This month we’re doing Slate Star Codex’s “…And I Show You How Deep The Rabbit Hole Goes.” I put this in the CC lineup because, first, it’s both charmingly thoughtful and hilarious, and also because I wanted to mix up story sources. There are good stories everywhere, and if I’m going to make a project out of pulling them apart and figuring out how they tick, so should go looking everywhere for them.
This was going around the internet fairly virulently a while back, and it’s no wonder. The structure of the story lends itself to binge reading and the end packs a punch that makes it easy to want to share. That structure is what I want to stare at for a bit today.
The graphic at the top of the story is useful to cluing the reader in to what’s going on, though it’s not necessary to follow the story. But using the chart as a guide for the structure does some interesting things. Through one choice and another, we wind up with a second person story that has eight different POVs. That’s eight different “you”s the reader is getting to be over the course of the story though, of course, they don’t all make it the whole way through.
People’s minds are heartbreaking. Not because people are so bad, but because they’re so good.
Starting the story off with an assertion like this tells us several things. First, it warns us that we’re in for a bit of a polemic; there’s a lot of authorial asserting going on to say this would be the experience of the yellow pill user. But it’s the sort of assertion people broadly like to hear, and it makes it easy to set up the Yellow-You as a sympathetic protagonist. Originally there were avaricious motives – who wouldn’t look at that opportunity and pick the thing they think would most improve their life? – but when the reality that people are generally good and hurting comes through, those selfish motives get dropped in favor of an attempt to help and, ultimately, social isolation. It’s a tragedy, but one the story doesn’t allow to leave as a mere tragedy.
It always thinks that it is a good bear, a proper bear, that a bear-hating world has it out for them in particular.
This line does a lot of work in the story. First, it makes it clear that while there is a polemic in this story, it’s there for the entertainment, too. It’s funny, to think of a bear carrying along with the same interior monologue as everybody you bump into on city streets. But it also sets up a very nice segue into the next section where Green-You is going to turn into animals, while establishing that this isn’t so very weird, inside that reality, since bears at least are just hanging out in the woods with really great fur suits.
The fact that world building is happening, even here in this very short introductory segment where we’re getting you used to the idea of the pills not working out the way You expects, or perhaps even how you expect, is important. There are eight POVs here, but one overarching arc, so each POV needs to be contributing to that or else chaos and confusion.
The green section is very similar, but pushes what the yellow section does even further. Lots more humor, but also a significant ramping up of the consequences of the pills. Eight POV characters…woops. Make that seven. It’s funny, but it also tells us that there are real serious business consequences to being wreckless with the powers the pills give you. They do what they say on the label, but they don’t come with character shields.
Blue gives us even more of the critical-to-later world building while still passing things off as quirky and funny. The universe is big, but also very empty. Good To Know.
Orange. Oh man, I would never take the orange pill, I saw that twist coming from the outset. We’re still being funny, slipping in a didactic pointer, (it’s a polemic, or had you forgotten over the last few sections?) bit also putting our characters where we need them. Of the characters so far, Orange-You seems to be doing the best. Which, well, of course You are.
The Red section is great. Hey look, satire! Lots of funny here, with the kind of commentary that won’t feel didactic to the people laughing, and it sets up what winds up being a really important set piece for the functioning of the whole story. We know characters can get sent out of the story – one’s dead, another is off exploring the universe and disillusioned with Earth, and the audience for this story more or less assumes that Red and Pink are going to be written off and ignored.
And here I’m going to stop the section-by-section analysis, because that’s the critical piece of the structure that I think takes this story from one that’s easy to read through to one that’s easy to share. The author knows the audience, knows what assumptions they’re going to make, probably expected the “But I’m already frustrated with how incompetent everyone is,” response to the Orange pill section, and made toying with that a critical piece of the story’s structure.
Two acts and an epilogue. Act one is all the set piece laying we’ve already seen. Act Two is the Quest to solve the meta problem introduced in Act One. And the Epilogue is where we get the final resolution and find out that this was definitely a funny story, but the audience is, in part, the butt of the joke.
You had always known, deep down, that BRUTE STRENGTH was what was really important. And here, at the end of all things, it is deeply gratifying to finally be proven right.
Funny because it’s inarguably true while also being completely wrong. Without the Eggheads to build the stations and turbines and figure out that you’ve got a perpetual motion machine capable of bootstraping a new universe, that strength would be useless, but without the strength, all that knowledge and tech wouldn’t have done it. Nobody will ever convince Red-You of the nuances of the situation though, and that is where the story’s didactic thread rests at the end.
Next month we continue examinations of funny stories from unusual places with steve rogers: pr disaster by Idiopathicsmile