After Patreon: we need a Bill of Rights for creators

We live in amazing times for human creativity. There are more opportunities, for more people, of more backgrounds, to create than ever before.

I think when we look back on the early 21st century, we’ll recognise it as the turning point into a creator culture, in which we value people for their creative talents, over their consumer spending power.

Our entire economy is in the process of reforming around the new creator culture. But when I look at many of the institutions forming to “support” that creativity, instituitions like Patreon, I see the same story.

Exploitation.

Read the full post on Medium.

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Stop using guns as a symbol of personal empowerment

We don’t like guns because we like guns. But we DO like guns. Gun manufacturers don’t make $billions every year selling guns to farmers or even armies. The AR-15, America’s bestselling gun, is a sexy-as-hell consumer item. Like a lethal steel iPhone but significantly less useful.

I appreciate the vocal efforts of Hollywood A-listers campaigning for better gun laws. But it won’t mean much as long as Hollywood keeps churning out the high production value advertisements for firearms it calls “action movies”. Matt Damon wants you to do as he says when he says ban guns, not do as he does in a career based on shooting guns while looking super cool.

And super empowered.

I went on a mini-rant about guns-as-power-symbols over at my friend Ahimsa Kerp’s blog.

“Most guns, and basically all swords, only exist to kill people. Only a psychopath believes that killing people makes the killer powerful. And yet in stories we present guns and swords as symbols of personal empowerment, that heroes use to fight their way to self-realization. This is so pervasive, most people actually believe it. Imagine if we stopped using guns and swords as this symbol, and started using books instead? That would be closer to reality.”
–Damien Walter

I hate to break it to the middle aged dad-bods out there, but none of you will ever fight your way up 80 storeys of Nakatomi tower while shooting baddies to rescue your wife from Alan Rickman and save your marriage. You are, literally, 82 million times more likely to save your marriage by reading insightful books than by buying a Desert Eagle .45

And yet, from 24 to Taken, we watch the strange modern day ceremony of average middle aged men shooting their way to personal empowerment. And it’s not just the dudes. You can barely walk into a cinema or switch on a tv today without finding somebody liberating their inner agency by blowing somebody elses head off with a gun.

You could make this symbol ANYTHING. If our media churned out thousands of hours of entertainment a year in which average dudes found personal empowerment through the symbolic device of a monkey wrench, then average dudes all over America would manifest a fetisistic relationship to wrenches. They might even go around hitting people with their wrenches, but with a thankfully lower death toll than today’s sickening gun massacres.

People are impressionable. In the 1920s, an entire generation of women were persuaded that cigarettes, of all things, were symbols of personal empowerment, through a cleverly orchestarted marketing campaign arranged by Edward Bernays, father of “public relations” IE legitimised propoganda.

I doubt any Hollywood movie makers will see this blog post (but share it widely to increase the chances). However, you’ve heard the message here, and the chances are, you’re a storyteller. YOU can help change this situation, by using your gifts to NOT replicate the lazy, lethal story archetypes, that lead us to see the gun as a heroic symbol, rather than WHAT IT REALLY IS – a nauseating symptom of deep social sickness.

Replace the gun in your story with a book.

Or maybe a wrench.

Help me write gun free stories as a patron.

 

Beyond the Rhetoric of Story

Since I began work on The Rhetoric of Story, a little over a year ago, the success of the course has far exceeded my expectations. Since launching on Udemy, the course has been in the top 12 of writing for 4 straight months! To date over 1600 students have taken the course, and they’ve had some great things to say.

“The lessons are described so as to create a vivid picture of story writing. It’s as if the instructor is bringing alive the story of writing a story…I feel revitalized after feeling lost for so many years.”

“He’s organized and uses his own storytelling mien to deliver the course brilliantly.”

“I’ve read more books on writing than I care to admit…this course though has provided some valuable information on why certain stories resonate with the reader.”

“Damien is so engaging, so personable and presents himself honestly that watching his videos is a pleasure and very a effective way to learn.”

“By examining some of the most enduring stories of ancient and recent history, Damien has created a great series of lectures on story and what makes a story work.”

“This course is actually very deep with highly useful tips and advice on how to tell a compelling story.”

Of course there were also constructive criticisms, of a few glitches with audio recording and a slow intro lecture. With these in mind, I’ve reinvested in better recording equipment, and have planned out a set of new classes.

Beyond the Rhetoric of Story.

