Tag Archives: structure

Nine Worlds: Look Who’s Talking – Me!


UntitledI’m going to start my write-up of Nine Worlds with the presentation I made, purely because a number of people asked for a copy of my slides and I promised to put them up here. The subject was ‘Choosing your narrative technique in order to have the desired impact on your audience’. I deliberately used the word ‘audience’ rather than ‘reader’ as it’s more applicable across different media (although I forgot to take games into much account, for which I must offer particular apologies to Ian Thomas of Talespinners).

As I said last week, this is the first time I’ve done public speaking in about two decades so I was super-nervous but the audience were lovely and engaged (because this is Nine Worlds, and that’s what Nine Worlds audiences are). I also learned a couple of things in turn – like uses for 2nd POV, which I’ll be looking into more in a later blog post – so wins all around, really.

A lot of what I talked about are things I’ve covered here in the past, so what I’m actually going to post about today are the things I *forgot* to say at the weekend, or skipped over in minimal detail. To make any sense of what follows, you’ll need to look at the slides.

Slide 2: Immanent Rules

This relates to your choice of narrative structure and voice. In simple terms, what is the default structure of a particular story? How many times does it change level of narrator, and when (are flashbacks always in someone else’s voice, for example)? Is the timeline linear? Once we work those out – and usually it’s pretty instinctive – we can also spot if and when the story breaks its own rules. Then we can ask why it was done and what impact it created on the audience.

Slide 3: Dividing Narrator, Hero & Protagonist

The benefit to doing this is that it takes some of the pressure off the narrator. It makes them free to not be a hero, and for the hero not to be a narrator. That offers greater freedom to act appropriately in both places. A good example of doing this badly is Captain Kirk, who is both hero and narrator. As a result, because the audience is seeing the story through his eyes, he leaves the ship for dangerous front-line expeditions a frankly irresponsible amount for a captain. If he weren’t the narrator, he wouldn’t have to do this and would be free to act heroically in accordance with his rank. It also gives you the opportunity to have an unsympathetic hero or protagonist (Sherlock Holmes, I’m looking at you) via the softening, sympathetic narrator – something you can later subvert if you wish.

The downside to dividing the roles up is that there’s more characters to keep track of.

Slide 5: Defining the Hero

Read the introduction to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, where he talks about cultural differences in the meaning of heroism. In Australia, for example, generations of sending their youth off to fight in other people’s wars (mostly Britain) in response to heroic-themed marketing, has resulted in the word ‘hero’ carrying an overtone of stupidity. Again, this is something you can play with and subvert.

Slide 9: Giant Snails

I did say this on the day, but it isn’t on the slides so I’m going to repeat it here because it seemed to go down well.

  • Heterodiegetic – ‘Some guy down the pub told me he was attacked by giant snails.’
  • Homodiegetic – ‘I was involved in a giant snail attack.’
  • Intradiegetic – ‘I saw my friend get attacked by giant snails.’
  • Autodiegetic – ‘I was attacked by giant snails.’
  • Extradiegetic – ‘I’ll tell you a story about giant snails.’


Slide 11: Narrative Levels

For those who attended on the day, the text I used to illustrate the different levels was Read This First, which is my post-apocalyptic anthology about the curators of the last library, now available on Amazon. Minor book plug. 🙂

Slide 14: Privilege

‘Privilege’ is a technical term for the amount of information a character has access to and therefore can provide the audience. Mieke Bal is a good source to read up on this. The more narrative levels the story has to go through (focalizer, narrator, implied author, etc.), the less privilege the audience will end up with because some will be lost with every level.

A way around that is to play with opposing narrative levels that offer different ‘truths’ about the same events. A fantastic example is the film Hero. The downside of taking this approach is that the audience is aware that they are being misled in some way and therefore have to start working out who and what they believe to be reliable. This makes the story a puzzle to be considered objectively, rather than something they can fully immerse themselves into.

Slide 15: Authorial (Un)Reliability

When using changeable structure as a method of unreliability, the audience is encouraged to make false assumptions, not by the narrator but by the author. The order in which the story is presented is deliberately misleading. Arrival is a great example.

