Heroes Never Rust #100 by Sean Ironman
1985: Adequacy is Okay
At the end of issue one of Marvel’s 1985, Toby, the protagonist, runs into the Hulk one night in the woods. The second issue picks up from that point, with the Hulk asking Toby if he’s seen the Juggernaut, who is apparently causing trouble. To many people, the Hulk is thought to be the mindless alter ego of Bruce Banner, who is the intelligent scientist. While that is true in the comics, for the most part, there have been times where Banner has been able to control the Hulk and speak normally. The mid-eighties was one of these times. But, because many readers may be put off by a Hulk that speaks intelligently, the Hulk tells Toby, “Please, there’s no need to be afraid. My monstrous id has been completely suppressed by my academic super-ego.” The line has no bearing on the story. It furthers no plot, and it doesn’t even further that scene. It’s only role is as exposition, so the reader is not confused by the Hulk acting differently than the reader may expect. The line is not interesting, but it is inoffensive. The line is adequate, in that it does what it must, and then the story moves on.
The dialogue reminded me of a moment last week at the New Harmony Writers Workshop in New Harmony, Indiana. My workshop instructor was Stuart Dybek. During a discussion on one writer’s short story, Dybek told an anecdote (he seems to love anecdotes) of his son’s first novel. He recalled one section of prose and said that the section was not good but it got the job done. It was adequate, Dybek said. But, sometimes, adequate is the best we can do.
In university courses, I was taught each word must be perfect, must be chosen carefully. With my own creative writing, I pour over it dozens of times working out not only the characters and scenes, but every description, every line of dialogue, everything. I believe a writer must write good sentences, I do. And I also believe some writers spend too long concentrating on sentences and the story escapes them (one of the reasons I believe literary fiction is not very popular these days). Sometimes, though, I believe, as Dybek said, the best we can do is adequate. How many novels have at least one mistake in them? Or if you don’t want to call it a mistake, one thing that could be better? How many memoirs? Poems? Films? Comics? I’m not speaking about bad sentences, unclear constructions, or the reliance on clichés. I’m merely talking about the descriptions or dialogue or any other sentence that will not go down in history as interesting. These adequate sections do their job and are not so terrible to distract readers. I feel that I should avoid suggesting a writer should strive toward adequacy because I know that if every sentence is merely adequate, the story will suffer. But, perhaps writers should be happy with a story as long as it hits the emotional beats the writer set out for, even if a sentence or two will never be described as great.
Many years ago, I wrote mainly screenplays. I wanted to work in comics and in film. One lesson I was taught about screenwriting was that a good screenplay needed just three excellent scenes. If it had three excellent scenes, the audience would enjoy the movie. The other scenes couldn’t be bad, but they didn’t have to be great. At the time, I found it offensive, like the instructor was trying to say we couldn’t write a film filled with great scenes so to aim lower. But, I am starting to see the truth in that argument. When I think of a great film like Goodfellas, I don’t think of every scene, of every moment. I think of the long shot of Ray Liotta taking Lorraine Bracco through the club. I think of the montage set to “Layla.” I think of individual moments and lines of dialogue. That goes with any film, any novel, any memoir. Moments stick out to me but not the whole narrative.
Adequacy in small areas of a story should not be looked down on. Writer Mark Millar needed to tell the reader that the Hulk can talk, to not be confused. Perhaps he could have thought long and hard and come up with something amazing, but perhaps not. Not all parts to a car are beautiful. Not all parts to a house. There should be amazing moments in a story, as well as wonderful lines of dialogue and interesting descriptions, but don’t lose sight of what you’re trying to do. If the point gets across to the reader for something that doesn’t need a lot of attention, adequacy will do just fine.
Sean Ironman (Episode 102) earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s Chronicle, Redivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.