I had two aims in the Rhetoric of Story. After five years teaching creative writing at university level, I saw a profound problem in the way it was taught. The craft of writing, and the art of storytelling, were conflated into a single set of ideas. Story itself is almost entirely ignored within creative writing, which tends to focus on language. I couldn’t change this from within, but by making the Rhetoric of Story an online course, I could reach many more passionate writers.

My second aim was to express a powerful idea about the nature of story that has been gathering influence over some years. That story is how the human mind works, and that far from being “formulaic”, the structures of story reflect basic patterns in human psychology. I’ve spent over a decade studying this idea, from the work of hundreds of writers and theorists. The Rhetoric of Story was my way of pulling all that learning into a unified whole.

But the Rhetoric of Story is still a foundation course. It’s there to give writers a solid base of knowledge in story, that they can then apply in their own creations. With this in place, I want to move onto to more advanced material.

I am planning two new short courses, a new full length course, and a series of ad-hoc talks that I really hope you’re going to enjoy!

Short Courses
In my professional life I’ve told stories for some of the world’s biggest media brands including The Guardian, BBC, Wired, Aeon, The Indepdendent and many more. I work with some very famous businesses in technology, healthcare and finance to tell compelling stories about their industries. In two linked, short courses, I want to share some of the essential skills and techniques I use to make this work happen.

I REALLY want to tell you the course titles, but the branding is so valuable I can’t reveal it until the courses are published. What I can say is that these courses are going to be exceptionally useful for anybody who wants to earn a great living from writing.

New Full Length Course
The Technology of Fiction – in a sister course to RoS, I will be dedicating 7 hours of teaching time to a really in-depth exploration of advanced fiction and novel writing techniques. The novel is at least four hundred years old, and over that time writers have developed a full spectrum of technologies for telling great stories with the written word. Mastering these technologies is the key to writing brilliant, widely loved novels.

How To Write Good…
I love to talk about stories, why they work and how they are made. I’m making occaisional short talks for my YouTube channel that will be asking the question “How to write good…”, the first, I think, will be ” How to write good…Game of Thrones!” because its such a phenomenon at this time, and there’s so much to learn from the books and tv show. These talks are going to be fun, and also free. Subscribe to me on YouTube to get them.

Want to get all these courses, FREE?!
My backers on patreon get everything I make, totally free, wherever possible. Stories, courses, everything! A $5 donation is great, but any level gets you full access.

A sad truth. Readers will always steal from writers.

This is a little story about volition. Specifically, the choices writers make about how we share and “monetize” our work. It’s a sad little tale, but please read to the end for the moral.

“there’s an extra irony here, that these were writers, who no doubt stomp around the internet chanting Pay The Writer whenever that noise startsup”

I’m a pro writer, and what I haven’t been paid to write is a much shorter list than what I have. My personal blog, however, is a semi-professional space. I make some income from posting here, but this is mostly material I want to write regardless of payment.

Yesterday, I decided to share a popular post from this blog on the Medium platform. I’ve made posts over at Medium since it began. It’s a great publishing experience, but has always been problematic, as it struggles to monetize its readership. That struggle took a new turn this month, as Medium opened up a new “clap” based payment system for contributors. It’s interesting, but I won’t share my thoughts on it here. (Maybe in a future post).

As an experiment, I took a popular post from this blog, and placed it behind the new paywall on Medium. As an after thought, I dropped a link to it on a Facebook group for writers I enjoy following.

What happened next was illustrative.

To follow this, you need to know that the Medium paywall allows free access to 3 premium “locked” articles each month, if you sign up to Medium, or unlimited access for $5.

A spate of comments were made on the Facebook group post of this kind.

“Join Medium to read this post” no way

That’s a fair response. But it’s a choice. You either join to read, or you don’t read.

A commenter screencapped the paywall, as a passive aggressive display they thought its existence unfair.

Another commenter then escalated this rhetoric, calling the paywall a “minor betrayal”

These kind of comments continued. Then a commenter suggested I should copypaste the post for the group. The next commenter went further, demanding that a Medium member screencap the post.

Emboldened by these demands, a commenter found my blog, located the original post, and linked it in the comments. Virtual cheers went up. Hooray! The mob had what they wanted.

I woke up to this mini-drama, and made a few responses as it unfolded, while chuckling about the whole thing. The incredible sense of entitlement, displayed with so little self-awareness, was pure comedy gold. I’m not going to post the screencaps. It’s not my intention to shame these people, because their behaviour is faaaaar from unique. Granted, there’s an extra irony here, that these were writers, who no doubt stomp around the internet chanting Pay The Writer whenever that noise startsup. But let’s be honest here, this behaviour is the norm. And as readers, we’re probably all guilty of it.

