Tag Archives: storytelling

Dramatic Tension Runs in the Family

Big Brother is five years old, and is a born storyteller if ever there was one. He makes up stories to tell to his brother. He makes up stories to tell to us. But his favourite thing is to create “puppet shows” where he can set the stage with his toys and then use them to make up a story. Then, it’s the toys who have the starring role.

Some days it’s a joy to listen to.

This is one of those days.

Knight

His story today went something like this:

Sir Silver and Sir Black are facing off on the top of a tower. There’s a dragon nearby, and a T-Rex across the river.

Sir Silver: You’ll never get away with this!

Sir Black: Haha! Yes I will! And now I’m going to kill you for NO REASON!

Sir Silver: Noooo! I’m going to hit you on the head as hard as I can! *bash*

Sir Black: *crying* What did you do that for?

Sir Silver: Because you said you were going to kill me.

Sir Black: But I was only playing a game. I wasn’t really going to kill you.

Sir Silver: Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were playing a game. Do you want to be friends?

Sir Black: Okay.

…and that’s when the horde of zombies attacked.

Do your children delight you with their storytelling abilities?

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Roleplaying for Writers

Before I went on my leave of absence, I started writing about how role-playing is beneficial to writers. That was prompted by some questions I’d had from people who didn’t understand the correlation between the two subjects. I’ve always intended to get back to the question but this time I will answer it in a single post. *deep breath* Here we go.

What is role-playing, anyway?

Role-playing, at its heart, is a collaborative storytelling experience. Have you ever watched a movie or read a book and found yourself thinking, “I would totally have seen that coming.” Or: “If that was me, I would have done something different.”? Congratulations! You know how to role-play.

In a role-playing game, each player takes on the role of a character and plays that character as s/he takes part in a story. The Storyteller (also called GM, DM, etc) is the sole exception to this. The Storyteller designs the plot and plays the role of every non-player character in the story.

(If you’re interested in reading my long, rambling introduction to role-playing games — as well as the experience I had introducing my parents to role-playing — you’ll find it here.)

Playing a Character

Most of the people involved in any role-playing game take on the role of an individual character throughout the story. … What does that actually mean?

1) You develop a character concept, personality and background to suit the genre of the game you’re playing.

My character’s name is Cinderella Daniels. She’s 18 years old, about 5’2″ tall, with mostly dark hair — she’s dyed one stripe a vivid fuchsia. She grew up half with her Mom and half with her Dad. Her parents are quite civil to each other, she just happened to be the result of a one night stand, and her parents don’t have anything else in common. So half of each year she spent time with her Mum in a hippy-type commune just outside San Francisco where they lived on minimal money and spent time skipping school to hand- craft goods to sell to tourists. The other half of each year she spent with her Dad in New York, where she lived in an expensive apartment in Manhattan, went to the finest school, and had everything she could ever ask for. When she graduated high school, both parents expected her to live with them — so she moved to Miami to work out what she wants to do next. Her Dad bought her an apartment and gives her an allowance (much of which she gives to charity) and she volunteers weekends at the local science museum.

2) Once the game begins, you take on the role of your character, responding to the Storyteller and helping craft the story as you go.

Storyteller: You’re walking along the street when you notice a dog staring at you.
Cinderella: I love dogs! I look around to see who owns it.
Storyteller: There doesn’t seem to be anyone else around. The dog’s not wearing a collar or a leash, but it’s definitely watching you.
Cinderella: Poor thing, maybe it’s hungry. I’ll approach it — cautiously, though. I remember one time at Mum’s place when I was 8 or 9, this dog wandered in that looked harmless enough, but attacked everyone who tried to touch it.
Storyteller: As you approach, it starts to wag its tail.
Cinderella: Awww… I hold out my hand and talk to it. “Hello, little doggy. Are you hungry?”
Storyteller: The dog says, “Yeah, I’m starving. You got something to eat in that bag of yours? Maybe a burger? I love burgers. But hold the cheese — lactose, you know?”
Cinderella: Um. Did that dog just talk? I look at the dog. “Did you just talk?” Seriously. I must be going insane. I’m talking to a dog.
Storyteller: The dog tilts its head to the side and whines at you. Then it definitely talks. “Shit. Did I scare you? I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m not s’posed to scare you.”
Cinderella: I take a few steps backwards. “Noooo…. Not scared. Um. Hi?” 
 

