If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the world is weird.
We’ve faced impending doom in the form of murder hornets, carnivorous rats, thieving monkeys, and even UFOs. (I’m just now realizing how much strangeness has been animal-related….) Of course, that’s just the bizarre news… I’m not even counting all of the other headlines that has us wondering if we should invest in panic rooms. (Though the fact that all of this is happening at the same time just adds to the weird factor.)
This year has been proof that fact is stranger than fiction.
Which begs the question: When does fiction become too strange? As Mark Twain once said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”
But where does that put sci-fi and fantasy? Obviously, we extend our suspensions of disbelief, but at what point do they start to break?
The answer, of course, can be a matter of taste. Someone who prefers nonfiction and documentaries will probably think even well-loved stories like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are too “out there.” Conversely, someone who watches a lot of anime is used to being so far out of the box, they’re not even in its orbit. That dog is also a gun who shoots cannonballs? That’s just a Tuesday.
So while preference will vary from person to person, are there some general guidelines that help make “weird” a bit more accessible? What can a writer with a crazy idea do to make their audiences still love the story… and even love the idea solely for how crazy it is?
There’s no hard and fast answer, of course, but in my time diving into the weird side of stories, here are few takeaways I’ve found.
(1) Build Up To Your Ultimate Weirdness
If your story is going to walk on the weird side, chances are that you’re going to let the audience know right away. Readers/viewers like to know what to expect: What kind of world are we in? What’s normal for the characters and what’s not? However… that doesn’t mean you show you’re entire hand from episode one. It’s a shock to the system to cannonball into cool water–so, instead, you tiptoe your way in. The same is true with storytelling.
Disney’s Gravity Falls, which has gathered a nice little cult following, chronicles a summer that the protagonists Dipper and Mabel Pines spend with their Grunkle (Great-uncle) Stan in his tourist trap called the Mystery Shack. The real mystery, however, is the town Gravity Falls: Grunkle Stan may have fake mysteries in the shack, but all around them is very real weirdness–ghosts, gnomes, unicorns, zombies, etc.
Episode one sets the stage pretty quickly–I won’t give any details, because the twist at the end is pretty funny. But with each episode, the stories get stranger, but also more complex. A deeper mystery is unraveled concerning Grunkle Stan and the entire Pines family. By the end, “Manotaurs” (super manly Minotaurs) seems downright tame when the show’s maniacal, chaos-addicted villain Bill Cypher unleashes “Weirdmageddon” on the town.
But when you reach that point, it simply seems like the next logical step in the story. So instead of shaking your head at the “eye-bats,” you’re just cheering for the heroes.
(2) Stay Grounded with Relatable Characters and Situations
The anime Assassination Classroom is a prime example of weird that works. When I first came across the anime, I was certain I’d be able to count the brain cells popping out of existence as I watched it. A super-powered yellow octopus-thing with a smiley-face-head is a teacher and his students have to try to assassinate him or else he’ll destroy the world?
Except, it doesn’t take long for me to start binging the episodes. And, by the end, I’m sobbing at its heart-rendering conclusion. (No spoilers, I promise.) So how did a show with such a crazy premise leave that much of an impact?
Easy: A complex plot with relatable characters. Koro Sensei is the ideal teacher: He cares about his students and does everything in his power to help each and every one reach their potential. He imparts lessons that reach far beyond the classroom. And he’s had to overcome his own twisted past. Each student is also as equally developed. Plus, the show itself is as much about educational theory–what helps students and what hinders them. For example, we’ve all sat through a particularly difficult test, so we can relate when the show likens it to a Colosseum battle.
In the end, you know you watched something completely insane. But what you remember isn’t how outlandish it was, but what you learned from it. (My personal favorite moment? This quote: “The difference between the novice and the master is that the master has failed more times than the novice has tried.”)
(3) Add Some Humor
It’s a crazy ride. You, as the writer know that. It came from your own imagination, and even you know its crazy. You believe in the story… but how do you make your audience connect with it?
Easy. Make ’em laugh.
But humor is not only a way to form a connection; it’s also a wonderful release. If you can call yourself out on some of the weirdness and let your readers/viewers have a chuckle, then all of the “What the hecks?” that have been building up in their minds can be eased. A good laugh is like turning a valve: It lets out some steam, relieves some pressure.
Dark Nights Metal is a stellar comic arc–as much fun as it is heart-pounding. One of these days, I’ll go into the pure genius of it during one of my “nerdy” posts. But it’s also very strange. The best way I can describe it actually brings me back to a quote from Gravity Falls. The super-chill teenager Wendy describes “Weirdmageddon:” “End of the world…. Those death metal album covers got it shockingly right.”
Of course, that right there brings a chuckle. (Gravity Falls knows how to use humor, too, as does Assassination Classroom.) The same is true in comics.
Of course, weirdness works the best when all three of these elements are carefully utilized. Dark Nights Metal, Assassination Classroom, and Gravity Falls, all not only know how to use humor, but also how to create engaging characters, and how to pace the story.
When these three elements are balanced together, you get a weird story that’s a wild ride but also captivating. Rather than rolling your eyes, you end up getting lost in the strange, outrageous world.
And, let’s be honest. We all like to live in a little bit of weird now and again–if for no other reason then to escape the weirdness of the real world.
But there’s one more attraction of weird stories. They dare to ask that tantalizing question: What if?
And we love that question. Not just because it sends us on fantastic adventures in fiction, but because it reminds us of all that is possible. We might not have to fight extra-dimensional monsters (*knocks on wood because, you know… 2020*), but we do have little battles every day, little doubts. But if we can ask “what if,” then we can keep moving forward.
So never stop asking that all-too-important question. And never stopping reading and watching the stories that remind us to ask it.
Stay weird, people.