In Summary: How to Write a Synopsis

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This term is all about developing the individual novels that will become our final projects, so my next few blog posts might get a bit… focused. I’ll try to keep them generally useful, still!

Start at the very beginning

We’ve been looking at the synopsis to start with. This is comprised of two (or sometimes three) parts. The first is the pitch – a short opening paragraph that shouldn’t be more than two sentences long (around 75 words) which describes the book as a whole. For example:

Pride and Prejudice is a literary romance about a woman who falls in love with a man she thinks she hates.

Your pitch needs to include your title, an indication of genre, time period, and primary theme. It also needs to pique the interest enough for agents to read further. They’re busy people – if they can get away with just reading one or two sentences before deciding the book isn’t for them, they will. Give them a reason to keep reading.

My pitch – prior to input from the tutor, which I’ve not had yet – looks like this:

London Under, an urban fantasy, follows DI Mariko Sato as she investigates a murder that could trigger a gang war. As Mariko falls for the main murder suspect, who draws her deeper into London’s fantastical underworld, she must choose between duty and desire.

Would that make you want to keep reading? Any suggestions for improvement?!

The term ‘pitch’, by the way, apparently comes from the delightful habit the Spanish Inquisition developed when torturing playwrights. Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada told them that, if they could interest him in an idea, he would let them live long enough to write it. If they failed they were dropped into a large vat of boiling tar, or pitch. No pressure, then.

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Not cool, guys. Not cool.

 

A brief description of the contents of something

That’s the dictionary definition of a synopsis. The key word there is ‘brief’ – no more than 500 words. Writing effective summaries is hard work, y’all, especially when you know the details in so much depth that you’re not sure how to leave them out. Or especially when you don’t know the details and are slightly woolly on the structure of the story.

There’s a couple of stylistic guidelines you should stick to when writing a synopsis:

  1. Use present tense. Apparently it makes it ‘immediate’. No idea, but they all are so just go with it.
  2. When you first introduce a character name, use capital letters.
  3. Limit the number of character names you mention, as hard as possible. No more than five.
  4. DO specify time period.
  5. DO specify the setting (end of Thatcher’s government? American backwater town? Bustling space-port?).
  6. DON’T give a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. This is an overview of the key dramatic points.

On the subject of overviews, the thing I found hardest was excluding information on sub-plots. My book has at least three sub-plots going on and they all tie into the main plot somehow. Not including them in the synopsis feels almost like misleading the agent on what the story is about, because what you end up presenting is just bare bones. But including them whilst keeping to the word limit of 500 makes the synopsis crowded with details to the point of unreadability.

One question which came up is the style in which you introduce your protagonist. I started my synopsis like this:

MARIKO SATO is single, a detective, and too busy to do the washing up – all things her mother deplores. She’s also developing a serious crush on the niece of her current homicide victim.

Now, technically a good two-thirds of that first sentence aren’t critical to the main plot (although they do tie into some of the subplots). One of my colleagues on the course questioned whether it was worth the word count to include it. Another asked why I hadn’t introduced any of the other characters with flavour text like this – they got a good sense of who Mariko was, but nobody else. I suspect, like all things, there’s a balance to be achieved here but I don’t know what it is. I’m hoping the course tutor will have some words of wisdom on the subject – if so, I’ll share them next week!

And finally…

The third, and optional, bit is the theme. If your book is about a wider idea – if you’re examining something about society outside the fictional – then one brief sentence outlining what that is can be included. This is more common for film synopsis than written ones, but I found it quite helpful. Theme isn’t the same thing as plot, by the way. It’s a bit more conceptual than that.

Here’s mine, by way of example:

How far people will go for duty, and how far they’ll go for love.

There was also quite a lot of discussion about what ‘plot’ actually means, as compared to ‘story’. Aristotle got quoted. Tune in next week to find out why that whole conversation is important in the first place!

Fact vs Fiction: The Psychology of Storytelling

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There are, according to Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner, two ways of processing ideas and understanding them, of ordering experience and constructing reality. One is based on logic, verifiable fact or empirical proof. The other is based on how it feels and resonates. Or, as literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin put it:

Only the storyteller can transmute information — be it in the form of “objective” fact or “subjective” experience — into wisdom. ~ How the Novel & the News Killed Storytelling

Knowing vs Believing

There’s a fundamental difference between knowing something, and believing it. One is rational, one is emotional. To get personal for a second, it’s a major disconnect that I struggle with when dealing with depression. I know I can put words on paper in a way people enjoy – there’s empirical proof in the feedback from readers, in the fact my short stories are getting published, in the number of Twitterature followers I have. But I don’t always believe it.

