LNH/META: The Pleasures of Plot

Tom Russell milos_parker at yahoo.com
Fri Feb 3 09:44:42 PST 2006


   There are many reasons why we read.  We read to be
enlightened, we read to be entertained.  Deft
characterization, high concepts, stimulating ideas,
and sometimes just a well-executed and clever joke. 
We read to have our emotions played with, we read to
exercise our gray matter.
   I think that all these approaches are equally
valid, and, in theory, equally rewarding.  I say in
theory because, like all things in art, it's really an
issue of subjectivity: some people like the
metafictional output of Vonnegut, others wish he would
just write his story and leave himself out of it. 
Some like their mysteries in the "cozy" tradition,
others like Chandler (or, for that matter, Spillane). 
Most people like good, involving character work: some
of those people can sit and read hundreds of pages
about a character walking around town, while others
within the same camp are gritting their teeth and
waiting for something to finally happen.
   So, while any technique or aspect of fiction can
be, potentially, a source of great pleasure for a
reader, it's all really a matter of personal
preference and mood.  And so, with that preamble, I'm
going to spend the next few pages talking about the
pleasures of plot, and one of the best plot-driven
series in the LNH canon: Jamas Enright's Alt.Riders.

   Now, this isn't to say that the ALT.RIDERS, or
Jamas's writing in general, is lacking in
characterization.  All I'm saying is that his stories
are plot and idea driven.  The Alt.Riders, much more
than any other team in the Looniverse, is a team of
professionals, a team with a stated mission and
purpose beyond "beat up the bad guys".  As is
explained in the very first issue:

<< "We're going to be the forefront that tackles
dangers before they get too near any place we care
about.  In some cases, that may mean going out into
space, in others, it may just be a short trip across
the country... sometimes some _other_ place.  We
intercept the problem, and assess it...">>

   Teams in superhero fiction come together for a
variety of reasons, some more organic than others. 
The Fantastic Four and Power Pack are families, and
that familial love is what keeps them together.  The
Great Lakes Avengers are united in their incompetence.
 The Team is united because they're all Jesse Willey's
characters.  (Well, for the most part, anyway.)
   Teams like the X-Men, the Avengers, and the
Alt.Riders are united in a more idealogical way: the
X-Men strive to protect a world that hates and blah
blah blah, the Avengers come together to fight a foe
that no one hero can best.  And the Alt.Riders is the
Looniverse's first line of defense.
   Teams that have a more idealogical basis for their
formation tend to exhibit greater upheaval in their
roster: when someone mentions the Avengers, for
example, the image that is summoned is of many teams
with some characters who overlap from roster to
roster.  The same things happens with the X-Men or the
   It's somewhat surprising, then, that when I see the
words (word?) Alt.Riders, the image is almost always
exactly the same: Agent, Dva, Morph, Netty and a chub
(first Missy, now Lillie).  It's a static roster,
which is an unusual feature for a plot-driven series
about a team with a mission.  It is, however, an
excellent decision on Jamas's part.
   First of all, the reader is not distracted by
artificial attempts to drum up drama by changing that
status quo.  In this way, he focuses the reader on the
story itself, on the atmosphere, the suspense, the
drama (and comedy), on the twists and surprises, on
the build and the climax: on the plot.
   Secondly, by keeping the cast static and the focus
on the mission, the character work feels natural,
smooth.  Different aspects of their personalities are
highlighted as they act and react to the demands of
the plot; and these moments are part and parcel of the
   Some authors are better at creating and exploring
characters, but it's almost always sloppy and
transparent: monologues, angst, long pointless
dialogue scenes.  The reader has to take off their
story hat and put on their character hat.  And, when
the scene ends, they change hats again.  Jamas's skill
is that the reader is able to wear both hats at once:
plot and character become the same animal.  His work
is seamless and efficient.
   His plots move at a steady, measured pace: no
unneccessary details are included but no necessary
ones are eschewed.  Like a perfect machine, there are
no extra parts: the story runs smoothly and
effectively from the start to the finish, the engine
purring.  The prose is spare but precise.  Consider
this excerpt from the recent Alt.Riders crossover

