Favorite Kinds of Storytelling: Learning to Work Together to Solve Problems

There are some things that we can all pretty much agree are part of a good story, whether on the page or on the screen: compelling characters, an interesting setting, a well-crafted plot. These things are basic to most great stories. But then we have our own individual tastes, the particular things we hunger for and that make us excited about one story more than another.

The two of us have spent some time thinking about exactly what we most want out of stories. Here’s what we came up with.

Avengers How Do We Do This As a Team

Erik here. What I most want out of a story can be summed up as: Problem-Solving. I want to watch characters go through the process of confronting a problem, considering how to deal with it, and figuring out the best solution. I want to see not just the successful results but all the steps it took to get there. I want to know what the characters did, how it worked, and why it worked.

The obvious sort of story for me to go to is a mystery in the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle / Agatha Christie tradition, where the narrative centers around a problem that needs to be solved and the climax comes with the detective meticulously explaining how they worked out that the vicar’s charwoman is actually the long-lost sister of Lady Dudsworthy and the poison was hidden in Colonel Flusterton’s peppermint lozenges.

But I also enjoy other kinds of stories that explore other kinds of problem-solving. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is full of problem-solving and process, from Gandalf working out the magic word to open the doors of Khazad-dum to Frodo and Sam donning orc armor to sneak across Mordor. My favorite part of the novel is the Council of Elrond, when our heroes sit down and spend a chapter just talking about the problem, possible solutions, and the limits of their options, rather than rushing off into heroic battle. Jane Austen’s novels also offer a kind of problem-solving, especially my favorites Emma and Pride and Prejudice. Even though the problems are about relationships and social interactions, Austen’s characters approach them with the same attention to what is possible, what is not, and how to best go about achieving their goals.

On tv, I love shows like Leverage and Burn Notice that focus on the practical details of how their characters pull of heists or get out of scrapes. I also enjoy shows that focus on the processes of problem-solving in more human, less technical terms, like Call the Midwife and Downton Abbey. Some of the movies I enjoy the most combine solving practical problems with working out conflicts between people, like The Avengers and Pacific Rim.

 

Eppu here. My favorite story moments involve a bunch of characters learning to work together. I haven’t yet found a good existing name to describe the device with. The closest ones I’ve found are We Work Well Together (a trope) and team building, but both have a slightly different focus. For the lack of a better term I’m calling mine Learning to Work Together.

Specifically, what I like is the hard-to-capture process of the characters realising (usually after a struggle or struggles) how to fit into a working whole all the separate strengths that each person brings. Optimally, of course, it will be a well-working whole at least from the point of view of plot. It’s nice if the characters will end up at least appreciating if not outright liking each other, too, even if there might be tense moments. At the very least they will have to deal with each other well enough to fulfill their goal(s).

Many ensemble stories tack on a sequence of Learning to Work Together to explain how the characters become a unit after they find each other. Some devote more time and effort into it, but for others the process of getting to know your teammates is more or less handwaved aside to make space for the all-important plot. While plot is necessary, I don’t think it should override everything else: I’m looking for a balanced story—preferably with a good heaping of Learning to Work Together.

Some favorite screen examples include Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Hunger Games, Marvel’s The Avengers, and the series Leverage (although arguably the latter might better fit under We Work Well Together). One of the reasons I ended up liking Pacific Rim much more than I expected was the attention that was given to the formation of team Raleigh and Mako, with Pentecost hovering at the rim. (Badum-CHING! [Sorry!])

Satisfyingly protracted versions are shown in the series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Elementary. While Murdoch Mysteries concentrates more on the problem-solving aspect, now and then recurring side characters or one-off visitors get wonderful sequences of Learning to Work Together. And, come to think of it, several of my favorite Doctor Who episodes involve the characters figuring out who the others are and how to interact with them effectively (“42”, “Blink”, “Silence in the Library”, and “Midnight” to mention a few).

Examples in novels and novellas that I’ve read recently include A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers, Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty, and Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy, Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle, and Kate Elliott’s Crossroads series also sprinkle in many instances of Learning to Work Together whenever characters make new connections.

 

The best stories for the two of us to co-geek over as a couple are stories about groups of people learning to work together in order to solve problems. When we sit down to rewatch a favorite tv series or reminisce about our favorite books together, we go back to the stories about how different people can come together, learn to respect and trust one another, and use their own individual talents to work through a problem that none of them could solve on their own.

Made into a sound bite, Erik’s favorite stories are about “How do we do this?” and Eppu’s favorites are about “As a team.”

Image: screenshot from the 2012 Marvel movie The Avengers

Creative Differences is an occasional feature in which we discuss a topic or question that we both find interesting. Hear from both of us about whatever’s on our minds.

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Favorite Characters: Star Trek Edition

Favorite Star Trek characters. Go!

