What Earthbound Can Teach Us About Zombies, Aliens, and Confidence in Writing

Growing up, my brother and I loved the SNES game Earthbound. We played through it on enough Saturday mornings until eventually – finally – we arrived at the final boss: the aforementioned GIYGAS, DESTROYER OF UNIVERSES (profiled in 6 Monsters to Keep You Up at Night).

Then, during a rare moment spent not playing the game, our neighbor friend came over and pulled out the cartridge without pushing the release button.

IF YOU HAVE EVER HAD A SNES, THEN YOU REALIZE HOW BAD THIS IS.

Our entire file was deleted.

Somewhere out there, the tiniest violin played. Just ever so softly.

It looked like this

Moreover, GIYGAS, EVIL ALIEN OVERLORD AND DESTROYER OF WORLDS – he won. Won!

If this seems like a lot of fanfare, then let me assure you: Earthbound was not just any game. Earthbound was THE game.

THE game

Earthbound came out at a time where every RPG was a variation of some 15 year old  kid (um, yeah, male) being woken up in a house by his doting mother, having his high fantasy village burned by the big bad after the intro sequence (probably after a quest to fetch herbs in the woods) and setting out to overthrow the evil empire and get the girl – but only after vanquishing the villain, who was probably an effeminate man, because there is nothing more threatening to a 15 year old with a giant sword* who just underwent a series of “manly lessons” (i.e., learning to be a protector) than an effeminate man. *If you don’t know where I’m going with this, GTFO the bus.

By the way? This is still the plot of most modern day RPGS boiled down to their essence (games like the Shin Megami Tensei series being the exception and not the rule), and Earthbound is still revolutionary and ground-breaking despite the fact that it came out on the Super Nintendo 2 console generations ago.

Wherein I attempt to summarize the plot (WARNING, SLIGHTLY SPOILER-ISH):

So there’s this kid named Ness. He’s normal enough. He likes baseball.

One night, there’s a blinding flash outside his window, and being a normal baseball-loving kid, he goes out to investigate, additionally spurred by the prompting (i.e., whining) of the obnoxious neighbor kid. Of course Ness finds a crashed alien spacecraft and a time-traveling shape-shifter alien currently in the form of a bee. The bee is Ness’s Obi-Wan to his Luke Skywalker, so said bee warns him about the impending takeover of the evil alien Giygas.

Giygas has already started his conquest of Ness’s pseudo-Earth world, his clever strategy being to just fuck up a lot of shit – mainly by making people go crazy, and also by attacking random towns with random-er (totes a word) monsters. (By the way, that obnoxious neighbor kid? Totally working for the alien. Because if there is anything to take away from this post, it is to never trust the neighbor kid.)

Our destined hero Ness discovers that he’s psychic, makes some friends, and sets out to stop Giygas. Not necessarily in that order. This is a pretty reasonable move when you’re a destined hero. Ness himself is not the most original part of Earthbound, but that’s okay because a whole lot of other things are.

Here’s just a few of the wild and crazy things that Ness and company encounter while questing to stop Giygas:

  • Crazed animals
  • Violent bag ladies and hippies
  • Among many other objects that are usually stationary: anthropomorphic cars, street lamps, and toasters
  • Zombies who want your BRAINS
  • Robotic aliens
  • Adorable whiskered pink bowling ball aliens
  • Hermits obsessed with building dungeons and mazes
  • The (cheerful) Loch Ness monster
  • An alternate universe that looks like a Salvador Dali painting
  • A crazy cult obsessed with the color blue
  • Talking moles
  • Timey Wimey things
  • …admittedly, a barf monster (because this is HIGH CONCEPT right here)

Awesome art by Eiffel Art, who makes barf monsters look cute

If you’re anything like me, then your first thought upon seeing this list is probably: “Holy Batman that sounds random.” And your second thought is: “Holy Batman that sounds awesome.”