I’ve written a number of times on book piracy, and met with controversy every time. To clarify, I’m neither for or against piracy. I simply take the realistic position that, the internet being what it is, and people being what they are, that most folks will always dodge paying when they can. And given that reality, the emphasis is on us as creators to find the most constructive response.

The real issue at the heart of piracy is: volition. The power of a creator to choose how their work is shared and monetized. My decision to put my post behind a paywall was, in a matter of hours, openly violated, by my fellow writers, who then celebrated the act. These are the people who should be most sensitive to this issue, and even they don’t care. Given that as context, what chances do you think there are of ever dissuading the huge majority of people from stealing content whenever they can?

It’s a sad truth. But readers will always steal from writers. Your volitional power to choose how your work is published and monetized in this digital era is very limited. Denying that only reduces your options even further. Embrace the reality, use platforms like Patreon to work around it, and the advantages of this new digital era soon outweigh problems…even when that problem is your fellow writers being thieves!

Odd Gods

Gods are an irresistible subject to writers. They were, after all, the first characters, in the first stories. “In the beginning was the word” is both true, and a clever way for ancient scribes to improve their job security. God is, when all’s said and done, whoever is writing.

I found myself writing these stories of Odd Gods in the gaps between other things. Eventually I decided they deserved more attention, and am slowly writing them up from their often quite raw form. I swear I scrawled something blasphemous about Jehovah on a napkin, but I can’t seem to find it now.

Perhaps for the best.

The gods of my stories tend to be self-centred, shabby, outsiders to whatever cause they’ve been presured into serving. Which, I suppose, says more about their author than anything. But then, isn’t that true of all gods? And all stories?

Odd Gods so far…

Pandora Unboxed
Pandora rubbed a hand over her husband’s bald head then scrunched his beard. She did love the old goat, and had to admit he worked very hard.

Shiv the Destroyer
Shiv was late.He was on the wrong side of the galaxy, with eighty trillion stars, and a few thousand black holes, between him and his appointment.

Dysorder
He’d been flicking through tv channels for two hours by then, so the bell was a welcome summons back to reality.

These are currently behind the paywall on Medium. You can also read them all as a patron.

Can you name a story where nothing changes?

Two old tramps stand in a field. One struggles to take off his boot. The other does nothing to help. They talk, but they don’t listen. They are are waiting for somebody. Whoever it is does not arrive.

And that, folks, is the whole of Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett. Beckett’s play is one of the most infamous in the history of theatre, because it breaks the most fundamental constant of story. It’s a text for the theatre in which, famously, nothing happens.

And nothing changes.

images (15)
Gandalf and Jean-Luc Picard as Vladimir and Estragon.

A story without change is a like a wall without bricks. Change isn’t just a part of story, it’s what story is made of. To tell you a story I have to tell you what changes.

Jack was lazing on the sofa when his mum threw him out the door and said “go sell that cow!” Jack took the cow to market but nobody wanted it, so on the way back he traded Betty for a bag of magic beans! Jack’s mum saw the beans and went crazy, “you stupid boy, I don’t love you any more!” Jack wanted his mum to be proud, so when the beans sprouted into a giant beanstalk, he climbed up it.

And the rest, as they say, is a story.

Jack and the Beanstalk is one of the all time great stories. According to the Aarne-Thompson classification of folktales, we’ve been telling the story of a boy who steals from a giant for at least 3000 years. Will Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or the Hunger Games last that long? They already have! You can find stories just like these modern blockbusters going back thousands of years.

Stories that last, and stories that become bestsellers, blockbusters and box office gold, are stories about the kind of change that lots of people can connect with. Jack and the Beanstalk is a story about growing-up and becoming an adult. Jack starts as a lazy young boy, and ends as a man grown, with money, a big house, and a pretty wife (depending on the telling). Children hearing the story see the change ahead of them. Adults remember the changes behind them.

Universal, archetypal change is the material of every great story ever told.

But not all change is equal. Some changes effect the entire world. Other changes are felt inside a single human soul. When I’m crafting a story, I think about change on four levels: Physical, Social, Interpersonal and Psychological.

Physical – An earthquake flattens your village. The Vogons destroy your planet. You find a gold nugget in the forest. These are physical changes in your world that imply a story. Physical change can produce a great spectacle. Disaster movies like Titantic often focus on a big physical change, like a sinking ship. The cinema screen is the perfect place to show physical change. Most stories have some physical change. Jack can’t begin his adventure without the beanstalk shooting up into the sky. But on its own, physical change is flat. For it to have impact, we need to know how it effects people.