I know 2+2 = 4. That’s information which engages my brain but absolutely no emotion. (I’m just not that into maths. If algebra does it for you, who am I to judge?)

I believe sunsets are beautiful. There’s no empirical evidence to support this statement, but watching a good sunset fills me with happiness. The response comes from my heart, not my head.

We live in the Age of Information. There’s more data available than ever before, more stats and numbers and analysis. It’s easy to forget people can use that information to tell stories, to makes us accept things emotionally by presenting them empirically. And belief is much stronger than knowledge.

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History According To Hollywood

There are a number of films which my friends can’t watch. Dr. Nick, naval architect, frowns at U-571; Andrew Knighton, historian, shouts at Braveheart; I, classicist, throw things at Troy. A lot of people have a film, or a book, which enrages them because it’s inaccurate. But for those who aren’t experts in that particular field, it’s their source of information. And because it’s told as a story, engaging them emotionally rather than cerebrally, they believe it.

 

You need people to believe your stories. Emotional engagement is how you keep them reading to the end. But by tapping into their emotions, you’re also teaching them, however inadvertently. If you’ve done your job as a writer, they will walk away believing in your world, in your characters, in their moral struggles and social acceptances.

That means we have a responsibility to know what it is our stories are teaching people, and to ensure it’s something we want to teach. To turn cognitive thoughts into emotional wisdom, via words on the page. So how do we do this?

In contrast to our vast knowledge of how science and logical reasoning proceed, we know precious little in any formal sense about how to make good stories. ~ Jerome Bruner, The Psychology of What Makes a Great Story

Thanks, Jer. Real helpful.

 

The Colour of Characters: Race & Ethnicity in Fantasy

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Picking up from last week, I want to talk a bit more about representation in fiction. For the purposes of disclosure, I should state at the beginning that I am a white Western heterosexual CIS woman, so the only kind of ‘minority’ issues I’ve ever personally encountered are grounded in sexism. But I have friends who’ve had to put up with the stupidity of bigots, I’ve done some research, and I’m capable of empathy. That doesn’t mean I know anything like all the aspects around this subject – if I’ve missed or misunderstood something, please educate me. The only way we can improve is through shared experience.

Reinforce or Resist

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Sign in an Australian pub in March 2014. Spot the stereotyping. And the racism.

I put ‘writing to reinforce or resist’ in the title of the previous blog post but I never really went into what that means. Basically, there exists a stereotype of every different section of society – be that based on colour, country, gender, sexual preference, religion, etc. When you’re writing about a section that isn’t the one you belong to, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of using the stereotype to build your characters. That reinforces the stereotype, perpetuating it in the minds of your audience. Sometimes it’s done out of laziness, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes by design. One of the best ways to ensure the status quo continues is to keep telling people that the minorities are lazy, or criminal, or perverted – some version of undesirable which justifies keeping them down.

When you write a ‘minority’ character (and yes, I’m using those quote marks deliberately because more of the world is, say, Asian than any other racial type combined), you either reinforce that stereotype or you resist it. Reinforcing it is, as I said, either lazy (do better), ignorant (research your story), or deliberate (your politics and mine are going to have serious disagreements). Resist the stereotypes.

Represent

I’m going to quote myself from last week: ‘Non-Western cultures and perspectives still get very limited representation in the English-speaking market, so every writer that uses them is making a strong statement.’ But it’s much bigger than just non-Western. There’s so few POC characters in SFF. There’s even fewer queer characters.

