356 – ANTS!
Here at Mythcreants, we have a very important classification system for judging stories. Or, maybe it’s a theoretical model? It could possibly be a paradigm shift, or even a philosophical framework. Whatever it is, the ANTS system is how we evaluate stories, based on the qualities we’ve found that make stories popular. This week, we lay out how that works and why we do it. Or maybe it’s all a lie and we’ve been talking about real ants this whole time? You’ll have to listen and find out!
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Generously transcribed by Ala and Bunny. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris, and with me are Wes and Oren.
Oren: And before we get started today, we are putting out our third call for volunteers, specifically audio editing volunteers. Basically what that means is you’d be editing out filler words like, “um,” or “like,” or, you know, and making sure we don’t talk over each other and generally making the podcast more pleasant to listen to.
We already have a few of those and they have been invaluable, but the more we have the lighter the work overall. You don’t need any prior experience. We can teach you how to do all of this stuff. The time commitment is about five hours a month at most. So if you’re interested, go to mythcreants.com/volunteer, and thanks again to everyone who’s already volunteered for us in whatever capacity we really want.
Chris: Okay. We’re here to talk about ants and speculative fiction. You know, leaf cutter ants, fire ants, honeypot ants…
Oren: Bullet ants.
Chris: Sure. Bullet ants — are those real? Are you sure? Those aren’t, like, a speculative fiction creature? Like, is that something you invented for your world?
Oren: They are very dark and edgy ants named after bullets. Their best friend is the knife ant.
Chris: So listeners, consider, does your story have an anthill in it? And if not, should it?
Oren: Obviously, yes.
Wes: Ants are awesome.
Oren: Look, we didn’t call ourselves Mythcre-ants for nothing.
Wes: That’s right. We all have anthills.
Chris: It was about ants all along. It was all a scheme to get to this point.
Okay. Obviously. We are not actually talking about — well, we could be talking about ants. I mean, we’ve talked about witches, we’ve talked about forests. We could have an episode talking about ants in speculative fiction, but that’s not really what we’re talking about. But before we get into what ANTS is, the acronym, I think it might be useful to talk about what it’s for, because we have before.
All of the words that are in ANTS, you’ve almost certainly heard us say them before. It’s a framework that is the groundwork for a lot of this stuff that we talk about, but it’s good to know: what is the purpose of them together?
Wes: I think the purpose is to destroy the soul and mystery of storytelling with relentless categorization.
Chris: Yes. My plan to destroy the heart and soul of storytelling is almost complete. Mwa-ha-ha!
Wes: Got it figured out right there. Boom.
Chris: So anyway, here’s a good analogy. Well, I think it’s a good analogy because I made it myself.
Imagine you are sitting down to play a Scrabble game, but you have never played Scrabble. And when you sit down and you’re like, “okay, how do I play?” The person tells you, “oh, you just want to win. That’s your goal.” And you’re like, okay, well, how do I win? It’s like, “well, just watch some good Scrabble players and see how they play, you know? And maybe also watch some bad Scrabble players. To see how they play, so you can pick up common patterns.”
But this is what it’s like to be a writer. You’re told to do something with an objective, like, “write good.” And you are trying to figure out how to do that. And it doesn’t feel like anybody can tell you half the time,
Oren: Half the time? More like all the time. At least 80% of the time.
Chris: So the purpose of ANTS is to get a little bit closer to what we’re going for besides winning.
Right? So at Mythcreants, we talk about audience engagement. But we couldn’t just say, “write an entertaining story.” It’s like, “great. That clarifies it for me. I can totally do that.” So basically ANTS is analogous to, if you looked at that Scrabble game and you’re like, “okay, here’s the things that allow you to win, all right?” And they’re still pretty general, but they’re like, “okay, if you make longer words, those are generally worth more points. And if you use unusual letters in your words, those are worth more points. And if you make your word on top of the little highlighted squares in the Scrabble game. Those are worth more points.”
