Just caught the first episode of Westworld. I suspect it’s a show I’ll be writing about more. Some first thoughts, not so much about the show, as about why I think it matters.
Science fiction is the art of metaphor. It gives us ways of thinking and talking about things we can’t otherwise easily talk about. In that regard Westworld is science fiction at it’s best. A metaphor of such cut glass clarity was spun in the first episode that my mind is still turning over where it might go. What is it a metaphor for? Well, if I could say that we wouldn’t need the metaphor, would we?
And we do need metaphors. In fact, we need better ones. The robot / android as a metaphor for human life is a powerful one. It’s not just in Westworld, or movies like Bladerunner. In daily life our culture routinely talks and thinks about human life as being like a machine. We describe the brain as a kind of computer. We treat education like programming that computer. We fix the body by replacing it’s parts. Worse, we treat people like machines. We force ourselves and others into mechanistic processes, especially in the workplace. We don’t fit well into those processes. Because, of course, we aren’t machines at all.
You might be among the people saying, “Damo, Damo, Damo…we are BIOLOGICAL machines, but still ultimately machines”, but that’s not really my point. For a time the machine was the best metaphor we could find for the state of being human. But it’s taken us as far as it can. Wherever you look, you see the limitations of the machine metaphor for life. So we need a new, and more nuanced, metaphor. And that, I think, is what Westworld has joined the struggle to find.
That’s interesting. I’ll catch up with episode 2 during the week, and see what progress it has made.
I like this story in The Independent about China’s plans for a social scoring system.
In this world, anything from defaulting on a loan to criticising the ruling party, from running a red light to failing to care for your parents properly, could cause you to lose points. And in this world, your score becomes the ultimate truth of who you are – determining whether you can borrow money, get your children into the best schools or travel abroad; whether you get a room in a fancy hotel, a seat in a top restaurant – or even just get a date.
I also love the implicit suggestion that we don’t already live in a world where a point scoring system determines whether you can get a seat at a restaurant or *gasp* a date. It’s called money, we’ve had it for a few thousand years, and the only people who don’t think about it much are the people who have it.
One of the things about being 1) a writer and 2) a digital nomad, is that I meet a fair few people who have a lot of money. Swiss bank account type money. People whose whole life is spent jetting from one yoga retreat to another. Once you reach the point where you don’t have to think about money, it simply becomes a way of…keeping score. Because that’s all money is, the point scoring system in the weird Game of Life that is modern society.
What is interesting about the Chinese plan, is how very closely it mirrors exactly what is happening already in the online world. We’re already in the mid-phase of replacing money with a new scoring system that’s better adapted to digital life. How many Twitter followers do you have? What’s your business’s score on TripAdvisor? What’s your products star rating on Amazon? And on and on. The internet is made of point scoring systems, of more or less relative value.
A lot of people are upset about Vine closing. The 6 second video sharing app had some dedicated users. Can’t they just share videos elsewhere? Sure. But imagine you had $10,000 in the bank, then the bank just closed. That’s what just happened to Vine users. A big Vine following had a value, and that value just got deleted. Social networks and internet life aren’t just fun and games at this point. The time you spend garnering attention online is an investment. Invest in the wrong things, your time will be wasted.
If this all seems kind of far fetched, perhaps you haven’t being paying attention to what’s happening in our economy now. Consider this thought experiment. Imagine everything in the world is free. Food, cars, holidays, healthcare. All of it, everything you could possibly want, free. In that world, what still has value? It’s the thing that every big brand, every media company, and every kid on YouTube today are all fighting for. Your attention.
The attention economy has been one of those ideas kicking around since the early days of the internet. And now, along with machine learning and self-driving cars, it seems like it’s actually taking form. But I wouldn’t get too excited about it’s utopian possibilities. I very much doubt that extreme poverty will be a major feature of the world a few decades from now. But the kind of micro-managed behavioral shaping emerging in China very much will be. Do you enjoy playing games? Because our emerging future is going to look and feel much like a huge game. With no end. And no way to stop playing.
My grandfather adored the study of little things and how they worked. His rough but steady hands handled sheet metal in the day and models at night. I still have the windjammer he built from scrap metal, a glorious creation nearly 3ft high with metal strands for rigging and tiny port holes. He often wished he had gone into watch work. I can imagine him before a worktable covered with cogs and pins, spirals and screws, all vital to the watch’s creation.
“Any part that halts the story’s inner workings does not belong.”
Stories are very much like watches. Any character, detail, plot point—all are necessary to serve the story. When the watch has just the right number of parts, it will function. Too many will clog its workings, making it useless.
Yet it’s so tempting, isn’t it? We want readers to fully appreciate the craftsmanship. Surely they can only do that if we use every. Single. Part. So we cram it all in: the ill-sized versions that helped us find the proper fit. The duplicates, the broken. And rather than a working piece of beauty, we finish with a monstrosity of parts appreciated by no one.
Diana Wynne Jones proves one does not need to overload a fantasy with world-building for the reader’s sake. Her fantasies for children follow people through various lands, dimensions, and times; of course the setting matters, but it only makes up a few gears in the works. Therefore, her attention to setting is limited strictly to its function within the story. For instance, Howl’s Moving Castle, one of her most well-known stories (also adapted into a film by Studio Ghibli—a marvel in its own right), begins with one of the most succinct bits of world-building one could ever hope to find.