Playing a character in a role-playing game is quite different to writing a story because you only have control over what your one character does. You don’t control the world, or the plot, or the other characters. It’s up to you to solve the mystery, or catch the killer, or plot to steal all the money in the bank vault of one of the biggest casinos in Vegas using only the skills and knowledge of your character.

Telling Stories

In each game there is one person designated as the Storyteller (DM, GM, et al.). The Storyteller is responsible for designing the plot, describing the world, and playing the roles of minor characters that the main characters come across. … What does that actually mean?

1) Develop a premise, plot, and antagonist to suit the genre of the game you’re playing.

The Morrigan and the Dagda have had a falling out. The Morrigan knows she can’t attack the Dagda directly, but she knows Lugh has a 19 year old child named Cinderella Daniels. Even better, the girl doesn’t know her father is a Celtic God. The Morrigan sets out to have the girl kidnapped, planning to use her as leverage to force Lugh to take her side against the Dagda. Lugh catches wind of this plan, but is unable to get to Cindy, so he sends a dog — a pup sired by his own dog companion, Failinis.

2) Once the game begins, you are the character’s eyes and ears. You take on the role of minor characters and antagonists as they appear, dictate the passing of time, describe the scene, and present the plot — always making sure to give the players space to play their character and make decisions about the direction the story will take.

Being a Storyteller in a role-playing game is quite different to writing a story, because you have no control over what the main characters do. You set up a scene, you provide back-up characters and antagonists, and you react to the characters as they react to your plot. Together, you tell a story.

How Does This Help When Writing?

When you’re writing a story, you take on the role of both the player/s and the Storyteller. You design the premise, plot and antagonists as well as the character/s. Then you build all the elements into a story.

Role-playing lets you practice each of those roles individually, which in turn helps you think about them as individual roles when you’re writing.

Instead of thinking:

Lugh’s dog shows up. It has a brief conversation with Cindy and Cindy agrees to take it back to her place.

I will think:

Storyteller: Lugh has sent his dog to meet up with Cindy. The dog is going to try to convince Cindy to take it home with her and then patrol the house looking for bad guys.

Cinderella (when the dog starts talking): This is totally creepy. There’s no way this dog is coming home with me. Oh, look how cute it is… Okay, it can come home — but it’s not coming inside and I’m taking it to the pound first thing in the morning.

Thinking about the story in this way helps prevent (1) characters from doing things because “it has to happen for the plot”, and (2) unrealistic plot points (based on the world and the antagonists). It helps ensure characters are always acting “in character”, and also forces you to push the boundaries of your plot.

There are a number of other storytelling techniques that I’ve developed and practiced through role-playing — such as setting a mood, rising and falling tension, and building micro-tension — and the “instant feedback” scenario of a group of people reacting to my character and/or storytelling is fantastic. But coming to understand the strong differentiation between plot and character when writing a story is the aspect that has had the largest impact on my writing.

So, all you role-players out there: What aspect of role-playing has had the largest impact on your writing?

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Firefly: Still Transcendent

Ten years ago, Joss Whedon’s Firefly began showing on Fox.

Ten years ago, a group of Fox Executives cancelled the show after only fourteen episodes were filmed.

Last weekend, thousands of people at the 2012 San Diego Comic Con camped out overnight for the privilege of being at the Firefly Ten Year Reunion Panel.

After ten years off the air, thousands of people wanted to be there; to see them. What must that be like for the storytellers, the actors, the people behind Firefly? Can you imagine it?

It goes beyond vindication. Vindication came a long time ago. It goes to a place of transcendence that I can’t even begin to describe without turning into a girlie-man.