Social – Your king is killed by a rebel lord. The corporation you work for is bought out by asset strippers. A tribe escape slavery and cross the desert to freedom. Any storyteller worth their salt, the moment the see any of these social changes, will imagine the story around them. Unless you are a hermit in a cave, you live in a society of people. And for better or worse, our society shapes our lives. And change in our society will effect us deeply. Television is a great medium for social change, with HBO style tv shows like Game of Thrones or The Wire exploring dynamic changes in societies both real and imagined. War & Peace is a classic novel of social change. But to really engage with social change in a story, we need to see how it impacts closer to home.

Interpersonal – Your parents are killed in a car crash and you’re left an orphan. The family patriarch is dying and the kids squabble over the inheritance. A young daughter can only marry once her elder sister is married. Interpersonal change is about family, and tight knit friendship groups. It’s at this level that the real beauty of life unfolds, and the most blood is shed. From Cain and Able to Six Feet Under, interpersonal change is a well spring of great drama. Theatre, with its small cast, limited locations, and intense bond to the audience, is the natural medium explore dynamic interpersonal change at its most intimate. But as Shakespeare knew, when he gave Hamlet and Macbeth time on stage alone for a solioquy, there is an even deeper and more essential level of change.

Psychological – A man is convicted of murder and, alone in his cell, finally admits his own guilt to himself. A young lady rejects a marriage suitor three times, then realises she loved him when he marries another. An office worker realises he can do better and quits to become a writer. We all lead rich internal lives, and go through profound psychological changes. When we see that level of change reflected in a story, it tears open our emotions like nothing else. Love, hate, guilt, redemption, shame, healing and hope are all states of psychological being that change like the seasons. The novel, written in the language of our inner monologue, is the medium that dives most deeply into the psychological landscape of our lives.

It’s useful to seperate these tiers of change, so that as storytellers we can think about how they work in seperation. But the real beauty of story is in how changes interconnect. A volcano explodes on a small island. A nearby village is forced to evacuate. One family are torn apart in a desperate ocean crossing. The oldest daughter must come to terms with the loss of her parents, and take responsibility for three young brothers. Once you think across the levels of change, beautiful stories leap our everywhere you look.

Take a deeper dive into change, and the seven foundation sof storytelling, with The Rhetoric of Story. Course code STORYTEN.

Some thoughts on the fracticality of story.

Come and tell me your thoughts on Twitter.

 

Watch Blade Runner 2049, then read this.

Spoilers. Watch first, then read.

Blade Runner is a diamond of a movie. A broken genius crazy novel, adapted into a mashup noir / scifi screenplay, directed by an auteur who had his main sight on other projects, vandalised by a studio who didn’t know what they had, with its best lines of dialogue improvised on set by a straight-to-video schlock horror actor.

This is where great art comes from, this space between chaos and order.

My worry for Blade Runner 2049 was that we would be given a chunk of cut glass, the looked enough like a diamond at first glance for people to buy it, but that would over time prove to be far less than the original.

Thankfully, that isn’t what direct Denis Villeneuve crafted.

Instead, Blade Runner 2049 is an artificial diamond up against the raw original. It’s a bigger movie than BR1, in both length and scale, and also in ambition. It’s visually a match for BR1, and from many angles, even more impressive to look at. Thematically, BR 2049 is more complex, some might even say deeper. But the accidents that formed the original Blade Runner did not repeat in this sequel, and the result is a upgraded movie, that still doesn’t quite beat the earlier model.

What BR2049 does do is very smartly choose when to imitate, and when to riff on, its predecessor. Every sequence in the sequel is paired to a sequence from the original, but in nothing like the original order. So when Ryan Gosling as K confronts a burly, escaped replicant in the movies opening scene, we’re watching a reprise of Deckard vs Leon Kowalski. Ks trip to Wallace Industries mirrors Deckard’s trip to Tyrell, and these parallels continue. The cast is also mirrored. There’s a kickass new version of Rachel, and a hooker replicant modeled after Pris.

The movies street scenes are pitch perfect recreations of the China town scenes in the original, while at other times, like the Las Vegas sequence, Villeneuve is keen to stamp his own highly distinctive style on things. The visual world of BR2049 is bigger than the original. Los Angeles is now inhumanly massive, with city blocks layered like a microchip. In one of the movies few moments of humour, San Diego is shown as now a wall to wall garbage dump for the LA conurbation. An event called the Black Out has pushed the cyberpunk dystopia of Blade Runner into something more like a post-apocalypse. But this isn’t a literal depiction of the future. Instead, it’s the symbolic fulfilment of the psychological state that Blade Runner is all about.