As a writer of mixed descent (half-Chinese, half-white) who was a voracious reader as a child, I never saw myself in the kind of books that I devoured: fantasy and science fiction, adventure and romance… It seemed like readers would rather accept talking dragons than a mixed-race princess… The only solution left for me was to write one. ~ Amy McCulloch, Guardian article

Go reach McCulloch’s full article – it’s not long and she makes some great points, but they all boil down to this: we need greater diversity of character. SFF writers are capable of world-building fantastic and complex societies. Surely we can do better than one skin tone. In fact, it’s essential we do because our audience is certainly more diverse. Anyone who isn’t sure about the importance of representation need only read this account of seeing autism in Guardians of the Galaxy, or this viewer’s response to Diego Luna’s accent in Rogue One, or look back to this photo of a child meeting one of the stars of 2016’s Ghostbusters remake:

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This went viral because it proved an ‘all-girls’ Ghostbuster film was not, in fact, a terrible idea no one would enjoy

We get our rolemodels from the people around us and the material we consume. If that material repeatedly shows us only white men are ghostbusters, or fire fighters, or woodcutters, then we assume no one else is allowed. But if we start to show people outside that narrow parameter getting involved then we give the world billions more who believe they can kick spectral ass.

Just because we write SFF, that doesn’t let us off the hook. We have a responsibility.

Historical Accuracy

The standard excuse for not including diversity in SFF based on real world periods is because it isn’t historically accurate.

  1. Is that an elf riding a dragon over there? I do believe it is. Didn’t see many of them around in 12th Century Germany.
  2. Shut up and read this: Diversity in Historical Fantasy by Mary Robinette Kowal
  3. Or this: Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy by Tor Publishing
  4. Or this: Gender & Sterotyping in Fantasy by Fantasy Faction

Now, there are some people who might say ‘that excuse stopped being used years ago’. I would love for that to be true. I really would. But I have a friend who, not all that long ago, was told she couldn’t be a military general in a LARP game because she’s a woman. This stuff doesn’t go away if we stop talking about it, and it certainly doesn’t stop existing just because you personally don’t see it.

“It’s amazing what you notice when you just look up for 5 minutes and see what’s going on.” – RA Smith, Representation, Whitewashing & Internationalism panel, LonCon 2014

And speaking of history, I’m going to get political. The US is just about to swear in a new president. One who is on record for making incredibly denigrating comments about women, the disabled, foreigners, and religions other than Christianity. As Meryl Streep said at the Golden Globes:

“This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.” – watch the full speech here

It is more vital than ever that we show our readers colourful, varied, socially complex worlds – worlds where ‘different’ doesn’t mean ‘wrong’ – before they start believing anyone who isn’t white, Western, able-bodied, straight and CIS male is less important and can be treated as such.

Don’t reinforce the stereotypes. Resist, research and represent.

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Class & Race: Writing to Reinforce or Resist

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The final few weeks of the last university term were all around certain aspects of character portrayal – notably, where are they from in both the economic and genetic sense. This is something it’s really easy to get wrong when writing characters. Especially if it’s a different one to yours.

Now, in the SFF world, you might think you’ve got a little more latitude. Who’s going to tell you how dwarves really speak, or the racial challenges greenskins face? But these things are much more powerful if you anchor them in something real and relatable. And even with made-up aspects, it’s still possible to do it badly.

Relative Distance

Distance between author, character and reader is something I harped on quite a lot about at the end of last year, and it’s still relevant here. If, for example, your character is from a very poor area, you still need to write about them as a person and not – as Somerset Maugham did in Liza of Lambeth – like a specimen under observation. Maugham used descriptive language that was completely alien to the slum setting, and clearly set the authorial voice at a distance from the lives of his characters. That automatically puts distance between the character and the reader, which makes it way harder for the audience to engage. 

Bear in mind, of course, that your characters can buy into the stereotypes about each other. That creates internal tension and lets you play with breaking them down – or not, if you don’t want to. Just be aware of what the stereotypes are and, if you use them, do so deliberately!

Incidentally, this doesn’t just apply to the characters’ views of each other. What stereotypes do the characters believe about themselves? Either on a personal level, or because society is telling them it’s true. By way of example, here’s a passage by black writer Zora Neale Hurston, who was talking to Harlem in 1950:

…the folklore of “reversion to type.” This curious doctrine has such wide acceptance that it is tragic. No matter how high we may seem to climb, put us under strain and we revert to type, that is, to the bush. Under a superficial layer of western culture, the jungle drums throb in our veins. ~ ‘What White Publishers Won’t Print’, written for Negro Digest Magazine

Speech & Dialect

Okay, this is a tricky one and there’s no right/wrong answer. The easy and obvious part is: use language that is appropriate for your character’s background. That may take some research. Don’t fall into the trap of assumptions and caricatures.