Oren: And if someone else beats you to that highlighted square, you flip the table off. End of story, done.
Chris: And you still can’t, maybe, see the numbers on the letters, right. And tally the points perfectly. You know, we’re not there yet with storytelling, but now you have something that is, “this is how you win.” That’s a little bit closer that you can aim for as opposed to winning, which is just a super subjective general thing that doesn’t really give you any hint as to what you would do to get there. And so it’s not intended to take you all the way there, but it’s intended to be more tangible than just, “Hey, write an entertaining story. Write an engaging story.”
Oren: They’re really useful for me as an editor because when people pay me money to edit their stories, I need to have some kind of framework beyond “things that I like”.
Like I can’t just judge a story based on my own personal tastes cause tastes vary and I have to try to be as objective as possible. And so I need some framework to judge the story and the four ANTS categories have been extremely helpful for that.
Wes: I was just going to echo that. Even when not working on stories, ANTS is really helpful for just getting my thoughts put into something that makes sense. When talking about media with friends, suddenly the conversation has more substance, because I’m not saying “Eh, it was boring. I don’t know why, it just was boring to me.” I can speak more deeply about what that actually means with a framework for discussing it.
Chris: Is it a framework though? Or is it a conceptual model or is it a theoretical model? I am very confused about this. I tried to look these words up, but I just got a bunch of academic language. So, it’s something .
Wes: It’s a guide, maybe. I like it. I don’t care what it is, technically.
Chris: Somebody tell me what it is. Okay. So. In any case, each letter basically represents a type of engagement, because people are actually engaged by different things in the story, and I’ve put them into four general categories of what people are looking for that make them engaged. And the categories are maybe a little simplistic. They’re not perfect, but overall they really take you quite a ways there, even if they don’t take you all the way. So I know you two are ready to go through the ANTS. ‘Cause I looked at your show notes.
Oren: Because look, I don’t understand the theory behind it, okay? So I had to get into, like, applied ANTS. The lower form of ANTS, as it were.
Chris: Okay. So yeah, each of the ANTS is something that makes the audience more engaged, and they’re different. So, A: you’ve heard us talking about attachment even so recently as the last podcast. It just represents the emotional component, and it specifically represents the audience caring about things in the story.
When giving advice, we tend to simplify it into, “Okay. The biggest chunk of attachment goes to characters, and then the biggest chunk of attachment to characters goes to your main character.” And how do you make people attach to the main character? You make them likable. So we talk a lot about likability, but attachment itself is much larger than just the likability of the main character, even though we talk about that, because that’s usually the low hanging fruit that makes the biggest difference to a story.
Oren: There are other things you can and should do to cultivate attachment, to both other characters and other things: the setting, the spaceship they’re on. All of those things can have attachment, but if the main character isn’t working, that’s the thing you need to address first.
Wes: And because the main character is there, this is where we’ve run into territory, where people, for whatever reason, get into a huff about how being likable is not lie an important thing. Once again — and Oren, I don’t know if you saw it — but there was a Twitter feud about somebody saying, “characters don’t have to be likable. and depiction does not equal endorsement.” And I’m like, “Oh gosh, this is a hot mess.”
Oren: Ah, I’ve literally written articles about that at this point. Just go read the article, everybody. It’s fine.
Chris: We’ll put it in the show notes. Likeability doesn’t mean that they’re just affable chums.
Oren: There’s a lot of things that make a character likable.
Chris: You can make a selfish character likable. It’s just harder. Maybe if this is your first novel, that’s not the place to start.
Oren: The TLDR of this whole argument is that yes, there are things that matter to likability other than whether your character is a good person, but also, your character being a good person is a pretty big factor in those things. That’s why there’s still an argument over it, because even though any reasonable person can acknowledge that characters can be liked for things other than being nice, you then get into gray areas where people want to argue about, like, “Well, my character murdered five baby deer, but they’re not supposed to be likable, so it’s fine.” Then that’s actually where the argument is, right? The argument isn’t actually a categorization argument. The argument is that some people make bad choices about what their protagonist does and then they want to justify it.
