Category Archives: Guest

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.

Nine Worlds: Barriers to Women in SFF Publishing

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Science fiction, fantasy and horror writing seem to still be very much a boys club. Men are consistently reviewed more often in genre-related publications while also dominating ‘best of’ and ‘most anticipated’ lists. Is this because there are fewer women writers? Are publishers publishing fewer women? What about the marketing? We know there are brilliant female genre writers out there, so why aren’t more people reading their books, talking about their work, and including them in lists of favourite writers?

Megan Leigh, Charlotte Bond, Lucy Hounsom, Gillian Redfearn, Lydia Gittens, Alasdair Stuart

downloadRegular readers of this blog have already met Charlotte Bond, one of the hosts of podcast Breaking the Glass Slipper, thanks to her recent guest post. Well, I was lucky enough to get into a very select audience of a live recording of BtGS‘s tenth episode at Nine Worlds. True to the general theme of equality, both of the Con and the podcast, this episode looked at why there is an imbalance of gender in published SFF authors and how this might be addressed.

I’m not going to write up the session for the simple reason that you can listen to it yourself by clicking here. And if you listen really carefully, at 1:09:00 you can even hear me ask a question!

Next week: telling stories in an expanded setting.

Rolling For Metaphors: Lessons from Taylor Mali

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Taylor Mali, American poet and English teacher, has come up with this fun little exercise. I’m on a bit of a poetry bent at the moment, so this appealed to me. He goes into a little too much detail in his video (thanks, Mr. Mali, I know how to fold cardboard into a cube with sellotape), but it’s worth watching. Let me know what metaphors you guys come up with!

GUEST:Breaking The Glass Slipper

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I am very pleased to introduce my friend, and co-collaborater on the Moonlight is Third anthology, Charlotte Bond – author, podcaster and fellow geek. Charlotte is the one who first drew my attention to Chris Winkle’s article on the heroine’s journey, which I talked about last week, so I asked her back to share her views on the subject.


 

There are lots of books and articles out there about how to plot and write a good novel. They’re always worth reading because, even if you don’t subscribe to the same method as that particular author, it’s always interesting to see how other people work. In this vein, I was directed to an article entitled “Using the Heroine’s Journey”. Being a co-host of Breaking the Glass Slipper (a podcast dedicated to discussing women in genre), I thought it was an interesting article for friends and fans to read so I re-posted it on my own Facebook page. I got a generally consistent response from my writer friends along the lines of: “Yeah, it’s okay, but I don’t agree.”

So what’s this theory or, more precisely, “mythic structure”, all about? What was good about it, and where did it fall down? Let’s start with a summary.

220px-Heroesjourney.svgThere is a plot device out there known as ‘The Hero’s Journey’. A description of it can be found here. Basically, it is a template for a storyline which is found in novels, myths and poetry everywhere. It follows a single male protagonist as he goes out to conquer the world. It’s a pretty good, solid structure and, if you’re looking to write your first novel, then considering this plot outline a good place to start.

However, it was put forward in a book called The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell published in 1949. I think it’s fair to say that writing and attitudes have moved on a fair way since then. In fact, Maureen Murdock felt so strongly that this was the case that she decided to come up with a corresponding mythic structure entitled ‘The Heroine’s Journey’. The article by http://www.mythcreants.com examines this mythic structure and gives some fairly helpful working examples along the way.

The biggest positive of this particular mythic structure is the emphasis it puts on conflict. I attended a romance writing course and the plot structure we were given was pretty much the same as the hero’s journey, with the added emphasis that there must be conflict not only to drive the plot forward but to make the characters interesting to read. The fun of a romance novel is seeing two people at odds in character and personality gradually overcoming their differences to realise that they’re perfect for each other. Pride and Prejudice is a prime and well-known example of this. I’ve beta-read plenty of first draft stories (including my own!) where an absence of conflict has made it a general, lack-lustre affair. Adding or increasing this element can improve a weak story no end.

However, the mythic structure of the heroine’s journey places far more emphasis on internal conflict rather than external conflict. In the hero’s journey, the protagonist is basically influenced by outside events which convince him to go a quest to find something in particular; in the heroine’s journey, the focus is on more of an internal journey, leading her on a quest for identity rather than a magical object. The hero might be battling the physical forces of good and evil, but the heroine is battling the duality of her own self as well the contradictions present within those around her. So, like the article says, the heroine’s journey is a good template for a story which focuses on a character’s quest to find herself (or himself as the case may be).

Where does this structure fall down? For me, and for my friends it would seem, the huge downside was the general assumption that one journey is feminine and the other is masculine. Why can’t women go on a quest to find a magic sword while men go on a quest to find themselves? Admittedly, it says right at the very beginning of the article:

I will refer to the central character as the heroine… [h]owever, it applies to male characters just as well…

But that doesn’t really help much. After all, if it can be applied to men as well, why is it specifically referred to as ‘the heroine’s’ journey?

The risk with using a template like this to plot your story is that all your women will be the same, as will your men. You won’t be pushing the boundaries. For example, the story given in the article is one that I’d certainly like to pick up and read – but how different and equally fascinating would it be if the protagonist was male? Or, since we are a modern age, if it was a homosexual character? Such characters are great choices for examining duality, internal conflicts and themes of prejudice. Yes, the article says it is a structure that could be used for a man – but from the very title, even before we get to the detail of it, we’re already encouraged to think of it as a female’s journey. That’s not helpful.