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The hard part is dialect. Do you write phonetically or not? Some people do, some don’t. The real challenge here is to get the reader hearing the right accent in their head without making it so hard for them to read the words that they’re jolted right out of immersion. If they have to stop and translate / sound out what you’ve written, you’ve lost them. Some dialect is easy to transcribe – ‘gonna’, for example, is clearly indicative of how the character speaks but also highly legible. But if you write the entire conversation in a phonetically transcribed thick Scottish accent, it’s going to slow the reader down at best and make them skip the whole passage at worst.

As for using different languages, the best thing I can do is refer you back to the lecture on foreign languages in SFF at Nine Worlds.

What is Normal?

This is the key thing – building up the background in a natural way. Bring out the cultural aspects of the character’s background without parodying them. Which brings me back to a very old refrain of mine: Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE). Put in the tiny details that are normal to a very poor/rich environment, or a different culture, but normalize those details by just folding them into the description. Don’t explain or highlight them. They become background noise, flavour, that makes the setting – and therefore the character – that much more believable.

If the character later leaves their natural environment, you can start explaining the new things they encounter to reinforce their strangeness in this new setting. In this way you can make what might be normal to your reader fresh and interesting, seen from a different perspective.

Mimicry, Difference, Hybridity

The literary criticism on race and ethnicity is huge in scope and complexity, focusing on both colonial representations of the ‘other’, distanced, denigrated and used to justify imperialism, as well as postcolonial examination of what tends to be termed ‘new writing in English’. At times, the term ‘race’ is placed in inverted commas… to indicate the writer’s assertion that this is not something natural or inherent, that “race” is a constructed cultural creation. ~ Middlesex University course notes

This ties more into lit crit and writing styles than character creation and representation. Basically, as a writer, what is your style and cultural starting point? Are you imitating the writing style of another culture? If so, are you doing it with a suitable amount of research to carry it off? If you are imitating, why? What does that culture’s perspective and language give that your own doesn’t?

Language is a fascinating thing. It pins down and formalises the way we think, the types of ideas we have and how we structure them. Different languages and cultures approach things from different angles, and shifting your perspective can reveal very interesting things. Take the word ‘hero’ as a simple example – across the world, those four letters mean very very different things. But beware of cultural appropriation. Non-Western cultures and perspectives still get very limited representation in the English-speaking market, so every writer that uses them is making a strong statement. You’re speaking for an entire culture. If it isn’t yours, do your research and treat it with respect.

Hybridity, a contemporary concept, argues that there is no such thing as racial or ethnic ‘purity’ no clear position from which anyone can speak, since every ‘race’ is a complex cultural mix that is constantly evolving. ~ Middlesex University course notes

Humans have always been really good at drawing ‘us against them’ lines. Class wars, racism, xenophobia, it all stems back to the same thing – a fear of otherness. But here’s the thing: the Other is the same. Same biology, same urges and needs. The differences are cosmetic, or experiential. But people tend to resist accepting this because it means they have to acknowledge they are the same as the Other, which challenges their view of themselves. Difference disliked is identity affirmed.

This is one of the trickiest minefields to navigate, because both class and race are so fraught with politics and the potential to seriously offend. Which is where the beauty of SFF comes in. You can address some of the issues via classes and races that don’t exist in the real world, which neatly sidesteps the offence whilst making people think about the politics. To quote Sir Terry Pratchett:

Racism was not a problem on the Discworld, because — what with trolls and dwarfs and so on — speciesism was more interesting. Black and white lived in perfect harmony and ganged up on green. ~ Witches Abroad

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Or blue… 

Last Orders For 2016!

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It’s Christmas this weekend. For those that celebrate it, I hope you’re all stocked and good to go. For everyone, no matter what your religion, I wish you a very happy winter solstice. 🙂

51gwxkqatwlThe final days of 2016 have been pretty good to me, I’m pleased to say. Not least because L. A. Little’s SFF anthology Outliers of Speculative Fiction is now available for purchase on Amazon, and it contains two of my stories!

‘The Death of Mohenjo Daro’ looks at the worst decision a general under siege has to make, and a possible link between real-life archaeology and the Indian epic The Mahabharata.

