.

Without that, I don’t want to move forward on a wing and a prayer. Is that a mistake? Maybe. It certainly feels like one. It feels like I’m sitting on my hands and doing nothing, even though I keep adding to my collection of location descriptions to use in the future. I’ve posted forty nine of those so far to Patreon, and have thirty one more finished first drafts waiting in the wings (eighty in total). I average a little over a new one every week, more or less.

I have a few leads on contracts and contract advice, and expect to receive those reference materials in the near future… but there isn’t a clear timeline for that beyond “soon.”

Maybe, then, the right choice is to put together art-free versions and sell them for less. At least if I do that I’ll be moving finished products out the door, things that will require a minimum of additional work to fill with art once I have a contract ready. Doing that would allow me to publish an art-free Seed within a couple weeks, and another one within a couple months.

That isn’t what I’d dreamed of for this project—I’d thought about selling art-free Seeds while first developing this project, but incorporating visual art was always the goal. Sadly, that’s not where I am right now. If I want to make visible progress, it’s time to change course and ship something while I wait for the contracts and visual art to catch up.

Expect to see those art-free versions come out soon. In the meantime, if you want to see the currently available World Seeds, check out my stuff on DriveThruRPG.com.

The Last Dreamwalker review is up!

My first review for GeeklyInc is out, and you can read it here! Enjoy.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

I’m glad I finally watched Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

I’d read some critics saying that this movie lumbered under the weight of its exposition. I’d heard from fan-friends that they really liked it. I can see the critics’ critique, but I’m pretty firmly in the second camp.

First off, the exposition involved did not surprise me. Marvel has a lot of work to do with introducing its multiverse stories, and MoMadness was their opening cinematic entry for that.

See, Marvel is clearly planning more multiversal cinematic adventures. They’ve been tying multiverse elements into many of their stories lately, leaning into the weirdness even as they use the multiverse to pull together the most poignant story threads they can get their hands on. They’re probably going to slip up and fall on their face at some point—they can’t all be winners—but so far they’ve done pretty well.

Spider-Man: No Way Home worked magnificently on this front. It also featured Dr. Strange, and multiverse shenanigans, but my guess is that Marvel wanted another movie that more fully focused on the multiverse… and which was completely within their owned IP, instead of being in awkward joint custody with Sony. Aside from all that, I think MoMadness is establishing building blocks for the next set of Big Threats and Consequences for the current MCU arc (while No Way Home was more focused on Spider-Man). After Angry Purple Man 1 & 2 and Thanos’ threats to “all life,” Marvel’s writers are probably trying to up the ante for their next big showdown and multiverse threats to existence as we know it are a solid escalation. Threatening existence itself is also a little bit like jumping the shark, but that’s comics baby.

Now, if you didn’t watch the Loki TV series, or weren’t already familiar with a multiverse as a concept, or didn’t know Marvel’s extensive history of playing with multiverse storylines in their comics, I can see how this movie might feel a little off the wall or rushed in its exposition. But as someone who was familiar with all of those things, I had an excellent time. I actually liked the way they leapt from one thing to the next without spending a whole lot of time building up the how and the why. Among other things, it kept the movie moving (heh) and let Sam Raimi shine with the horror elements he knows so well.

I also see Marvel’s embrace of the multiverse as a way for Marvel to play around with extremely weird or unanticipated story and character ideas. When you have infinite parallel-ish existences, you can wring each one for all the emotional content it’s worth, and then only keep the ones that you like most. If a character dies in one storyline, that’s no reason they can’t some back (with some slightly different emotional baggage) in another storyline. Writers can borrow them from another dimension for an afternoon, after all. This way, one character’s experience of their single life can be grown in new directions (giving the audience context for the character’s emotional world) and then rewritten without necessarily discarding all the emotional development.

This, of course, is going to open Marvel up to screwing the pooch even more thoroughly in their next big ensemble movies. I wasn’t a big fan of Angry Purple Man 1 or 2. Much of my distaste for those movies—even when I loved elements of them—came from the way in which they didn’t give time for (or maintain continuity with) the characters’ emotional development in their preceding individual movies. Juggling so many different storylines across multiple universes is only going to make that more difficult.

On the topic of character development though…

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry about this movie’s choices. Both, maybe? I like what it does for Dr. Strange. Plus, I really like Wanda Maximoff’s journey—and have reservations about it at the same time. Dr. Strange first, because his experience is simpler.

