Tangled in Sequels

So, okay, I gave in and signed up for Disney+.  It’s not as if I needed the streaming service to see the Disney fairy tales, or Star Wars, or the Marvel movies; I have those on disc.  But there were these other things.  First, I wanted to see the Hamilton movie (just as impressive as it’s cracked up to be).  Then, since I was already subscribed for a month, I figured I’d check out The Mandalorian, if only to keep up my geek cred—it had taken me a while just to figure out where all the “Baby Yoda” memes were coming from.

By the end of the first month, I’d scanned the offerings and marked down a bunch of other things that I’d sort of wanted to see, or that I hadn’t known about but looked interesting, and now could get without paying more than I already was.  And I was off and streaming . . .

One of the unanticipated things I turned up was a set of ancillary videos related to the 2010 fairy-tale adaptation Tangled, Disney’s version of the Rapunzel story.  And thereby hangs a blog post.

A Tangle of Sequels

I’ve always been fond of the Tangled movie.  But the continuing story also turned out to be remarkably good.  As a rule, sequels to Disney princess movies tend to be humdrum affairs dashed off to exploit the movie’s popularity—though I must admit that I say this without having seen very many of them; ventures like The Little Mermaid II or Cinderella II:  Dreams Come True never seemed to deserve even a look.  (Frozen II is a decided exception.)

But the Tangled folks managed to pull off some impressive work in the follow-up media.  To discuss it in detail, of course, I’m going to have to deploy detailed spoilers.

Spoiler Alert!

In 2012 Disney released a six-minute cartoon, Tangled Ever After, which is basically a comic bit about the exploits of the animal characters during the wedding of Rapunzel and her romantic interest, Eugene Fitzherbert (who previously used the name of legendary rogue-hero “Flynn Rider”).  Nothing of interest there.

Rapunzel and the black rocks

However, in 2017 the Disney Channel debuted a 55-minute short film, Tangled:  Before Ever After.  As the title indicates, this story takes place before the wedding sequence.  The day before Rapunzel’s coronation, her lady-in-waiting, a tough-minded and capable girl named Cassandra, helps her sneak out beyond the kingdom’s walls to get away from the stress and chaos of the preparations.  At the site of the magic flower that originally gave Rapunzel’s hair its healing powers, they find a stand of mysterious pointed black rocks.  When Rapunzel touches one, more rocks suddenly sprout from the ground, forcing them to flee.  But Rapunzel’s hair, which was cut short and returned to its natural brown in the original movie, suddenly turns blonde again and reverts to its 70-foot tower length.

This business with the black rocks is the story’s “One Ring,” the MacGuffin that links the old story to the new and provides the plot driver going forward.  It isn’t explained or resolved in Before Ever After, but serves as the hook for the three-season TV series (2016-2020) that followed.  The series was initially labeled “Tangled:  The Series,” but in its second season was rechristened Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure.  Season 1 follows Rapunzel’s experiences in her parents’ kingdom; Seasons 2 and 3 take her and her companions on the road on a long-running quest.  Wikipedia has a handy list of the episodes.

Rapunzel's Tangled Adventures, opening graphic

The series is where most of the plot and character development occurs.  It concluded in March 2020.  At this point it’s pretty clear that no further follow-ons are necessary, though one can’t rule out the possibility (“never say never again”).  There’s also a stage musical (a version of the movie) and a video game, which I haven’t seen and assume are not in the continuity.  Wikipedia’s convenient overall reference for the Tangled franchise is here.

Opening Out the Ever After

The first challenge in making a sequel to a fairy-tale movie is what to do about the ending.  Traditionally, these stories end in a romantic happily-ever-after.  If the main characters marry at the end (or immediately afterward), we’ve resolved the romantic tension.  In addition, it may be hard to reconcile the vague vision of enduring happiness with the kinds of perilous adventures that would give life to a sequel.

The “before ever after” notion is thus productive.  The characters can have further adventures even before their happiness is, as it were, sealed.  We can stave off the fairy-tale ending, without subverting it entirely.  To ruin the romance would be opprobrious, diminishing the appeal of the original story; but there’s no reason it has to come to fruition (presumably in a wedding) at once.

It’s particularly easy to take advantage of this idea if the couple hasn’t actually become engaged in the original story (even though the audience knows perfectly well that’s going to happen).  Some reduced degree of romantic tension remains if the character still has to work up the nerve to propose, though the issue becomes more comical than dramatic.  (A similar tactic was used in Frozen II.)

