Tag Archives: imagination

12 Tall Tales: Storytelling In Objects

Standard

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.

20160722_165104

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:

20160722_170048.jpg

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… 😉

Verysillymitude: Making Stuff Up Accurately

Standard

This term’s university module is all about the importance of research in fictional writing, and how to do it. I have a bit of an advantage here in that market research is 75% of my day job, plus my undergrad degree was in Ancient History and therefore pretty much all research-based. A lot of this stuff is so ingrained that I don’t necessarily realise what isn’t obvious, so if anyone has any specific questions about the art of research please leave them in the comments and I’ll focus on them in future posts.

There’s just a couple of points that I want to touch on for now, though.

I’m writing SF&F – do I need to do any research?

This conversation came up with my course colleagues, all of whom are writing historical or modern-era fiction. One person said:

Made up stories which rest on nothing more than the writer’s imagination, have no concrete root from where research can be drawn.

NLSl3

Cities are usually laid out in a certain way. Does your fantasy capital make sense?

I respectfully disagree. With a story set in this world, your readers can build a mental picture with relatively few clues, drawing on their own knowledge. With a fantasy world, they have no prior knowledge or images so you have to make that picture even more compelling. That requires a well-researched sense of the physics and biology, good and believable depiction of architecture, culture and politics. These are all things which the writer should research and base on existing cultures, etc, in order to make them believable, relatable and compelling.

Terry Pratchett wrote a wonderful essay about how a reader once sent him a letter saying that the geography of the Discworld was all wrong because meteorology dictated that the reputedly wettest place on the Disc was actually in a rain shadow.

Plus there’s always psychology. Why are your characters behaving the way they do? What in their past history would impact their behaviour? I have a wonderful book called Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, which lists mild and extreme symptoms of everything from PTSD to Middle Child Syndrome. If you want to make complicated characters who don’t react logically to everything because they’re people, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

What is truth?

The one thing a writer must never do, under any circumstances, however, is to distort the truth for the sake of a good story. ~ Ann Hoffman, Research for Writers

Yeah… no. We are, first and foremost, storytellers. If the research inspires a new twist in the story, awesome sauce. If it completely stymies it, then sail straight on by with a rude gesture. You can always come back to that point later. Besides ‘truth’ is wildly subjective. As Gerald Seymour said, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Facts, now, facts are different. Changing a fact is changing something that can be proven otherwise. If you start messing with, say, the laws of physics you’d better have a really good world-building reason or it’ll throw your readers right out of their immersion.

omaibzabwfqni7edoy5d

In the realm of SF&F, ‘facts’ can take on a slightly weird definition. For example, the architecture of the USS Enterprise – a completely fictional ship – is so very well documented that mucking about with that will result in outrage. Be aware of your genre and your audience.

There’s also the issue of cultural sensitivity. I don’t just mean cultural appropriation – of course we borrow from other cultures in order to create new worlds. (Just do your research and use them, y’know, respectfully.) But there are certain points in various cultures that have too much associated with them – the Holocaust being a prime example – and you really do not want to mess with those.

For my current project, the figure of Jack the Ripper is a vaguely important one. That means research into all the stories and legends around him, including the ‘facts of the case’. But over the years and theories, many of those facts have become so sensationalised that I feel no qualms in altering them to suit my own ends. This is my version, my story, and the story comes first.

You never know when stuff will come in handy

A couple of years ago, when work was particularly stressful, I indulged myself in a massage. Whilst I was lying face-down on the table, trying to make polite conversation with the lovely lady punching my shoulders, it occurred to me that she must know all about muscles. So I asked her what the physical effects would be on someone who’d been strapped to a chair in the same position for 300 years (the fate of my current pro/antagonist). She explained all about the impact of sciatica, and thus a plot challenge was born.

Referencing

In closing, here’s a handy infographic on how Harvard Referencing should be done. Bibliographies are pretty rare in SF&F, although very common in historical fiction, but knowing how to compile them is still handy.

Like I said, if anyone has specific questions about methods of research, or what to research, or what questions to ask, etc etc etc, please say so in the comments and I’ll give it some air time. Otherwise, I’ll move on next week to something else. 🙂

A Laundry Line Stole My Story

Standard

Last weekend I went to something called a Writer’s Gym, which is pretty much what it says on the tin: cardioa work-out for writers. Not the physical kind, thankfully. Physical exercise and me, well, we’re acquainted but our relationship is strained at best. No, this was a mental workout. The gym leader – personal trainer? – set a series of exercises, each with an individual prompt, and a time limit within which to write a scene that fit those requirements.

