Monday, May 30, 2011

Tragedy, Comedy, Dramedy

If dreaming is an awesome way to gather ideas, then sleeping is the perfect way to loose them. How many times have you woken up from a dream, or been unable to sleep, or woke up for no reason, and had an Awesome Idea, and if you didn't write it down immediately, you forgot it by morning?

Last night I stayed up far too late watching TV shows. I had enough time before bed to watch three 45 min. episodes, but both turned out to be two parts, resulting in watching 4, successfully keeping me up an hour late. Finally making my way into my warm, cozy bed I proceeded to stare at the ceiling, realizing I was suddenly alert. I couldn't sleep. And when I can't sleep, I start thinking. So I thought, and I thought about the show I'd just seen, and I made connections and drew lines and speculated, and I finally ended up connecting two of my favorite doctors in all of film and television: Doctor Who and Doctor Horrible.

Doctor Horrible is the title character of a 45 minute web musical Doctor Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog.  From the minute I heard the first notes of the first song I knew I had found something remarkable and unique. Wikipedia classifies it as "a  musical tragicomedy miniseries in three acts, produced exclusively for Internet distribution." The word that jumps out at me most is the term "Tragicomedy." I'd never heard of such a thing before, but it seems to oddly fit the structure and style of the musical.

Doctor Horrible is an anti-villain, a villainous protagonist, a heroic antagonist. He's a walking contradiction. The only thing more backwards from your typical hero setup is the arrogant, licentious, and selfish hero; Captain Hammer. Everything Doctor Horrible does is funny, from his inability to make his super-weapons work to the fact that he keep a vlog, and sings on it. We laugh when he gets threatened by Captain Hammer; we laugh when he disguises himself as a bush to spy on the girl he loves.

A good book will have the power to make it's readers both cry and laugh. To acheive both those goals within the covers of a novel is a must. To do it within a single chapter is remarkable. But how do you get your audience to cry and laugh, both at once? Within the same song? TV Tropes defines the first law of Tragicomedies as "In any work that has both drama and comedy, the drama will rise proportionally with the level of tension in the story. The comedy will do the reverse." This means that it will start out comedy, and end up drama or tragedy, gradually morphing as the story progresses. Perhaps this is why I didn't recognize the cross-genre, for Doctor Horrible does not follow this rule.

Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor.
The Doctor of Doctor Who is nine hundred years old. He's a hero who saves the world, many world in fact, on a regular basis. This sounds like fun, lots of characters do this. But think about saving the world. In order for the world to be saved, it has to be lost first. Saving the human race is a noble and awesome thing, but what seems to set the Doctor so much apart is that even in his moment of triumph he doesn't forget what was lost in the regaining. You don't live for nine centuries and not learn something of pain and loss. He suffers, and we all know that suffering characters are the most endearing. But at the same time the series is horribly funny. Between a time machine disguised as a phone box, a sonic screwdriver, and the endless jokes about his name it's one of the funniest shows I've seen. Most episodes seem to be divided into funny and dramatic, but a few are on the level of Doctor Horrible, thrusting the two back to back, and alternating so fast you can barely keep up.

Doctor Horrible doesn't loose it's comedic feel when the action climaxes and the drama is overwhelming. The second to last musical number is eery, sarcastic, and hopeless, as Doctor Horrible prepares to finish off his nemesis. We get a real explanation of his world view, and why he became a super-villain, and it's more bitter because it tastes of the truth. It's a poignant moment and in the middle of it he stops to correct the spelling of his name for a journalist, and we laugh again, not quite able to break the tension of that moment.Pain is more real because of the laughter, and laughter has more meaning in context of the drama.

Doctor Who, Season One, Episode 10 - The Doctor Dances. This is one of the funniest episodes I've seen. Highly quotable, with lots of jokes about sonic screwdrivers and dancing. It's also one of the most dramatic. It's a classic comedy while we're running for our lives while arguing about inconsequential things, but there's nothing inconsequential about the ending, when the Doctor realizes it can all be fixed, it can all be fixed: "Just this once, just one day like this... everybody lives, Rose! Just this once, Everybody lives!"