Slide 16: Twist It

Again, I did mention this on the day but remember that the twist/reveal is for the reader’s benefit, not necessarily the narrator’s. For those who don’t even realise they are unreliable – the misled, the delusional, and so on – they don’t need a moment of realisation at all. Clare Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days provides the reveal to the audience but not the narrator, and that ignorance adds to the horror of the narrator’s ultimate fate.

Twists also add to your story’s rereadability. The audience will experience the story differently a second time around because they have greater privilege than any of the characters. So if you write a twist, try to ensure you include things that will provide the breadcrumbs for people to spot when they go through again. It turns the story into more of a puzzle-experience but, speaking as a reader who does this, it’s great fun.


Slide 19: Relative Distance

I didn’t include this slide in the original talk at all, because I was tight on time. Wayne C Booth, an American lit crit writer, has a theory called aesthetic or relative distance, which is the distance between the narrator and everybody else, on any type of differentiator. Basically, you need to distinguish between your narrator, your secondary characters, your authorial voice, and your audience. Treat those four as separate entities. Now, work out what their norm is for a whole bunch of stuff, such as historical era, geography, class, fashion, speech pattern, morality, politics, etc etc etc. The distance between any of the four entities on any of the differentiators provides you with possible sources of tension.

  • Some of these tensions are good – the narrator and the secondary character have radically different politics, for example, or come from opposing socio-economic backgrounds. That drives plot.
  • Some tensions are structural – the narrator and the implied author have different biases, which implies an unreliability. Ditto the narrator and the secondary character(s). This can be good (tension drives plot) or bad – for example, the 3POV narrator of Liza of Lambeth by W. Somerset Maughan is a working class London girl but the audience finds it difficult to really get a feel for her because the language of the book is upper-class male.
  • Some of these tensions are bad – the narrator and the audience have radically different morals, and a failure to ease the audience into this leads to disengagement.
  • Some of these tensions are unavoidable – the author and the audience come from different eras or cultures, which means there’s a certain knowledge gap that has to be bridged in order for the audience to engage.

Slide 20: Getting the right reaction

Again, because of time restraints I didn’t really go into cause and effect properly with this slide on the day. So here’s my take on it:

  • Frame: Emotional engagement to narrator and distance from story. Enjoyment and introspection.
  • Epistolary: Implied reader which means easier suspension of disbelief and engagement.
  • Unreliable: Enjoyment of structure, possibly more privilege.
  • Diegetic level: How involved is narrator? And therefore how involved is audience?
  • Narrative level: How many levels of privilege and bias does audience get story filtered through?
  • Relative distance: What sources of tension are in the story? Which do you need to make easier for audience to work around?
  • Self-consciousness: Emotional engagement with narrator, implied reader, levels of manipulation
  • Narrative complicity: Audience is drawn into story, brought on-side emotionally and intellectually
  • Authorial reliability: Manipulation of audience, either knowing or not, which creates tension but involves risk; can offer greater insight into characters and relationships
  • Privilege and bias: Is the audience able to see the whole story? If not, why not? Tension, plot, emotional engagement and manipulation
  • Plot twist: memorability and rereadability, involves risk

What Next?

As I mentioned above, I clearly have some more research to do around 2POV regarding games and Interactive Fiction, so I’ll come back to you on that in a while. I might even, if I’m very very lucky, catch Ian Thomas at a less-insanely-busy-than-usual moment and beg a guest post off him on the subject.

I also had a wonderful moment with Adrian Tchaikovsky afterwards, in which he expressed interest in the relationship between 1POV/3POV and past/present tense. Particularly, if the narrator is speaking in past tense they clearly have knowledge of the whole story (and there’s a strong indicator they’re going to survive the experience), which therefore surely impacts their account. If they’re speaking in present, how are they narrating (especially if they DON’T survive)? This conversation was the highlight of my Con. It’s not every day extremely successful SFF authors ask for my opinion on something technical. So yeah, I’ll definitely have a think about that and do a follow-up blog post.

On a more personal note, the whole public speaking experience was less terrifying than I thought it would be and I realised after the fact that I’d rather enjoyed myself. Since this is a subject I love to learn and talk about, and since in a perfect world I’d actually like to end up lecturing on this stuff, hopefully I’ll get to do it again in the future.