Chris: Yeah. Usually it comes from being defensive about characters when they’re being criticized in one way or the other. But again, it’s more than about the main character.
You can get attached to side characters. If it’s a really cool world, it’s possible that you can get attached to that. Or it’s like, “Oh, hey, I could use this magical forest full of cute animals.” You might really not want to see that cute forest get destroyed. That would be bad. It’s basically the measure of how much emotional investment you have towards all the things in the story and how much you care about the outcome.
And one of the interesting things about looking at each ANTS effect is that there’s differences in how fast they work and how fast they wear off when. They can, when you’re looking at how to optimize the beginning of the story, for instance, really have some interesting things to say. And with attachment in particular, the thing that is remarkable about it is that it’s very long-lasting. It’s probably the least fragile. I mean, I’ve definitely seen characters where I love that character, but they did a bad thing. And that made me cringe, but that one bad thing is not going to stop me from loving the character. I’m going to overlook it because I really liked them. And then there’s five boring chapters and I’m like, “Oh, I want to tear my hair out. These chapters are so boring, but I’m so interested in this character. I’m going to actually plow through the boring chapter. Because I care about what happens to them, and I still want to get to the end.” The downside of that is that it takes time. Generally, it is the hardest to get going, and it definitely becomes stronger and more effective the more time that people spend with the story and with the characters.
Oren: That’s actually an interesting problem that I see in media analysis. People get confused about whether this character was really well-written or whether the story was just good enough to get them to stick with this character for a really long time. Because if you are watching a seven-year TV show, even if the character isn’t great, as long as they’re not actively horrible, you will build attachment to them over those years. If you watch the same characters for seven years, you will be attached to them by the end, unless they’re just the worst. And so at that point you will feel attachment, so it can be easy to imagine, “Well, that character must be great because I felt attachment to them,” when in reality that character might’ve had a lot of problems and there might’ve been much better ways to write that character. It was just that other aspects of the show were good enough that they got you to stick with it for that many years.
Chris: But there are things that you can do to speed it up. And that’s why we talk about likability: it can really speed attachment up quite a bit. You still can’t really expect it to be instantaneous, which means that it’s an investment that you need to put in for a bigger payoff. It really helps the story work better if the audience cares, but you have to take time to get them to that place. Any other comments on attachment?
Wes: Just to go back to the main character as well. If you want people to get attached to your protagonist, make sure that you spend more time with your protagonist than other things. [laughs] It’s just a good, good policy, I think.
Oren: I’ve gotten pretty attached to this discussion about attachment, but I could also use something new, which is why I think we should talk about novelty. Boom.
Wes: Well done!
Chris: Novelty is a funny one because other people talk about novelty, but they talk about it in a very different way. For one thing, people talk about what’s cliche, and at the end of the day, things that are cliche are in negative novelty territory, right? Novelty refers to things that are new and fresh, and for that reason, people are entertained and fascinated by them. It’s interesting because when I first started hearing about novelty, I heard about it in terms of your pets or your children or something. It’s not something that adults care about. For instance, if you’ve had a cat, you know that they always liked the new toy the best. Or a child usually likes their new toys. And then they put them down after a while.
Oren: Wait, was I supposed to grow out of that at some point? [laughs]
Chris: But it feels like when it’s brought up in conversation, when that word is used, it’s under the idea that somehow this is something that only children and pets care about. But everybody is more interested in things that are new and unique than things that are old. And novelty comes in so many different forms, but you can just tell it’s a form of novelty when it gets old with exposure and fairly quickly. So, for instance, humor. There’s a specific formula for humor. It’s not just the fact that it’s new, but novelty is a very key component of humor. That’s why when you tell the same jokes many times, pretty soon, they’re not funny.
Oren: They’re still funny to me, though. I tell the same joke all the time. Constantly.