Eugene proposes to Rapunzel

Thus, Eugene proposes to Rapunzel several times in the course of the sequels.  She doesn’t accept at once.  She wants to marry Eugene, but she isn’t quite ready yet.  This brings out the familiar “moral” that a girl’s future is not solely bound up in marriage.  It also makes psychological sense—and this is one of the ways in which the Tangled sequels intelligently carry forward the original storyline.  As other characters point out, Rapunzel has spent almost all her life locked up in a tower, never meeting another human being but her “mother” captor.  It seems hardly appropriate to expect her immediately to enter into a marriage.

Of course, Rapunzel could marry and still have adventures.  The story thus plays around with the notion that “happily ever after” means the end of adventures and of our interest in the characters—a notion I’ve criticized elsewhere.  It both dodges, and runs into, that trap.

The World and the Plot

Varian, alchemist with goggles
Varian

 

Since the continuing story takes Rapunzel into new territory, both within and later beyond the Kingdom of Corona (which turned out to be a somewhat infelicitous name for this year, however appropriate for a princess), it was also necessary to expand the world.  The writers carry out this worldbuilding exercise with enough novelty to earn some credit.  For example, one of the new secondary characters is a young alchemist named Varian.  Although his alchemy is technically magic, he firmly takes the position that it’s science, not fantasy.  He thus adds a sort of steampunk vibe to the whole business.

Picture of Adira
Adira

 

The second season of the series introduces a secret society of crack warriors who are in some way protecting or defending the source of the black rocks.  An enigmatic woman named Adira provides them with clues, along with ominous nonspecific warnings, and occasionally ends up sparring with the suspicious Cassandra.  She and other members of the “Brotherhood of the Dark Kingdom” sometimes end up opposing or challenging the main characters, though they are basically on the same side.  This secret society’s stance is reminiscent of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The most striking element of the plot is the long-running plot arc, which begins with the black-rock episode in Before Ever After and isn’t completed until the final episode of the series.  The black rocks are tied in with the “sundrop flower” that originally gave Rapunzel her powers, so they link back neatly into the original movie.  Keeping such an über-plot going over sixty episodes is a challenge, and the writers lay in enough complications and reversals to make it work.

This long-term development isn’t perfectly uniform.  There are one-off episodes sandwiched in, often with throwaway plots (Max the noble steed is threatened by a competing evil horse!  The queen’s annoying sister shows up for a visit!).  Nor do the “side quest” episodes always make sense.  In one show (Season 2 Episode 6), Rapunzel and Eugene decide to go off on a “date” while the group is encamped on the road in the middle of nowhere.  (Butterbur in The Lord of the Rings:  “Well, you do want looking after and no mistake:  your party might be on a holiday!”)  At the same time, these one-offs do sometimes have a point.  The “date” introduces some characters who eventually turn out to be crucial to the plot.  For another example, in a primarily silly episode (S2 E18) which turns most of the characters into toddlers, we get a fairly interesting lecture on parenting styles, courtesy of Rapunzel and Eugene.

The metaphysics, the “theory of magic,” is somewhat murky.  Rapunzel’s “sundrop” and the “Moonstone” source of the black rocks have a sort of yin-yang relationship, but the Moonstone power is sometimes presented as evil, and sometimes as merely complementary.  Rapunzel’s long hair, as restored in Before Ever After, has lost its power to heal, but has now arbitrarily become invulnerable—uncuttable—just like the black rocks.  The conclusion of the story does make some degree of sense, though, so this particular worldbuilding weakness isn’t fatal.

Captain Quaid and citizens in Vardaros
Captain Quaid’s return

 

The story is willing to deal with serious issues.  For example, the story introduces some genuine moral dilemmas, as when Rapunzel has to break a promise to Varian in S1 E16, which leads to no end of trouble for everyone.  Some cogent sociopolitical points are raised, unlikely though that seems in a cartoon, in the second and third episodes of Season 2.  Rapunzel and her followers want to reform the city of Vardaros, whose citizens have collapsed into a state of mutual distrust and predation.  Rapunzel’s effort to use sheer niceness to show the inhabitants a better way doesn’t work:  the locals don’t trust these strangers.  Instead, Rapunzel and company have to convince the former “sheriff” everyone trusted to come back out of retirement and lead the reform.  The success of this strategy is still a bit cut-and-dried, but for two 24-minute episodes, it’s handled pretty well.