Here Endeth The Lesson


I really struggle with endings. Like Russian literature, I have a bad habit of pursuing consequences as far as they can possibly go, which ends up with everybody dead. There’s a place for sad endings, of course, but mostly people want to end on a high note and with a sense of closure. Bittersweet, at best. The books I reread and keep on my shelves all have happy endings. If I want my books to be reread and kept on other people’s shelves, I need to learn the art of writing an upbeat closure.

I actually asked for tips from one of my favourite authors, Joanne Harris, and she replied with this:

Joanne Harris

She spoke to me! Squee!

Unfortunately, whilst the advice is lovely it doesn’t help all that much. So, what about practical advice?

Find the Mice

Orson Scott Card said that the point at which your story ends is intrinsically linked with the type and sub-genre of story you’re telling. He called this the MICE Quotient, and I’ve talked about it before. If you’re writing a travel story, the ending is when your hero arrives at / leaves / decides not to leave a place. If you’re writing about an idea or question, the story ends when the question is answered. An event/adventure story ends when the event has taken place or the adventure is over. A character story is the trickiest to determine, but is essentially when the character accepts the change they have been resisting or achieves the change they’ve been seeking.

This is a fine theory for the broad strokes but doesn’t really help on a detailed level, particularly not if you have an ensemble cast. Look at the trouble Tolkien had wrapping up The Return of the King. That was, what, four endings? Five? There’s a trick to finding THE point of closure, and leaving some of the loose ends to the reader’s imagination.

That said, it’s important to identify which loose ends are unimportant enough to leave and which must be resolved in order to provide closure. Plots and sub-plots must be resolved; major character growth arcs must be completed. Who inherited the dead man’s tea-pot isn’t important unless the tea-pot contains the key to lost treasure or the secret code for the next apocalypse.

The Anticlimax

Epilogues are an indulgence, much like prologues. If you can afford to lose them, do so. Especially in these days of multi-platform publishing options, where you can always write a short story and put it online for those readers dedicated enough to want to hunt it down. Kelly Armstrong, writer of the Otherworld series, does this really well by releasing epilogues in a newsletter to fans who sign up for it.



Honestly, this was unnecessary and gave us nothing new.

On the flip-side of that equation, there’s the need for giving your reader a cool-down period. Especially if the finale of your story is a grand action-filled or emotional scene. Ending straight after that leaves your reader all wound up with nowhere to go. This is what the denouement tradition of older crime mysteries is for – we have the great chase or reveal of the criminal, and then the detective sitting down with his pipe and smoking jacket to explain his thought processes to the admiring friend. The reader is wound up, talked down, and goes away happy.

So when does a cool-down become an epilogue? Usually an epilogue is set some time after the main events, or told from a different character’s perspective. If the information contained within it is essential to the overall understanding of the plot, try and include it within the structure of the main story. But Resist the Urge to Explain.

Deus Ex & Twisters

Deus Ex Machina is when an unstoppable and overpowered force (not necessarily divine, despite the name) swoops in at the last minute to save the day. This feels like a cheat to the reader, unless the set-up is really good. And I mean REALLY good – like, characters-died-to-make-sure-the-heavy-cavalry-arrived level of good. They have to earn divine intervention. It has to have emotional weight. Basically, what makes a DEM is the lack of set-up. Tell it right, weave it into the story throughout, and it’s fine.

The Hulk, by way of example, is an unstoppable and overpowered force. If he just pitched up at the end of the Avengers to help out, he would totally count as a deus ex machina. But because Banner struggles with controlling the Hulk, and because he flipped out and fought the other Avengers on the helicarrier, he’s already woven into the story as an earned ally. Banner’s sudden ability at the end to release Hulk on command, and then fight with the rest of the team, is a bit deus ex-y but “I’m always angry” is such a cool line that we mostly let it slide.

Twists, a la M. Night Shyamalan, are equally tricksy beasts. If the set-up is good, the twist makes sense within your plot but doesn’t telegraph itself ahead of time, go right ahead. Readers tend to really enjoy a twist, provided it’s done well. If you can pull of a twist that makes a rereading of the story change the reader’s understanding completely, even better. That gives your book longevity.

