>Like Cthulhu’s light bulb

>Tying in with my own post last week and with Rowena’s this week – how complex is complex? When do you know you’ve left your intended audience miles behind?

My older son is starting college this year. The college has what can only be described as a “filler class” called “freshman seminar” destined to teach the kids study habits and to help them make friends. They push it pretty hard and it looked like I’d hold it against him if he didn’t take it, so he’s taking it – the modality on game design. (There are others on things like the Odyssey but he thought if he was going to pay for an extra class he wanted to do something he had some interest in and hadn’t studied on his own — as he did with the Odyssey.)

The class is all group work – the making friends thing – and his group was assigned to write a computer game involving Cthulhu, a light bulb and no shooting. Now, being the most low-brow in this family, I immediately suggested a game in which the player tries to shove a lightbulb up Cthulhu’s cloaca (really, do you know what supernatural encephalopods have? Neither do I.) When the player succeeds, Cthulhu goes “whooooo hoo hooo” and lights up, tentacles and all.

Robert looked at me like I was crazy. I realized he’d taken quite a different path – dragging his poor group mates with him – when I found him translating words into Cthulhu’s language on line and freaking out because he couldn’t find the word for electrician.

Last night he came home and described their game and his annoyance with his group. The game, in its final form… Well, to begin with, the player is Cthulhu. Cthulhu’s realm is being invaded by electricians installing lightbulbs. Cthulhu responds by throwing necronomicons on them. When he hits them it means they read it and become cultists, whom he can then direct to remove the lightbulbs. Robert’s group thought this project was “too ambitious.” Robert said “But it wasn’t. It was compiling by the end of class.” So I had to translate. “They mean it’s too complicated, Robert.” “They mean they have no idea of the fictional underpinnings behind Cthulhu” (in fact only the teaching assistants who assigned it and Robert knew what Cthulhu was) “and that it makes no sense to them.” Since the game is voted on by the class, this is a consideration.

I realized then Robert was a victim of the two things Rowena and I discussed. He was making it too complex for the audience, and he was a writer raised in a family of writers.

I confess that my poor, much tried agent’s favorite comment to the stuff of mine she thinks I need to change or shelve is “Too much.” And ninety nine percent of the time, she’s right. I have a bad tendency to overthink it, throw in everything but the kitchen sink. You see, I’ve read this stuff since I was eight or so, and to me it seems natural. But unless the reader has the exact same background I have – and the exact same hangups – it won’t be to them.

Does anyone else struggle with this? Do you think the field, as a whole, suffers from it? (I confess I often see this in short stories.) How does one manage to have Cthulhu, his light bulb and the necronomicon – metaphorically speaking – without losing the intended audience?

Maybe there’s a reason the necronomicon is supposed to send cultists mad…


  1. >Fhtagn! They should have Fidel-ed in the dark. Erhm. I do sometimes wonder if loving our craft will be the derleth of us. My first book had more undercurrent and cross -reference than text – and I realise that this is a mistake. I had a huge argument with Eric (good natured argument as ours are) that you can only allow subtext to overwhelm story when people read you for the subtext (Pratchett) until then story (Pyramid Scheme) needs to be there for all those who don't get the subtext.

  2. >I love it when there is a lot of sub-text in a book, provided the story comes first. That way, I'm concious that there is stuff I don't know, but I still enjoy the book. When the book is finished, I then go read up on what the subtext is/was. I've read more interesting things that I wouldn't have read otherwise due to exactly this. Also, if you know that an author has a favorite subject (say Kipling for example) and you read up on Kipling. The next book the author writes provides a lot of moments where reader and author collaborating on an "in" joke. :)So I like a lot of it in my books, but the author has to be able to tell the story first. If I'm required to know the nuances of Russian politics and families in 1743, I'm not going to have much fun reading the book. Alternately, if it's fun and the book *teaches* me the nuances of Russian politics in 1743… I'm fine with that.

  3. >As for the class itself, I have to say I much prefer the class Sean took at TAMU last year to help adapt to college life. His instructor basically gave them the overview and said "My door is always open" and then did the unbelievable. He treated them like adults and they spent the rest of the term talking about current events and what was happening on campus.And Robert ran into the problem with designing a game within that restrictive of a framework. First, the TA's should have made sure everyone understood all aspects of the assignment, including the characters involved. Second, the easiest way to tackle the issue of not knowing the great Cthulhu and the necronomicon is to take a page from the earliest computer games. You simply TELL them via text and mission objectives what is what. And yes, Robert was making it too complicated simply because he has to remember who his audience is. So, do I tend to do this as a writer? Yeah. Then I tend to overedit and kill the voice. The result is something I want to toss under the bed, never to be seen again, until I can look at it with fresh eyes and find that happy medium. At least I hope I find it.

  4. >Monkey-san, you are a BAD man. The punnage. I'm not sure though that you have to choose between story or subtext. You just have to make sure the story carries it. Weirdly, I also let the subtext — Shakespeare — overwhelm the story in my first books. The fact that they're hard for ME to read when I'm away from the subject a little is frankly scary.I was mostly worrying about how far from the subtext one can go. I mean, we live and breathe this stuff… It naturally comes out.