Chris: But besides this idea of like, “Oh no, the cliche!” usually when people talk about novelty, they’re talking about how original it is, which I think can be taken to kind of destructive levels. For example, take the idea that you need an original idea for your story that hasn’t been done before. There are billions of people on this planet, okay? Your story idea has been done. But also, that’s not really what’s important for novelty, either. I think most of all, it’s about the details of the story. A novel premise can be really important, but if it’s not followed up with detail, then it doesn’t really go anywhere. If we set all of our characters on the moon, but then it never feels like they were doing anything different because they were on the moon — they just felt like they were on Earth, but they happen to look outside and there’s a moon landscape out there, but everything else works exactly the same — then that doesn’t really generate novelty.
Whereas if we’re talking about Andy Weir’s Artemis, when he talks about the lower gravity, that means they have three foot stairs, because they’re so much more buoyant. That’s what generates the novelty. Each stair is three feet tall and they can climb it like it’s nothing because of the lower gravity. What’s interesting and fascinating is those types of detail that bring a unique premise to life, and not just the fact that they’re on the moon in and of itself.
Oren: you know, you can say things like, “Well, in my setting, uh, gods are created through the combined faith of their believers,” and it’s like, okay. I mean, that’s a neat idea. But if you then just continue with your conventional fantasy plot, it isn’t really providing a lot of novelty as opposed to something like Three Parts Dead, which is a story built around that concept of gods being created by shared belief. So, you have to consider, “And then what? How does that change things?” which provides a lot of novelty. Max Gladstone is hardly the first author to use that premise, and he certainly isn’t the last, either, but even if you’ve read American Gods or Small Gods in the Discworld books, Three Parts Dead still provides a lot of novelty because you see the way that he is taking this premise to its conclusion in a way that’s cool and different and has different details than what you’ve seen before.
Chris: So it’s basically that having a unique premise definitely very much helps with novelty, but in the end, it’s the details that actually bring it to life, and that’s what matters. And you can also insert novelty into a story without any premise. Some people just do it with interesting wordcraft, like Terry pratchet. He has jokes. And he’s just funny in his commentary. And that provides novelty to the story, regardless of what the premise is.
Oren: We often talk about the setting when we bring up novelty, because in spec fic, often the biggest source of novelty is, you know, whatever cool sci fi or fantasy stuff you have going on. But novelty can come from particularly unusual or strange characters too. And this is how a lot of popular non-spec fic stories do it. The one that really comes to my mind is The World According to Garp, which is one of the last non-spec fic novels that I’ve ever read. It gets all of its novelty from its characters. And part of that is humor. But part of that is just that these characters are all just very weird and very quirky. And that might not be how you would do it in a spec fic story, because in a spec fic story, if you have a strange and unusual world, it often helps to have more grounded characters. But you can get novelty for more than one place.
Chris: I haven’t read the original Sherlock stories, but at least the modern adaptations of Sherlock make Sherlock pretty eccentric and weird most of the time, and that’s another form of novelty. I think this is also one of the reasons why what’s called the “manic pixie dream girl” was so popular. That trope is basically women as novelty. We’ve talked before on this podcast about the dark side of novelty is that you should not use somebody’s demographic for novelty.
Oren: Yeah, that can get gross very fast.
Chris: Or other marginalized traits for novelty. That’s bad. And it leads to a lot of like stereotypes and shallow depictions, but that can be a problem where people try to exoticize others to get novelty out of that. And so we want to do that, but people can have unique and eccentric personalities that provide lots of novelty, or you could do it with beautiful prose. Or within spec fic again, a lot of times it’s the setting or an unusual premise that helps provide a lot of novelty, so it can come from anywhere. But regardless, it’s extremely fast, and it fades very quickly.
I actually had a look one time I wanted to see what made viral stories viral. Because there are some short stories, usually very short, that go viral on places like Tumblr and Facebook and other places. And basically it was novelty, novelty, novelty, because it’s capable of generating an instant burst of excitement. And that’s the most important thing if something’s going to go viral. You need people to be really excited about something really fast.
