Bob had everything he needed on the counter before him: scale, plastic baggies, and french fries. Now, he could begin…
He dove his hand into the tub of fries and snatched a handful. With his other hand, he tore off a plastic baggy and whipped it open. Then he joined the two into the ultimate restaurant side dish—a baggy of french fries.
But he wasn’t done yet. Its weight had to be exact: 170 grams. No more, no less. He’d seen what happened when you were even half a gram over or under, and the memory of his coworker after she stepped out of the manager’s office sent a shiver up his spine.
He plopped the baggy on the scale and waited for it to settle. A bead of sweat ran from his temple down to his jawline. This shaking was taking too long. The rattling of his heart inside his rib cage would drive him mad long before he had a definite measurement.
The scale finally stopped.
“You’re not thinking of serving that, are you?”
The air around Bob went frigid. It was comparable to the walk-in freezer, but the walk-in would only kill a man slowly. What was causing this cold snap was something that could end a man in seconds…
“N-N-No, m-ma’am…I was just c-correct-t-ting it right n-n-now…”
It was do or die now. The district manager wasn’t a patient woman. She wouldn’t stand for him adding and removing fries until the weight was spot-on. Time was money, and so was too many fries in one bag, and too few was an unsatisfied customer. Unless Bob grabbed the perfect fry from the bag, he could only pray that his end was a swift one.
He reached in, hand shaking, fingers quivering.
Be still…Be still…..
He pinched a fry between two fingers, pulled it out. He had been doing this job long enough that he had developed a sixth sense for fry dimensions, but that didn’t make moments like this any less tense.
Bob gingerly settled the lone french fry into the underweight baggy and watched and waited as the scale readjusted itself. He hulped.
“Hmph.” The district manager huffed through her nostrils, then moved on. The air returned to its previous temperature.
“Haaaaaaaaaa….” Bob’s body transformed into jelly now that his tensed-up muscles could relax. Working this job was stressful. He needed a vacation. But that would have to wait. He still had a job to do.
“All right!” After giving himself encouragement, he finished what he started. He spun the baggy closed, tossed it in the empty tub to the side, and repeated this process on rapid-fire until he had no more fries left to bag. He also kept his eyes peeled for the district manager in the meantime…
If after reading that 247-word story you think that prepping fries sounds like the most thrilling food-related activity out there, congratulations, you just experienced the wonderful process known as romanticization. Romanticization, a term I completely made up for purposes of this blog post, is the process of turning something typically unexciting, uneventful, or just flat-out unlikable and making it the opposite of those adjectives.
You don’t have to look far to find a romanticized work of anything. Westerns have made moving out to the wild west a fantasy for hot-blooded Americans, completely disregarding the fact that living in a scorching, bone-dry landscape isn’t a lot of fun, unless you’re a cactus.
Provided I did my job as a writer right, a pure soul unmarred by the follies of a 9-5 job might easily be led to believe that bagging french fries could only be a suspenseful battle between worker and frozen potato slices, with management as a lingering threat. If I wanted to add the flare of realism, however, I would write it as such…
Bob cleared from the metallic restaurant prep counter the couple of random items covering it, and then got a number of supplies from around the back of the house. He got a large large plastic bin from a high shelf bolted into the wall across from the dish room, six brown paper bags of frozen french fries from the walk-in freezer, and a box of plastic baggies and a scale from the shelf above the prep counter. He set these things up how he was comfortable: fry bags to his left, baggies and scale in front of him, and tub on his right. Then he got to work.
He opened the first fry bag with a strong pull, then once it was open, he grabbed a handful of french fries, opened a baggy with his free hand, put the fries in the newly opened baggy, and set the filled baggy on the scale. The addition of weight on the scale’s platform caused it to bob up and down a few times, the dull red needle below bobbing with it. Bob had to wait for it to settle before he could read the weight, and only when it did stop was he able to see that the baggy of fries was one hundred and sixty-two grams.
He plucked a small french fry from the pile, added it to the baggy, then picked another, because the last one didn’t weigh eight grams.
The new weight was one hundred and seventy-two grams. That was slightly overweight, but two grams wasn’t cause for concern. It was when the weight was under or over by ten that management started taking issue with the measurements.
Speaking of, the district manager, she walked by. She stopped by now and then to make sure the staff was operating by the book, or that was what Bob thought her job description was. He wasn’t sure. He felt she was too intrusive, so he never liked her enough to ask her the details on what it was she did for a living.
He twisted the baggy closed, tucked the closed opening under, and set the prepped side dish in the empty tub to his side. Then he opened another baggy, grabbed another handful of fries, and put them together on the scale. The weight was one hundred and sixty-seven grams. That was a good weight, so he closed the bag and set it beside the first.
Bob opened a third baggy, and as he grabbed more french fries, he wondered what he would have for dinner. Working in a restaurant theoretically answered that question every night, but he wasn’t allowed free meals. He got a fifty percent discount, but he couldn’t afford to eat here all the time. He treated himself now and then, but for the most part, he cooked for himself at home.
