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January 29, 2014

D.O.X. is Dead #1: Ghosts and Gimmicks

Anyone up for a little story?  And by “story” I mean tangentially discussing the mechanics of a story?  Well, you’re in luck.  If you ever wanted to know what kind of strange tales I’ve dreamed up -- without having to suffer through a million billion words first -- then this new feature is just for you.  So let’s get things started, shall we?

Let’s begin with the basics.  I’ve mentioned in the past that my process for coming up with stories starts with what sort of superpowers I can work with.  That’s something that holds true to this day, if you can believe that; setting aside the fact that it can give a character a unique flair and skill set, there’s plenty of thematic merit and motif-making that can be done using superpowers as a basis.  It’s what separates Superman from, say, Batman.  Supes is often considered a god among men, so his stories reflect that; conversely, a lot of people tend to appreciate Bats because underneath his resources and skills, he’s a very fragile (and emotionally-disturbed) person.  That’s a hyper-condensed discussion of them, I know, but the point still stands.  Superpowers can make for a pretty good starting point when it comes to stories.

With that in mind, one day I asked myself a question: what can I do with ghost powers?

Damn it!  Someone beat me to the punch!  In one of the most exposition-heavy songs I’ve ever heard!

But seriously, though.  If I were to play the word association game with others, I would like to think that the first things to come to mind when I say “ghost” would be horror, haunting, death, or Bill Murray.  Is it possible to make a ghost-themed hero?  Well, the above video showed that it can be done, even though I would have figured that infusing yourself with ghost DNA would also make you some sort of nightmarish half-dead aberration.  But it is possible.

In any case, it’s one thing to come up with a skill set/superpower, but another to actually use it to help define a character; The Human Torch might have pyrokinetic powers just like Mega Man X7’s much-reviled Flame Hyenard, but how they use that firepower not only sets them apart, but makes them distinct.  And it goes even further in the sense that they can define the story…well, they could if either of those characters were the leads, but you get the idea.  Supes vs. Bats, etc.

I mentioned word association earlier, and on some level I’d like to think that I did the same instead of mashing the random button in my brain and leaving it at that.  After all, what is a ghost but a dead person?  The dearly departed, roaming the earth to follow through on some unfinished business?  Obviously, ghost stories are things that have been done trillions of times before, because the way this thing called “life” works, we can’t help but be fascinated by death and the questions it forces us to wonder about and try to answer.  There’s always going to be that potential, because there’s always going to be a huge number of words we can associate with it.  You can’t have “ghosts” without “death”.  On the flip side, you can’t have “death” without “ghosts.”  Well, unless you’re one of the guys on Ghost Adventures, in which case you just pretend like you’ve found a “spirit” on your digital recorder.
So at one point, the question for me became “Okay, what can I do with ghosts?”  I can’t say I’m well-versed in horror (since I’ve been turned off from horror on many occasions), which is both a blessing and a curse.  It’s a blessing in the sense that I don’t know any of the conventions by heart, so I’m not too likely to stumble into some of the clichés or well-worn paths.  It’s a curse in the sense that I don’t know the conventions, good or bad, and execution-wise there could be any number of problems along the way.  Could I scare a hypothetical reader?  Could I create an oppressive atmosphere?  Could I keep a consistent tone?  Could I create some original creatures?  Could I do more than just go for scares?  All viable questions, but even now I know that I can’t succeed by doing what others have done.  I need to offer up something on my own terms -- and I knew that before I’d even started on the story.  Back then, I decided almost immediately that there had to be a hook.  Some kind of trick that’d give me a spiffy new toy to play with vis a vis the chapters to come.  And I came up with one.

The main character had to die.  Immediately.  As in, on page one.

That was pretty much the defining moment not just in the story, but as a concept worth pursuing.  “The main character has to die,” I told myself, even before the story had its title.  I even made a couple of very rough sketches of the scene -- of a masked figure slashing the MC with a sword, and turning an eye on him as he fell to his knees, spurting blood everywhere.  It was great.  Not the art, of course, because that was just awful.  But I had my gimmick, and could proceed from there.  YIKESY MIKESY, THE HERO’S DEAD!  WHAT’S GONNA HAPPEN NOW? THE WORLD’S DOOMED!  FRIGGIN’ DOOMED, MAN! 