Other character developments can also be surprisingly sophisticated.  The scheming girl Eugene was supposed to marry ends up being reformed—but she still steals the party’s money; she doesn’t suddenly become sweetness and light.  An entire episode (S1 E2) is devoted to showing that, even though Rapunzel is so adorable that everyone loves her, there’s one old guy in Corona who doesn’t—and he’s a good guy, respected by everyone, kind and helpful; he just doesn’t especially care for Rapunzel.  And the moral of this story is that you don’t have to make everyone like you—a good thing for a young viewer (or even an older one) to recognize.

The sequels are thoroughly genre-savvy—a good platform for ringing new changes on the stock fairy-tale conventions.  In S2 E 23, the characters are threatened by “…lethal, inescapable traps.”  An array of nasty spikes springs up—and immediately crumble into ruin.  “They’re old,” one character remarks, pinpointing one of the silly aspects of Indiana Jones-type adventures where centuries-old mechanical devices work perfectly without deterioration.  And at the end of the second season, the characters walk into a whole series of classic Star Wars and Lord of the Rings tropes in succession—surely on purpose.

Carrying On the Characters:  Rapunzel

The most interesting aspect of the Tangled sequels is the treatment of Rapunzel herself.

Rapunzel’s role in the movie is that of a “fish out of water” character—the naïve newcomer to the world, to whom everything is new and fascinating.  That’s one of the things I like about the movie.  Another is that she faces this brave new world outside the tower with kindness and wonder, though not without a sensible caution that’s sometimes deployed against the wrong targets, for comic effect.  It isn’t by accident that Eugene calls her “Sunshine.”

Although she has to deal with progressively more fearsome and even heartbreaking problems as the series goes on, Rapunzel doesn’t lose that essential innocence.  Yet, imperceptibly—and that’s the artistry—through the second and third seasons, she develops into the genuine leader of the group.  She becomes capable of making difficult decisions.  She isn’t intimidated by threats.  When she has to take over governance of the kingdom, she falters at first, but later on becomes perfectly capable of running things without her parents.  The changes are highlighted in the “dream trap” episode, S2 E19, where the matured Rapunzel speaks with her earlier self.

Rapunzel on horseback, brandishing hair

She even becomes a capable fighter in her own right.  Rapunzel uses her long, indestructible hair like Indiana Jones’ whip, as both a weapon and a tool.  Of course, this is cartoon physics.  This slender girl hurls around what’s essentially a 70-foot rope without any issues of strength or leverage; it catches onto things and releases them just as she wishes, like Indy’s whip.  The hair only gets in her way, or is used against her, when the plot requires it.  It never frizzes or becomes unruly (fortunately for everyone nearby).  Nonetheless, her trademark feature, which seems a romantic beauty mark at first glance, transforms her into a melee fighter, who can hold her own in a scrap.

While Rapunzel is no longer a magical healer, she does gain the ability to use ‘sundrop power’ over time.  This power is erratic and not dependable, but it does rise to cosmic levels at the point where she can blow up an entire landscape at the end of Season 2.  TV Tropes rightly cites her under the Films–Animation section of Badass Adorable.

The really remarkable thing about this maturing process is that Rapunzel is not altered out of recognition.  She retains that essential sweetness of character that made her so likable in the movie.  To depict a character who is both powerful and “nice” is difficult, and rare.  When we have a chance to see the character visibly grow into that maturity, with both continuity and change, the writers’ achievement is noteworthy.

Carrying On the Characters:  Others

Not all the other characters fare as well.

Romantic interest Eugene, in the sequels, gets somewhat dumbed down or, in TV Tropes’ term, “Flanderized”:  turned into a caricature of himself.  His vanity, a nicely balanced flaw in the movie, becomes tiresome when played out in every episode.  His capability is uneven:  sometimes he’s clever, sometimes clueless; sometimes he’s a formidable fighter, sometimes ineffective—as the plot may require.  This is a classic problem in a continuing series, where different writers may produce inconsistent characterization.

Rapunzel’s parents, also, are not too well managed.  In the movie, they’re merely props:  the welcoming family to which Rapunzel can finally return at the end.  In the series, we’re told that her mother, Queen Arianna, was once a sort of adventurer herself—but we see little of that.  Her father, King Frederic (what a promising name!), tends to play the overbearing, irrationally restrictive father, generally as an obstacle to Rapunzel’s self-assertion.  The two of them tend to fade out almost entirely toward the end of the series to give Rapunzel sole center stage.