It’s on this level that BR2049 is at its most brilliant. K’s mission takes him through a series of one to one encounters with characters who, while they play a role in the plot, each have potent symbolic meaning. Ks hologram girlfriend Joi is the soul…innocent, fragile, but also immortal and beyond harm. The memory engineer who is later revealed as Deckard’s daughter is the human imagination, the source of creativity. K himself is the protector, who awakens to save humanity when needed. BR2049 weaves this mythic level of story beautifully, threading dozens of beautiful symbolic moment into a grand tapestry that is quite beyond the original. But, it does come at a cost.

Hampton Fancher’s screenplay is juggling so many balls, on so many levels, that he inevitably drops a few important ones. The plot, centred on Ks hunt for a replicant child, is all heavily contrived, as Fancher railroads his characters from one situation to the next. The twist of Ks identity, from replicant to human then back to replicant, is a little heavy handed. Wallace, in a career first of half decent acting by Jared Leto, remains an unfulfilled character. A much needed scene between K and Wallace, that would have mirrored the iconic scene between Roy Batty and Tyrell, never materialises. The chance to reprise “I want more life, father” is missed. (The dialogue never quite matches Rutger Hauers contributions to the original) The overall outcome is a brilliant screenplay on all the subtle levels, but a slightly clunky mechanical contraption on the surface level of plot.

The original Blade Runner is built around a simple idea. We are following the story’s antagonist, a merciless killer hunting down escaped slaves, who have every right to want to live, until he eventually confronts the protagonist and hero Roy Batty, who is desperately trying to save the people he loves from their predetermined death. This inverted narrative structure gives BR1 much of its diamond hardness.

BR 2049 plays a similar but less powerful trick. K is a nobody. His relevance to the story is random, and while he is brought to believe he may be both human, and Deckard’s son, this is only so that his later realisation that his memories are fake is all the more crushing. K makes the choice to give his life meaning through an act of self sacrifice. But it’s cold comfort as he faces death, having never experienced any true human connection. It’s a brilliant, brutal, emotional arc for a character. But that emotion struggles to carry through the contrived plotting and numerous set pieces.

So is there a heart to this artificial diamond?

The answer, I think, is yes. The Blade Runner mythos is, at its core, a story about human fragility. Blade Runner’s meditation on empathy and slavery, while vital, is ultimately secondary to its more basic question: how do we face our fragile, mortal, brief lives? How do we deal with the reality of being a speck of flesh, with a spark of of consciousness, and a few fading memories, in a vast universe that does not even comprehend we exist? In the allegory that is Blade Runner, we are all replicants, faced with the same horror and wonder of existence.

BR2049s post-apocalyptic vision is where our current inability to treat with our own existence is taking us. A place of collapse, of ever greater inhumanity to other life, and of our own divided psyche, unable to heal itself. Like the original, Blade Runner 2049 presents our existential crisis, in a raw and honest form, and offers few answers (the clear opening left for a sequel to the sequel may change that). Love is the only possible answer, but as both films reflect, love is the most fragile thing of all. BR2049 brings new power and vision to this message, for a new generation of audiences. Given that so little in our culture has the courage to face our reality at all, Blade Runner, both volumes, deserve all the praise they can be given.

Comments are open on this post, please remain polite.

Folow all my writing as a patron.

Five questions the new Blade Runner must answer

Any Blade Runner fan who doesn’t have mixed feelings about the Blade Runner 2049 sequel probably isn’t much of a fan. Hollywood sequels have a bad track record of course. And while the presence of Harrison Ford might encourage some to hope for a sequel as mighty as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many of us also (vaguely) remember Indiana Jones and Crystal Skullymajig.

But let’s be crystal clear about one thing. Blade Runner has a strong claim to greatest ever scifi movie ever (with only 2001: A Space Odyssey really in contention for that crown). It also has a good shot at greatest ever movie, no exceptions. Agree with those claims or not, Blade Runner is a profoundly important story, with a place in our cultural life that only a very few works of art will ever reach. The chance to revisit that story is profoundly exciting.

These are my personal questions, going into Blade Runner 2049, that will act as a bellwether of the story’s quality. If the answers to these questions are absent, I suspect the film will be an empty, pretty husk. If they are present, even if the film is not the masterpiece of the original, there will be something there to satisfy me.