‘Souls in Other Space’ follows Giacomo Moroni (Jack the Idiot to his enemies) the space-scavenger (he prefers ‘pirate’ – it’s more dashing)  as he investigates a strangely empty wreck.

Next year I will be starting a very exciting collaboration with an artist friend of mine (the same artist, in fact, who did the cover for my Moonlight is Third anthology ). She is illustrating some of this year’s Twitterature – the mini-fics I post every week day on Twitter – and we’re going to put together an illustrated journal which will be available to buy. Her work is available as prints on etsy over at Paint Magpie – check it out.

There’s also some plans for an anthology of stories inspired by my serialised November project, Read This First, exploring more of the world of The Collection. This will include tales by other talented writers and more of Paint Magpie’s fantastic art. So keep your eyes peeled for that!

And finally, I offer the traditional New Year toast in my circle of friends:

May the coming year be average: better than the last, not as good as the next.

The Theory of Relativity: Time on Paper

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Okay, some notes on the use of time and compression in story structure. A lot of this stuff might sound really self-evident (in which case, I’m doing my job of explaining it right) but it took 11 pages of my lit crit text to explain. Which really tells you more about lit crit texts than about the complexity of the subject.

Represented vs Representational Time

Represented time is the time that passes in the story or, to put it another way, the in-story time it takes for events to unfold. Also called ‘perceptible time’.

Representational time is the time it takes to tell the story. You can tell a year in a paragraph, or half an hour in a chapter. Also called ‘intellectual’ or ‘narrative’ time.

Because here’s the thing – time is malleable. Even in life our experiences of it aren’t constant, even if the passage of it is. Hours drag, days fly past, etc etc. On paper, where writers have control over how fast it’s passing, it becomes even more so. This is important because it provides the writer with a really important tool: attentional prominence.

Fluctuations in the speed of narration along with manipulations of frequency can be viewed as metrics of value or at least attentional prominence – David Herman, Time, Plot, Progression

This is pretty much the same idea as Chekhov’s Gun – if the description of a scene dwells on the gun over the mantlepiece, that gun is probably important to the plot. It’s a way of flagging it to the reader as something worth keeping track of. Similarly, if a lot of writing (representational time) is devoted to describing a short period of story (represented time) it implies that what’s going on in this scene is important. If several years of represented time are skipped over in a small amount of representational time, those years probably don’t matter so much. The writer can use the compression and extension of representational time to spotlight the points in the story that the reader should pay attention to.

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Dodge this…

Genette outlines the broad categories of attentional prominence as follows:

  •     Representational time < Represented time                = Summary
  •     Representational time = 0, Represented time > 0    = Ellipse (or skip)
  •     Representational time = Represented time                = Scene
  •     Representational time > Represented time                = Stretch
  •     Representational time > 0, Represented time = 0    = Pause

This relationship between the two, in whatever balance, is called duration. So, by working out the duration, you can take a guess at how important the passage is to the overall story.

Start At The Very Beginning

I’m going to leave aside the question of what constitutes a beginning, since I already tackled that in the discussion of causal chains, and simply say that for the purposes of this conversation it’s the first chronological event in the fabula.

Narrative exposition is, according to Wikipedia’s definition, ‘the insertion of important background information within a story’, generally talking about things that occurred or exist before the events of the story that are being narrated (fabula) took place. Which, obviously, comes at the beginning, right?

Au contraire. Remember what we talked about last week on A4-B5-C1 stuff and reordering events? So the beginning doesn’t necessarily come at the beginning, and the stuff before the beginning can crop up whenever it suits your structure. You can include it in flashbacks, recounted memories, or just mucking about with sujet (the order in which events are presented).

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Freytag’s Pyramid Story Structure

Some scholars seem to think this raises a question about 3-Act Structure, or Freytag’s Pyramid, or any of those basic story structures. Is it the structure of the fabula (events of the story) or the order in which those events are narrated (sujet)? But these structures are all focused around how the story is communicated – the sujet – not on the fabula. They’re calculated to control the tension levels of the reader, not the characters. So the fabula could have a very different structure and tension map than the sujet. That might be worth bearing in mind when thinking about your characters’ tension levels at any given point.

Structural Deception

The expositional information [may]… enrich, modify or even drastically change the reader’s understanding of it. ~ Meir Sternberg, ‘An Essay in Temporal Delimitation’

The most fantastic example I’ve seen of this is in the recently released film Arrival. If you haven’t seen it, skip the whole of the next paragraph because I’m about to spoiler massively.