Cassandra
Cassandra

 

The great prize among the new characters is Cassandra.  Her edgy but loyal personality makes her a perfect foil for the sunny Rapunzel.  That same sardonic cynicism makes it plausible when she veers from the path of righteousness and aligns herself with the enemies at the end of Season 2, a development that is carefully shaped over much of that season.  In particular, she highlights an aspect of hero-stories that doesn’t get much attention.  What happens if you’re not the Chosen One?  If the whole motion of the plot is toward Rapunzel’s destiny, how does the henchperson feel whose role is simply to support the main character?  Doesn’t she have a destiny too?

The series as a whole shows a certain bias toward what we might call the “Arthas Effect,” a plot staple in the World of Warcraft game:  an initially good character becomes corrupted and turns into a major villain.  The two most prominent secondary characters, Cassandra and Varian, are both subject to this kind of transformation at different times.  The basically positive tone of the Tangled story is borne out by the fact that each eventually repents and returns to the side of good.  But the “turn to the Dark Side” motif helps keep the tale from becoming too optimistic or Pollyanna-ish.

The Romance

The Tangled sequels honor the original movie’s romance.  We see from the very beginning that Rapunzel and Eugene do get married eventually.  But that aspect is sidelined in such a way that the impetus of the romantic interest is largely lost.

During the entire first season, Rapunzel and Eugene hang around the castle, waiting for—what?  We noted above that Rapunzel puts off the wedding, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  But her reasons remain rather vague, and we don’t see much of the longing or attraction I’d expect from a couple of young people who are very much in love.  It’s as if the writers every now and then remember that there’s supposed to be a love affair going on, but mostly take that to be understood.

The diverging development of the two characters also creates a somewhat unsatisfying disparity.  While Rapunzel develops in power, competence, and maturity, Eugene has no comparable character arc.  As a result, by the end we may ask ourselves whether he’s really sufficient for her.  The lovers are “unevenly matched,” a problem I’ve noted before.

Rapunzel with Eugene and Cassandra

Conclusion

The key theme of the extended Tangled story, as I see it, is that power and innocence are compatible.  You can be a consummately nice, caring, pretty, cheerful sort—and still have the determination, endurance, capability, and courage to fight what needs fighting.

Rapunzel is not the only example of such a seemingly-paradoxical character.  But the writers were able to take advantage of the extended development of the TV series to showcase in detail how a person can grow to take on that mantle.  It’s something we always need to see more of.

Books About Building

Conflict and Challenge

The “conflict” we expect in a story can take many forms.  External, internal; protagonists against themselves, against other people, against nature, against society.  If you grew up on adventure stories, as I did, you may tend to focus on showy external struggles—wars and battles.  (Explosions!!)  Even more so if your formative reading included comic books:  the first question for a new issue was always, who is Spider-Man fighting this month?—even if there might be more long-term interest in the issue’s developments regarding Spidey’s love life or character development.

But in some stories, or parts of stories, the focus is on building or making something, rather than fighting something.  The underlying engine of such a story might better be called challenge than “conflict”—a struggle to achieve some definite end product, rather than to defeat an adversary.  It’s a sort of engineering story, rather than a crisis—although there may be crises along the way.

Bob the Builder

We Are Legion coverAlmost every possible kind of conflict can be found in Dennis Taylor’s “Bobiverse” science fiction novels:  We are Legion (We are Bob), For We Are Many, All These Worlds (2016-2017).  (Looking them up, I’m pleased to see a new sequel, Heaven’s River, is now out in audiobook form.)  The series touches on a whole range of SF tropes, from first contact to space war to ecological catastrophe.

Bob Johansson, software magnate, dies in the 21st century and wakes up a hundred years later as a sapient computer program, intended to be the guiding intelligence of an interstellar probe, like a computerized version of Jerome Corbell in Niven’s A World Out of Time.  Once under way, however, Bob strikes out on his own, becoming involved with rival probes from another country, the evacuation of a failing Earth, and (eventually) honest-to-goodness aliens.  His probe is equipped with 3-D printers and other gear that allows him to “clone” himself—build new ships run by copies of the Bob program.  Each Bob instance takes a new name and, once running independently, develops a slightly different personality.  Hence the book titles:  we eventually have a whole armada of Bob spaceships, single-handedly—if that’s the right description—planting new human colonies and conducting interstellar wars.