<< The few who saw the lightning bolt rent the air
could scarcely believe their eyes.>>

   It's a simple, utilitarian sentence; it does the
job it has to do without being pretty about it,
without calling attention to itself in that way which
post-modernists confuse with style.  This emphasis on
style is what leads to embarrassingly earnest prose
(such as my own).  It's also responsible for the
fallacious belief that by layering adjectives and
sentences on top of another in one giant group grope
that one has summoned that most mysterious and fickle
of literary mistresses, Atmosphere.  All those giant
blocks of Atmosphere do is prompt readers to take off
their plot hats and put on their Atmosphere hats. 
Isn't there a better way to give a feeling of
Atmosphere?  How about a way that actually works, and
doesn't call attention to itself like some neglected,
whining child?

<<The few who saw the lightning bolt rent the air
could scarcely believe their eyes.>>

   Now, "scarcely believe their eyes" certainly
qualifies as a cliche, but it's an immediately
accessible one.  It's better to roll one's eyes at a
cliche than to scratch one's head at a clumsy or
inscrutible metaphor (that is, if the purpose of said
cliche or metaphor is to communicate clearly). 
Cliches are symbols, and thus have symbolic power. 
Most of that mystery has been drained from overuse
(which is what makes a cliche a cliche, after all). 
But that power can still be tapped into.  Meaning can
be restored and reinforced.  Let's look again at the
first half of that sentence:

<<The few who saw the lightning bolt rent the air...>>

   Look at that word, "rent".  What a wonderful
choice.  There are dozens of other verbs that could be
used to describe what the lightning bolt does to the
air, but none that carries that meaning, that
strangeness, that violence.
   How often have you heard the word "rent" used in
this form?  Rent seems such an ordinary word, one
would think it has no power, no oomph.  You rent
(verb) an apartment, you pay your rent (noun), you go
to see RENT (monstrocity).  But to "rent the air"-- to
rip it, to tear it!-- you don't see that every day.
   And while your mind subliminally registers that
strangeness, the almost otherworldly quality of this
usage, it's also taking note of the violence of the
word.  Dear reader, are you alone right now?  Make
sure no one else is around.  Are we alone?  Good. 
Now, say the word, "rent".  Go ahead.  No one's
listening.  "Rent".
   The RRRRRR sound is a guttural one.  The TTTTTT
sound is somewhat harsh.  Not as harsh as DDDDD or
KKKKK.  But certainly harsher than a sibilant or a
vowel, or any of the other "soft" letters: LLLLL MMMMM
NNNNN, for example.

<<The few who saw the lightning bolt rent the air
could scarcely believe their eyes.>>

   The word "rent" is a violent word.  Its meaning in
this particular instance is a violent one: ripping,
tearing, shredding, striking, damaging, opening the
sky like flesh.  It has a violent sound.  And it's
unusual usage in this sentence is sufficiently
strange, I think, to restore the power, fright, and
awe to "scarcely believe their eyes".
   Now, I know what you're thinking: Tom, this is one
sentence, one word!  You're reading way too much into
this!  Jamas didn't write this sentence for us to try
and plum its meanings.  And my answer to that is:
   You're not supposed to notice the sentence: you're
not supposed to be switching hats.  It does its job--
setting up an atmosphere of violence, of dread, of
awe-- admirably and efficiently.  And, having done its
job, it doesn't dwaddle or strain for extra effect; it
moves on.

   The plots of the ALT.RIDERS stories are as tight
and clean as the prose.  Every development is logical
and that logic is air-tight.  Jamas never cheats with
the reader, and part of the fun is seeing how he
manages to extradite himself (and his characters) from
some of his keenly devised plot traps.
   Check out the ending of ALT.RIDERS # 2:

