…OK, both the title and the page image are pretty misleading on this one. I’m actually talking about memes as Richard Dawkins originally defined them: bits of knowledge passed from person to person via word of mouth and various media.
Figures of speech are memes, writing styles are memes, and tropes are some of the most persistent memes of all. In fact, you could argue that stories are just meme golems. Where do all these bits come from, though? Both reality and fantasy in equal measure: life inspires art inspires life and so on, and memes travel freely between them.
Despite how many of us think of fiction as an escape from real life, they’re really intertwined in our minds to the point where it’s hard to locate the boundary between them. Most fantasy creatures are just rejiggered animals, but (like animals, coincidentally) they’ve evolved into versions that no longer look like their sources.
A lot of keen sci-fi watchers have noticed how many space battles resemble World War II dogfights. As I’ll discuss next week, horror trends are often thinly-disguised news stories. And think of how many fiction inventions have made their way to real life: cell phones, automatic doors, video chat, AI assistants, Elvish…
But what many of us don’t realize is how you can tap into your readers’ meme banks to tell twice the amount of story with half the amount of words, in a much more dynamic and engaging way than if you’d tried to explain everything.
We all have a personal library of plots, clichés, and general expectations about how stories are supposed to go. The most famous is the Hero’s Journey: if you care enough about writing to look up guides to how to do it, you’ve heard of it.
But if you need a refresher:
That’s just one out of thousands, though. We’re constantly storing information from every source we come across, combing through it for patterns, and using those patterns to identify other things that’ll probably work the same way. Everything you read and watch leaves an imprint on you, and if even two stories do the same thing, you’ll probably stick it in the library along with the context it usually appears in. Even better, many of these are universal, which is why we can enjoy stories from any culture if they’re put in terms we understand.
That begs the question, though: once a reader’s filed a story in their mind, how do you get them to retrieve it?
Simple: you give them a hint. Take a look at these scenarios and tell me what usually happens next.
- A man, after double-checking to be sure no one’s followed him, approaches a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf and tilts a single book forward.
- A military wife hears a knock at the door. She opens it to find a man in uniform, but not hers, holding his hat to his chest.
- A group of kids, on a dare, decide to go explore an abandoned mansion at night. As soon as they enter, the door slams itself behind them.
Chances are you’ve identified all these scenes from fiction and knew before you even finished reading. The ability to look at part of a story and predict how the rest goes is fundamental to how we learn, and a key to our survival: it’s how you know what to do if you drop a candle on your rug. Once we’ve found a sign that a familiar sequence of events is happening, we immediately bring the whole thing to mind and start judging how to react to it. And not only can these signs—let’s call them “story clues”—come from fiction, it’s arguable that in the modern world, most of them do.
Everyone knows this, right? So why do so many fantasy writers still take well-known concepts, makes up new names for them, then explain them to you from the ground up as if you’ve never seen one of these newfangled word-and-picture contraptions before?*
Unless you have a specific reason to need a constructed language, it’s much better to just tap into our knowledge pool, cut the fifty pages of exposition, and get to the story the audience is here for, because it’s assumed your fantasy world works like all the rest except where noted. And even better, you don’t even have to spell it out explicitly…
In a visual medium like comics, many story clues aren’t in writing. Color palettes, locations, and types of lighting are all story clues. If a character has red skin, you know he’s not the kind of person you want to trust with your credit card. If a pack of obnoxious teenagers gets lost in a rural forest, you know most of them aren’t leaving. If someone’s face is always in shadow, you know their identity is a plot point that the author’s hiding to ramp up suspense. Even unintentional artistic decisions tell a story, just not the one you want: for example, bad composition might tell you the artist didn’t give a shit and just wanted to get paid. You could even say that everything in life is a clue to the story of how it was made and why it was put where it is. (It’s just that those are usually boring.)
This is the basis of mise-en-scène, a French loan phrase meaning “placing on stage,” which refers to the intentional arrangement of everything in a scene for maximum symbolism.
One of the most common visual story clues is the “pathetic fallacy,” in which the environment mirrors the plot or emotions.
We tend to assign personalities to pretty much everything that catches our interest, especially the conditions that define our surroundings like the weather, lights, and sounds. Why we do this isn’t important to this post, but if you must know, it’s explained here.
I’m also not going to run through any individual ones, because all these articles do it better:
- “The Place of Phenomena” from Symbolism.org
- “The Meaning and Symbolism of Weather in Dreams” (…Which is coincidentally the same as everywhere else) from The Quantum and Intuitive Astrology Blog
- “Symbolism of Color: Using Color for Meaning” from The Incredible Art Department
- Wikipedia has an exhaustive list of things associated with White, Gray, Black, Red, Pink, Orange, Brown, Yellow, Green, Blue, Cyan, Purple, and Violet.