I’ve done this kind of thing before and I love it because it forces me to think. It frames scenes in a way that I would never come up with on my own, and at the end of the exercise I frequently have a pretty pivotal result on my hands. The key to each one, every time, has been an entirely mundane object – an umbrella, a chewed pencil, or in this case a laundry line.

The exercise was to use whatever object you drew from a deck of cards and create a bad memory for your protagonist around it. When I drew ‘laundry line’, I had a flash-back to my own memory of the laundry line in my childhood house. It was a wobbly old rotary thing in the corner of the patio and I loved the way it span like a carousel. I’d help my mum hang the washing out just because I liked making it go round. This was a good memory for me, albeit an unimportant one. How to make it bad?

I already knew that I wanted my protagonist to have a slightly strained relationship with her mother – I just hadn’t been sure how to establish it. The image of her mother hanging out the laundry, and the complete incongruity of the protagonist doing the same, threw it into relief. Her mother is happy in her role of wife and homemaker, and can’t understand why her daughter didn’t want the same thing. The protagonist is a career detective, and single. The tension comes from the dichotomy of expectations between older and younger generation, and the lack of understanding for each other’s perspective. Suddenly that dissonance between generations, and the pressure it can create, unlocked a whole new side to the protagonist. I had one of the core drivers for her character arc – balancing the weight of expectation from both herself and her mother, and coming to peace with them – from the simple image of a laundry line.

My point, really, is this: the simplest things can make the most powerful points. When writing SF&F it’s very easy to fall back on magic swords and oracular crystals and so on, and they absolutely have their place. But the mundane amongst the magical has its own power – a more relatable power in many ways and therefore harder-hitting. The first Writer’s Gym I did, the image of a wooden-handled umbrella resulted in a scene revealing an old crime that was so horrific it actually made me slightly nauseous just writing it, and the hero’s violent reaction to it therefore entirely believable.

It’s very easy to overlook everyday objects as sources of inspiration, and surprisingly difficult to pick them for yourself. Ask someone – a friend, colleague, family member – to randomly select something that they use every day, or have lying around the house. See where it takes you.

 

 

The Onus of Responsibility for Imagination

Standard
Erudite pizza

Erudite pizza

This post stems largely from a conversation I had in Pizza Hut this week. Yes, erudite stuff can happen in Pizza Hut.

Different creative mediums place different responsibilities on both creator and audience, depending on their level of interaction. My writing friend comes from a theatrical background; I come from a roleplay one. This means that our assumptions about our readers are subtly but importantly different.

You use imagination or imagination uses you.” ~ RK

In roleplay, the audience is actively involved in the storytelling. They carry the vast majority of the responsibility for creating the illusion that they then enjoy.They use their imaginations. In theatre, however, the onus is entirely on the play. The audience’s imagination brings the story to them, rather than them taking their imaginations to the story. If the play doesn’t hook the imagination in the first place, the audience won’t come out to meet it. They’ll walk away. The responsibility for imagination lies with the writer.

And in writing? Well, it’s the same. I can take inspiration from the thousands of stories that unfold in the roleplay arena, and the oh-so-human characters that are played out, but I have to remember that when it comes to the page the responsibility for imagination is on my shoulders.

That said (and I’m going to segue seamlessly here), I went to an interactive play a couple of weeks ago where the responsibility was very definitely extended to the audience. You can see a full review of it by my friend Peat Carrington here so I won’t go into details. The point is that there wasn’t a story unless the audience filled in the gaps. It started as an interesting tour of the local area, with details of an historical business that the theatre company were trying to revive. The story was the recent death of the company’s re-founder, and her relationships with the various tour guides, but it was dropped in as very subtle hints along the way. The audience definitely had to bring their imaginations rather than the other way around.

The other thing about that particular play – and again, this might be my roleplay background colouring things – was the difference between the expectations built at the beginning and the ending delivered, which links into my previous blog post on causal chains. The title was A First Class Death. It’s not just me that assumes this is a murder mystery, right? Because it opened with a walking tour, and kept dropping subtle hints about this recently deceased woman, I was prepped for another murder or at least an attempt. I kept looking behind me for dodgy types waiting to rush the crowd, and wouldn’t get too close to the tour guide in case he had a gun in his pocket. By the time the tour part was over, I was properly on edge.

