Category Archives: Misc

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.

 

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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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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.

12 Tall Tales: Storytelling In Objects

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Two weeks ago I went to the preview show of the Craft Council’s 12 Tall Tales exhibit, which uses the work of twelve artists to tell stories through the objects they made. The point of the exhibition, however, wasn’t to tell stories by depicting them, but through rather more abstract means. There’s a lot of great stuff at the exhibit and I’d encourage you to go if you can, but I wanted to share a few of my favourites.

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The guide to the exhibit – I don’t agree with some of their labelling though!

Fortune Telling

The exhibit was a row of metal cylinders with spinning dials of light dots at the top. The idea was that, in this Age of Information, predicting anything is just a matter of data analysis. Want to know when you’re going to get a heart attack? Analyse your diet, fitness regime, personal and family health records, etc., and the machine can give you an answer. All it takes is access to the data.

It made me think of Arthur C Clarke’s quote about suitably advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. Imagine a crystal ball with a USB socket. Plug in the data, ask the question, and the fortune teller will give you an answer. It’s not magic, it’s science. And, the way technology’s going, it’s not even science fiction.

Contaminated Craft

Four black earthenware bowls for storing food, made roughly and unpolished. Nothing special to look at. But the clay was taken from a Japanese rice farm in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant exclusion zone, and is mildly radioactive. The bowls are

…as purposeless as the land is to the farmers of Fukushima… The vessels express a narrative that goes far beyond their form of function, acting as material witnesses to the nuclear disaster.  ~ Exhibit sign

That’s a hell of a story, for a dish.

Just A Hint

This was a bit more abstract. There were ceramic casts of various bits of household objects, like an AC vent, or an Xbox.

In the same way that the chisel or loom is no longer visible in a piece of furniture or tapestry, the principle tool of creation – the story – is suggested but no more. ~ Exhibit sign

You’re sort of bringing archeology into art, here. The existence of the object is proof of the existence of the history and the next trick is to work out what that history was. Looking around your room right now, then, pick up to six objects. What story do they hint at?

Can You Handle Another Story?

This exhibit was sadly not operational, as we were at a preview, but the idea was compelling. There were a number of objects, mostly ancient archeological finds, a flat brass square with faint lines on it, and an audio guide. You listened to the audio guide which began telling you about the objects and ended by weaving them together as characters in a new story.

There’s a number of ways this could be done. All the objects could become anthropomorphic; they could become crucial to a plot, a la Chekov’s Gun; their individual stories could become interlinked throughout history; or, and this is the one that I find most intriguing, it could be that bringing the objects together is a catalyst that sets off a series of events. Two cursed objects, whose curses combine, for example. Or a faulty gas lamp starts a fire which burns down a building, which reveals a forgotten painting with a secret message encoded into it, which… you get the point. But the idea of telling a story without really needing living characters to push the plot along is an intriguing one. Anyone know of any examples?

Roll A D12

And finally… the way the exhibits were displayed involved a D12 (or 12-sided die) on the exhibit, and matching that number to the explanations on the wall. You could also use the diagram below to roll a D12 and design your own object:

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My object is an absurd necklace made of gold that represents life in fifty years. Now, I can write a story for that but I’m rubbish at designing objects. So, suggestions on a postcard please!

Alternatively, go roll your own… 😉

Come to the Dark Side, We Have Stories

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I’m writing this blog post with 48 hours of no sleep (yay, insomnia!) and three days of not talking to anyone other than my cat. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Back in mid-February I came across a Twitter account called Pine Barrens (aka @QuietPineTrees) which consists entirely of 1-tweet stories, or Twitterature. Example:

“These readings can’t be real,” she scoffed. “Alien ships this large and numerous would be visible.” She looked to the sky. And the stars. ~ @QuietPineTrees, 7 March 2016

I’ve seen Twitter used as a medium for storytelling before, most notably by Joanne Harris, but I’d never seen this kind of micro fiction and I loved it. It embodies so much that I try to achieve in my own writing: painting detailed pictures concisely, allowing the reader’s imaginations to do so much of the work, creating a sense of wonder out of everyday things.

So I decided to follow suit – plagiarism being the most sincere form of flattery – and have since been posting one story in 140 characters every day. It’s a great exercise, not only to work on concise renditions of visions, but also to boil down the seeds of a story into a single elevator pitch and see if they still work. It allows me to briefly toy with a new story idea every day, and several of them have ended up on my ‘to write’ list.