— Joss Whedon

Firefly isn’t just a geeky, sci-fi show. I mean, it is that. But it’s so much more. It’s a masterpiece of storytelling. It’s an entire world, full of rich and vibrant people and places, brought to life on a canvas of dreams. If you haven’t watched Firefly, you owe it to yourself to do so. (Even if you don’t usually like sci-fi.)

You can watch the whole Firefly Reunion Panel here. I laughed, I cried, I fell in love all over again. Passion for Firefly welled up in my heart and connected me to a world full of people who feel exactly the same way I do. And it was grand.

When you’re telling a story, you’re trying to connect with people in a particular way. It’s not just about what you want to say, it’s about inviting them into a world. And the way in which you guys have inhabited this world, this universe, has made you part of it; part of the story. You are living in Firefly.

When I see you guys, I don’t think the show’s off the air. I don’t think there’s a show! I think that’s what the world is like. I think there’s spaceships. I think there’s horses. I think it’s going on in all of us.

The story is alive.

Because of you.

— Joss Whedon

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Narrative Structure: Breathe In, Breathe Out

Much like Stephen Watkins, I don’t like giving writing advice. I am, on the other hand, happy to talk about the way I write, the tips and tricks I’ve learned, and my opinion on anything from crime writing in the 1930s to the future of ebooks. (That doesn’t mean I’m always right, of course, it just means I’m opinionated.) So that’s how I found myself writing about Proactive vs Reactive characters last week.

I’m really glad that people found it useful reading, and I was delighted to have as many comments as I did. Amongst the comments was this statement from Ben Trube:

I’m struggling with breathers and where to drop into the action in my current revision right now, and would love to see an expansion on that theme.

So, because I’m opinionated I care, this week I will again be sharing my opinion on an aspect of writing.

First: Learn about narrative structure. There are a number of different ways to structure a story, and I’d suggest reading about all of them. (Although they all really break down to: Stuff happens, then it gets worse, then it seems to get better but really gets even more worser, then it ends either well or badly.) Some structures will suit you better as a writer, some will suit this story better than that story, and some you’ll read about and promptly forget because you think they’re stupid.

As a starting place, allow me to recommend Janice Hardy’s post explaining the Three Act Structure. You can find it in two parts: here and here. (Plus, Chuck Wendig just posted 25 Things You Should Know About Story Structure. How convenient!)

Second: Find a way to think about narrative structure that works for you.

I can’t tell you what will work for you, but I can tell you what works for me. If my method appeals to you, use it. If not, please don’t tell me I suck — just move on and find something  else you like. And feel free to share it with all of us.

I like to think of a story as a living thing. A good story, whether it’s a book, movie, episodic TV show, joke, comic books, computer game, or roleplaying games, should have a life of its own. It should breathe.

And that’s how you work out where to put your rising tension, and where to give everyone a break.

Breathe in; breathe out; breathe in; breathe out.

What’s do you do when you’re startled or stressed? You breathe in.

What do you do when you have a moment to rest or relax? You breathe out.

A good story will breathe. There will be conflict, tension and surprises (breathing in), and there will be quiet moments to plan, recover, and celebrate (breathing out).

Do you know what happens if you keep breathing in without pausing to breathe out? Me neither. But I suspect either your lungs explode or you have a heart attack. Neither is good. If every scene is full of tension and suspense, and the poor characters never have a chance to catch their breaths, your readers won’t either. If your reader is exhausted by halfway through your book, what do you think the chance is that s/he will finish it?

Do you know what happens if you keep breathing out without breathing back in? You pass out. In life, your body is starved of oxygen. In reading, your mind is starved of excitement. But whether your reader is dying of suffocation or boredom, s/he is probably not going to leave your book unfinished.

Now, the rhythm of every book is not going to be the same. The breathing of a thriller is going to be very different to that of a sweet, coming-of-age story. So, how do you (or really, how do I) make sure the story is breathing at the pace it should?