A little context: in many ways, watching Dr. Strange die repeatedly at the end of his first movie was so fun for me because he’s such a prick. And seeing him gradually become less of a prick over the course of that movie feels good. In that moment near the end, as he’s dying repeatedly, no one else can see his sacrifice. No one else sees him suffering through an eternity of painful deaths in order to negotiate with an impossible force. He’s given a chance to grow as a person even as he pulls a really neat (and frankly torturous) trick in order to save the world.

So for me, Dr. Strange movies have this double appeal: I can see an asshole get what’s coming to him, and I can see that same asshat become a (marginally) better person while growing into his role as a hero. What’s not to love?

MoMadness continues that tradition. Dr. Strange learns from his own (and his other selves’) mistakes. This is one of those places where the multiverse concept really shines: it’s possible for someone to recognize things in themselves that they weren’t ready to see, as they are confronted by their other selves. Dr. Strange may be full of himself and a control freak, but he’s not an idiot. Seeing him come to care for others and be there for them (instead of being there for them for himself, because it gives him a chance to play the savior and build a heroic image of himself) is really sweet. I might actually want to watch this movie again just to appreciate the ways in which it delivers on that personal growth.

Sadly, all that growth also makes me dread what may come in the next big cinematic combo event. If it’s anything like the last one, the individual characters will probably be shortchanged and their growth over the previous films won’t make it fully formed into the movie. Or maybe Marvel will surprise me, but I won’t hold my breath.

All of which brings me to Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch.

Her personal arc is awesome, honestly. It retraces some of her development in WandaVision, which is unfortunate but understandable given that the movie doesn’t assume viewers are current with the TV shows. Despite that, I love how the multiverse works in such similar ways for both Wanda and Strange here. Each has a chance to confront the lives and choices of their other selves—and to be confronted by those things in turn, peeling back the lies and illusions they hold dear.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, but to get into the weeds I’ll have to share some *SPOILERS* about Scarlet Witch.

I’m not happy about Scarlet Witch (apparently) killing herself. After how Marvel killed off Black Widow, and the very real problem with the poverty of representation in these stories (see also my review of Soul), having Scarlet Witch kill herself too leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It’s a bad look, Marvel.

On the other hand, this time it made sense. Wanda Maximoff was a tortured soul by the end of WandaVision (much as she was at the start of it). This movie established firmly that she was still in a very bad place, and was busy digging deeper into a magic book that the movie explicitly established as being extremely bad news. But where Black Widow died in a way that felt cheap and senseless (and was arguably fridging), this movie gave Scarlet Witch a chance to have a rich (and painful) emotional arc that ended in death.

She pursues her obsession beyond the ends of the Earth, and is ultimately confronted (while reaching closure with herself and with her family in a way that felt brilliant) by the consequences of her choices up to that point. That drive, that confrontation, and that closure were all good. Those scenes with herself and her boys were heart-wrenching. Given all the choices she’d made leading up to those moments, and the way she’d lied to herself while also digging deep into the evil evil magic book of evil, her choosing to kill herself and destroy the physical manifestation of those dangerous spells actually feels meaningful.

It doesn’t resolve the issue of those spells (presumably) existing in other universes in similar locales, but it makes narrative sense. And it doesn’t feel like the writers just offed a female character to give a male one some new emotional trauma. But while this was definitely a better course than Marvel took with Black Widow—I didn’t feel like Wanda was being shortchanged here.—that doesn’t make me excited about the Scarlet Witch dying.

Having said that, I doubt it’ll stick. Given the increasing importance of multiverse-shenanigans, I suspect Wanda will return to a future storyline as a multiverse-self. Alternate-Wanda presumably won’t stick around, but her character won’t simply be gone.

*END SPOILERS*

Okay.

There’s even more I want to talk about.

I’d love to dig into the ways in which MoMadness functions as a horror movie, but at this point it’ll have to be short. You can easily see the ways Sam Raimi digs into his long experience with making horror movies: the movements of pursuers, the deaths, the moments of disquieting revelation, the occasional weird and awful and maybe a little funny gore and body horror. It’s all present.

We’re even treated to Bruce Campbell! His cameo (and his after-credit scene) are delightful, and offer a nod to Raimi’s Evil Dead series that presages some of the horror elements still to come. It’s a good little bit of bonus fun.

But in conclusion, yes, I liked the movie. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but it was good. I hope you can enjoy it too.

Finding a way into D&D 5e

My partner is curious about RPGs but didn’t reliably click with D&D when we played online over the first year of the pandemic. Some of this is no doubt an artifact of that group and its dynamics, and my partner only knowing one other player in that group. Some of it came from their struggles to find the sweet spot for playing their character and engaging with the story. We spoke about that a good deal.