But you don’t bootstrap your way into an armada overnight.  A good bit of the story, especially in the early parts, requires Bob to balance multiple demands.  How much of his productive capacity should be directed to manufacturing new Bobs, and how much to hunting down dangerous opponents?  Or transporting human refugees to new worlds?  To make matters more interesting, some of the Bobs specialize in research, coming up with new scientific discoveries that need to be engineered and adapted for others’ use—as time, transport, and communications permit.

Part of the fascination involves how Bob gradually builds up a sort of interstellar network of cooperating AI ships.  (Of course they cooperate; they’re all Bob.  Sort of.)  How he does this, what difficulties and complications he runs into, is as intriguing as the more exotic or action-oriented sequences.  It’s very cool to see one lone intelligent probe gradually develop into an entire star-spanning civilization.

Building Ships and Planets

Rissa Kerguelen coverF.M. Busby’s Rissa Kerguelen books (1976)—published in various combinations—are the saga of a young woman who starts out as an enslaved orphan under a vicious tyranny on Earth, and ends by bringing back a space fleet to overthrow the tyranny.  She allies herself (both militarily and maritally) with the equally formidable Bran Tregare and the Hulzein family, who share that goal.

When I say “space fleet,” I’m not talking about thousands of massive ships.  This is a bunch of modest-sized spacecraft manned by an assemblage of quirky, anarchic individuals—more like a Star Wars rebel fleet than an Honor Harrington space navy.  Much of the middle section of the story is taken up with the long-term preparations needed for the eventual battles.  Rissa and Tregare redesign and refit their stolen spaceships for combat; pull together the aforesaid individualists into a functional fighting group; and gradually, cautiously, get to know and love each other, after a battleground marriage for political purposes.  That simultaneous slow build of machinery, financing, and relationships is as engrossing as Rissa’s initial escape from the “Total Welfare” system or the ultimate invasion of Earth.  Even the engineering problems, solved in the context of these budding relationships, hold my interest throughout.

Or take Heinlein’s juvenile novel Farmer in the Sky (1950).  Teenaged Bill Lermer emigrates with his family to Ganymede, which is being terraformed into a habitable site for Earthly settlers.  The big moon is completely barren, devoid of life.  The “terraforming” involves not just big technology, like the atmosphere plant and heat trap, but also the creation of soil suitable for farming, inch by inch.  Rock has to be ground into soil, then seeded with Terrestrial microbes, earthworms, and the like, before the first crop can be planted.  This process, which Bill sees at ground level—he’s a farmer-to-be, not a planner or engineer—is endlessly fascinating, though no doubt the details would differ if the book were written today, with seventy years’ more knowledge about the solar system.  It left me with an abiding sense of how complex the web of geological and biological factors really is, underlying something so seemingly simple as dirt farming.

Building a Business

Not that you have to go to Ganymede to find a narrative about constructing something new.  I recently mentioned R.F. Delderfield’s “Swann saga.”  The hero (and the heroine) here are building up something apparently mundane:  a trucking business, using the newfangled horseless carriages, to connect the railroad network to the small towns and hamlets of Victorian England.  The characters tumble in and out of various conflicts, but the underlying thrust of the story is about the growth of a business.  We see its material factors—vehicles, storehouses, roadways, Adam Swann’s unique organizational planning gizmo—but, more importantly, the varied people whose talents and peculiarities contribute to the success of the whole operation.  Building a business enterprise can be as rewarding as building a spaceship—or a planet.

Working Girl, Tess at conference tableOccasionally this kind of constructive work also crops up in a modern corporate context.  My catalogue of movie favorites contains only two stories I can think of that convey some of the excitement—the romance (in both senses of the word)—of big business.  The Secret of My Success (1987), with Michael J. Fox and Helen Slater, is mostly a knockabout farce, but we do respond to the infectious enthusiasm of Fox’s character.  What makes him more engaging than the other “suits” is that he’s excited about the idea of serving customers and making a productive business grow.  Similarly, in Working Girl (1988), we’re mostly taken up in the plucky struggles of Melanie Griffith’s Tess McGill to break the glass ceiling of the secretarial pool; but we can also admire the artistry and accomplishment of the radio broadcasting merger deal she puts together.

