Category Archives: Craft Tips

Chronotopes: Time and Space in Literature

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A bit more from Mikhail Bakhtin this week. Another one of his essays concentrates on chronotopes, which is a fancy way for saying ‘the depiction of temporal and spatial progression on the page’. Different genres have different approaches to the use of time, and Bakhtin seems to consider this an important identifying feature of those genres.

In literature the primary category in the chronotope is time. The chronotope as a formally constitutive category determines to a significant degree the image of man in literature as well. The image of man is always intrinsically chronotopic. ~ Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel, Bakhtin

Yeah, it’s all like that. Aren’t you glad I’m condensing this stuff down for you?

Adventure Time

Not just a cartoon, but also a technical term. Adventure-time was originally a feature of classical epics, but it’s not uncommon in lesser SFF works. Adventure-time denotes the passage of time in which adventure happens. Sounds obvious when you say it like that, but there’s a little more to it.

In the classic epic trope – such as Heliodorus’ Aethopica – the story starts with boy meeting girl. It ends with boy marrying girl (or finding her again, or variations on that theme). In between, boy loses girl and has to go on various adventures to get back to her, or boy and girl are persecuted and go on adventures together. If those adventures happened in real time, when they finally got to the wedding they’d be in their late 40s. Slightly less ‘young love conquers all’ and rather more ‘staggering to the altar with most of our limbs still attached’.

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So adventure-time is a linear progression of time within a bubble, during which adventures happen. When those adventures stop happening and the heroes return to the ‘normal’ world, less time has passed to allow them to still be the young, beautiful people required for the photo finish. Which is an indicator that there’s been basically zero character development.

Adventure-time leaves no traces – neither in the world nor in human beings. No changes of any consequence occur, internal or external, as a result of the events recounted in the novel. ~ Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel, Bakhtin

You can use adventure-time in modern fiction, but only if you explicitly acknowledge it’s a manipulation of time or biology. Otherwise your readers will consider it to be lazy writing.

Romance Time

This shares some similarities with adventure-time, in that the events undergone by the hero do so in their own little bubble outside the passage of ‘real’ time. The difference is that, in this version, the hero does change. It really started with medieval courtly romances like de Montalvo’s Amadis de Gaula, where the knight undergoes tests or trials and returns to court a better man. This has since developed into a standard step in the heroic journey, which sometimes happens in adventure-time and sometimes happens in real time.

The issue of space is important here, too. During the tests and trials of romance-time, the hero is removed from society – they are alone, tested as an individual. In adventure-time, other people move in and out of the bubble. In romance-time, there is a bubble of space as well which is largely impenetrable. As the style of romance-time developed, so did things like inner monologue and character introspection.

Characteristically it is not private life that is subjected to and interpreted in the light of social and political events, but rather social and political events gain meaning in the novel only thanks to their connection with private life. ~ Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel, Bakhtin

Mythological Time

cosmologymeta750Also called folk-mythological time. Basically, the world splits into folklore/myth and history. Myth happens Before, and is generally unquantifiable. If you can stick a date on it, it’s history. Importantly, mythological time generally Before but Here. The events of mythological time happened on home ground rather than abroad but, because it’s Before, that home ground is slightly alien – without being foreign. Mythological time is a way of invoking that very specific ‘familiar but different’ feeling that using Welsh as a mystical language also achieves.

Everyday Time

Time and space are constant and linear everywhere. Nothing happens in isolation. Events are sequential. It’s, like… normal. And you know what happens when nothing happens in isolation? People change the world, and the world changes people. So the idea of metamorphosis or transformation is important in everyday-time.

This transformation doesn’t happen smoothly, though. It tends to build up and take place in lumps:

…that unfolds not so much in a straight line as spasmodically, a line with “knots” in it, one that therefore constitutes a distinctive type of temporal sequence. ~ Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel, Bakhtin

Which is how you get things like distinct ages or epochs, specific stages in the heroic journey, and so on. It also means that you don’t get a story unfolding in what Bakhtin calls ‘biographical time’ – it focuses on the important or exceptional moments. These moments happen in ‘real time’ but we jump between them. This is where David Herman’s theory of attentional prominence comes into play – by choosing which moments to show on paper, the writer tells the reader which moments are important.