And you would be right, partially because you would be thinking the same thoughts as me, but mostly because Earthbound is random. And awesome.

I can see how someone might look at this list, and feel like this narrative is basically the equivalent of throwing paint at canvasses. If paint were zombies and canvasses were affectionate parodies of America. (Ness comes from ‘Eagleland’.)

This seemed relevant somehow

And that’s where my writing about writing tag comes into play. Because Earthbound is the most random thing to ever random, yet it completely works. The world works. I have no difficulty believing that my psychic main character can hitch a ride on the Loch Ness monster in order to get back to a mad scientist’s lab in the middle of the pseudo-Artic. This seems pretty par for the course, in fact.

Earthbound may or may not be your cup of tea, but it is utterly convincing as a fictional world. And that’s because Earthbound is a really good example of how confidence and world-building are the same thing.

There’s a good chance you might recognize this little quote from that oh-so-obscure Neil Gaiman:

“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like.”

~Neil Gaiman, The Guardian’s Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

Confession time – I’m not particularly confident about my writing, but in my writing? Oh, that’s a whole different story.

I’m tempted to make a list of dead giveaways of when a writer is not confident in their writing/fictional world, except that they would all be gross generalizations. Are repetitive lines and over-extended explanations often dead giveaways of non-confident writing? Yes, but not always.

Mostly, non-confident writing is a touchy-feely thing that captures a prevalent attitude:

“I need to explain/hand-hold my reader on the weird aspects of my writing, because otherwise they won’t believe it. I mean, who’s going to believe a bee sent from the future can send a psychic kid on a quest to stop an evil alien?”

Confident writing has this attitude:

“That bee from the future just gave that psychic kid a quest to stop an evil alien. DEAL WITH IT”

Because here’s the thing about writing and stories. About even the most prestigious ones, with marriages falling apart and epic generational suffering. They are all made up things. All of them.

Shocking, I know.

Therefore, you don’t have to rationalize anything in your story, because it is a made up thing. Sometimes you will have to explain. This is different than rationalizing. Good explaining establishes the internal rules of your universe, which we do need. Bad explaining tries to justify the internal rules, which is an exercise in futility because it is a made up thing and mostly it all happened because you sat down at a computer and lied.

Justify nothing.  Stories are made up things, and you can do whatever you like

By the way? This story has a happy ending, not entirely made up. When my brother and I were both in college, we spent a summer home together playing through the game AGAIN and then we got back to Gigyas AGAIN and then we whupped his little red alien butt.

Because that is what siblings do. They unearth the SNES from the attic and destroy terrifyingly evil intergalactic aliens.

I’m okay with people getting me THIS, by the way

If I posted your fanart without credit, I’m sorry. Most of these come from the recesses of my computer, and I no longer remember where I found them. If it’s yours, please let me know and I can credit you and/or take it down if you wish. Obviously, NONE of the art here is mine because I still find it amazing that dark smudges form whenever I put the lead tip of a pencil to paper.

There is an extremely awesome Earthbound fanart Tumblr here

What are some stories that you think are examples of brave and confident storytelling?

How do you define “confident storytelling” for yourself?

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How I Got My Groove Back

This is the super special sparkly awesome 1st content post of my blog! The actual 1st post is here, full of introduction stuff and at least one wondrous Tina Fey gif. Obviously, you want to go there. 

WARNING: This is a writerly post about finding your voice. All sentimental tropes apply. Cheesy metaphors WILL happen. 

When I first started taking writing workshops in college, I decided that I was going to be Serious Annalise who wrote about Serious Things and Like Life and Stuff.

Serious Annalise wore black turtlenecks and smoked in Paris cafes. Serious Annalise did not write about androids or aliens or old ladies living in shoes.

That was cigarettes in Paris, not milk on white linen tables

Give me a break, I was 18.

Okay, that’s not much of an excuse. There are tons of 18 year olds who do not think such silly things. Apologies to all 18 year olds in the crowd.