It has also highlighted something about my own writing, and that is my tendency for darkness. Now, the idea that I write tragedies (pyrrhic victories at best) isn’t news to me. Indeed, it’s a source of long-standing teasing between myself and Dr. Nick, who’s roleplay character I once caused to bring about the fall of Rome because he crit-failed a prayer to Athena in a tabletop campaign I was GMing. (I think he’s still a little traumatised from that one.) But I hadn’t quite realised just how deep the tendency went until my aunt dropped me an email the other day to say that she’d been reading my tweets and, whilst she was enjoying the stories, was I okay?

Oops. Storytelling’s probably not meant to worry the relatives.

I’ve tried to write happy endings in the past, but I really struggle with it. It’s not that I don’t like them – in fact, I ONLY like reading stories with happy endings. But when I’m properly into a project the characters and events feel real to me. They have to, otherwise how can I immerse anyone else? And happy endings… well, they never feel believable. I just don’t buy it. It’s kind of the same approach as a lot of Russian literature, actually. If the characters achieve happiness, that’s only because you haven’t followed the consequences all the way through yet. I’m looking at you, Anna Karenina.

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An early addiction to Greek mythology may have been a contributing factor.

Some days, I think this says something deep and meaningful about my maturing outlook on life. Some days, I ascribe it to depression. But neither of those is really fair. The first novel I ever completed (age approx. 14, and still very much an optimist) ended with the planet exploding. (It was called Son of the Circle Stars, an astro-physically unlikely romp about a Prophesied One trying to unite two warring cultures through the power of magic. I carefully printed it out one page at a time and made a cover from cardboard and wrapping paper.)

I’m rambling. What’s my point? I think it is that sometimes the stories we tell reveal aspects of the author’s psyche. We write what we know, and all that jazz. But depression doesn’t drive my stories – my stories are an escape from depression. And I am still, somewhat doggedly, an optimist. So sometimes the stories end badly just because that’s how the story goes.

And because there’s beauty in darkness too.

Sing, O Muse, the Wrath of Achilles: Roll Initiative

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This week is the blog’s fourth anniversary so, to celebrate, I’m going to combine two of my favourite things: ancient epics and roleplaying games. This is because the common thread between them is part of what the blog is all about – collaborative storytelling.

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Roleplaying games happen when a bunch of people get together in a room, usually with drinks and snacks, and tell a story together about heroic deeds and terrible monsters. Or sometimes the terrible monsters are the heroes, if you’re playing World of Darkness.

Ancient epics were told when a bunch of people got together in a room, usually with drinks and snacks, to listen to a story about heroic deeds and terrible monsters. Or sometimes the terrible monsters were the heroes, if you’re listening to Beowulf.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

Kill Screen wrote a fantastic article about this and you should totally go and read it. What they didn’t talk about is how this is spreading out into a wider culture, thanks to modern technology.

The nature of a public is not one-way. It is not the provision of material to be consumed. The nature of a public is a two-way, three-way, multiple-way conversation that’s reciprocal, that requires listening as well as speaking. ~ Matthew Stadler

Twitter provides fantastic examples of writers who use the online platform to build a dialogue with their readers, as well as changing the content to better suit the medium. Joanne Harris, for example, tells a story on Twitter at least once a month, via multiple tweets, using the hashtag #Storytime and encourages her followers to give her ideas for the next one.

Back in 2014, Neil Gaiman ran a Twitter-based project called A Calendar of Tales, during which he asked his Twitter followers to suggest a single inspiring sentence for each month of the year, selected twelve to write a short story around, and then asked his followers for illustrative artwork. The results were a beautiful anthology, the collaborative work of an author and his readers. Then there’s places like Wattpad, where writers post chapter by chapter and readers can leave comments or feedback. There’s blogs like Andrew Knighton‘s, where people can comment or even request themes for his Friday flash fiction.

And, of course, there’s a rise in mainstream culture of SF&F stories which brings a whole new audience into the conversation. Stories about heroic deeds and terrible monsters. Or sometimes the terrible monsters are the heroes, if you’re watching Deadpool.

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Fantastical stories are ancient. The Epic of Gilgamesh, with monsters and quests for magic items, is over four thousand years old. Communal story telling existed back when (and because) people couldn’t read or write. When people start to panic about the decline of books in the face of advancing technology, this is the thing to remember. Look how far storytelling hasn’t come. We tell the same types of tales in the same types of ways, and have done for a very very long time. It’s how we’re wired to tell stories. The technology we create will inevitably serve to continue that.

It’s just that, sometimes, there’s also dice.

Writing In Existing Worlds: In Defence of Fan Fic

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Welcome to 2016! I hope you all had very nice, relaxing holiday breaks filled with waaaay too much food and presents you genuinely liked. Before we get into the meaty stuff (warning: there are phrases like ‘chiastic structure’ on the horizon), I thought I’d start the year with something a little lighter. And also a confession:

My name is everwalker and I write fan fiction.

