Some of you may be aware of the on-again, off-again comic project Dawn has called Bits of Nothing. It’s basically a repository for any and all strange ideas she gets into her head that she feels a compulsive need to draw, like a slightly more structured sketchbook (in fact we do gather them together in little mini-comics to sell at conventions). There’s no real narrative to Bits of Nothing, or any kind of regular schedule. If you ask how she came up with the title, the answer is that basically this is everything that she’d be giggling to herself about, the kind of stuff that a co-worker would ask “What are you laughing about?” and she’d have to respond, “Nothing!”.
Why do I bring this up? Well, aside from a bit of shameless shilling, nothingness has been on my mind. Not in the cosmic sense, mind you, more in the sense of the claim that the “Seinfeld” sitcom was “a show about nothing”.
“…many episodes of Seinfeld focused on minutiae, such as waiting in line at the movies, going out for dinner, buying a suit and dealing with the petty injustices of life. The view presented in Seinfeld is arguably consistent with the philosophy of nihilism, the idea that life is meaningless.” – from the Wikipedia entry
While I personally find it a bit heady to be drawing parallels between Seinfeld and Nietzsche, there is an idea here that I touched on briefly last week when I was discussing how some of the old westerns (or other films) seemed to have a more relaxed pace to them modern films have largely lost. In the comments I brought up the trope of Chekhov’s Gun: the idea, based in the writing philosophy of conservation of detail, that no element of dialogue, scenery, or action should be present unless it is directly relevant to the plot, either now or by the end of the story.
Actually that’s the extremist view… it’s probably more accurate to state that no storytelling element should be focused upon unless directly relevant. But I think even that can be a trap, depending on the type of story you’re trying to tell. In day to day life, don’t we suddenly fixate on things, or talk about things, that aren’t at all “relevant”? Yes we do. We do it all the time, and of course the argument there is that real life is not fiction, nor should it be, because the minutiae of real life are boring. Conservation of detail asks a writer to please omit showing someone flossing their teeth before bed unless that happens to be a plot point. Please don’t show her having a conversation with a random person on the train unless that conversation sparks some sort of epiphany.
And yet, I think the closer you adhere to conservation of detail and Chekhov’s gun, the more your narrative, no matter what the subject, will grow stylized and detatched from a certain sense of reality. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bunch of bug-eyed aliens invading our colony on Antares-5, or a bunch of rural 19th century Russians sitting around discussing their personal relationships, I believe we as human beings have an unconscious connection to the idea that our actual lives are often full of random observation and even more random conversation. No one would mistake a movie like “Reservoir Dogs” as being realistic, but the fact the stone-cold criminals at the beginning talk about Madonna and argue on whether or not you should tip your waitress gives a certain grounding to them, and a sense that their lives don’t revolve 24-7 around being bank robbers.
Going back to Seinfeld, TV Tropes has the entry of the Seinfeldian Conversation, which you can probably guess by now the definition of. Tarantino’s films are singled out as prime examples, and yet Roger Ebert contests this by saying that the conversations are not pointless to the story, but actually “load-bearing”, informing on key character points and occasionally foreshadowing future events. Chekhov’s gun still exists, but it’s a concealed weapon. In a similar vein, Seinfeld’s conversations and situations may have dwelt on minutiae, but the show was also known for adhering to a sense of continuity many more standard format sitcoms ignored. Life may have been meaningless, but it also marched onwards even as it remembered the past.
In good writing, even the bits of nothing arguably have a purpose, and I believe that purpose is to connect the audience to a sense of reality in the midst of the fantastic, by presenting a reasonable facsimile of the hundreds of inconsequential interactions we go through each day. Showing a hero flossing their teeth humanizes them. Showing their reaction to a stranger on a train trying to start conversation speaks volumes about the type of person they themselves are, or at least the type of day they’re having. It’s not appropriate for every story, but if your primary goal as a writer is to have your audience say “I am that person” or at least “I know that person”, as opposed to “I’d like to be/be with that person”, it’s something to think about.