Let me rephrase: give me a break, I was 18 year old Serious Annalise, and I looked around at my workshops, and people were writing about pot and sex and horrible parents. Don’t misunderstand, these are not bad things to write about. I still write about these things. Come on – pot and sex and horrible parents! Sounds like a party.

But I was afraid that I would get laughed or at least politely coughed out of class if I submitted my talking dragon, so I tucked said dragon somewhere in a corner where the poor thing choked on dust and cobwebs and did not speak anymore.

There is a conversation here about why I thought that. A very old conversation, but a conversation that still remains relevant when great writers insist that they do not write science fiction, they just use science fiction in their fiction. Um, okay? By the way, I don’t write fiction, I just make things up. Lol hey over there!

Let’s table that conversation for now. For whatever reason, for multiple reasons, for reasons largely created in my own head, I was embarrassed of my talking dragon. Probably I could have submitted anything and it would have been fine, because honestly, people in fiction workshops are so paranoid about their own work that they’re not going to have a fainting spell just because you have, well, spells in your story.

So for two years of writing workshops, I wrote some horrible fiction. Learned a lot. Don’t get me wrong. But my stories were just…eh, meh?

In my third year of college, I actually didn’t take any writing workshops. Enjoyed the classes I did take, they were practical and all, but writing was not a priority anymore.

Come my senior year, I decided that I better take some writing workshops again. After all, my graduate school plans had nothing to do with writing, so this was my last chance, really. And I decided to do something a little different. Since this was possibly my last opportunity, I decided to write and submit a story about two robots – a story that had been banging around in my brain for years, but that I had never had the courage to actually write or submit to workshop.

So I wrote my little robot story. Polished it up. Submitted it to class with my stomach churning and my fingers still sticky with ink.

Then a funny thing happened.

Okay, no, people did not fall wildly in love with the story. They did not throw me a parade or vote me as Most Awesome Writer to Ever Write About Robots. (Hello, Asimov.) In fact, my recollection is that there was a lot of polite befuddlement, some critiques, some “Oh, but I liked this part. Do this more.” Pretty par for the course for anyone who’s ever been in a critique group before. My writing professor was very encouraging and supportive, because that is what good writing professors do, and I have been blessed with an abundance of good writing teachers in my life.

But here’s the thing.

I CARED more about that story than all of the previous stories I had submitted in my college career COMBINED, and the feedback electrified me, and I went back and worked on that story and I made it better. And then for my 2nd story, I submitted something about an alien and people liked it even MORE and I cared about it even MORE and I went back and made that better, too. And after years of feeling ‘Eh’ or ‘Where did I go wrong?’ about writing, THIS is how I felt about writing for the first time in a freaking long time:

In my mind, the winning streak continued for the rest of my senior year. I wrote about time travel and ghosts and some of it sucked but even the stuff that sucked MATTERED. Like, to me. Personally.

Here’s the thing. Stories that matter to you personally tend to be of a higher ilk than stories that don’t. Readers notice. They’re smart cookies.

Smart cookies

And I had an epiphany that Serious Annalise was ALSO Robot Alien Time-Traveling Ghost Annalise. That I was never more serious about writing about humans than when I was writing about robots or aliens or time travel or ghosts.

But that’s not even the point – had I only wanted to a write a story about three generations of women living in the same house (which was my living situation growing up, and this IS a story I want to write once I get a few dragons out of my system) but felt constrained for whatever reason, then I would have been doing an equal disservice to myself by stifling my own voice.

I just wish it hadn’t taken me 3 years to learn this lesson – a lesson that I believe most people learn in junior high.

But enough about me.

I want to hear about YOU.

Have you ever tried to hide your authentic self? In writing, or otherwise?

If so, how did that turn out? How did you handle it?

Have you ever been embarrassed to send out a story for feedback because you thought people might think the subject matter was silly? How did you handle that?

And finally, have you made any profound realizations about your writing style or thematic choices?

How would you characterize your own voice?