The film opens with a fairly compressed montage of the protagonist’s daughter being born, growing into a teenager, falling ill, and dying in hospital. Then the opening credits roll. Because it was presented at the beginning, the audience naturally assumes that this is the protagonist’s background and therefore interpret all her subsequent behaviour in the light of a grieving mother. As the film unfolds, however, it gradually becomes clear through a sequence of memory flashes of that montage, that the protagonist is ‘remembering’ things that haven’t happened yet due to contact with aliens who experience circular or concurrent time, rather than linear time. That completely changes not only the understanding of the character’s actions to date, but also those of her decisions in the future – the fact she continues to act in a way that will take her into the future where her daughter dies fundamentally alters the audience’s perception of her interactions with the man she knows will become her daughter’s father.

For literary examples of fantastic non-linear literary construction, I’m going to refer you back to my old favourites: Hal Duncan’s Vellum and Maria Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. If this is something you’re interested in playing with, it’s also worth doing some research into how different cultures view the passage of time. to get some ideas that might help you break out of linear time.

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Virtual Reality: Storytelling in REAL Fantasy Worlds

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A few weeks ago I had a really interesting chat with Patrick Collister, Head of Design at Google, who talked to me about the evolution of storytelling as Virtual Reality technology has progressed.

As this is primarily a writing blog, rather than a tech one, I’ll very quickly give a run-down of some key terms:

  1. VR – Virtual Reality. Creating digital spaces that you can walk around in. This is different to computer games because the space stays still even when you move the device you’re looking at it through. Imagine you’re standing in a room, looking at it through the camera on your smartphone. The room doesn’t swing around as the phone moves – it stays still and you see different bits of the room. Exactly like that, except the room is wholly digital.
  2. AR – Augmented Reality. A digital overlay on real stuff. Pokemon Go is Augmented Reality.
  3. MR – Mixed Reality. Still in development, currently. This is basically like AR, but projected directly onto the eyeball rather than viewed through a device.

Making the Reader a Protagonist

I want to talk about VR because that’s the stuff really making waves in storytelling. Google have been doing all manner of cool things with it, and Patrick pointed me towards a particular video on their VR YouTube channel which demonstrated some of what he was talking about.

See, if you’re standing in the virtual world and a story’s unfolding around you, how do you a) interact with it if it’s just a video, and b) ensure you’re looking at the right place to see the crucial plot points? Both these questions are solved in the same way. Google 360 structure the story in very short chapters. Each chapter is triggered only when the viewer is looking in a specific direction. So you don’t miss anything but, more importantly, nothing happens if you don’t look at it. You’ve got the time to look around because the next chapter will wait for your attention.

If a tree falls in a VR wood, and you aren’t looking at it, it doesn’t finish falling.

Suddenly the viewer is critical to the process. They become a protagonist, responsible for making things happen. By way of example, here’s the video Patrick showed me. You can watch it on computer, but watching it on your phone is a WAY better medium to experience this type of storytelling. Because the point is that you move around. Give it a go.

I’m not sure what impact this will have on traditional storytelling structures, if any, as far as the written word is concerned. But it’s early days and there’s no denying video is a very powerful tool to shape how people think. And the trend in digital content over the last few years has consistently been more and more about personalisation. You want to attract people to your creation? Make it personal – give them a starring role.

So far I’ve just been an interested observer, very much on the fringes of what’s going on. Ian Thomas, Director of Talespinners – writer, game designer and all-around storytelling expert – has waaaay more experience than I do. So I asked him what he thought.

Challenges in VR Storytelling – Ian Thomas

Here’s the thing: there are a few groups of people trying to leap on VR for storytelling purposes right now, and at least two of them are coming at it from an angle which isn’t a great fit, and a lot of their problems lie in a fundamental misunderstanding of the medium through trying to apply film techniques. VR is seen as a visual medium most closely related to computer games and film, and to my mind it’s far removed from either.

