Coming To Our Separate Senses

(This column is posted at, Steve’s Tumblr, and Pillowfort.  Find out more at my newsletter, and all my social media at my

You may remember my earlier post on “granularity” as a measure of quality of story.  My take was that good work has a level of detail, much as a visual work does.  Some works of broad tropes may be big, colorful detail (like an 8 bit game), others may have fine, subtle detail (like a realistic painting).  I felt the visual metaphor was useful.

In a discussion with my friend Serdar, he brought up how he had a similar term for good works – pungent.  That work that has a power to it that brings a reaction just the way a strong smell does.  Pleasant or unpleasant, it has a certain something that draws you in, a depth.

I went with sight as a metaphor.  He went with smell a metaphor.  I suggested we should find other metaphors using the remaining senses, but by the time the joke was made I took it seriously.  Why not experiment with metaphors to understand creativity?  My creative friends and I are always trying to find metaphors to understand what makes creative work good.

Writers, artist, cosplayers, etc. want to know what’s good, but creativity is not so easily classified.  But exchanging metaphors and comparisons like this?  That’s valuable, small signs and milestones to help us get where we’re going.

(OK now I’m using a map metaphor.  See what I mean?)

By taking a moment to think about good works as pungent (as opposed to my granular), I gain a new way to appreciate good works and improve my own.  Is this story I’m considering more soy sauce or fermented pepper paste?  Should a blog post be like a delightful smell that lures you in, or the punch-in-the-nose scent that gets your attention?  For that matter, could I be writing something so bland there’s no “scent” at all?

I invite you to exchange metaphors and brainstorm them with your creative friends.  See what kind of visceral relations and comparisons you can come up with.  Your differences will probably lead you to some informative places . . .
They may even lead to metaphors that are pungent.  Or granular.  Or use some other sense . . .

Steven Savage

The Granularity of Good Stories

(This column is posted at, Steve’s Tumblr, and Pillowfort.  Find out more at my newsletter, and all my social media at my

Why can some stories with broad strokes – tropes really – satisfy us while others disappoint?  This subject came up in a writers’ group when we discussed tropes, and someone noticed simple stories of good versus evil could still satisfy as much as complex ones.  I responded that simple stories can still have depth as surely as a more nuanced work, because both had granularity.

However I wasn’t sure why I was saying that.  I could visualize what I meant, so to put it into words, I wrote this.

When we think granularity, we think of the level of detail in a report, a game’s graphics, or just a description’s detail.  Some things are “big and chunky” (8-bit game graphics), and others are “fine-grained” (research data catching differences among subjects).  Good stories, worldbuilding, and characters also have granularity – but the kind varies.

Look at what is often considered a “good” book or movie.  There’s depth to the characters and setting.  There’s subtle detail about motivations, political history presented subtly that still gives you a century’s events and Checkov’s guns that were more of an armory.  There are levels of fine detail there, like a painting of many colors and delicate brush strokes.

In short, “good” works are often ones with granularity, those details and extras that make it real in our minds.

But what of those simpler works we enjoy, one that may be very simple, trope-filled, or both?  Sure some are real simple, but aren’t many books and movies “good” without all the fine detail of other works?  In fact, I’d say yes – because a “good” work that’s simple or trope-filled can have granularity of a different kind.

The “good” broad, trope-filled book or show has granularity as well, just not at the level of more complex works.  Think of the difference between 8-bit graphics and modern cinematic videogames.  The first presents a world realized in big, colored, obvious dots.  The second is a subtle palette of colors and detail.  Both can delight, but they deliver a different experience.

The “good” book of broad strokes?  That’s the 8-bit game.  There are differences, there are details; they’re just big, obvious, and not always subtle.  But there is some level of granularity and detail, it’s just not the same or the same amount as other works.  It’s “chunky.”

A standard “charming rogue” character can be boring; we’ve seen that all before.  Let’s give them one trope of a soft spot – they never abandon their friends.  Next, throw in a flaw like overconfidence, another trope.  But that’s enough to tell an interesting tale about a person who’s dashing but not always responsible, never abandons people but overestimates their ability to do so.  Three tropes together give you enough depth to enjoy and feel something.

You need enough granularity to bring the characters and story to life.  Be it a “good” book of the incredible detail or a “good” show that is filled with tropes with enough big chunks of detail to give it meaning, you can enjoy yourself and the experience.

And you, my dear writer, just need to find what granularity does what you and your audience want.

Steven Savage

AI and Chatbots: Better Someone To Hate Than A Machine

(This column is posted at, Steve’s Tumblr, and Pillowfort.  Find out more at my newsletter, and all my social media at my

AI and Chatbots are in the news as people want to use them for everything – well at least until reality sets in.  Now I don’t oppose Chatbots/AI or automated help with a humanized interface.  I think there’s potential for it that will make our lives better.  They really are spicy autocomplete and there’s a role for that, even if we all remember how we hated Clippy.

The problem is that there’s too many cases people want to use so-called AI just replace humans.  I think it will go wrong in many ways because we want people to connect to, even if only to hate them.

If you’ve ever screamed “operator” into a phone after navigating some impossible number-punch menu you have a good idea of how Chatbots could be received.

When we need help or assistance, we want to talk to a person.  Maybe it’s for empathy.  Maybe it’s to have someone to scream at.  Either way we want a moral agent to talk to someone we know has an inner life, and principles, even if we disagree with them.

There’s something antisocial about chatbots just replacing humans.  It breaks society and it breaks our need for contact (or blame).

Have you ever observed some horrible computer or mechanical failure?  Have you imagined or participated in the lawsuits?  Imagine how that will go with Chatbots.

Technology gives us the ability to do things on a huge level – but also create horrible disasters.  Imagine what Chatbots can automate – financial aid, scientific research, emergency advice.  Now imagine that going wrong on a massive, tech-enabled scale.  Technology let us turn simple things into horrible crises.

If you have people along the way in the process?  They can provide checks.  They can make the ethical or practical call.  But when it’s all bots doing bot things with bots and talking to a person?  There’s that chance of ending up in the news for weeks, in government hearings for months, and lawsuits for years. 

(Hell, removing Chatbots removes some poor schmuck to take the blame, and a few people with more money and sense might find they really want that.)

Have you ever read a book or commissioned art and enjoyed working with the artist?  Chatbots and AI can make art without that connection.  Big deal.

Recently I read a person grouse about the cost of hiring an artist to do something – when they could just go to a program.  The thing is for many of us, an artistic connection over literature or art or whatever is also about connecting with a person.

When we know a person is behind something we know there’s something there.  We enjoy finding the meaning in the book, the little references, the empathic bond we form with them.  An artist listens to us, understands us, brings humanity to the work we request.  It makes things real.

I read a Terry Pratchett book because it’s Terry Pratchett.  I watch the Drawfee crew as it’s Jacob, Nathian, Julia, and Karina who I like.

Chatbot-generated content may be interesting or inspiring, but it’s just math that we drape our feelings around.  AI generated content is just a very effective Rorschach blot.  There’s no one to admire, learn from, or connect with behind it.

Humanity brings understanding, security, checks, and meaning.

So however the Chatbot/AI non-Revolution goes?  I think it will be both overdone and underwhelming.  It will include big lawsuits and sad headshakes.  But ultimately if there’s an attempt to Chatbot/AI everything, it’ll be boring and inhuman.

Well, boring and inhuman if we know there’s chatbots there.  It’s the hidden ones that worry me, but that’s for another post . . .

Steven Savage