You might assume from that the heroine’s journey would be empowering, but weirdly the first thing the protagonist does within this mythic structure is ‘reject’ her feminine side. Admittedly at the end she incorporates the masculine side into herself to become a better, more rounded person, but that’s just the end, which means that she spends pretty much all of the story trying to get away from her feminine side before she realises how useful it is. This can be an engaging story in some circumstances, but it shouldn’t be seen as the defining heroine’s story.

In summary, it’s the title of this mythic structure that is all wrong. ‘The Heroine’s Journey’ is as misnamed as the original ‘The Hero’s Journey’. Both of them are useful plotting tools, but in this modern age, no writer should come to a story with preconceived notions about how characters should act based on gender. If you’re going to use either of these structures, then try thinking of them as the ‘external quest’ structure and the ‘internal quest’ structure; decide what it is your character is looking for and then plot accordingly, with their gender being a mere side detail.

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You can find out more about Charlotte and her work at her website.

From Inspiration to Paper – Workshop with CM Taylor

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Last week I attended an evening workshop on editing fiction, conducted by an author and an agent. I came away with pages and pages of notes, which I will share with as much rhyme and reason as I can order them into. This week it’ll be the author – CM Taylor – and next week it’ll be the agent.

Taylor started by saying that his definition of a story was the transmission of emotion through structure. When writing your plot, structure is vital and you cannot ignore it. Readers have such an intrinsic understanding of structure that, if you deviate from its principles, you risk jolting them or losing them entirely. It also means that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel with every book.

When he gets an idea for a story, he starts by finding existing literary models for the core concept of that idea. For example, if the story is about people wanting to get home you could look at Homer’s Odyssey, or Paul Scott’s Staying On, or even Sheila Burnford’s Incredible Journey. If there’s also an element of class war in the story, then look at something like Downton Abbey. Use multiple models for different aspects of the idea and jigsaw bits of them together to create something new. It’s not about plagiarism – it’s about ideas for structure. Importantly, it also helps to throw light on how your story idea is different.

THE TRANSFORMATIONAL ARC

The Inside Story is a book by Dara Marks, a screenwriting theorist, about the structure of the heroic journey – what she calls the ‘transformational arc’:

dara-marks_slides0001

Looks vaguely familiar, right? Three act structure with a rise and fall, inciting incident, call to action, etc. The key to this diagram is the idea of change. The two halves of the story are resistance to change, and release of emotional strength after change is embraced. People naturally resist change, as reflected in the traditional heroic journey by the Refusal of the Call.

The transition from resistance to release starts with a Grace Period – once the character has admitted change is required, it releases a ‘high of truth’ and emotional energy. This then leads into the Fall, as the energy drains or the world doesn’t enable that internal resolution for change. The aspiration to change is not the same as making it happen!

The Death Experience, incidentally, doesn’t necessarily mean death. It can be betrayal, miscommunication, bad coincidence, etc. Whatever the worst thing is that can happen to the character’s internal aspirations.

Note that I’ve referred to it throughout as the character, not the hero. This arc should be applied to every character, although they will be at different stages along it at the start and end of your story. When one character changes, everyone in their community is affected somehow. It’s fairly standard psychology that a change in one part of the community means the rest start to question their own status quo.

CHARACTER FLAW

Because a form of behaviour has been successful in the past, they continue it into inappropriate situations and this shows up their character flaw. – CM Taylor

Obviously nobody’s perfect, and you certainly don’t want your hero / protagonist to be. They need to transform, to improve, and to do that there must be a flaw to start with. Taylor gave the workshop group an exercise, which I found massively useful and I highly recommend you have a go at it. For any given character(s), work out the following:

  1. What is their character flaw? If you’re having trouble identifying it, think in terms of ‘too / not enough’, i.e. too tolerant / not tolerant enough.
  2. How did the character get this flaw? Remember that the flaw is usually a pattern of behaviour which is carried into unsuitable circumstances.
  3. Identify a point in your story where the world somehow presses on or challenges this flaw. How does the character react?

As an example, here are my answers for one of the lead characters in my current project:

  1. Trojan is too obedient and passive to his father’s demands. When told to leave his family home for falling in love with someone his father deems unsuitable, he goes without challenge. Even falling in love was despite his obedience, not an actively rebellious act.
  2. He was raised by his father to be a passive tool, intended for a political marriage that would unite two warring factions. His father was stern, oppressive, and kept Trojan fairly isolated.
  3. His moment of enlightenment comes when he learns his father was responsible for the death of both his lover and his twin. In the Grace Period when emotion is released he rebels for the first time and kills his father. In the Fall, as the emotional high drains away, he is arrested and goes quietly.

This exercise really helped me clarify Trojan’s internal drives, as well as solidifying the mid-point of the story as the death of his father, which therefore helps with the overall structure.

One final point about structure: Taylor said he uses it as a checklist, going through drafts and literally ticking off whether he’s covered each point within the transformational arc. You can’t know whether you’ve written a good quality book, he said, but structure helps you identify and remove the obvious errors.

Next week I’ll cover the agent’s perspective on character building. For now, what results do you get if you do the character flaw exercise? Was it helpful for you?