Turns out the woman died of cancer. This was just her wake. No murder, no mystery. In consequence, I left the show feeling rather flat. Taken without context it was a very interesting and thought-provoking look at the trappings of death. But because I brought my imagination and then received nothing for it, it didn’t deliver. So where did the responsibility for imagination actually lie, in that example? Well, ultimately the buck in a creative work always stops with the writer. If, as a writer, you want to ask the audience to put some effort in, you’d better make sure that effort is rewarded in a manner that fits the expectations you’ve raised.

murder-sign-

Writing for Theatre: the Importance of Minimalism

Standard

This weekend I’m heading off for Green Ink’s sponsored writing session to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Research (and if you fancy donating, please click here). Next weekend a selection of the pieces written during the session will be performed on stage. In light of that, I have invited a friend of mine to do a guest post about writing for the theatre as it’s a medium I’ve never tackled before.

The important thing to note is that Mr. Carrington is not a writer. Oh no. He’s more interesting than that – he’s the man who has to translate the writer’s vision into reality. He’s the one in charge of the practical bits. Listen, now, to the wisdom of the stage manager…


For the novel writer, the sky is the limit. An unlimited budget for cast, costume, set, lights, sound and special effects are available. In writing for stage however, all writers go through (or should go through a more rigorous) process of rationalisation. This process is similar to Stephen King’s advice to ‘cut out everything that is not the story’ but slightly more pragmatic.

In small scale theatre, writers of stage scripts should keep in mind what is reasonable. For example, do we need to see the characters eating takeaway chips in scene 4? If it is required for the drama of the story then by all means keep them but if they serve no purpose in the story all they do is balloon a budget.

Stage Managers are a practical bunch who tend to focus on the essential items in a script and an audience can be similar. If specific things are in a play, they are assumed to be there for a purpose. As Anton Chekov said;

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

I say this not just because my job is made more difficult and my producers’ wallets have suffered as a result of extraneous props and set in fringe theatre but because such things can be:

  • cut if they have no justification for being on stage
  • a detriment to the production if they serve no dramatic purpose
  • a reason not to stage the play at all

Juxtapose two huge stage productions and their librettos. Wagner’s Ring Cycle proves extremely challenging for opera makers with its flying chariots pulled by goats, rainbow bridges and mighty dragons. Wagner had difficulties staging it during the 1860s and 1870s, it is rarely performed in full and modern productions have to re-interpret these fantastical elements. Contrast that with the much maligned Lord of the Rings musical that was a technical triumph but a crude parody of Tolkein’s work. Both of these struggled with the gulf between the writing and the execution, the Ring Cycle because of Wagner’s imagination and Lord of the Rings because no matter how good the cast and technicians, they cannot save a bad script. I am not saying these works should not be staged (hang on, I AM specifically saying that about Lord of the Rings) but I am illustrating a point regarding the rationalisation process.

Wagner's Ring Cycle staged in NYC

What is it with magic rings and pyrotechnics?

Then look at the very specific details in say Schaffer or Beckett’s work regarding staging, costumes, props, stage directions. These writers understand that all aspects of a production tell the story. Schaffer’s Equus is told in the round, in a paddock of a sort, with the horse costumes described in the stage directions. Sound and lighting design can also have its own language; everyone is aware of how Wagner used motif’s in the score for the Ring Cycle as an example. Theatre allows the writer to tell a story in a very different way from other writing so I ask the writers who read this blog to consider this when they re-draft their scripts. Not only so my hair doesn’t go grey when I’m trying to track down a WWII era telephone but also because if you want to tell a story on stage you should consider the staging in order to get the best production at the end.

As a stage manager, lighting operator, writer and theatre reviewer my perspective is perhaps more analytical than others and I hope you will notice that I have focused on the initial writer and not the designers in this blog, this is not to downplay the role of designers at all.

Thank you to Everwalker for allowing me to express some of my thoughts here.


PJCarrington is a stage manager, lighting programmer, theatre technician and writer living in London. Find his blog here and a profile of his stage work here.

If you would like to hear more from this guest in the future please comment with your opinion.

Wrong, Right & Left: Creating an Alien Moral Code

Standard

More world-building stuff. Yay! This was prompted by a discussion over at Lair of the Jiggy Beast, where he was talking about the tendency of roleplay characters to Evil Neutral morality. A lot of our heroes end up doing morally questionable things in the name of the greater good (or just ‘coz), at least by our standards. Swords and sorcery settings are, by their very nature, violent. The protagonists are frequently forced into acts of GBH at the very least. And because it’s the fantasy norm, we accept it. Which raises the question of variable moral standards both within the characters and within the readers.