- “Light Source: Lighting for Mood” from Videomaker.com
- “Dark and Light Symbolism in Literature” from Symbolism.org
Everything Else in the World
- “Writing Research – Symbolism” from The Life and Mind of a Ghost on Tumblr
Objects in the background are also story clues. If your protagonist owns a chair, they must have gotten it from somewhere. If there’s a hole in their wall, someone must have put it there. What does it say about a character whose bed is perfectly made every minute they’re not in it? One who leaves a dead roach on the counter for a week? One who’s chauffeured around in a Rolls Royce Phantom? One whose car is pocked with bullet holes?
Make your visual decisions carefully and you can tell your character’s entire backstory without a word, both letting you skip straight to the main story and giving your readers a reason to pay more attention to the art. I briefly touched on this in the dialog guide: if you can express something through visuals, you don’t need to say it again in words.
Keep it relatively low-key, though. If you use subtle symbolism, readers will start feeling something, not know why they’re feeling it, and think it’s purely of their own volition. If you hit them over the head, they’ll just roll their eyes and sigh “Oh look, she’s dying at sunset. What a coincidence.” It looks manipulative. One of my personal pet peeves is when blatant story clues, like tense violins before a jumpscare and villains lit from below, are used to dictate what the viewer should feel. If you’ve done your job to that point, they’ll already know. Not to mention one of the most fascinating things about fiction is how different people take different things from it. Don’t steal that from them.
But what about references to specific things, instead of just ambient memes?
Recently, I watched this Yale lecture on hermeneutics in an attempt to temporarily forget the fact that I am, at my base, the kind of person who enjoys Call of Duty and dick jokes.**
About halfway through, it touches on the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer’s argument that we can’t effectively come to an understanding with someone unless we have enough in common with them. That’s why he liked classic literature: we all knew it, making it a good base for discussion. Even if we all took something different from the book, or had never read it directly, we’d at least have an idea what it’s about.
Pop culture references are one of many ways in which writers establish common ground with their audiences, saying “Hey, we like the same stuff! See? I’m one of you.” In essence, we’re bonding over our modern-day classics. They work, too: we can picture the writer watching the same shows we watched, loving (or hating) them in the same ways we did, and through that, we feel a bit closer to them. References have a few other uses too, like making a comic seem more “current”—or intentionally dated—increasing immersion by reminding us the story takes place in the same world as ours, and changing how the referenced thing looks by showing it in a different light.
Webcomics use them a lot, possibly more than any other art form. This is because they have to appeal to populism to succeed and, the way most people draw them anyway, they can be produced really fast, letting them comment on trends before they get old.
They take two forms:
- In-jokes between the creator and anyone else who’s seen the referenced work.
- Tossing you an out-of-context piece of the referenced work so you can say “Oh, I recognize that.”
At first, I was tempted to say the first one is inherently better than the second, but that’s not true, they’re just easier, so they’re more often misused. For some reason, lazy writers love references and think they can fully supplant humor: remember when every cake was a lie? Some particularly bad webcomic writers take it to the point where their entire story is just a list of things better than it.
But they have their place. They can be a subtle credit to an inspiration. When hidden or obscure, they can serve as a “Where’s Waldo” for the viewer, giving them another way to enjoy the page they appear on. And if the reference is to something your character likes, not you***, they can be a decent way to establish the kinds of things they identify with, which is a major clue to their personality.
So, what to reference? The most straightforward answer would be “anything you like.” But that’s not quite true. Some things that are so popular and over-referenced that they don’t have an impact anymore. Everyone’s seen Star Wars. If you’re intelligent enough to put together a sentence, it’s assumed that you hate Twilight. You no longer win geek points for these things. (In theory. These references are still depressingly popular at times.) Unless you have a new twist to bring to these things, I’d recommend you don’t bother. Other references might get lost on your readers completely.
It’s best to settle somewhere in the middle. You most likely have some idea what kind of person is reading your work, what other comics/books/shows/etc. they’re likely to enjoy if they’ve seen yours, what some of their other interests are, and what subjects they might have an extensive knowledge about—if not, Google Analytics can help with that. Talk about that stuff.
Don’t worry, you can still reference something only you and three other people have seen, you just have to keep it in the background, making sure that getting it isn’t essential to understanding part of your story, lest you get stuck having to stop and explain it in a way the audience can get. (Hint: use simple terms.) …But that’s not always a bad thing. If you’re good at it, you can introduce them to something they never would have seen otherwise. Personally, I believe one of the marks of a great writer is that they can take something I have no reason to care about and make me interested in it.
Only the broadest of references will catch your whole audience, and those are the ones most likely to bore them. No matter how well you try to know your audience, someone will always stumble in from another part of the internet, and you need to know how to make your story readable to them, too.