The third baggy weighed one hundred and sixty grams. He added small fries until he got the weight to one hundred and sixty-nine grams. So close to a perfect weight.
He closed it and lined it with the other two, then he opened a fourth baggy. He struggled with this one a little because it was sealed improperly, but it was still usable, so he filled it with fries and laid it on the scale. This time, he was one gram over the limit. He closed this bag, put it with the rest, and grabbed a fifth baggy but dropped it on the floor. Anything that fell to the floor was instantly trash or needed to go to the dish room, so he grabbed a new baggy. He would pick up the one on the floor when he was done prepping. It was easier to clean at the end than constantly pick up dropped things.
He filled the replacement baggy, put it on the scale, and waited for the scale to settle. When it did, the needle pointed to one hundred and fifty-five grams. That was too few fries, so he added small ones until he increased the weight by eleven. That weight was good enough for him, so he closed the baggy, finished the first row in the tub, then got a baggy to start the next row.
See? Isn’t that so much worse? Didn’t reading that make you wanna bludgeon yourself with a spatula so that you didn’t have to read it? Hell, I felt that exact way when working that job. Hell, I’m writing this very paragraph from the emergency room because I impaled myself with a can opener in hopes that the shock and blood loss would render me unable to continue typing. Unfortunately, my consciousness is a mighty lion hellbent on providing entertainment to you, beautiful reader, despite the health risks involved.
Anyway, the work which inspired this post was Dr. Stone, one of the top series currently serialized in the infamous Shonen Jump. I’ve touched on this series twice now, but this time for real I’ll be doing a deep-dive rather than splashing my toes around.
The manga follows Taiju Oki, who’s about to confess to the girl he likes when he, the girl he likes, and literally every other person on planet Earth gets turned to stone. Fast-forward 3,700 years and he breaks free from being a statue, but then the story decides it doesn’t like him as a protagonist, so it switches over to Senku, man of science and contender for Best Evil Scientist Do.
I’m not certain whether I’ve driven home this point before, so I’m going to be up-front this time—I really like Dr. Rock. More than that, it breaks the precedent of me writing about works which guff something up, which means that it’s the first series I’m writing about which does something right! Amazing, isn’t it?! So hard to believe I think my heart’s giving out.
The main selling point of this series is how, since civilization is reset, Senku and his merry band reinvent previous scientific inventions, such as furnaces, waterwheels, and even antibiotics using nothing but the natural resources around them and his impossibly extensive knowledge on everything science. As a champion of science myself, I got all giggly like a little schoolboy playing a prank whenever Senku scienced glue into existence by bashing two rocks together.
There’s a catch to the excitement Dr. Pebble breathes into science, however, and it’s that it has to romanticize the discipline in order to do so.
We’ve all seen or done some experiment that makes us clap our hands to our faces in shock and exclaim how science is the coolest thing since ice cube trays. Look around—there’s science literally everywhere. Your bedroom lamp, the AC, the screen you’re reading these words with? All science all day. Finding out how any of this stuff works is just a google away, but if you tried creating a light bulb without the tiniest morsel of the anatomy of a light bulb or how one functions, you would sooner set the world’s forests on fire than you are to forge a running bulb. When you did manage to hash one together, it would be like magic, but before that, it’s just a lot of trial-and-error.
A common rule of writing is to get choppy with the boring bits, so as phenomenally influential as Einstein’s equations are on modern society, a film faithful to his exact process would be a practical still-shot of him hunched over his desk. To lessen the chance of the audience from scrolling through Facebook on their phone, these hours and hours of Einstein’s life would have to be shortened to six-second clips, but this heavy editing, when you get down to it, is what romanticization is all about.
Since Senku knows how to recreate the Large Hadron Collider from memory, the panels skip past the trial-and-error process, sheering off about 95% of the work. But Dr. Opal goes one step further and largely skips over the manual labor involved in constructing such a beast. It explains the step-by-step and shows snippets of it, but it leaves in just enough that you understand what they’re doing and leaves out the drawn-out parts. In chapter 21, they need to heat iron sand and charcoal up to 1,500 degrees to melt it down into iron, and it’s a pain-staking procedure which they endure for several hours before their arms fall off and one child is lost in the endeavor. And their efforts are a total bust, to boot. Realistically, labor laws would be written in response to this, but the manga makes it enjoyable by doing a “best of” montage and playing up a comedic factor through its visuals and character reactions. So through all that, you begin thinking of what fun it would be to participate in this torturous 9-5.
Take a gander at this photo and grade it on its pleasing-to-the-eyeness.
Huh. That’s kinda cute. A lil’ snowman head sitting on a wooden case against some curtains. Kawaii. 6/10.
But what happens if we were to zoom it out?
Not so romantic anymore, is it? (I think I might have nightmares for the next 3½ months.)