Everyone gets to live! How many heroes get that opportunity? How many times can the world be saved from certain disaster with no casualties? And how many stereo-typed characters would care, would be so elated over every single life? Just the fact that he recognizes that makes us want to weep for all the times when it wasn't possible. It's horribly, tragically, wonderful. It's brilliant. It's the kind of characters you don't find every day, and that I can only hope I'll someday know how to write. It's the kind of stories that I want to watch over and over again, that I want to quote, that I wish I could act it.

Tragicomedy is an underutilized genre. Those few things that fall into it's category are often lame, and do not live up to the promise it presents. Life is a tragicomedy; laughing through our tears, and weeping for joy. It is the genre I wish to write, and the genre I'd love to read.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Musical Typing (Part One)

"The more I think about it, the more I realize that the layout of a typical keyboard may be completely off. I think a keyboard like a piano might be much more efficient."

I sat munching idly on the last of my salad as my dad continued to talk about his new typing technique. Once incorrectly diagnosed with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome we'd since come to realize he actually had something known as Repetitive Stress Injury.  It causes incessant typing to be difficult, and repetitive clicking of a mouse almost impossible. He uses an automatic mouse clicking software, but there's not much solution to typing for a programmer. Lack of a proven solution doesn't keep us from discussing, or designing, new, outlandish, and even absurd ideas.

Let me make it clear; dinner table conversations are a great breeding ground for Ideas. Wherever you are, and whoever it is who's sitting at the head of the table, if you sit back and listen with your mind wide open Ideas will crawl in and wake you up with their potential. My dad's speculation on the proper layout of keyboards had brought images and theories into my head that I could not get out. I was impatient for dinner to be done, so that I could sit at the piano with a roll of masking tape and a sharpie marker and work out what a keyboard would look like in such a format. 

Enter, Shift, Space
It was more difficult than I first supposed. The first problem that presented itself was the lack of special keys like space, enter, shift, alternate, etc. I immediately decided that the keypad on the right of an ordinary keyboard, the number pad, arrow keys, etc, would have to remain identical. However, a piano has something keyboards don't; pedals. The three pedals on a standard piano became space, shift, and enter. This only left the numbers and their corresponding symbols, ctrl, alt. caps lock, tab, esc, and F1-12 to be accounted for, beside the letters.One way to take care of them would be to use a pedal board, such as are seen on an organ.

Piano typing based on a standard keyboard layout.
My first layout was very basic. The home row of both hands went at the end of the keyboard, the bottom row on the inside of that, and the top row on the black keys.  The black keys are poorly situated, and I left several blank as a result. Ideally one would have to make a special keyboard that alternate white and black keys. This resulted in have several "positions" such as on a violin. If one were to construct such a keyboard I think a split down the middle to clearly separate the right and left hands would be beneficial.

One of the big differences between piano playing and typing is that on piano you are accustomed to using both hands at once. Attempting to actually type on my makeshift piano keyboard confused me badly, as I kept forgetting where the letters were. One would become more efficient with practice, of course, but if the letters were written out as notes I'd have no difficulty, as I sight-read and touch-type with equal ease. This leads us into an entirely new line of inquiry...

What If we used music notation as a writing system?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What If... Hell and Purgatory

There's one Idea I've had frequently that won't leave me alone. I've wanted to write a short story around it, but could never get it to work really. It's almost too good of an idea to consign to a short story alone. Somehow it seems like that would make it less of an Idea.

Earth is a testing ground, a place of training and trials. When our school days are over and our destiny is manifest we go to our appropriate reward, be that Eternal Bliss or Eternal Suffering. But What If the testing doesn't end there? What If...

A young hero dies a tragic and brilliantly sacrificial death, and is taken into the bosom of Abraham to be comforted like Lazarus of old. He is happy, incredibly happy. Paradise is beautiful, intoxicating, all he'd ever dreamed it would be. Across a wide and indivisible gulf, however, he can see the boiling lake of fire, and he can hear the screams of people he once knew, people he once loved. In the garden, of course, it is easy to forget them, but if we walks a little farther, to the very edge of the brink there is no escape from their piteous cries. There is still suffering in paradise.