Castaways and Escapes

Construction in the midst of a crisis can become an epic in itself.  In Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer’s When Worlds Collide (1933), much of the story is taken up with the desperate challenges the protagonists must overcome as they race against time to build the spaceship that will enable them to escape Earth’s destruction.  (Pay no attention to the 1951 movie version, which is a catastrophe in its own right.)

When Worlds Collide coverThe oncoming disaster adds dramatic tension to an effort that would be heroic even if it were undertaken without that threat in view.  We see the thousand dedicated people of Cole Hendron’s “cantonment” working on the massive project; striving to obtain the necessary resources as civilization begins to crumble around them; making the scientific breakthrough they need to control atomic energy for their engines; defending the ship against attacks by mobs reverted to barbarism; and rejoicing in immense relief when they find they can construct a second ship that will allow all of them, not just a fraction, to escape Earth’s doom.  Even the momentary pauses to describe the design of the ship, or the careful preparations to take along the necessary plants, animals, and knowledge to recreate Earthly life on the new world, are engrossing in the context of the mighty achievement.  In fact, after all this build-up, the actual brief space-flight is almost an anticlimax.

The whole subgenre of castaway or “desert island” stories almost automatically incorporates themes of making and building, often by ingenious improvisation.  In an earlier post I mentioned Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1874), a childhood favorite of mine, and Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky (1955).  Disney fans may recall the impressive treehouse of the Swiss Family Robinson movie (1960), faithfully re-created at Disney parks.  In more modern renditions such as Eric Flint and Ryk Spoor’s Castaway Planet series, the main characters are similarly involved in carving out a place to live in an otherwise uninhabited locale.

Resources and Technology

Civilization VI screenshotThe interest of stories like these is akin to the way we enjoy playing certain kinds of games, those with a “resource management” feature.  I am, for example, perpetually fascinated with Sid Meier’s famous Civilization games.  In managing a selected civilization throughout its history, we can get into wars with other “civs,” whether they are run by the computer or (in some versions) by another human player.  But war is not essential to winning the game, as it is in chess.  Exploration, the founding of new cities, and scientific development are vital, and offer other ways to win.  While the danger of war with other cultures adds an important spice to the game, I find I’m more interested in discovering new places and developing a well-functioning culture.

Similar features can be found in other popular video games—Starcraft, Warcraft (but not World of Warcraft, which is a role-playing game), Settlers of Catan.  Even the venerable Monopoly fits this description to some extent.  To the extent to which these games are focused on winning, we do engage in a conflict; we seek a higher score than our competitors achieve.  But sometimes it’s a relief to play a game that doesn’t directly involve fighting.

I mentioned scientific development in connection with Civilization.  Researching how to make new sorts of units and improvements is crucial to that game.  (By contrast, in Monopoly all we need to build houses and hotels is money, and monopolies.)  Stories about building frequently involve playing out the consequences of a new technology, if only because new tech opens new opportunities and hence new fields for development.

The Ring Of Charon coverOld-time space operas sometimes touched on this factor, but tended to short-cut the extensive work of implementing a new technology in favor of getting directly to the action.  E.E. Smith’s Skylark Duquesne (1965), last of the Skylark tetralogy, alludes briefly in chapter 8 to the impact on Earthly industry of the fantastic scientific advances in the previous volumes.  But those changes hardly have an impact on the story.  We see a slightly more gradual and plausible development in a couple of books from Roger MacBride Allen, The Ring of Charon (1990) and The Shattered Sphere (1994), where a newly discovered artificial gravity technique gets put to use in progressively more advanced ways.  Even the Delderfield Swann series mentioned above is based on the new opportunities created in the 19th Century by railroads and the internal-combustion engine.

Blessed are the Peaceful Makers

The peculiar enjoyment of stories about building comes, I think, partly from the sense we share with the characters of accomplishing something.  The action of the story is constructive rather than destructive.

Granted, we’re perfectly willing to applaud destruction too, in a good cause.  (Take that, Death Star!)  And stories of violent conflict are perfectly suited to give us edge-of-the-seat thrills that are harder to come by in narratives of making.  Still, we don’t always want an adrenaline rush all the time.  It can be quietly satisfying when we don’t have to focus on winning a war, or on the danger of losing something dear to us and the desperation of defending it.

Witness house raising sceneThe satisfaction of successful making came up in a post last Christmas about the appeal of concreteness, whether in baking cookies or in building ships (as in the denouement of Pretty Woman).  Both construction and destruction are sometimes necessary:  “A time to build up, a time to break down.”  But building responds to a different facet of our humanity than destroying.  A good story may speak to one or the other, or to both.