These are my principles, and if you don’t like them, well, I have others.   ~ Groucho Marx

The thing is, despite this evident flexibility in the minds of readers, it’s rarely taken advantage of. We build fantastical worlds and cultures, and fill them with morals very similar to either our own or the fantasy norm (which is to say, our own with added violence provided it turns out okay). Yet moral differences exist between real life cultures and are one of the key ways to distinguish those cultures. They identify what is valued and reviled, the type of people that do well, even aspects of history. They’re a great way to both make a culture feel exotic to a reader, and to bring them into it.

I’m not talking about amorality, here. Amorality is the ignoring of the common moral standpoint, not operating within a different one, and it’s also quite a common character approach. Nor am I talking about the morals and ethics of actual aliens, necessarily. A human culture with different experiences and history to ours will have different standards of behaviour. This is true of the real world so why not of the fictional one? Now, this guy over at SciFi Ideas makes some excellent points for why our morals are the way they are. But where he holds that there is a basic morality that transcends education or culture, I disagree. It all depends on perspective. And, according to Robert Wright, tech level.

1. Technology as a moral driver

The global community

The global community

Technology has drawn groups of people into more and more far-flung “non-zero-sum” relations — relations of interdependence; increasingly it has been in the interest of one group to acknowledge the humanity of another group, if only so the groups can play win-win games.   ~ Robert Wright

Basically, the more we talk to people, the more we have to acknowledge that – despite their differences – they are the same as us. That leads to greater acceptance and co-operation within societies. The approach of a culture to difference is a key driver of morality. Gender, skin colour, caste – all these play into the world-view and ethical approach. They’re also really easy ways to flag to your reader that this culture has a foreign attitude.

2. Religious directive

What is the god/pantheon of your culture like? Are they wrathful or merciful? Are their priests expansionist, fanatical or genuine shepherds of their flock (if that’s even an appropriate simile)? Is there hope for redemption or life after death? Concepts of heaven and hell equivalents? These will all impact the taught ethics of the culture. Fear of what happens to your immortal soul is a very powerful motivator. Likewise the absence of that fear.

The film Agora with Rachel Weisz is a fantastic example of how different religions can impact cultural approaches to things like gender, education, right and wrong. Seriously, go watch it.

3. Cultural oddities

Probably my favourite one. This is where you get to sneak some really flavourful bits in, that show your reader volumes about the culture without having to actually tell them. As an example, a culture who places great emphasis on contracts – and seals them with handshakes – might therefore not like to use handshakes for anything else. One that holds literal truth as the greatest virtue might take a rather restrictive view on interpretive art and fiction.

This is also where you can work backwards to build culture from a character trait. Is there’s something slightly odd about your protagonist or supporting cast that you can make more of? Something you can use to shed light on the place they came from, which in turn sheds light on other behavioural traits they might possess. It’s difficult to know which way round things came in the finished article but, as a guess, FitzChivalry’s Wit in Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy is an example of this. Fitz can talk to animals – an unusual character trait that leads to a cultural stance on tainted bloodlines, bestial magic and the persecution of those who have it. That shows the reader plenty about the morality of the Six Duchies, from the perspective of one who is deemed unclean.

4. The shadows of history

The concentration camps of WW2, the bloody colonial settling of America, Oliver Cromwell – these have all left marks, however slight, on the moral scenery of Great Britain. If an historical event is significant enough to cause shockwaves in the culture, it will likely do the same to that culture’s ethical approach. What are the landmark events of your fictional culture’s past? What are the knock-on effects likely to be? Maybe a war challenged the usual stance on religious extremism, or made it unacceptable to speak at a certain time on a certain date. Maybe a system of government or a martyred bandit impacted the general perception of what counted as greedy and what was normal consumption.

This is a double-whammy of win for the writer. In one go they can hint at both depth of history and depth of cultural mores, giving the reader a greater illusion of reality and immersion. Just remember not to overdo things – show, don’t tell, and Resist the Urge to Explain.

5. Individual characteristics

Moving away from a cultural norm, why does your protagonist behave in a certain way? What is their private code of behaviour and how did they arrive at it? Why might it be different to that of others from their country? My heroine, for example, was raised by an immigrant and therefore has a slightly odd perspective on what counts as balanced justice. Exploring this difference gives me a chance to bring out elements of her backstory, her relationship to said immigrant and her struggle to equate what she was taught as a child to what’s expected by her own society.

If there’s conflicting approaches, which one is right? What if neither approach fits with the reader’s idea of what is right? Now, there’s a fun thing to challenge in your readers. Can you make them absorb enough of this strange culture that, by the end of the book, they are completely on board with notions that – at the beginning – they might find weird or abhorrent? Minds are made flexible by imagination. Give them the gift of a different point of view.

about-different-points-of-view-catsu-the-cat