  5. >Chris,This is known as "reader cookies" and you absolutely should have "reader cookies" for whatever subset of readers you're appealing to.I'm not suggesting you should write to market, something I'm quite incapable of doing anyway. Either something interests me enough and is in a subgenre I enjoy or I can't physically write it. I'll find myself weeding or painting walls or scrubbing the tiles with a toothbrush instead. But I mean that if you are a reader of the genre and know what pleases you, you can share this with the reader — as long as it doesn't obtrude on the narrative. The same for your own peculiar obsessions.If I weren't already cat-mad, Heinlein might have made me so with his descriptions of cats, for instance. Those were my cookies.In Romance sex seems to be it. It's part of the reason I haven't ventured to writing it, because I tend to prefer regencies — no sex — or to skip the sex scenes. It's not that I have anything against it, of course — in its proper place — I just don't see much point reading about these characters in bed. Sex is not a spectator sport for meHowever, from listening to romance readers talk, these are clearly cookies for them. So, sharing cookies with the audience is good.It's just as in a good recipe, you need to make sure the chocolate chips don't overwhelm the dough.

  6. >Amanda,The opposite of going over your reader's heads because you know the subject so well that you gloss over stuff is to explain everything ad-nauseum and interrupt the narrative to do it. When I first wrote the first version of DST — my first attempt at a space opera — I let members of my writers' group at the time talk me into putting in explanations for everything. The result was much too loooooooong and virtually unreadable. However, it took me another ten years and ten novels (I'd written eight, mercifully unpublished, before that first attempt) before I knew how to Heinlein the information, so that it wasn't either lacking or in your face and boring. At least, I hope I have. Authorities such as Kevin J. Anderson tell me that Darkship Thieves is non-stop action even through back story. I hope so. 🙂

  7. >No you don't have to choose – but my golden rule is if the digression into subtext is going to damage the flow of the story, then you either need to write the subtext more cleverly or cut it there.

  8. >Sarah, I agree with you. The ad-nauseum explanations rank right up there — down there? — with the massive info-dumps that can have me skipping page after page to get past them. As for DST, it is as good as Kevin Anderson and a certain monkey we all know and love say it is.

  9. >Going too deep?Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, talk about obsessed. But would I change it? No, because it is fascinating.There's a place for that level of obsession.Good point, Sarah. We've read the genre since we were knee high. We know all the tropes. We'd go crazy if we tried to skim the surface.The art is in trying to run with the story, while carrying the baggage of backstory! grinAnd I do feel for your son.

  10. >I don't find the game too complicated at all. He has a complex pre-amble, but many games do. Actual play is simple – you are firing tokens at enemies to make them switch sides. Like PacMan where you are chased but eating a specifiv token made you the chaser. Was there a time-limit on the conversion ?

  11. >Two Thoughts.A game with no shooting? Not even a shooting analog? The horror, the horror…..Regarding "too much" in a novel. It occurs to me that hyperlinks might solve that problem. Of course it would be a purely digital edition. Is that bad?Welcome back, hope you enjoyed your trip.

  12. >Er… I'm not sure I should be answering this because my immediate thought involved the lightbulb in the exit hatch and what might make it light up.I suspect my biggest issue isn't too much, it's too weird. Those nice little numbered slots… I've yet to manage a book that fits into them, and I've tried.

  13. >EvMick,I'm not sure about hyperlinks. Too much like footnotes, and only Pratchett can do footnotes.Well, okay, and me in the musketeer books. :)And I'm very glad to be back too! Portugal is all very nice to visit, but I wouldn't like to live there. I miss my parents, but to feel in my proper place, I couldn't wait to be home.

  14. >Kate,Weird is also a good portion of my issue. It seems to be a leader, you should be inventive, but not too much. Your new idea should build a little on the… general consciousness. I, on the other hand, don't so much think out of the box as I can't seem to find the box.

  15. >Group work.It works so well, when you can select people you know. As a huggy-feelie Meet New Friends exercise?Pure torture for those who don't make friends easily.Pure frustration for the few that do most of the work.MataPam

  16. >Sarah, Matapam,How many of us got the old "does not play well with others"? I loathed group work for that reason. Well, that and no matter what anyone else said I knew damn well I didn't have any peers in those classes.And yeah, Sarah, I have issues finding the box, too. I think it's on a different planet.

  17. >Kate,That was my grade from kindergarten "Knows the material" (plus some) "Tends to overcomplicate things" and "Doesn't play well with others."Now I think about it, it is still my grade.Another planet? It's on another dimmension. And I bought it used, in perfect condition, from Mr. Schrodinger.

  18. >Michelle,Indubitably. But I'm more likely to come up with "There's a box. I wonder if there's another universe in there." And then I never open the box, because I'm writing about that other universe. 😉

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