Q&A: Style and Your Audience

In the first episode of Cowboy Bebop, Spike throws a vial into the air and shoots it to break it. Is this possible? Probably not, but I’m just curious. Do you have advice for making stylized, unrealistic fights in written works without the sound and visual cues highly stylized TV shows have to let the audience know it’s meant to stylized and not just a mistake? Love the blog by the way.

Without finding and checking the scene, possible but not plausible. Professional trick shooters can do some pretty amazing things as part of their routine. Ironically, shooting a small thrown object is one of the easier things you’ll see professional trick shooters do. So, within that skillset, this isn’t that impressive. That said, trick shooting has nothing to do with combat, so while there’s a little overlap in basic marksmanship and weapons handling, being good at one will not make you good at the other.

There’s nothing realistic about it, but we’re literally talking about a sci-fi/western anime; realism was never a serious consideration in framing the material.

As for stylistic touches in your fight scenes, I feel like I’m covering material again. Style changes with the media. You’ll never convey a dayglow color pallet in text. Fully conveying state of mind is much harder in a visual media. You simply can’t put music into prose.

You can drive yourself insane looking at an image and saying, “I want that.” That’s fine, that’s part of your job as a writer. The other part is taking that, and telling your audience what it means. Telling them what you feel. You can’t share the image, but you can share the image’s impact. No other form of media allows you to do that.

The closest would be graphic novels, but those are a strange limbo, because in handing the audience your picture, you’re ceding control over how it affects them. You can talk about the picture with them in narration, but they control the image’s image. In prose, you control that moment.

Stylistic approaches in prose rely on finding a style for your own writing and blowing that out. As with any stylistic choices, this can be subtle or it can be heavy handed. The key here is the words chosen, sentence structure, and overall approach to violence.

Michi and I both have some pretty pronounced styles when it comes to writing violence. As in, the actual fight scenes themselves. Some of this comes from the way we write normally, and it’s even apparent on this blog.

Asking how to write stylistically requires you have some confidence in your own tone, your style of writing, and the willingness to put that in front of everyone. You, probably already have a style; if you somehow don’t, it will develop as you practice. Just remember, stylistic writing is not the same as snazzy visuals.

All of this said, that’s not exactly what you asked for. You’re also looking for how to present an over-the-top sequence. I know that’s not how you phrased it. When you look at stylish violence in media, it tends to be over-the-top. (Not always.)

As an artist, you need to earn that from your audience. You need to sell them on the idea that you’re going to do something that directly challenges their suspension of disbelief.

So, let’s talk about this using a transactional model: Everything you do, in your story, has a cost. Your goal is to keep the audience reading. This means you need to quickly hook the reader. Ideally in the first or second sentence. From there, you need to continue to earn that engagement, or they will leave. You do this by gradually taking larger risks. As you build your story and world, you run the risk that some detail will alienate your audience. There’s an implicit factor here, you can risk as much as you want early on, but the more you risk, the better the immediate and long term payoffs need to be.

This is where younger writers often run into trouble, setting up characters. It’s easy to, “over spend,” trying to create pre-made badasses, when you can’t back that up in the material that follows.

In this model, authorial style is, “free money.” If someone digs the style of your work, they’ll stay invested longer; it can provide an enormous cushion for you and your writing.

Ever wonder why some people absolutely loathe anime, regardless of context? If the style doesn’t appeal at all, there’s not a lot of reason to hang around. Also part of why pre-made badasses can be so hard to write; In film, you have actors and visuals to sell you on the characters. In prose, it’s just you. The stylistic cushion you’re perceiving just isn’t there. Instead you need to make the character interesting, and you need to do so, immediately.

Now, what I just described would indicate that all narratives need to build towards a larger climax. Which precludes stories that break from normal narrative structures, and tragedies. With that in mind, I did say, everything has a cost. You’re using this to measure your audience’s connection to the material, not a systemic, “oh, it’s bigger and more dangerous, it must be more expensive.” That logic dies every time someone decides that destroying the planet must be the highest possible stakes. So what? It’s not my world, if I’m not invested in it, I really don’t care if you blow the thing to pieces.

Sometimes, the most intense moments can be deeply personal. You can earn far more audience engagement in a single dialog sequence than a massive battle between thousands. It depends on how well you can write it.

You want a story with over-the-top anime inspired violence? Write it. Find a style that fits you, and what you’re trying to do. I can’t give you that. Create characters and a world that readers will care about. If they’re already hooked, they’re not going to have a problem when you occasionally bend the rules a little.

-Starke

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