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All of these labels are, like so much in the lit-crit world, largely unimportant except to serve as flagpoles for the various techniques available. You may well be doing much of this stuff instinctively. But if you know precisely what technique you’re using, and the impact that technique has, you can probably wield it with more precision. As Dolly Parton (sort of) said:

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From High to Low: the Point of Novels

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It’s been a while… half a year, in fact. Apologies for the radio silence. Uni has been almost entirely focused on writing my book so I’ve had very little non-book related stuff to share and even less time to do it in. But things are starting to move over the summer, so it’s time to get back on the horse. 🙂

The Evolution of the Novel

I was pointed towards the essays on The Dialogic Imagination by Mikhail Bakhtin by my tutor recently. Bakhtin was a Russian philosopher and literary critic writing in the early 1900s, and he had some interesting ideas about the novel as a genre. Until now I’d assumed that the novel was a format, and things like horror, romance, SFF, etc were genres which used that format. Not according to Bakhtin. He classes the novel as its own genre, separate to the epic, the elegy, the lyric poem, and all the rest of the classical literary styles. These styles were rigid, with strict formats and defined subject matter. The novel is much more fluid, defying categorization because there’s always multiple exceptions to any rule you try to impose. It essentially bastardized the subject matter of the older genres, turning it on its head:

The “absolute past” of gods, demigods and heroes… is brought low, represented on a plane with contemporary life, in an everyday environment, in the low language of contemporaneity.   ~ Epic and Novel, Bakhtin

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This did something important. The older styles were very much for the elite – the educated upper classes. Within their stories, the world might change on a cosmic scale (the end of the Age of Heroes in The Iliad, for example) but not on a day-to-day level. This is because the intended audiences were the people in charge, and they had no interest in social change. The novel messed with that. It began the move from elite audiences to everyman audiences, bringing the subjects within reach of the general public. And the general public were very interested in social change, oh yes.

The novel was a way to push boundaries, to discuss the issues of the day in a relatively safe medium. And, because it was so flexible, it could incorporate all the favourite subjects of the old genres – such as love, war, death and heroes – without breaking a sweat. It took over from the old genres, in fact, because it could cover those subjects with greater freedom and exploration.

…the unfettered and fantastic plots and situations all serve one goal – to put to the test and to expose ideas and ideologues.  ~ Epic and Novel, Bakhtin

The rise of the novel also meant a shift in focus. The epics and elegies were focused on the past; lyrical poetry was, at best, focused on the present. The novel allowed speculation about the future. How things could change. It was the genre of evolution.

Genres Today

The novel is now such a ubiquitous format that we don’t think of it as a genre. We sub-divide it into themes or subject matter or style, and call them genres instead. Some of them still talk about contemporary issues and push boundaries; others are purely for entertainment’s sake, and there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that.

I think, though, that SFF has an important role to play in pushing boundaries. As I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before, it’s a step back from the world which means we can talk about problematic areas like religion and race without falling foul of prejudices or sensibilities. It’s also a way to discuss social problems in a very bold way, with less risk (I’m going to point you back to the lecture on Chinese SFF from last year). And it is, absolutely, the genre of the everyman audience.

efc698a5b975dc9d9004847b051308ce--ink-express-frankensteins-monsterUrban fantasy, which is what I’m currently writing, straddles the line between reality and fantasy. It makes this balance of open discussion vs removed engagement a little trickier, but it also allows us to make more pointed observations. Urban fantasy isn’t new, incidentally – it has its roots in the gothic novel. Arthur Machen, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, they were all forerunners in the fantastical. And they were all making observations about the society they lived in.

I’ve had to define the issues I’m deliberately trying to tackle in London Under, and to be honest they aren’t what I thought they would be. I thought I was writing about love and duty, and what those forces can do to us when they’re in opposition. It turns out that, rather without meaning to, what I’m actually writing is a story about the threat of terrorism and the fear of loneliness in a big city. The whole ‘love and duty’ thing is still there, but more as an undercurrent. I didn’t plan that, it just seems to have happened. Which shows that your subconscious can sometimes be the better writer.

Our era is characterized by an extraordinary complexity and a deepening in our perception of the world; there is an unusual growth in demands on human discernment, on mature objectivity and the critical faculty.  ~ Epic and Novel, Bakhtin

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!

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… 

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.

Emplotment: Time Travelling Through Narrative

Standard

Once you’ve sorted out your narrative structure, you need to decide on your temporal structure – that is, the order in which you narrate the events of the story, and in what style. This is massively important as it is responsible for pacing, tension, and basically just telling the story right. Inevitably there’s a whole load of theory around it, some bits of which are more useful than others.