The World Around the Corner

The World Premiere

The World Around the Corner coverI’m excited to have my romantic comedy novella The World Around the Corner in print as of last week.  Or in virtual print, at least; it’s out as an e-book from the Wild Rose Press.  (Details are available on the story’s page.)

Uncharacteristically for me, TWATC isn’t science fiction or fantasy.  The only potential SF elements are some very minor advances in gaming technology (and perhaps in automobile design).  Some parts read a little like fantasy, because there’s an online role-playing game (an MMORPG) involved.  In that respect there’s a faint resemblance to Ready Player One (book and movie), where an online game plays a major part in a much more serious SF story.  But TWATC isn’t really about games or technology; it’s all about having fun with the characters.

You’re Who?

I’ve always liked the kind of romance where a character has to make a discovery about who their romantic interest really is.  Jasmine isn’t immediately aware that Disney’s Aladdin, when he visits the palace as a prince, is the same street urchin she’s already met—though she isn’t fooled for long.  In Shakespeare’s venerable Twelfth Night, nobody is quite sure who “Cesario” (Viola) really is.  The same is true in the modernized high-school variant of the Shakespeare comedy, She’s the Man.  Playing around with two ways of knowing the same person is also put to good use in the case of super-heroes (or heroes generally) who have secret identities, from the Scarlet Pimpernel to El Zorro to Superman.

The Shop Around the Corner posterBut in all these tales, one member of the couple has the advantage of knowing the truth.  It puts the couple on more even terms if neither of them is aware of what’s really going on.  There’s a whole series of variations on a single story where the main characters meet indirectly and fail to connect up the two different ways they’re communicating with the same person.  This plot seems to have been invented by Hungarian playwright Miklós László in the form of a play called Illatszertár or Parfumerie (1937).  It was adapted in English into the Jimmy Stewart-Margaret Sullavan film The Shop Around the Corner (1940), which in turn gave rise to a musical treatment with Judy Garland, In the Good Old Summertime (1949), and again with She Loves Me (1963).  In these versions, the main characters are pen pals, and also co-workers.  Nora Ephron updated the treatment by making them e-mail correspondents in You’ve Got Mail (1998).

Romance And—

When we tell the story of a romance, we’re often telling a story about something else at the same time.  To be sure, this isn’t always the case.  In Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion, for example, or in Must Love Dogs, and in a lot of high-school rom-coms, the personal relationships are pretty much all that’s going on.  But generally, we don’t spend our lives doing nothing but looking for love.  We go on about our daily business, meeting our daily challenges, and stumble upon love as we go.

To Say Nothing Of The Dog coverSo a lot of romantic tales also have a storyline dealing with something that brings the couple together.  In Heyer’s The Toll-Gate, there’s an involved plot having to do with a theft of currency.  The main characters in Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog are searching for the bishop’s bird-stump.  (It’s a long story.)  Gaudy Night is the Dorothy Sayers novel where Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey finally get together, but they do it while trying to resolve a crisis at her alma mater.  The redoubtable Amelia Peabody and her future husband Radcliffe Emerson meet in the context of archaeological investigations (Crocodile on the Sandbank).

I like the idea of a couple’s bonding by cooperating in some shared endeavor.  And we may be able to amplify that motif by having it happen twice, in parallel, like the parallel identities in the “Shop” stories.

The Camaraderie of the Quest

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about the group quests of role-playing games, whether in D&D or World of Warcraft, is the bonding and sense of camaraderie that develops in a group working together for a common purpose.  Most traditional games like chess or Risk have the players competing against each other.  But the role-playing games typically pit a band of True Companions against third-party monsters or other opponents.

This is a whole different dynamic.  And seeing it play out in a game makes the tone both more light-hearted and more detached than, for example, in a real-life business relationship.  But for that very reason, it lacks a certain gravitas.  Suppose a couple used to fighting side-by-side in a game found they had to work together on something important in real life as well?

The Fun of the Shared Adventure

All this contributed to the idea of The World Around the Corner.  Other aspects also played their roles—for instance, a chance to share some favorite music and books.  And let us not forget the occasional opportunity, sheerly by happenstance, to achieve a truly dreadful pun, without even setting it up on purpose beforehand.  You’ll know it when you see it . . .

I hope you’ll have as much fun reading TWATC as I did writing it!