<<           "But I don't want you to be scared. Then
you wouldn't be fully
aware of what's about to happen. You see, this is a
piece of equipment
that was sold to me by Acton Lord." All three started
at the name. "I take
it you've heard of a cyclotron? This is a more...
life-sized model. With
it I shall bombard your bodies until there is no two
original atoms left
        Silence closed his eyes and shook his head. 
        "Excessive, much?" commented Softcentre. 
        "Nothing is too far to go to ensure that
people never disturb me
more than once," proclaimed Bennington. 
        "I'd say that you're already disturbed, and
not by people," said
        "Too easy," said Softcentre. 
        "Everyone's a critic," said Morph. 
        "Enough! Let it begin!" 
        There was another, much quieter click. 
        "10 seconds to activation. 9. 8." 
        "Why is there-" started Softcentre. Morph
started running, Silence
took off after him. 
        "Always a countdown?" continued Softcentre,
running after them. 
        "Why can't-" Morph looked left and right,
trying to find the entry
point of the beam. 
        "Things start-" 
        "At zero?" 
        Silence caught Morph's arm, and pointed. Morph
followed and
spotted the hole, ten meters away. 
        Morph stretched out an arm, expanding his hand
so that it would
plug the hole. Eight meters. 
        Five meters. 
        Two meters. 

   How on earth is he going to get them out of that? 
I mean, that's a definite FOOOSH!  Two meters away
from plugging the hole and FOOOSH!  He can't say it
didn't FOOOSH!, that would be cheating.  You can't
un-FOOOSH!  There's no way out of that one!
   As anyone who read the third issue can tell you, he
does get them out of that.  They are FOOOSH!ed, but:

<<The pool of protoplasm stirred, rippling slightly on
the cold white floor,
although there was no outside source of disturbance.
The goo was the
coagulation of the atomised bodies of three heroes,
and it moved. 
        The life-sized proton accelerator remained
untouched after its
short burst, no-one wanting to see the grizzly
leftovers of the
unfortunate victims, or even thinking that there would
be any remains
available. Nucleonic bombardment isn't a messy
business. You need
something left behind to be a mess, and generally,
there wasn't. 
        Except this time. 
        The puddle twitched again, shapes unformed
pulling out of the
surface, screaming silently, then mercifully sinking
again. One part of
the gloop bulged, and separated, splattering into its
own being, the
source now settling again. 
        A few moments passed, nothing happening,
before the offspring
jerked, and grew, stretching, taking on a form
eventually recognisable as
a human being. Further warpings occurred until someone
finally stood,
aware and intelligent, a someone who currently went
under the codename of
        Morph looked down at the pool, sadness
creasing his face. He
turned, not able to look any more. He could feel tears
creeping onto his
face. "I'm.. I'm sorry, guys," he whispered. 
        He sniffed, his now red eyes staring at the
ceiling. "You will pay
for this," he vowed quietly. 
        A groan startled him, and he spun around to
see that the pool was
no longer there. Instead was... Softcentre! 
        Morph jumped to her side, helping her sit up.
Marsha, are you all right?" 
        "What?" she asked, putting a hand to her head.
"What happened?" 
        "I'm not sure," said Morph. "How do you feel?"

        "Like... I don't know," Softcentre admitted,
and Morph could see
that she was genuinely puzzled. She patted her body.
"What happened to
        "High burst of protonic radiation," Morph
babbled, trying to
distract her from something he had just realised.
"Accelerated particles
smashed into our bodies, ripping our molecules apart,
and sending them
flying through an ether until they collided and
solidified, or at least,
liquefied, onto the floor." 
        Softcentre looked him, as if through a haze.
        Morph shrugged. "I dunno. Doesn't sound
pleasant, but what we went
through wasn't pleasant, so it certainly fits there." 
        Softcentre looked around. "Where's Silence?"
she asked. 
        Morph winced. This he had hoped to put off for
a bit longer. 
"Umm," he started, unconvincingly. 
        "Where is he?" Softcentre asked more
        Morph gave way under her heavy gaze. "I don't
know," he admitted.
"I don't even know how you lived. I think I only did
due to my inherent
malleable morphic field." 
        Softcentre wasn't listing, but was looking
around wildly. "Where
is he?" Marsha cried. "Silence!" 
        Morph blinked a few times, but still hardly
believe what he
        Now, sitting in front of him, was Silence.>>

   And so is born Dva.