There was a time not so long ago when I might have been embarrassed to admit that. During the holiday, I had this conversation with a friend and prefaced it with ‘I don’t broadcast that I do this’. Then I began to wonder why not. Fan fic may have stigmas attached but it’s been an incredibly useful arena for learning and honing techniques. So much so that I went on to use some of them in my final submission for last year’s university module. I only started playing with fan fic last year, as a useful way to dump-write when I had an idea that wasn’t relevant to my current book (or just needed a break), and there’s a bunch of things I’ve learned in the process that are particularly worth noting. So I figured, what the hell, let’s talk about them. Because, on a blog about writing techniques, they’re totally relevant.

1. RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain)

The characters and setting are already well known. You don’t need to open your story by setting the scene or explaining personal histories because it’s understood that the readers already know all that jazz. You can get straight to the action, and this is an incredibly good habit to get into. In original fiction, maybe a tiny bit of scene setting is necessary but really you should be getting straight on with it. Back-plot can come later. The urge to explain at the start is very strong and writing fan fic has really helped me RUE.

2. Hey, That’s My Line!

Quite often in fan fic you’re using chunks of dialogue from the original book/film/TV series/anime/ancient Roman mosaic. The technique (and yes, it’s a legitimate technique) lies in expanding the script, putting a different slant on it without changing what the characters actually say (via body language, inner monologue, etc), or going deeper into an unusual POV. This really comes in handy when developing your own original scenes, because you’re then used to thinking about what the characters are saying in addition to what comes out of their mouths.

For the final assessment of the last university module, this was exactly the assignment I was given: rewrite a passage of dialogue from a play, using descriptive text, to give it a whole new meaning without changing the actual conversation.  The assignment tips said ‘you might consider issues such as when and how details of setting are given to the reader; whether every piece of dialogue from the script should be directly quoted; whether access is given to the thoughts of the characters – as cannot happen in a realistic modern play; whether the ‘fictional’ version is written from a particular character’s point of view – and which character that should be.’ I aced this assignment, and I did it on the experience of writing fan fiction.

3. Getting Under the Skin

This brings me onto the most important point: POV and characterisation. In certain storytelling media – such as film and TV – we generally can’t see inside a character’s head (except under unusual and often drug-fuelled circumstances). There is no inner monologue. We have to rely on body language and dialogue to interpret what’s going on and what the the characters are actually feeling. There is, in effect, no ‘voice‘ and thus we are a stage removed from the intimacy of the story.

In fan fic, however, we have the chance to go deeper into the characters and give them an inner monologue. Actually, it’s more than a chance – it’s an imperative. The readers have already seen the body language and heard the dialogue on screen. If you want them to spend time reading your story, you need to give them something new. So writing fan fic becomes all about really deep character interpretation, very close POV, intimate inner monologue.

This has been an incredibly valuable exercise. I tend by nature to be a primarily visual writer, putting down on paper what the mind’s eye sees but not necessarily conveying a feeling of personality. I am now learning how to write characters from the bones out, and it’s revolutionary. Well, it is to me.

4. It’s Not About Size, It’s What You Do With It

There’s a general perception that the majority of fan fic is basically porn. And that’s fair. But here’s the thing – to write effective porn, you must use words to really immerse your reader into the scene, to the extent where they don’t see ink and paper, they see what’s actually happening. Now, take away the sex and apply that principle to writing in general. Isn’t that what you want to do with the whole of your story? Immerse your readers so deeply that they feel what’s happening at a personal level? It’s not easy but there are techniques to it. Sentence structure plays very heavily into this, especially alternating between short, choppy declarations and long, rambling, conversational phrases. So does really honing your deep POV skills. The reason fan fic is useful for this is because it’s aiming for a very specific, very measurable emotional response. If it elicits it, well done – you’ve achieved immersive writing. If it doesn’t, you need to improve.

Here’s the other thing – a lot of the time, it’s not really about sex. It’s about building relationships on a page, often with a myriad of complications thrown in. Again, isn’t that what you want to do with your own characters? Maybe without the physical gymnastics but enough that your readers will cheer for them, cry for them, even rage at them for being so damn stupid. Above all, emotionally engage with them. If you get the techniques for that right, fan fic readers will tell you. And if you don’t, they’ll also tell you. It’s a very feedback-centric arena.

So, there you have it – I write fan fic and find it a useful training ground. Next week: what Homer, the Bible and JK Rowling have in common!