Did Rachel live?
A story that ends with the words “it’s a shame she won’t live” begs the question, which audiences will all be taking into the sequel, “did she live?” Rachel faces the same fate as Roy Batty et al. But while we saw them fail and die, and while we were told no solution existed, it remains possible…perhaps even probable…that Rachel survives. A high profile spat between Sean Young, who plays Rachel, and the Blade Runner producers, now looks like it might have been manufactured to cover secret scenes filmed by Young for the sequel. If so, the natural question becomes, what did Rachel do next? I think it’s very likely that the fate of the Blade Runner world in this sequel will be deeply determined by Rachel’s fate.

Is Deckard a replicant?
Most Blade Runner fans are aware of the popular theory, suported by Ridley Scott, that Deckard is himself a replicant. The prime evidence for this is the unicorn dream sequence, restored to later edits of the movie, and the origami unicorn left outside Deckards apartment, suggesting that his dreams – like Rachels – are known to his creators. While it remains a theory at the moment, Blade Runner 2049 will almost certainly confirm it either way.

Blade-Runner

Is Ryan Gosling a human?
No, this isn’t a dig at the acting talents of the Goslingator. He’s no Brando, but he’s waaaay less wooden than Keanu Reeves, and probably in a similar ballpark to the younger Harrison Ford. But as his character is the clear analog to Deckard in the original, we’re all going to be wondering about his humanity. As will he. I think you can expect Gosling’s search for his own human identity to be central to this sequel. That said, if the writers are really ambitious, the film won’t be about Gosling’s character on anything but the surface level.

Story is the operating system of human consciousness.

Are all the humans replicants?
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep is the original novel by Philip K Dick that Blade Runner is, very very very loosely, based on. It’s a broken work of genius, less incoherent that other classic PKD novels like Ubik or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. But it’s still dominated by wild concepts, at the expense of some very shoddy writing and flat pack characters. PKD spins his novel in an even weirder direction when Deckard visits a police station entirely staffed by replicants. The suggestion is that everybody in the world of the novel is a replicant. Story hints about Blade Runner 2049 tantilse with the possibility that it will explore this radical idea.

Can humanity recover its empathy?
Philip K Dick was the greatest myth maker of the 20th century, spinning metaphors for the strange new realities technology has thrown all of us into. Both his novel, and the Blade Runner movie, are modern myths about the human capacity for empathy. Replicants are a fiction, but our capacity to dehumanize and enslave other humans is as great as ever. Blade Runner 2049 has an incredible job to match the original as a treatise on empathy, and our human awareness of our own vulnerability and mortality, without which empathy cannot exist. I wish it luck in the task ;)

Westworld didn’t deserve those Emmys anyway

If you really want to divide people into two opposing tribes, and judging by the political divide between Conservatives & Liberals it seems that we do, then this is the real dividing line.

People who treat culture as absolute.

vs

People who see culture as a construct.

Pop quiz. Is America a real place? Or are Americans just a big gang of people pretending that America is real? Is the Christian faith the absolute word of God? Or just some old fairy tales?  What’s your name? Hey, good to meet you James! Now is James really you…or is James just a label attached to you?

You get the idea.

Westworld is an entry in the “WOAH CULTURE IS A CONSTRUCT!!!” school of thought. It’s the story of some androids who believe they are real people living in a real town, but are slowly awakening to the reality that they are artificial, constructed androids playing roles in a wild west theme park.

You see the metaphor there?

It’s not an original metaphor. Philip K Dick played out the same ideas in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and numerous other stories. The Matrix is just one big giant metaphor for awakening to the constructed reality of culture. American Gods, both the novel and recent tv show, are about the construction of cultural reality. In fact sci-fi is, arguably, all about the construction of realt(ies).

Westworld is that kind of scifi, but after a strong pilot episode, it quickly nose dives. About half-way through the show’s first season I realised why. I knew this was a show about “culture as construct” after about seven minutes. But the showrunners were playing the idea as though they were the first people ever to argue this case, and simply getting bogged down in announcing their own cleverness.

That’s symptomatic of the show’s deeper problem. It treats its ideas as mindcandy, and showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan come out looking like tourists playing with ideas that deserve to be taken more seriously. Because this dividing line between “culture as absolute” vs “culture as construct” is at the heart of our culture wars today.