Twists mostly come out of unreliable narrators. In fact, some authors believe it’s pointless to have an unreliable narrator without one. A twist that can be predicted, or doesn’t make sense, or is just there for sensationalism, though – that’s a not only going to annoy your readers, it’s also going to weaken the entire story. Instead of having a mediocre end, you’ll end up with a mediocre beginning and middle into the bargain. If you’re going to have a twist, you’ve got to do it right. And there are plenty of lists of films doing it wrong available on Google.


All of the above pretty much comes down to one thing: foreshadowing. The ending can’t be written in isolation. You need to know what the final point is when you write the beginning, in order to tie it in right. That said, you can (and many people have done, including Sir Terry Pratchett and if it’s good enough for him it’s good enough for me) write the first draft without a clue what the ending will be. Then you painstakingly add in the foreshadowing when you rewrite.

This doesn’t, however, solve my fundamental problem of writing positive endings. In the spirit of frankness, I find them hard to write because I don’t believe in them on some fundamental level. I guess this is one of my personal learning curves: start with tragic (Spiritus), progress to pyrrhic (Corpus), then bittersweet (London Under). Maybe the next project over the horizon will achieve happiness. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.


Chronotopes: Time and Space in Literature


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’.


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.


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:


The Theory of Relativity: Time on Paper


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.


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).


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.


Virtual Reality: Storytelling in REAL Fantasy Worlds


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


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!

Bias & Belivability: the Point of Narrative Theory


I had a bit of a lightbulb moment, after three weeks of wading through narrative theory. I’d been wondering, quietly, what the use of all these technical terms was to a writer. And then, with a cry of Eureka!, I worked out how to structure my book.

The thing is, there’s different levels of reliability when telling a tale. These ties into unreliable narrators but goes further. How much do you want to suck your reader in and, more importantly, in what way? Because the way you use the narrative voice is absolutely critical for achieving this, and all the technical terms are a way of making us break it down to work out how to use it.

Author vs Narrator

In my current book there are two narrators. One is a detective in the Metropolitan Police; the other is a dryad prince. One of these is more instantly believable as a real person than the other. Now, previously I was writing them both as 3POV homodiegetic (in the action) narrators. Having looked at all this theory stuff around levels and bias and believability, I have now changed that. The dryad prince will continue to be narrated as 3POV homodiegetic, but the detective will become a 1POV conversational narrator talking directly to an audience.

By doing this, I achieve something very important. The reality of the dryad prince becomes as a statement of fact by the person with the most authority in the reader’s eyes – the author. By contrast, the detective is consciously presenting her personal opinions and bias which the reader has room to doubt or disagree with. Just by changing the narrative structure, I give the magical side credibility and the ‘real’ side unreliability. This makes it easier for the reader to buy in to the fantastical quickly.

Narrator, Protagonist, Hero

I’ve talked in the past about how the narrator, the protagonist and the hero are not necessarily the same person. Well, this also comes back to narrative structure and Bal’s levels. And again, I’m going to use my current project as the example:

  • The narrator is the detective – the character through whom we see the story unfold. The story doesn’t happen to her, but she is responsible for uncovering it, for solving the murder.
  • The hero is the dryad prince – the character we want to win. The story pivots on his growth and desires.
  • The protagonist is the niece of the murder victim – the one who triggers the events of the story. She never narrates, but she interacts independently in very different styles with both the narrator and the hero.

The new structure gives the opinions of the narrator, the behaviour of the hero, and – through their eyes – the consequences of the protagonist’s actions. So the reader has an intimate relationship with the detective, a close relationship with the dryad prince, and a distant relationship with the niece. At no point are the niece’s thoughts or desires made known – she’s only ever seen through the focalization, or bias, of the detective and the dryad, both of whom come from radically different backgrounds to her. By using this structure, the three characters are given very difference emphasis, or weight, in the eyes of the reader.

Equally importantly, it also means that the reader has more privilege – more knowledge – about what’s going on than either of the narrator characters. The action of the plot is constantly driven by the niece, but neither the detective nor the dryad know all of what she’s doing. This creates tension for the reader when the detective or the dryad behaves in a way which is flawed because of their ignorance. That tension helps to drive the story.

I was already doing some of this, purely on instinct. By learning the theory, though, I am far more aware of the impact I’m trying to achieve and what techniques are available to achieve it. It was worth slogging through unreadable lit crit texts for.