The first group are film-makers. As you might imagine, the natural inclination of the film-maker when approaching VR is to take a linear piece of storytelling and then to work out how to deliver it in 360 degree surround. Directors are used to having complete control of the action; editors are used to controlling pacing (not to mention being able to cut and have multiple viewpoints, both of which are limited in VR); cinematographers are used to being able to control framing. None of those skills are really of any use in VR, and a lot of lessons are having to be unlearned very swiftly – nearly all the language of cinematography goes out of the window. VR productions coming from this angle tend to be very static, tend to be confusing for the player, don’t take enough account of the player’s presence in the world (being more of a piece for the player to watch, or a ghost train-like experience), and, when they offer any interactivity at all, it’s of the ‘trigger object to continue’ variety.

The second group are game developers – and one of the problems comes specifically from game developers working at the high end. The trouble is that many such AAA developers have spent the last twenty years or so trying to make their games more like films, picking up cinematography techniques (such as ‘frame the important object’), cuts, cutscene pacing and so on. As with film-making, those things simply don’t work – you can’t constrain the player’s head to focus on a specific object, for example. The other issue is that locomotion in VR is completely different from that in most mainstream computer games – walking along a corridor is quite a different experience in VR (and can lead to motion sickness), so you need to find other tricks and techniques; a lot of gaming has been focused around an experience of ‘continuous travelling through a space’, so that needs to be rethought. Again, people are having to unlearn lots of lessons. A lot of early attempts have been experimental VR ports of existing games, which are only really working for the hardcore gamers who are willing to put up with quirks and nausea.

However, games are a better fit than cinema, and there are games companies doing excellent work in this space.  They tend to be people who’ve thrown away their preconceptions and started from scratch and spent a lot of time experimenting and getting to grips with the medium; or even to be people who have no previous background in games and are coming in fresh, with no constraints or expectations. And, in general, games companies tend to get the idea of player agency and embodiment in a way that film-makers don’t.

The fundamental storytelling issue is – a thing happens. How do you get the player to notice? Google’s answer, as you quoted, is to only trigger things when the player is looking in that direction – there are other solutions but that’s not a bad one. However, as you might imagine, pacing is therefore quite different from other media.

But there’s a deeper thing going on here, at least in this stage in the adoption of VR. You’re trying to tell a story. Perhaps an epic tale which will capture the player and sweep them up. At least that’s the intention. But behaviourally, a lot of game creators are finding that the player spends all their time just looking around the room and picking up objects, ignoring your carefully crafted dramatic content. Because that’s where they’re finding the fascination and the fun. Maybe that’s only temporary, because the experience is so new. But in any case, perhaps that should be your storytelling method – just picking things up and looking. In the games industry this is known as environmental storytelling, and existing non-VR games such as Gone Home are great exponents of this sort of experience, allowing players to piece things together at their own pace.

What I’ve found most powerful in VR so far is the sense of presence you feel when there’s another character in the scene. Even if the character isn’t modelled photorealistically, the human brain interprets them as ‘there’ in a way that I haven’t seen in any other medium – it’s absolutely uncanny. If you play through Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham VR and are nose-to-nose with the Joker… there’s no feeling like it. It’s something which took me completely by surprise, and it’s the thing I’m most interested in pursuing.

Another important thing to mention is 3D audio. Well-designed audio is hugely important in VR, and again isn’t something that film audio can adapt to very well due to the non-linear way the sounds are encountered or triggered. It’s a lot closer to game audio, but many games still treat audio as of secondary importance. In VR it’s utterly critical, as it underpins and helps define the reality of the space around you. And, where you perhaps can’t rely on camerawork in the way you could in other media, you can absolutely rely on sound and get much more out of it than in other media.

VR experiences aren’t simply translations of existing games techniques. Nor are they simply translations of film techniques. I think the closest thing we have so far is single-audience-member participatory theatre-in-the-round, but no-one’s really drawing on theatre experience yet. But at the root of it, VR is its own thing, and no-one knows quite what yet.

Ian is a games writer, designer and coder who has wrestled computers for a living for over two decades. He’s worked in interactive television, education, puppet-making, film, publishing, live events, and the games industry, where he’s helped bring to life games such as Frictional’s SOMA, The Bunker, and a wide variety of other titles from LittleBigPlanet to LEGO. He’s written action movies, children’s books about Cthulhu, interactive fiction and pulp novels. Most of his time is spent running Talespinners, a story-for-games company that helps games studios deliver their narrative. Amongst other things, he’s currently writing for a VR multiplayer RPG.