I’ve struggled a bit with this. My comic’s protagonist is a die-hard anime fan, so one of the challenges in writing it was figuring out how much to mention it: too much and I’ll alienate laypeople, too little and I’m telling in place of showing And even more so, how do I reference shows large parts of the audience have never seen?
The key, in many cases, is to use what TvTropes calls “different levels of accessibility.” In the context in which they’re using it, that means using both references to popular things everyone gets for the average Joe and laser-targeted in-jokes for the hardcore genre fans.
That’s good advice, but there’s one more thing we can do in comics: use the writing and the art to tell different stories. You can use the writing to explain the broad strokes of the subject matter—“she likes this thing because she relates to the characters”—while using the visuals to toss in geek-pleasing references and parodies.
For example, a layperson looking at this page will see a a toy collection, think “Oh yeah, I know what kind of people have those, so I get this character.” and move on. Someone more like the protagonist will see Ginko, Maromi, Pyramid Head, a Chomp, Miku, Ami, Winry, Ciel, and the one we don’t talk about because his owners like suing.
How it’s done…
I didn’t want to feature this one. I normally like this blog to discuss an even mixture of popular and obscure series, heady cult stuff and iconic pop fixtures, to overview how the same concepts work everywhere. But this entry stays solidly on the latter side of the scale, referencing two mega-popular game franchises (the second’s at the bottom), a handful of famous anime, and now… This.
And on top of that, I’ve read less than a third of this series, and have no plans on getting to the rest since I don’t have a spare several months to devote to it, meaning my knowledge of it is actually fairly limited.
But there’s no way I can’t give it its due. When you’re talking series built from self-aware trope use, bits of pop culture, and their demographic’s unique tastes, one stands as their king:
With every aspect of it hewn from late 20th to early 21st century pop culture, Homestuck is… Something. I don’t know what, but it’s something. Something that could only exist on the internet, at that. Yes, there are books of it, but that seems pretty pointless.
The plot is a rolling snowball of tropes from adventure games, strategy games, RPGs, and countless fiction genres: all used tongue-in-cheekily, with a nod towards a reader who’s expected to be in on the joke. And note that as wordy as it is, surprisingly little of it is dedicated to explaining game mechanics. …At least up to a little into the fifth act, which is as far as I’ve read. Yes, a lot of time is spent showing or talking about them, but most of it is for comic effect, setting up jokes about weird leveling/crafting systems or sylladexes throwing stuff everywhere.
It spends a lot more time parodying the exposition and constructed languages a lot of other series drop on us without irony (e.g., the trolls’ convoluted names for simple household objects) and takes glee in how much of it is improvised, knowing that as long as you understand the broad strokes of the story, via the clues scattered everywhere, you’ll at least be able to hold on. If you insist on trying to understand it in full (why?!) the recaps are there to provide the exposition, but they’re optional to appreciating the series.
It might not make sense, but does it need to? It’s like a Jackson Pollock painting: you might not be able to follow the individual lines, but it’s big, it’s emotive, it has a lot of pretty colors, and if you look at it without expecting too much more than that, it’s still enjoyable.
Meanwhile, the art incorporates clipart, stock photos, movie posters, and brand iconography (often pushing the limits of fair use) into something that sits between cartooning and collage; it’s surreal, but at the same time, familiar.
Admittedly, it doesn’t even bother overcoming differences or appealing to people who aren’t familiar with its references, but with a series this heavily based on them, that might be an exercise in futility anyway. It’s satisfied knowing its audience and, although never directly pandering to them, speaking a language they know uniquely well.
If we’ve seen something a few times, seeing one part of it will bring to mind the whole. So, instead of weighing your comic down by explaining concepts we recognize from scratch, toss in a part of it and let our minds fill in the gaps. (This can be done in either the writing or the art.)
If you want to reference other series, know your audience and what they’re likely to have seen, so you’ll have an idea about what you can draw from without losing them. Then, use both broad brushstroke ones for laypeople and laser-targeted ones for geeks so you don’t alienate either audience; the latter is best done in the art so it doesn’t interfere with the story.
My next post will be—or, more accurately “is,” since it’s already finished—an attempt at a thorough guide to writing horror, which is explicitly tied to culture and the subconscious. To be honest, I think it’s the best how-to I’ve ever written, and I’m really excited about sharing it with you. Finally, I’m going to try to tackle the even more intimidating topic of comedy.
* Yes, I realize I’m doing this right now.
** This is only half-true, since I haven’t played it in years. My real “stupid pleasure” game these days is Five Nights at Freddy’s, which I admire, in large part, for its excellent use of story clues.
*** I actually can’t stand Sailor Moon. But it’s not their fault: I am very much not its target audience.