Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Proper Application of Mind Screws

On Tvtropes we call confusing symbolism a 'Mind Screw' because a reader can twist themselves into cerebral knots trying to figure it out. Today's post is about it's Tropes Are Tools aspect.. This level of confusion and symbolism can be great for discussion and comedy but it can also alien an audience or feel like a cop-out.

On one hand there is the discussion. A story can be made more engaging with puzzle pieces that do not quite link up and symbolish that suggests one thing or another to persuade the reader to read further to find more pieces. This is one reason mysteries why are so popular: 'find the next piece; what does it mean; who does the evidence point to now? Can we infer a motive?' A surreal mystery takes this one step further by placing reality itself into question. Now the story can take all sorts of turns and each scene could have several meanings and interpretations. TvTropes is not the only place where people gather to discuss 'what this represents; what is the symbolism of that; what the heck happened'? If an author can get people talking about their work, that's great. If they can get people to discuss their work, that's even better because it shows a greater degree of involvement in the work.

For instance, the anime FLCL is infamous for its absurdity that is also symbolic. TvTropes records the following axiom"If you wish to understand FLCL, watch the series from beginning to end, and
the desire will pass." Indeed, it may take a few viewings to notice that there is a plot at all. It is a favorite for both the Adult Swim programing block and its audience. Not only is it strange but it is also outrageously funny.

When used in a certain way symbols and surrealism can be used for comedy. My rule of thumb is 'if it is absurd than it is funny'. By cranking up the symbolism to super heavy levels, providing lampshading, and/or have some of it mean jack shit, you can have your audience wondering if you're on drugs. If they enjoy it, they may ask where they can get some. The goal is to make them laugh at the outright weirdness or chuckle at the more subtle implications. However, there is danger here.

The use of this tool can backfire on its author. Ever since The Death Of The Author, literary critics and fans alike have decided that the author is not the final authority on a work's meaning. There could be Unfortunate Implications or some funky alternative reading that has nothing to do with what the author was trying to communicate and someone could promote this against the author's wishes. While there's no such thing as bad publicity, do you want to be publicized as something you detest?

I have personal experience with this trope gone wrong as both a reader and a writer. 
As a reader, I took a class in college that analyzed Mary Shelly's Frankenstein and the TA gave a lecture exclusively about the alleged Freudian symbolism and how the main character hates sex.  The bulk of this takes place before the monster is created and the rest largely ignored.

As a writer I tried something like this trope in A Mage's Power. In the first chapter, I put my protagonist through a series of scenario inspired by the Classical Greek Elements: fire, water earth, air, and others.  This was supposed to be an examination of his character by Tasio to see if he could survive the coming adventure and grow into something greater than his current state, and at the same time, develop his character in a way that would be impossible in his mundane surroundings. Instead, a number of reviews (both good and bad) state that the first chapter was confusing. I got the impression that of all the chapters they liked it the least. This is the opposite of what a writer wants to see in reviews.

Tropes are Tools; I advise my fellow writers to use this one wisely.

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