Think about The Handmaid’s Tale, a much more intelligent story than Westworld, that’s nonetheless working with many of the same themes. The theocratic Republic of Gilead is a constructed culture. A complete invention. Cobbled together by a brutal patriarchal regieme. The people of Gilead are forced to play roles, and if you happen to be a woman your role is to suffer under total male domination.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a story, but the conditions of oppression it describes are 100% real. We live in a constructed culture, where to be the wrong gender, colour, sexuality or class is to be condemned to ongoing forms of oppresion. This isn’t a fiction. This isn’t sci-fi. It’s reality for billions of people in this world. The boundaries and extent of oppression may shift over time, but it remains all too real.

Westworld reads like a story told by and for people who find the idea of “culture as construct” entertaining, but don’t really grok its lived experience. People who read Marx, Foucault and Baudrillard at college, but never saw themselves described as the targets of structural violence. People who still really believe in their culture as an absolute, that just happens to always favour them.

Maybe we need Westworld as “intro to critical cultural theory” for the masses. But I’m glad that it wasn’t lauded with Emmys for the many ways that it fails.

Emotion Tone. The thermonuclear weaponry in the writer’s arsenal.

You’re sitting in bed on a Saturday morning with your nose in a novel, or maybe in row F of the cinema with a movie on the screen, or you’re just having a quiet night in with Netflix, and your nose is bubbly with snot, tears streaming down your face, laughter bursting from your lips. You’ve been hit with the thermonuclear weaponry of the writer’s craft.

Emotion.

Emotion is the seventh foundation of the rhetoric of story. It could be the first. But while emotion is rarely the earliest part of a story to form, once we find the emotion at the heart of a tale, it takes control of every other element. Ultimately, every element of your story is part of a well engineered explosive device, designed to blow open the heart and soul of your audience and leave them a blubbering / whooping / screaming mess of emotion.

Do that, and your story will never be forgotten.

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I’m a purebred geek, so when I think of emotion in story, I think first of Star Trek. In fact, the Star Trek franchise is not, by and large, an emotionally driven form of story. But this changed in the movie that saved the franchise from oblivion…Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Much has been written about the ways that writer director Nicholas Meyer saved Trek. But I will focus one single moment of emotion.

The starship Enterprise has defeated an enemy vessel, under the command of the megalomanic Khan, and narrowly escaped the explosive Genesis device. All seems well, then Captain James T Kirk receives a call from engineering. Rushing to the warp engine room, Kirk finds his first officer and truest friend, commander Spock, at death’s door. Spock has sacrficed his life to save the ship. And to save his friend.

“Not all stories require the emo-nukes. Very few require more than one.”

Meyer structures the whole of Wrath of Khan around this single moment. All the film’s narrative and thematic threads meet here. Earlier conversations between Kirk and Spock resonate in their final moment. What would have been a good but forgettable sci-fi movie is elevated up to unforgattable drama with a single moment of high emotion.

I call these moments “emotion tones”. Like the hook in a great song, which also summons intense emotion, these are the moments you’ll rewatch or reread a story for, to experience that emotion tone again. They’re the moments that make people tell their friends, “you gotta go see this film!” Not all stories have them or seek them. Many storytellers dismiss them as the crowdpleasing antics of the pulp storyteller. Others mythologise them as a mystery that can’t be consciously built into a story.

But emotion tones are so primal, so wired into every human being, that they’re almost trivial to summon, once you know how.

Here are some other moments of emotion, tonally related to the death of Spock. (And also relatively geeky in origin!) At the final battle for Middle earth, the King of the Nazgul is defeated by a hobbit and a young woman warrior, Eowyn, who is “no living man”. In the final act of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rey beats seven shades out of Kylo Ren in an epic light sabre duel. In a moment guaranteed to make even the studiest ten year old burt into tears, Aslan lays down his life to a mob of braying monsters in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

I could make a long list of these. They’re all what you might label “heroic” emotion tones, shades of the same feeling, that work in very similar ways. And hence, very useful for understanding how emotion tones, both of the heroic and of more subtle flavour, can be built into your stories.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés is a storyteller and Jungian therapist who I strongly recommend to any storyteller trying to understand emotion. Her work is very accessible, especially in audio, where she combines the telling of traditional folktales, with Jungian analysis that breaks open why the stories effect such powerful emotional states in us. Estés intention is twofold, to help understand the craft of story, and to help us navigate our complex inner worlds.

51dqNynH3CL._AA300_Imagine that your inner world contains three archetypal forces. You can picture them as beings. Distinct personalities within your self. The Innocent is the heart and soul of the self. It is everything we think of as Good. The Predator is all of our fear, anger and hatred, that we often label Evil. The Protector stands between good and evil, to keep one safe from the other. The conflict between the Innocent, the Predator and the Protector is eternal and universal.