Oren: And sometimes it’s not even a story. Sometimes it’s just a concept for a story. Like, what if a witch and a demon had two kids together because of weird deals that they made? There, that’s a story concept. And that one took social media by storm a couple times. That’s very high in novelty. But I think if you actually tried to write it, you would have trouble, because that doesn’t really suggest a conflict or a plot, which is why that story probably hasn’t been written despite everyone sharing how cool it is, but same premise.
Wes: Yeah. Or the entire solar punk genre.
Chris: Oh no!
Oren: Shots fired.
Wes: We’re still waiting for a great solar punk novel, come on.
Chris: Give it to us. But yeah. And generally the ones that are more fleshed out besides, you know, a short one-liner like that… although a lot of times, I think what happens is they start with that one line premise. That gets people excited. And then somebody follows up with something that’s a little bit longer, like several paragraphs. And it’s almost like that one line delivers the novel premise as quickly as it possibly can. And then, if people are interested, they read a 300 word story. That fleshes it out a little more, but still a lot of times those viral stories are also very short. If they were longer, people would start to get bored because the novelty would wear off. And then, because they were less excited, they would be less likely to share it. And so it would be less viral.
Oren: And this is usually where you start to count on the other ANTS to keep engagement up. You can, of course, introduce new novel elements, but if you keep introducing new novel elements, like you’re going to hit a limit pretty quickly. Your story is going to start to become overcrowded and overly complicated, and that damages your other ANTS.
Chris: I did actually find one viral story that, before the novelty wore off, managed to build. It had different people contributing to it because it was on Tumblr. And so it kind of felt like the most popular edition won, but it managed to develop attachment to the main character. And then it introduced some tension and other things. And that one managed to be longer. It was still not very long, but it managed to be longer than all the other viral stories, because it had something to keep the reader going after that novelty wore off.
But in any case, novelty is probably one of the hardest things to do because we can’t follow a formula to create novelty very well. I mean, I can tell you what’s in the details and give you examples, but I can’t copy a thing because then it wouldn’t be fresh anymore.
Oren: But my Scrabble tiles!
Chris: And also, it tends to be a little hard for writers to judge what is novel enough or what will have novelty for other people. That can be a little tricky. So this was probably one of the hardest of the ANTS. And so even though it can work really well in the opening of the story, trying to rely on it for your opening is not necessarily a good idea, just because it’s trickier to cultivate than the other ANTS. But anyway: works fast, fades fast.
Oren: I’m now very tense to find out what happens next.
Chris: And I should say that we’re running out of time in the podcast. The clock is ticking. Can we get through T and S in time?
Wes: Oh my gosh.
Chris: So, T. We talk about tension all the time. It’s basically what creates the story structure and it makes stories hook you. And tension works so much better when you have attachment. That’s the key thing, because problems just are way more compelling when you care about their outcome. And if you care about a character, if you care about the setting, then you can take problems that are lower stakes and they will be more engaging because you have attachment. But tension is basically what provides structure. It’s entertaining and hooking and gripping, but it is also something that many people don’t like in too large of a quantity.
Oren: Yeah. If your tension gets too high, you will start to lose audiences. And you can see that with the Walking Dead, where eventually it was so tense because they’d killed so many characters that some people just stopped watching.
Chris: I actually think that, believe it or not, sometimes if you kill off too many characters, it can lower tension because attachment is gone. If you kill people’s favorite characters and introduce new ones, people actually will be like, “Oh, actually I don’t want to be attached to these new characters because they’re just going to die.” After a while, the audience deliberately stops emotionally investing in the characters, and then they care about all the characters less. And then the tension can actually go down as a result of that, interestingly enough.