But I think it was also due to D&D simply being… not simple. It’s not straightforward, or intuitive, or streamlined, or… any of that. My impression of 5e as an “easy” system is grounded in decades of playing RPGs, starting with 2nd ed. AD&D before I could reliably read or write. And while a different system wouldn’t have removed any of the hurdles posed by story, character, or group dynamics, I can’t help but wonder whether it would have made the other issues feel more approachable or less insurmountable.

There are plenty of other RPGs to play. The very narrative-focused systems which have grown from the indie RPG scene would offer games more focused on the character and story. Any number of Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) systems would have given my partner a more mechanically streamlined introduction to gaming. Hell, I love Monsterhearts and would happily play that all the time, and my partner enjoyed playing that for a little while too (though that group fell apart due to COVID).

We could have gone with Call of Cthulhu or Unknown Armies, for the straightforward percentile-rated skill-based gameplay with no (or very few) special abilities. I even could have used an extremely simplified GURPS—presumably with plenty of help during character creation, because that system feels like it’s intended to train future CPAs, and navigating all the possibilities of GURPS is a headache in its own right. What I’m trying to say is, I have a laundry list of RPGs that I’ve played and run before. At last count, most of a decade ago, I’d run more than a dozen systems and played close to thirty… and a lot of them were easier to engage with than D&D. That isn’t necessarily true for every step of playing them, but many have a lower mandatory cognitive load for “effective” play. Unlike with D&D, you don’t always have to keep track of an ever-growing collection of powers and abilities with hyper-specific uses.

But none of those other games are D&D. And that’s the problem. In so many other contexts, in pop culture, with other groups, or just playing with me and my sibs, my partner knows they’re going to run into D&D. And they’re abundantly aware that, for that to be accessible to them in the future, they need to pick up the basics at some point.

Which brings me back to the issue at hand. What other game might I run for them first, to give them a better feel for RPGs before they try D&D again? How might I run D&D differently to better engage them, and to help them feel their way into familiarity with the system?

I have some ideas.

We can talk through what genres my partner is excited to play, and choose a system with mechanics which fit. We can try some solo-play, to give my partner experience with a system without the distraction of larger group dynamics. And we can try a couple different one-shots or brief stories, to let us more-quickly sample the many different flavors available. Just jumping in and trying different systems and genres is probably our best bet.

D&D 5e doesn’t work equally well for everything, I’m very aware. But hopefully we can find ways to play that my partner enjoys, and give them the background to feel comfortable with D&D even if it’s not their game of choice. Wish us luck.

Even Though I Knew The End, and finding gems

I mentioned in my big thinky post Genre fiction, Mercantilism, Geology that I was probably going to recommend C.L. Polk’s Even Though I Knew The End. I was right. I’ve finished it now and enjoyed it a great deal and I strongly suggest getting it when it comes out.

This post will necessarily be less in depth than the review I’m writing for GeeklyInc (I’ll share a link to that review when it goes live). I got pre-release access to the book through writing a review for them, so that’s where the full review will go. But ETIKTE is good. Finishing it has left me excited to hunt down more of C.L. Polk’s work.

There’s a certain joy to discovering a book I love by an author who has other work I haven’t read yet. As a kid, that was how I chose most of my new reads: I’d discover an author I liked, and then I’d hunt through everything else I could find by them (even when it wasn’t necessarily “age-appropriate”). My approach was also pretty scattershot, because this was before I had access to or knowledge of ways to find an author’s complete bibliography (unevenly distributed access to the internet, etc.). Each visit to the bookstore or library was a treasure hunt, and used bookstores were especially appealing. Any good genre fiction shelf could be full of gold.

That’s felt less true over the years. As I’ve gotten older, I haven’t chased every last book by an author in the same way. I think part of that comes from my discovery that, sometimes, I don’t actually like all of an author’s books. Perhaps it’s because I’m more judgmental and genre-savvy now, or because I’m more willing to put a book down when I don’t like it, or maybe I’m jaded by my access to the internet’s firehose of information… but these days I more often see those shelves and think “ah yes, more of the same.” I read the jacket copy, see the comp titles, and don’t feel hooked. Finding genre-fiction gold feels rarer, and like it takes more work.

All of which is to say… when my friend over at GeeklyInc offered me Even Though I Knew The End, I had no idea I was about to relive that whole giddy treasure-discovery experience. I don’t know whether C.L. Polk’s other stories bear any resemblance to ETIKTE, but I’m damn well going to give them a try. After the fun I had with this book, I’d be a fool not to.

Hiatus! More words for you in two weeks

I’m with family right now, and (Lord willing and the ‘rona don’t rise) will be working at camp next week. If all goes as planned, I’ll be back the week after with more thoughts and stories. That’ll be the 18th.

All health.