Well, of course our hero (being a hero) can't leave well enough alone. He can't understand why he is allowed such happiness while others suffer. (Probably most theological views will start to recognize something as wrong here.) Here's where the Idea gets sketchy. Perhaps the Hero discovers that he can save those unfortunates from Hell, but that he must take their place. I think in my story he couldn't live with the injustice of it, and throws himself in. Either way, the Hero chooses Hell over Heaven. And what do you think happens?

Purgatory is the idea that we all must pay for our past sins, and suffer a time of sorrow and tribulation to be made worthy for heaven. It is the concept that we must somehow prove ourselves worthy of the ultimate reward. It is not a test, because the outcome is known already; every soul will eventually get to Heaven.

Would you have the courage to give up heaven to save the damned? Could you do what Christ did and lay down your life in exchange? If you had the opportunity to exchange your soul for another, would you do it? What If there was one last test?

DISCLAIMER: I am not proposing the theological possibility of such a thing, only speculating on the drama and soul searching it sets up if you consider it hypothetically. 

Monday, May 16, 2011

Welcome to the (Original) Idea Factory!

Welcome to the Idea Factory!
My brain is a deep and mysterious place, filled with an astonishing conjunction of things. The weather is often stormy; energy impulses flash and battle with each other, and the view is obscured. But these storms are followed by peaceful serenity, when the newly seeded plants can germinate and grow in rich soil, with plenty of sun and water. Given enough time they will grow up and blossom into brilliant ideas.

Some of the ideas are large, beautiful, and tall of stature. They are majestic, sensible, and logical.
Some ideas are quirky and mischievous. They bend in directions they shouldn't go, and wink at you in ways that aren't possible.
Some ideas are puzzles; mysterious and enigmatic, waiting for someone to divine their purpose.
Some ideas are hybrids, borrowing off of and even stealing from other ideas.

My mind is like a great idea factory, and I'm never sure what will sprout up next, or what I will do with it when it grows to maturity. This is a place for my ideas to lurk once they're grown, socializing and ideaing with their own. There are no rules to what might sprout up here, and no guarantee that everything makes sense. if you're not afraid of the insanely brilliant than grab your idea harvester and come along, but make sure you watch out for those brainstorms!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Welcome to the Idea Factory (Again)

An odd thing happened to me today.

Well, to be fair, I have no assurance that it was today that it happened, I only know that it is today I found out about it. Last week (Wednesday night, to be precise) I finally acted on an Idea I've had for some time, and I started a new blog. I called it the Idea Factory. I was very happy with it, and sent the link to all of my friends, so they'd be sure to follow it. Then, of course, life kicked in, and I forgot all about it until the weekend.

So this morning I have a message from one of my friends that says "Vanya," (in some parts of the world my friends call me Vanya), "Vanya, that link doesn't work."
"Well, that's odd," I say to myself and go to investigate.

The link doesn't work. It doesn't work for a very good reason, there's nothing there. None of the links work. No errors, no warnings, and no e-mails, the blog just walked off a disappeared from the world of blogspot. Very disturbing, if you ask me.

Why? My brain wonders. I had three followers, a full fledged design, and my first post was up and two more were being drafted, and now it is all gone. Perhaps it is a conspiracy. Perhaps the people who run Blogger like to delete blogs at random. That might be unfair, maybe they know no more about it than I do. Maybe it's the goblins who run my computer, the same ones who know exactly what you need next in a game and make sure you get the opposite. Maybe they deleted my blog.

Or maybe I have mortal enemies and this is some kind of warning note that I have to decipher if I wish to save my life. Or perhaps I know pranksters who pretend to be my friends and this is their idea of a practical joke. Or, maybe, perhaps, and possibly it's some totally random and indecipherable technical glitch...

But whichever it is, do you think this new version will disappear as mysteriously as it's predecessor?