  1. Write the book. Keep this in mind while you’re writing if you like, but get your first draft on paper. This is more useful for revising.
  2. Make a list of all the scenes in your story.
  3. Note next to each one either “in” or “out”.
  4. Look at the pattern. Are there a whole string of ins or outs? Is the flow different at the beginning to the end? Is there anywhere that you think inserting an extra breath in or out would improve the flow of the story?
  5. (Optional — I do this, but my sanity is sometimes questionable.) Breathe, following the pattern of your book. See how you feel — are there any places where you’re breathing in too much without respite? Are there any places where you find that you don’t have enough breath to breathe out for as long as you’re supposed to? Also, don’t hyperventilate unless you’ve got a paper bag handy.

Note: I came up with this method while running roleplaying games. When you’re crafting a story with a group of people, you have the opportunity to watch their facial expressions and body language with each new character, plot point and twist that you reveal. After a while, I realised that I could tell when I needed to arc up the tension or introduce some down-time just by taking note of the players’ breathing and the set of their shoulders.

It took quite a bit of experimentation to get it right — but that’s what you do with a group of friends, right? Experiment on them?

When writing, there’s no “instant audience”, and no way to easily tell how the tension will affect a reader. It took me a while to put together this breathe in; breathe out method of tracking scenes, but it’s worked well so far.

What do you think? Does this sound interesting, or just plain insane?

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The Three Little Pigs and the Big, Bad Dinosaur

A couple of days ago, I asked 4-year-old Big Brother to do me a favour and entertain 10-month-old Baby for a few minutes. “How?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I said, desperate to escape to the bathroom. “Tell him a story.”

Two minutes later, I returned to find him telling the story of the Three Little Pigs.

“Shhh,” he whispered when I walked in. “I’m making up my own words. My story has a dinosaur.”

This is that story.

Three Little Pigs and the Big, Bad Dinosaur

Once upon a time there were three little pigs. When they left home, they built houses. The first pig built his house out of straw. The second pig built his house out of sticks. And the third pig built his house out of bricks.

The houses were all next to each other, because they were best friends. Then they built fences with sticks all around their houses.

One day, a dinosaur came. The dinosaur was a sharp-tooth dinosaur. He went to the first little pig’s house and said, “Little pig, little pig, let me in! And if you don’t, I’ll blow your house down by huffing and puffing!”

“Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin!”

So the dinosaur huffed and puffed and blew the house down. And the little pig ran to his friend’s house, that was made of sticks.

Then they found out the dinosaur was allergic and started sneezing when he smelled flowers. So they built a garden around the stick house, and it was a trap for the dinosaur.

Soon, the dinosaur came to the second house. “Little pig, little pig, let me in! And if you don’t let me in, I’ll blow your house down and I’ll huff and puff!”

And the two little pigs said, “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin!”

Then the dinosaur started to blow, but then he started sneezing. He was allergic to the flowers that were a trap. But it didn’t work. All his sneezing blew down the stick house, and the two little pigs had to run to the house made of bricks. They went there because their brother was their best friend.

The pigs used lots of rope and made a big trap for the dinosaur.

Soon, the dinosaur came. But he got caught in the trap, and the rope tied around him. So he started running away. And then the pigs went running after him and chasing the dinosaur.

Suddenly, the dinosaur remembered his sharp teeth. He bit through the rope, and then he turned around and started chasing the three little pigs!

The pigs ran as fast as they could back to the brick house, closed the door and locked it. Then the dinosaur said, “Let me in or I’ll blow down your house by huffing and puffing!”

But the pigs didn’t say anything, because they were laughing. The brick house was too strong and the dinosaur couldn’t blow it down.

So the dinosaur used his sharp teeth to bite the house. But it didn’t work!

Then the dinosaur had sore teeth. So he had to go to a dentist.

The dentist said, “You really hurt your teeth. You’re not allowed to bite houses or try to eat little pigs anymore. Otherwise you’ll have to stay here for a hundred years so your teeth can heal.”

But the dinosaur said, “I’m going to go and eat those three little pigs! Ha ha ha ha ha!”

So the dentist locked him in the room. And then the dinosaur realised he was on a plate, but he was too slow to escape. So the dentists all ate him for dinner.

And the three little pigs lived happily ever after.

The end.

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