Now, it’s probably a good idea to mention two things before I go any further -- both about the story, and about this series as a whole.  The first is that there are going to be spoilers, but since it’s for a story that (thanks to the massive overhaul I’ve given it) will never see the light of day, I don’t feel bad about revealing what happens in it, and neither should you.  It’s true that certain story elements will carry over into the overhauled version, so I’ll probably end up doing a bit of bobbing and weaving to avoid certain details.  Or outright lying.  But for now, that isn’t too big of a concern.  As you’ll see.  Maybe.

The second thing I should mention is that even though this series is called “D.O.X. is Dead”, that’s kind of a lie.  Yes, D.O.X. as I know it is no more, because from its ashes arose a phoenix that’s of significantly-higher quality.  BUT as it so happens, D.O.X. is in itself a revival, a heavily-revised -- but far from overhauled -- version of the original story, Dead over Two.  And arguably, that was the result of the basic original concept that didn’t get any farther than a title page, i.e. something so inconsequential the only part of the title I remember is the not-at-all pretentious Latin subtitle I gave it.  So in the interest of typing slightly less, from time to time I’ll probably end up typing V0 (version zero) for the original concept, V1 for Dead over Two, V2 for D.O.X., and V3 for the new-and-improved story.  Get it?  Got it?  Good.

In any case, it’s pretty obvious that in the case of everything up to V2, the MC’s death doesn’t stick.   Said death is followed up immediately by a flashback to the start of the day before, when he’s at school -- a way to setup what’s bound to happen, along with a way to ensure that, yes, in spite of the ho-hum school day antics there’s going to be something brutal coming soon enough.  Death’s scythe would hover above the MC until the fated chapter, and offer up some dramatic irony to the reader; they know that the MC is going to die, but he doesn’t.  It was designed to add some pressure, and help reinforce one of the story’s obvious themes: death.

Like I said, he comes back -- because it’s his story, that much is non-negotiable -- but major plot points in the story revolve around the ramifications of his revival.  It might be cheap to bring back the guy whose death was hyped from page one, but I had a plan in mind.  First off, coming back would require an incredibly tough ordeal, meaning that he’d be out of action for at least ten chapters and the rest of the cast would have to sort shit out.  Second, he comes back better than ever on the surface (i.e. with ghost powers, but I’ll talk about those another time), but again, there are some serious consequences to what he’s done.  He’s broken one of the world’s fundamental laws, and he -- and others -- won’t just walk away with a slap on the wrist.  Third, it’s arguable that the MC should have stayed dead; depending on your perspective, he’s either the greatest good guy the story has to offer, or he’s a villain ensuring that the world comes one step closer to destruction.

I’m not so neurotic and self-persecuting that I’ll assume everything I wrote in the past is stupid and worthless.  (Some things, maybe.)  I don’t think the way I set things up in the past is inherently a problem, and something that should never be done by anyone.  But looking back, I can see some of the problems, some of which have been pointed out to me before.  V1’s start was slow as all hell with little payoff except for the inevitable MC-slaying; there was nothing for a reader to really sink their teeth into, unless they liked sitting through school shenanigans and overwrought setup.  V2 managed to speed things up by adding more action and more mysteries, but since the framework was still the same, it had a lot of the same problems with nothing to show for it but assorted and almost-unconnected scenes.  They were a way for me to clap my hands in front of a reader’s face and go “Hey!  HEY!  Wake up, there’s something happening now!”

Whether or not V3 will fall into the same trap is up for debate, but again, I’m much more confident about it.  Having engaged in some serious darling-killing, a lot of the problems and conventions of the earlier versions have been either lessened or axed.  Killing off the MC on page one was an attention-getter, but now I’ve got something that might have a bit more weight to it.  Time will tell how that will work out, but for comparison’s sake I’ll offer up a few words.  V2 started off with the MC’s death, and more specifically the first line in the story was “And so begins death.”  (Fun fact: that’s a reference to Trauma Team.)  V3 currently starts off with the line “I have to die” -- something spoken not by the narrator, but someone in the middle of a suicide attempt…and someone who’s genuinely happy to engage in it.  As gimmicks go, the new one might have some potential behind it -- especially since there are certain details about it that I’m hiding for now.