Genre fiction, Mercantilism, Geology

This series of thoughts arose as I started composing a review for Even Though I Knew The End, a book by C.L. Polk coming out this November. I’m really enjoying it so far, I might talk about it more here. The review will be on GeeklyInc.

These thoughts have almost nothing to do with that book.

The genre fiction conversations I grew up hearing, and the ones I’ve usually seen bandied about in pop culture, approach genre fiction the way mercantilists approach markets. By this logic, genre fiction is a zero-sum game of capitalistic bloodsport. Any pieces of art inside the same niche must beat each other to pulp as they fight for limited market share and cultural value, to the exclusion of any other piece of art. This is a perversely Highlander-ish perspective in a world built from layers upon historical layers of art, influence, and nuance.

From an artistic perspective, from the perspective of someone who loves genre fiction, this zero-sum game is a lie. Every new piece of genre fiction isn’t slipping in others’ blood as it bludgeons the opposition in a mercantilist cage match. Instead, it’s adding another layer to the geological strata of our culture and our art.

Art builds on art builds on art, in a continuous dialectic. Genre fiction responds to the pressures and inspirations of culture and life, and it grows out of the art (and other influences) which feeds its artist. Genre fiction isn’t inherently locked in a murderous struggle with itself, because every new piece broadens our experience and our palette—and various pieces may coexist despite their dissonance.

Two (maybe obvious) caveats:

The artists, their ideological perspectives, and the ideologies espoused in their art may all be in conflict with each other. Some points of view aren’t hospitable to the existence of others. I’m just saying that their art isn’t inherently in conflict outside of its ideological disagreements.

And I’m not trying to belittle the marketing departments who struggle to win that aforementioned market share for their companies’ projects. They’re working within the constraints of their system, the constraints of our current publishing industry, and I’m not offering alternatives to that system here. Beyond that, as long as we’re in a capitalist system there is pressure to fight for the audience’s time and attention—artists need to be paid for their art, so they can support themselves. I’m simply saying that the art exists outside the market free-for-all as well.

Back to my geological metaphor for the dialectic…

I like the image of geological strata of culture because it gives me concrete imagery with which to talk about synchronic and diachronic perspectives. In this the synchronic is a snapshot in time across a broad area, a landscape painting or topographical map, while the diachronic is a deeper dive tracing one particular vein of (l)ore as it changes over time, an excavation of one location tracing its history back through time layer by layer. The synchronic speaks to a broad simultaneous state of the cultural experience, giving precedence to the most recent and the most impactful influences at the specified time. But the diachronic reveals how a genre emerges from its precursors, how it differentiates itself and grows, and how it diverges from and interweaves with other pieces of the creative cultural landscape.

I also like this image because it gives the lie to the idea of genre canon. There is no past piece of genre fiction which is mandatory reading, only pieces which give diachronic context for current art. It may be useful to know about the presence of those old stories, ossified to the point of cultural bedrock, but they should be read in context as the product of their own cultural landscape rather than as essential cultural truths.

With that in mind, I find it easier to listen carefully when someone says “you must read this.” Do they mean “I require that you read this before I consider you part of my group”? Or do they mean “this will give you important context for these other pieces of culture”? If it’s the first they’re probably being an asshole. If it’s the second, maybe they’re offering a route into the diachronic cultural depths.

And because of all this, I love asking people about what else they’re reading (or watching) that is similar to other books they’ve mentioned, and what else they’ve enjoyed in general. No one person is broadly read enough to give a full synchronic view, and so each individual snapshot gives me a better understanding of the genre landscape overall. Trying to make my own map from all the different pieces is like a game for me, and sometimes I’m fortunate enough to learn of stories taking their genres in totally new directions.

Speaking of which…

Even Though I Knew The End is so beautifully aligned with noir (so far, I’m not done reading it yet) that it doesn’t feel like it changes anything about its genre. Except… so much noir is almost comedically devoted to male protagonists and period-piece toxic masculinity, and this story—despite all its love of the trappings and conventions of noir—isn’t that. It feels reminiscent of Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw in that way. I love it. Something about how it approaches noir genre fiction from a queer woman’s perspective feels revolutionary, a little like how the first season of Jessica Jones felt years ago (though less gut-wrenching so far). It is a beautiful diachronic gift, so like and yet so unlike its own genre. I haven’t finished it yet, but I expect I’ll recommend it as soon as I do.

Stranger Things s4 and breathing room

I enjoyed Stranger Things season 4.

But the last episode felt rough for me. Maybe that’s because it was almost two and a half hours, or maybe that’s because it was interrupted more than once.