But yeah, there are plenty of people who are just tension-averse. I mean, tension is stressful, right? So everybody has a different tolerance level for how much tension they want in their story. Regardless, it still provides a story with structure, and a light story will still have tension. It will just have a lower level of tension with lower stakes. It’s about, “Oh, can I find the right thing to wear to this party where my crush is gonna be?” Or like, “I was going to wear this dress to the party, but now I spilled a drink on it. Oh no, what do I do? My crush is there.” That’s the problem that we’re dealing with instead of, like, “a monster is chasing me and I could die,” but they both have tension. They just have different levels of tension.
Oren: If you don’t deal with that stain on your dress, you’re socially going to die. Just so you know. Same thing, really.
Wes: The stakes have never been higher.
Chris: Tension is faster than attachment, although it works better with attachment. Sadly, it’s not as fast as novelty, but it can be pretty fast. I think the main issue with tension is just how fragile it is. It’s not like attachment. Attachment is very enduring. You can mess up a little bit and people will stick with you. You don’t have to mess up a lot to lose attachment. Like if your character’s on a downward arc, at some point in time, people could get upset about that and ditch. But for the most part, you can mess up a little bit and attachment will keep going. But with tension, you do one thing wrong and it’s all gone. And the story is suddenly boring.
Oren: Especially since so many author instincts (that people have when they start off) really damage tension, like giving your protagonists all the cool powers. That will completely destroy tension because if they have all the cool powers, are they really in danger of not winning this fight?
Chris: Or giving them too much time. So it feels like, “Okay, well, this problem seems impossible to solve, but you have 10 years, so you’ll figure it out somehow.”
Oren: Or having the villain do cliche villain things to show that they’re evil. Even though those are less likely to make it into publication now, I still see them all the time in manuscripts where the villain is like, “I’m gonna murder this henchmen to show that I’m evil.” And it’s like, “Well, now you just seem kind of incompetent and you have one fewer henchman.” So now it’s less tense.
Chris: So here’s a question. Do you think we can give this podcast a satisfying ending?
Oren: Uh, no.
Oren: There, end it on that note. I’m not even going to do the outro. I’ll just edit it so that it ends on “No.” Just to really drive the point home and be a bold and experimental podcast.
Chris: You know, I did an article that was like that and people aren’t really that happy with it. I don’t think it was a successful experiment. I don’t think we should replicate it with the podcast.
Satisfaction is the other side of tension. It’s the thing that happens when you resolve tension in the right way. And we’ve talked about things like turning points; that’s the big one. We have an episode that’s totally on turning points, but basically you want the character to earn the ending and you want it to be believable and all those other things that make people feel satisfied. I can’t say “happy,” because not all endings are happy. Some endings are unhappy but still satisfying,
Oren: Although that is much harder than a lot of people want to accept. Making a satisfying, unhappy ending is very difficult. There’s a reason most stories have happy endings.
Chris: But it does mean that producing satisfaction means reducing tension. But it’s not just something that happens at the end of your story. It also happens whenever you resolve an arc or a conflict well. You’ll get some satisfaction and your tension might drop, but then you introduce another plot device to raise tension. And you keep doing that throughout the story until we get to the big dose of satisfaction at the end. And yeah, that one is the last, the end.
Oren: And that’s why Chekhov’s gun is a principle that is still useful. Because if you introduce something and it seems important and it never goes anywhere, what you’ve lost is satisfaction because it wasn’t satisfying. You showed me this gun and then it never shot anybody. I’m not satisfied.
Chris: And satisfaction, again, doesn’t hook people into the story. It actually reduces how gripping the story is, but it does make your audience happy with you and feel like their time was well spent. And so if you want them to walk away from your book ready to recommend it to a friend, it has a disproportionate impact on that, because it’s the feeling that they’re going to walk away with. And if you do something like, “Hey, the character woke up and it was all a dream” or something else really unsatisfying, then even if they enjoyed the rest of the book, they’re less likely to recommend it or walk away feeling good about it or feeling like you met their expectations or that you didn’t waste their time or those types of things. So that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important.
Oren: Well, to me, that is a satisfying ending to this podcast. I’m going to go ahead and call it here before we have a chance to mess things up by trying to choose novelty or what have you.
Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives up therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.