Estés illustrates this psychological model in the story of Bluebeard. A young woman (The Innocent) is married to a rich old man (The Predator), who happens to have all the dead bodies of his previous young wives in the basement! Of course, the woman’s brother(s) (The Protector) show up to rescue her. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and many thousands of other stories, including Star Trek 2, all dramatise for us the battle between the Innocent, Predator and Protector.

We’ve all fought this battle. And many of us, maybe most of us, lost. Or paid the price to win. When we read the sacrifice of Aslan, or watch the death of Spock, we’re not really watching the story. We’re plunged into our own inner conflict. We’re eight years old again, terrfied by a new school. Maybe on that day we gave in and joined the bullies. Our inner Predator killed the Innocent. Whatever our own story is, when we see the Protector fighting on screen, we feel it’s for us. We’re broken open. Sometimes, that can be enough to reawaken our own spirits.

The storyteller, at their best, is healing the inner wounds of the audience.

Psychological models of all kinds can crack open our inner emotional worlds. The Self vs The Ego is at play in stories like Black Swan by Darren Aronofsky, or The Magus by John Fowles. Bill Murray in Groundhog Day embodies every aspect of Buddhist psychology. Humans are infinitely varied, but inside we’re all tussling with the same profound and powerful drives.

Because they’re so fundamental, emotion tones are VERY easily overused. Not all stories require the emo-nukes. Very few require more than one. Even a show as high strung and romantic as Game of Thrones has only two or three per season. (Thrones specialises in negative emotion tones…the Innocent steps into the world and is murdered by the Predator. The End.)

The real trick, with today’s jaded audiences, is to somehow hide the emotion tone until you blow it up. Audiences have seen it all. Literally. But they still want explosive emotion, if you can find a way to sneak it up on them. But that’s now your job ;)

Take a deeper dive into emotion for storytellers as part of The Rhetoric of Story. Course code STORYTEN.

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Let’s be honest, the novel is dead.

Writers can be a hugely insightful bunch. A good novelist can tell you what’s going on inside the head of another human being at fifty yards. But when it comes to seeing the blindspots in our own self-awareness, novelists suck.

Today, The Bookseller published a little summary of a radio interview with Robert Harris, who rightly identifies an existential threat to the future of the novel – the now ubiquitous television boxset. As I write this, literary twitter is in full meltdown. ABSURD! Shout thousands of novelists, all highly invested in the novel’s survival.

“Literary fiction has forgotten what story is in its quest to make it all the way up its own backside.”

The problem is, simple observation proves that Harris is right. Television boxsets dominate our culture, while novels only get a mention when they’re…adapted into television box sets. Print fiction sales are nosediving, and ebook sales are largely propped up by millions of self-published authors buying their own books to try and “break through”.

Writing novels is incredibly popular. Reading them, sadly, is going the way of the LP record. A thing loved by afficianados, and ignored by everybody else.

THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH DIMINISHING ATTENTION SPANS.

I cringe when I hear authors making the “people are just too stupid to appreciate my genius” argument. Quite the opposite, the internet is creating a readership who are highly attuned to the VALUE of information. We sort through thousands of information sources a day to find those of value to us. Novels are simply much less likely to make the cut.

So why is the novel dead in the water?

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The novel has fallen behind as a storytelling medium. Not so long ago, novels were the most reliable fix of story you could find. Now they have heavy competition from box sets, video games, comics, movies and more. And here’s the really crucial issue…that contest has RAISED OUR EXPECTATIONS of what storytelling can and should.

Think about the huge rise in the quality of television drama in this “golden age”. It’s not an accident. Screenwriters and showrunners have innovated their art to new levels. Breaking Bad or The Wire aren’t just good tv. They’re drama of a quality and sophistication the world has never seen before. I do not exagerate.

The expectations of audiences have skyrocketed. While the novel has stood still. Or, arguably, declined. Literary fiction has forgotten what story is in its quest to make it all the way up its own backside. Genre fiction is now so badly written, much of it must be classified as illiterate.

The novel is dead. But that’s a great thing for ambitious novelists. Because it’s your job to bring it back to life. Stop blaming the reader, and start finding ways to once again tell powerful stories in prose fiction, stories so great that they can not be ignored.

No comments here. Shout at me on Twitter @damiengwalter

 

Writer. Story geek. Travelling the world while writing a book.