I paused the last episode a couple times due to normal life, including once right at the height of the climax when the show had already been drawing out the tension for as long as possible. Turns out that last pause was the hardest on me.

I’ll come back to that.

Stranger Things has previously been pretty good about modulating its narrative and dramatic tension. The show has woven pauses into the bigger action sequences, with each interlude giving the audience time to breathe and notice how tense they are, and giving characters time to express how previous consequences are still effecting them—it’s the moment for characters to reel from the last blow, collect themselves, and push themselves unsteadily to their feet. It’s also the moment when the audience can be reminded what’s at stake in the narrative, why the tension matters. There’s a basic rhythm to these moments. If you are paying attention you can usually guess where and when the pauses will happen, even without paying attention to the background music (though that does help).

A quick aside:

These breathers are an elementary fight-scene choreography technique. In a fight scene they’re vital to giving your performers a chance to rest, check in with each other between bouts of action, and sell the drama of the fight. Almost exactly the same is true of these pauses in any other high tension segment of narrative. While these pauses are less mandatory in written work (written characters aren’t facing physical limitations after all), written action sequences still benefit from them. First, that’s because pauses are believable, and they help build the audience’s sense of a written character as a relatable, exhaustible being. Second, each pause is a chance to reorient your reader to the larger scene, to pull back slightly from the rush of the moment and take stock of the situation (whether that’s an internal emotional experience or an external assessment). Third, pauses allow the audience to unwind a little bit—they don’t release narrative tension so much as let it settle into a more stable state while you ready yourself for the next bit, a resolution-in-miniature.

Many big exciting movies these days forget these pauses, or use them on what feels like the wrong rhythm. This is wild speculation, but… maybe that’s because so much is done with CGI now? Animated figures don’t need time to check where they are in the choreography, they don’t need to take a moment to breathe, they don’t feel how the last four big stunts (done over who knows how many takes) are wearing them down.

But those pauses aren’t actually for the actors. You could easily edit a film to remove all the downtime. I just think the film would be worse for it. That’s because the pauses are there for the narrative and the audience. Missing those breathers also gives the audience no time to breathe. There’s no moment to let recent consequences sink in, there’s no time to see the ways in which the characters are reeling, there’s no time to process the emotional weight of whatever just happened.

The only thing worse, to my mind, than having no downtime is having pauses where characters feel none of the consequences of what just happened to them. Telling stories is about spinning lies so consistently that they all ring true. Ignoring the last lie you told introduces discord and undermines the whole thing (which happened for me in the last episode, when *SPOILERS* Nancy, Robin, & Steve don’t seem to suffer any ill effects from their several scenes of almost-dying *END SPOILERS*).

So, back to my poorly timed pause.

The last episode of season four is a heck of a ride. It’s long, it’s full of action, there’s a ton of build up and payoff. And for better or worse they draw the tension out, and keep ramping everything up, for a long time.

That progressive heightening of tension might have been tolerable if I hadn’t paused right at the peak. But I did. I paused for a little over half an hour to eat dinner, and I did it before the episode gave me any resolution in its dramatic climax.

That pause—without a breather’s usual resolution-in-miniature—gave me time to reflect, when I think I was supposed to just finish the narrative ride. In that pause, I could recognize how much the show had wrung out of its escalating tension, how it had pushed past its previous limits, and how it had pushed me to my limits. I just felt worn out, a side effect of how successfully the show had pulled me in and connected me to these characters and their story.

On further reflection, I think I noticed this so acutely because Stranger Things has previously done a good job of including breathers and not pushing its escalation too far. Or maybe I’m full of it and would have felt just as wrung out in previous seasons if I’d paused at just the wrong time. Either way, I really hope that season five takes a slightly more balanced approach.

It looks like they’re setting themselves up for a big finale, and if they try to maintain peak intensity for as long as they did with the last episode of season four I’ll be too worn out to enjoy it as much as it deserves. Furthermore, if they don’t build in those pauses they’ll fall into the same trap some MCU movies do: lots of big flashy scenes and moments of great import, without the variation in action and tension, or the foundation in narrative consequences, that lend meaning and emotional weight to those big scenes. I think they’ve set a big task for themselves; they’ve got four seasons of previous drama to (mostly) resolve, and bigger stakes than before.

My hope is that season five will take the time it needs, and the slow scenes it needs, to build its drama. I’m down for some big flashy stuff, yes, but it was the small-scale moments of emotional poignancy that grabbed me in the first few seasons: the emotional stakes, the fear and uncertainty, the mystery. That’s way more exciting to me than a big set piece of blockbuster spectacle. I don’t know how they can best deliver those things given what they’ve established so far, but I really hope they do.