Just like how we crop out all the stuff we don’t want for a picture, romanticization is all about how you frame a story, and there are three super sciencey steps* to pulling it off.
(*Super sciencey steps not peer-reviewed.)
Super sciencey step no. 1: take out the boring stuff of the thing.
When the one of the major projects of Senku and his motley crew is creating a cellphone, one of the materials they need is copper wiring, and to make that, what they need to do is twine together threads of copper until you have a strand long enough that you can go fishing in the next county over. If your experience to copper wiring is Dr. Emerald, then you’re in for a sore disappointment when you realize that the manga presses the skip button on this process. Just replace “french fries” with “copper wiring” in the unromanticized version of my story on Bob prepping restaurant french fries and you’ll get the idea of what that’s really like.
Super sciency step numero two: talk up the thing.
My mother watches a lot of cooking shows, the high points of which are when the judges eliminate competing chefs because their potatoes are slightly too salty. It holds its own entertainment factor, but it’s hard to get a sense of how much a judge likes a dish when they just sit there and talk about it. Enter Food Wars!, in which people enjoy food so much that they have orgasms the likes of which they’ve never orgasmed. It’s a narrative ploy which makes such a spectacle out of tasting food that it could convince husbands to become master chefs to really make their wives go nuts.
Super sciency step numba III: don’t say anything bad about the thing.
How many of you have wanted to attend a Japanese high school after watching an anime or reading a manga whose primary setting is the school? I know I have. That’s the power of omitting how long the classes are, how students just sit there and listen to the teacher drone on and on the entire period, and societal expectations that your life success hinges on how big of a number you get on your exams. When a school setting shows you how fun it is to chillax and chitchat with friends and test scores are nothing more than a MacGuffin, it makes one want to get overnight shipping on a sailor fuku and enroll in a Japanese high school.
Romanticization is great, but what if you don’t want your story to be so enjoyable? Maybe you want to make a work so unromanticized that your audience will find more thrills in scrubbing down their bathroom with a taxidermied hedgehog. If that’s your cup of tea, be prepared to write in excruciating detail the monotonous, tedious process of preparing a cup of tea, because not romanticizing a story is about doing the opposite of romanticizing it.
Step Leave in the Boring Stuff
There are two things I remember from the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya: Endless Eight and ̶H̶a̶r̶u̶h̶i̶ ̶i̶n̶ ̶a̶ ̶b̶u̶n̶n̶y̶ ̶g̶i̶r̶l̶ ̶o̶u̶t̶f̶i̶t̶ the final episode of the first season (the final episode if you watch it as part of the 2009 rebroadcast), which has the plot of Kyo and Haruhi going to buy a heater, while Yuki sits in the clubroom and reads. That’s not even a summary; literally, the episode is just two of the main characters running an errand and what are practically still shots of another reading a book. Despite the genre’s name “slice of life,” the life being sliced tends to be a romanticized version of real life, and this episode cranks up the realism factor so much that we’re reminded of just how dull life is and why it is that we enjoy the rest of this series, except for Endless Eight.
Step Keep the Stuff As Is
The Devil is a Part-timer is a series I have something of a love-hate relationship with. The first two volumes are written with a dry wit which uses big, formal words in mundane situations in which big, formal words ordinarily are not reserved. But it begins abandoning this style by the third novel, and by the time the seventh novel kicks out, what we’ve got is a girl assembling somebody’s fast-food order. She doesn’t screw up, make a spectacle out of it, or see Billy Joel’s face in the vegetable oil bubbles. Really, I could read that scene, then go order a meal from McDonald’s and not be able to tell the difference between the two.
Step Announce to the World How Bad the Stuff Is
General consensus among decent people is that the Nazis were a bad bunch, so it comes as no surprise when every WWII FPS in existence makes curb-stomping the Third Reich into an American pastime. But go and watch Saving Private Ryan and suddenly storming Omaha isn’t so glorious. There’s blood, there’s gore, there’s some dude throwing up on a boat. Veterans who saw that movie, and that scene in particular, said that that depiction was pretty much spot-on for what the actual D-Day invasion was like. Nothing but death and destruction, yet we still look upon that entire war with starry-eyed glee.
As I put out there earlier, romanticization isn’t something we consciously think about. If reading/watching That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime inspired you to outline your own isekai about a single nobody male protagonist who becomes influential, popular, and a lady’s man in a high fantasy realm whose inhabitants talk about their levels with the same nonchalant they would for their high cholesterol, you just romanticized living in a medieval setting, where rats spread diseases like springtime pollen and you go to the john in plain view of everyone if you live in a castle. Case studies like Re:Zero seemingly bury any attempts at romanticization after bludgeoning them with a mace, but even this series makes Subaru’s predicament enviable to a degree through his triumphs and adorable waifus. When you get down to it, every story is romanticized. Otherwise, we wouldn’t enjoy them.