Star Trek (Original Series)

Spock,_2267Erik: Mr. Spock. Hands down, Spock. When I first discovered the original Star Trek in afternoon reruns, I was in elementary school, the shy, quiet kid who spent recess reading and didn’t understand the social rules hat other kids lived by. I identified with Spock so hard. After growing up on cartoons that always stigmatized the smart characters as snooty, unsympathetic Brainy Smurf types, Spock was proof that being the thoughtful, unemotional observer of humanity could be awesome, too.

 

Eppu: This is a tough one. I don’t think I really have one. In general, I’m more drawn to the supporting characters in stories than the main character / protagonist, and ST:TOS is most definitely one of those cases. I find Kirk intolerable and McCoy a little too emotional for my preference, but the rest of the core cast offers more qualities I like: Spock’s cool head and nuggets of extremely dry humor; Uhura’s patience and dedication; Sulu’s enjoyment of life; Checkov’s nonchalance and ability to roll with the punches; Scotty’s inventiveness and flexibility in the face of an unrelenting barrage of technical problems.

The Next Generation

Picard2379Erik: Captain Picard. I’ll admit, it’s mostly Patrick Stewart’s acting chops that make the character for me, but I love Picard’s gravitas, his cool head in a crisis, and his humanity. I came of age with Next Generation, in the post-Cold-War world that believed in hope and human progress, and despite what we have lived through in the last few decades, I still carry some of that optimism with me. Picard’s compassion and level-headedness are the solid ground on which the moral universe of Next Generation rests.

Memory Alpha GuinanEppu: Guinan! She stares in the face of her people’s diaspora and stays serene, but is not shy about pulling out the rifle stashed behind the bar when needed. Even if she was written as a supporting cast member, Guinan gets some brilliant moments of character development, like when she begins to question her black-or-white attitude to the Borg in the season 5 episode I Borg. Also, Whoopi Goldberg’s performance is fa-bu-lous. Every scene where Patrick Stewart and Goldberg appear together, no matter how simple, is golden.

Deep Space Nine

JadziaDax2374Erik: Jadzia Dax. Specifically the later-seasons’ Jadzia Dax: not the ethereal above-it-all beauty of the first season, but the wise-cracking, tongo-playing, bat’leth-slinging, unflappable smart-ass and scientist extraordinaire that she developed into by the third. Not that I’m much for practicing Klingon martial arts or playing Ferengi card games into the wee hours, but I love the self-possession with which she does everything. She reminds me of some of the great professors I had in college, the ones who loved teaching their subjects, did it with passion and commitment, and didn’t much care what anyone outside the classroom thought of them.

Eppu: Doctor Bashir. We rarely get to see such a full personal growth arc as we see with Bashir. When he arrived to the station, he was so wet behind the ears his whole being basically emanated green. To follow him from firmly planting his foot in his mouth in those early episodes, to his worshipful puppy-love towards Dax, to his growing confidence in his position and friendships, to adjusting to the fact that his much-appreciated intellectual abilities were grafted onto him in an illegal procedure and not in-born, to maturing into a confident, capable officer, supportive and loyal to his friends, is a delight. I also love Bashir’s relationship with Garak, and how the spy-turned-tailor educates our man Bashir about the larger world beyond the Federation.

Voyager

Tuvok2377Erik: Tuvok. Tim Russ did a masterful job taking up the Vulcan mantle from Leonard Nimoy. While many actors cast as Vulcans come off as robotic or bored, Russ’s Tuvok showed us that self-control can be just as interesting as unbridled passion. As someone who isn’t often emotionally expressive, it’s nice to see a similar character on screen (and without the presumption that he is damaged or needs to “loosen up.”)

 

 

Eppu: Chakotay. He embodies quiet get-it-done effectiveness and deep emotions without being abrasive. Respectful towards and supportive of – even if not always in complete agreement with – Captain Janeway through thick and thin. It’s also very refreshing that no romance was artificially forced into the relationship between Janeway and Chakotay: they just slowly became and remained friends.

Enterprise

Erik: I don’t have one. The show never really worked for me, which is too bad, because I love the concept and some of the details. I kind of wish whoever owns the franchise now would stuff Enterprise into the memory black hole and start over from the basic concept of humanity’s first interstellar exploration and the founding of the Federation instead of the soulless reboot movies we’re getting.

Eppu: Never saw all of it, and I don’t remember it well. As much as I can have a favorite character, it’s a three-way tie between Hoshi Sato, T’Pol, and Tucker.

Mashup Eppu Enterprise Favorites

Who are your favorites and why? Share in the comments!

Images: Spock via Memory Alpha. Picard via Memory Alpha. Guinan via Memory Alpha. Jadzia Dax via Memory Alpha. Julian Bashir via TrekCore. Tuvok via Memory Alpha. Chakotay via Memory Alpha. Hoshi Sato via Memory Alpha. T’Pol via Memory Alpha. Tucker via Memory Alpha

Creative Differences is an occasional feature in which we discuss a topic or question that we both find interesting. Hear from both of us about whatever’s on our minds.