   Most authors, when they write themselves into a
corner, they weasel their way out.  It didn't FOOOSH!
them after all, the machine stopped working correctly,
they were whisked away by some eleventh hour help. 
All different ways of cheating.
   Jamas doesn't cheat.  He finds a way out that's
already present in the story.  There are no accidental
decisions in a Jamas Enright story; every thing and
every character counts.  And one of the pleasures of
plot is economy: it's reading a story quickly and in a
state of excitement, knowing that your time hasn't
been wasted on irrelevant details or chatter.
   The tightness of a narrative's construction can be
admired for its elegance and neccessity.  It's a
simple form of structural beauty.  A dog, a cat, a
lion: these are beautiful animals, carefully built and
lean, nothing out of place, everything part of a
whole.  A platypus, on the other hand...
   When I read an issue of the ALT.RIDERS, I'm never
quite sure what surprises are in store.  But I trust
Jamas Enright, because no matter what awaits me, I
know it will not be a platypus.

   The emphasis of plot-driven fiction is on ideas, on
cleverness, on diabolical twists.  The ending of # 2
is diabolical; the way in which the situation is
resolved in # 3 is clever; and this isn't just some
meaningless, artificial cliffhanger, but another,
logical step in advancement of the plot-- and the way
in which a new idea (Dva) is presented to the reader.
   Real cliffhangers have consequences.  If Jamas
found a way to get his heroes out of that
predictament, without cheating *and* without altering
the characters-- without consequences-- the reader
would have felt cheated anyway.  Suspense was drummed
up, sure, but for what purpose?  The reader would feel
manipulated, and the cliffhanger would be rendered a
cheap ploy, a cliche.
   Because the actions have consequences, the
cliffhanger is not just another cliche of serial
literature, but rather a vital, necessary part of the

   Because it is a plot-driven series, it is also an
idea-driven series.  Dva stands out as one great idea.
 The villainous schemes that the Alt.Riders thwart are
clever in and of themselves, but rather than catalogue
them, I want to concentrate on a particularly
interesting idea: Barry's wife and child.
   In ALT.RIDERS # 6, we (and Barry) learn that there
is a woman claiming to be his wife and child.  Now,
this could be a somewhat trite idea in the wrong
hands.  Villainous plot and all that.  But Jamas's
execution-- and the real meat of the idea-- is very
interesting, very unusual.
   Barry loves his family.  As soon as they appear, he
loves them.  He loves his daughter, he loves his wife.
 He informs Agent that he is not going out on a
mission, but rather going to spend time with his
   Barry doesn't know these people.  But he so desires
to have a family that, when one presents itself, he
doesn't fuss, doesn't probe.  He just accepts them, an
idea that is exceptionially weird for a superhero
story.  Hell, it's exceptionially weird for any story.
   It's an interesting extrapolation of both the idea
and the character: we're wearing both hats at once and
are not aware of it.
   From the recent issues that I've read, I'm assuming
this mystery is still unresolved, which seems a bit
unusual for this series but is, again, an apt choice. 
How the wife got there is not important.  That's not
the idea.  It's how Barry reacts to it.
   Though it very well could be that the mystery is
addressed in one of the stories I've not yet read. 
There's a huge gap in my reading and there is a reason
for it...

   How I got into the ALT.RIDERS was this: I read the
excellent HOLIDAY arc and, quite enamored of it, set
to work reading the back issues.  I got as far as # 12
before I read the Christmas Special.
   Have you read the Alt.Riders Christmas Special?
   Go.  Do it.  Read it now.  Search the eyrie
archives, search google, search Jamas's homepage

   Have you read it?
   Now you see why I stopped reading; it's not that it
wasn't good-- it was ruthlessly thrilling and quite
excellent-- it's just that I'm still recovering. 
Every time I go to read ALT.RIDERS # 13, mental images
from the Christmas Special flash across my brain-pan
and I just can't do it.  I'm physically unable.  I
still get the shakes when I try.  Of all the sick fuck
things on the internet, the ALT.RIDERS CHRISTMAS
SPECIAL is the sick fuckest.
   But, about the story of the special:
   One will note that, again, Jamas takes an unusual
idea as his premise and extrapolates from it.  And the
solution to his problem comes out of his character
work.  Two hats at once: the same animal: good strong
storytelling: the pleasures of plot.


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