Story vs Sequence

The chronological events of the story, and the order in which those events are told, are not the same thing. A dude called Viktor Shklovskii distinguished them by calling the events tabula, and the sequence sjuzhet or sujet. By giving them labels, it means we can more easily talk about them separately and in relation to each other.

There’s a bunch of different ways in which you can structure the sujet:

  1. Simultaneous – the action is taking place as the characters narrate it. e.g. commentators watching a sports match. The action is taking place at the same level as the narrators.
  2. Retrospective – the narrator is calling back to the events of the past. This is the most common structure.
  3. Prospective – the narrator is forecasting, predicting, or (if it’s an implied author) taking the reader forwards into the future. Example: He would remember, later, how she looked that night.
  4. Intercalated –  as in the epistolary novel, where the act of narration postdates
    some events but precedes others.
  5. Analepsis – more commonly known as ‘flashbacks’. Different from retrospective, in that that they take the reader temporarily even further back – another level of time down – from the level of the main narrative.
  6. Proleptic foreshadowing – sort of the opposite of flashbacks. Also called ‘anticipations in hindsight’, briefly forecasting a likely outcome of something, usually to create tension or highlight a recurring theme of the story.

Characters rarely have total knowledge of their environment or of other people’s histories, so at the most basic level there must be some recounting within the story of past events. With an understanding of different temporal constructions, the writer can do more interesting things to relay these and use them to build mystery or tension.

This ties in with Bal’s theory of narrative levels – the further from the action the character is in terms of narrator status, the less reliable they become. Similarly, the further from the action the narrator is in terms of temporal proximity, the less reliable they become. The manner in which events are being told – retrospective, simultaneous, etc. – will impact the privilege and bias of the players. 

Local Standard Time

The sequence of events locally to the characters may affect, and be affected, by what’s going on in the wider world. By using temporal construction carefully, the tabula can be mapped onto the wider environment within which it occurs, thus creating a more holistic constructed world and exploring the consequences of events. Again, you can narrate things in sequence, or you can play about with the sujet in order to create tension and bring out themes.

inmediasresGenette approached it by numbering the chronological events of the story, and lettering the order in which they were presented. So a story that presents the events in their natural chronological order would go A1-B2-C3, but a story that jumps around would go A4-B5-C3. Perhaps the most used plot temporality is that of in medea res, starting at a crucial sequence in the novel (such as the discovery of the body in a detective novel), which then fuels the narrative forwards (the procedure of detection) while also through interview and interrogation in the present, eliciting the suspects’ memories of the past before concluding with the denouement where the murderer is revealed. E.g. A3-B4-C2-D5-E1-F6.

The order in which events are presented in the story – the progression, to use Herman’s term – has vital impact on the reader. This is how pacing and tension are created, how the reader is brought into the story and compelled to continue reading. It’s also how particular themes are brought out, through duration (about which more next week), order and frequency. When you put all of this together it’s called emplotment. Which I think sounds like a ridiculous word, but there you go.

Take 2 – Rereading

“…rereading a narrative entails different modes of worldmaking than does reading it for the first time.” – David Herman,  Narrative Theory: Core Concepts & Critical Debates

Maria Doria Russell’s The Sparrow is an excellent example of Herman’s point. (WARNING: Spoilers ahead!)

If the tabula were presented in strict chronological order, there would be very little tension around the protagonist, Father Emilio Sandoz. He would be presented as a Jesuit scientist on the first manned flight to the distant planet of Rakhat. Instead the reader is initially presented with Sandoz as the only survivor of the mission, physically and psychologically mutilated, and described by those around him as a child-killer and whore. On first reading, the reader approaches Sandoz with suspicion and curiosity. On the second, knowing what he went through, with great pity and sympathy. On the first reading, the attitudes of those around him seem entirely reasonable; on the second, they are thrown into awful relief and the pathos of the character is heightened.

Similarly, you can structure your stories so that the reader learns late in the book about something which occurs early in the tabula, and which completely changes their understanding of everything they have already read about what, chronologically, came after.

A while back I mentioned a game called Microscope, in which players take it in turn to create events within the history of a world or era, but these can be submitted to any point within the timeline. I played a game in which the final event was placed about a quarter of the way along the timeline, and it completely changed the light in which all subsequent events (which had already been placed) were then viewed.

Having just watched the film Arrival, about which more next week, that’s also a fantastic example about how rereading with complete knowledge completely changes your interpretation of what’s going on. I’m going to spoiler it massively next week, so consider this your fair warning to go watch it now!