But it goes further than that.  V1 and V2 go from a potentially-thrilling and shocking scene to -- drumroll please -- the MC sitting in his desk being bored while his girlfriend prattles on about an upcoming pep rally.  Riveting stuff, to be sure -- especially since the rest of the chapter has things like a visit to the principal’s office to discuss an English paper, girls walking through the halls, and a trip to the bathroom…with the chapter capped off by a quick reminder that “yes, this story’s about something” thanks to some girl’s face peeling apart (and vanishing before anyone sees her, just in case you wanted that plot to go anywhere), and a mysteeeeeeeeeeeerious conversation blocks away. 

What does V3 have following its suicide scene?  The MC fighting off gang members in a back alley brawl, which gets interrupted by the appearance of a dimensionally-unstable serial killer -- one who stays relevant to the plot AND raises the kill count from story’s start to finish.  So there’s that.  Also, he may or may not be reminiscent of Tekken’s Bryan Fury.  Who’s to say, really?

You can probably guess which one I see more potential in, but to be fair, I don’t think I was wrong per se with the setup of D.O.X.  Character development and world-building -- and, you know, the plot -- are important, and the way the story progresses (past or present) I would prefer to load up on definition sooner rather than later.  The problem, I suspect, is that I put up big walls between the action, the plot, and the character development; they didn’t blend well with one another, and the plot in particular had to drag because A) the other stuff couldn’t get in place, and B) it just wasn’t as interesting as it could have been.  It’s a balancing act above a pit of lions and two-by-fours with nails in them, and I can’t shake the feeling that I didn’t do as well as I could with D.O.X.  Ergo, the overhaul.  A gimmick can only do so much.

No matter the version, things do eventually pick up.  Currently V3 is hanging tight to the tracks of the It Just Gets Worse and Worse-Coaster, and I’m happy with its progression.  And while V2 (and to a lesser extent, V1) take a while to get started, once they do they really become something worth reading.  All told, the story has plenty of toys to play with thanks to its characters, its events, its themes, and of course its potential.  Obviously V3 has the best toys in its chest, but that’s only because of the remnants left by its other selves -- it’s a reincarnation that’s finding new ways to enjoy the old.  And the way things are looking, even if there are some grisly deaths and heartbreaking moments, it’s still going to be a story worth playing with.

It’s seriously brutal, though.  But I’ll get to that.

In any case, that’ll just about wrap up this introductory post.  It may be the first, but it’s nowhere near the last (so rejoice or despair as needed).  Still, you’re probably going to want to tune in next time.  I don’t feel like I can go any further without talking about the MC, because -- say it with me now -- the main character defines a story. 

Oh good, you said it without me even prompting it.  Good.  You’re learning something.

All right, you’re free to go.  Have fun looking at porn or whatever! 


  1. The best heroes trip on their first swing. This is fact. But there's a certain charm of that first trip being fatal. As someone that writes a similar theme I offer this mantra: do not cheapen death. The impact of loss is only as deep as its cost.

    Take Dragonball for example. By the end of it, character's dying just meant a fingersnap from a dragon over his balls. Man, that sounds terrible when I say it out loud. That said, this is a uniform issue with dramatic story telling. Power has costs. The more power, the more terrible the costs.

    This mantra applies to all power or magic. It is only as interesting as its limitations.

  2. Power has costs...true enough. It's one thing to give characters lots of power, but it's another thing to give that power consequences. Weight, even. I'd like to think that I covered that angle in the story -- in more ways than one -- but I'll have to save that discussion for later once I get it written down.

    Still, you do have a point about not cheapening death. I'm a guy who would prefer not killing off characters, but in a story like this, it's inevitable. Again, I think I had some semblance of a system in place with the old story, but it's something that I need to watch out for with the new one. Certain characters are going to die, but going from V2 to V3 there's a chance that WHO dies might change. I'll have to pound it out over time.

    As for Dragonball? To be fair, I was under the impression that GT eventually showed what happened when -- or rather, BECAUSE the good guys kept overusing the balls. So there's that. Then again, I'm preeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeetty sure most people prefer to act like GT didn't count (or even exist), so who knows?