“In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.”
One sentence in, and we already know we’re in a different country where magic is commonplace. We also get a touch of foreshadowing: why would Jones include the cog about being the eldest of three unless it matters? It does: two sentences later we learn the protagonist, Sophie Hatter, is the eldest of three daughters.
Recently I finished Drowned Ammet, the second volume in Jones’ Dalemark Quartet. Surely her epic fantasy spanning centuries would have loads more world-building, yes? Well, she does include a map. That’s different. But her sparse world-building style continues here, too. Take this first line.
“People may wonder how Mitt came to join in the Holand Sea Festival, carrying a bomb, and what he thought he was doing.”
So, we have a sea culture, and some level of technology. As the story continues, we learn there is unrest due to the extreme divide between rich and poor. Jones doesn’t take time to describe the slums, the currency, or the weapons. She gives us whatever makes sense at the time for Mitt to learn. It’s Mitt’s story. The story needs what he needs. No other parts required.
I find myself at the worktable now, parts strewn about the story’s frame. So damn small…and yet, one protagonist takes in only so much: that which she needs to complete herself. Jones has shown me that any world-building detail must serve a function in the protagonist’s experience; one cannot throw a handful of cogs in for “background,” or “context.” Any part that halts the story’s inner workings does not belong.
That is why stories such as Jones’ still run flawlessly today.
Jean Lee has been writing all her life, from picture books in preschool to a screenplay for her Masters in Fine Arts. Nowadays she blogs about the fiction, music, and landscape that inspire her as a writer. She currently lives in Wisconsin with her husband and three children. Learn more at:http://www.jeanleesworld.com
It’s a familiar story by now. A straight white male – and it almost always is a straight white male – is living a kind of ordinary life when BAM! Events transpire that send Mr. Straight White Male on an epic adventure through which he gains Incredible Powers of magic and / or kung-fu. Star Wars? The Matrix? Every goddamn “Heroes Journey” narrative ever written. And now here we are again, with Doctor Strange.
“And it’s definitely not magic. Quite the opposite, Buddhism teaches its students to engage with the reality of the here and now.”
At some point our Straight-White-Male-Hero-Destined-To-Master-KungFu ends up studying with someone who looks a lot like a Buddhist monk, in something a lot like a Buddhist temple. Because, as we all know, Buddhism IS the gateway to to an altered perception of reality that unleashes powers of magic / kung-fu, right? Doctor Strange literally travels to Tibet (Nepal in the movie, because, you know, Hollywood doesn’t want to alienate the Chinese market) where he meets the “Ancient One” (who in the movie is randomly CELTIC, see above reason) who inducts him into House Gryffindor, so he can fight the evil Slytherin menace. Oh wait, getting my magical induction stories confused.
It’s all great. I love the Doctor Strange movie, and I’m a sucker for this kind of story. But then I (mostly) conform to its demographic targeting. And I love the more recent twist of having a really cute straight white woman in the lead role, although I’m honestly not sure this is as radical a demographic shift as is sometimes claimed. I’d like to see more dowdy middle aged protagonists go on magical adventures. They’re the ones, I think, who really need it.
But can we please clear something up here? BUDDHISM IS NOT THE GATEWAY TO SECRET MAGICAL POWERS. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of hours you spend in meditation, you’ll never be able to summon power from other dimensions, conjure cool looking glowing sigils with wavy hand movements, or indulge in the joys of astral projection. Got it?
“Oh Damo!” I hear one of you sigh, “You’re just taking this all too seriously! Nobody believes Buddhism can REALLY give them magical powers. Any more than they believe they can really upload their mind into a computer to achieve immortality! Oh, wait, loads of people do actually believe that…” As, in fact, do many people really genuinely believe Buddhism will give them magic powers. And much as I would like to blame this on Hollywood, it’s a much, much older problem.
While I’m lucky not to have had my hands crushed in an automobile accident, my own life took me into the Himalayan mountains, to study at the Buddhist temples in Dharamsala. I’ve been a student of Buddhism for eight years now. I stepped out of a successful, creative career – that was killing me incrementally – and Buddhism was part of what helped me transition to a different kind of life. Now I live in Thailand, a Buddhist nation, to study Theravada Buddhism. In 2015 I travelled across India, to the capital of the Tibetan government in exile, and home of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, to study Mahayana Buddhism.
That’s my path. No doubt, if enough people read this, somebody will crop up who’s all like “Well I went to Nepal and I TOTALLY learned how to do hand wavy magic stuff you just got the wrong brand of Buddha Damo the cheap stuff without the MAGIC” and OK, fine, I have met some of those people. They are welcome to their beliefs. And you can have those arguments within Buddhist circles, they’re absolutely part of the dialectic learning process Buddhist teaching guides students through. Because from some angles, Buddhism can seem quite magical. Which is why it’s important to remember that it isn’t.
When the Buddha was asked about things like magic powers, he always had the same reply. And he got asked a lot. India of 2500 years ago, around when it’s believed the Buddha lived, was a melting pot of every kind of spiritual belief you can think of. Spiritual teachers made a good living wandering the land, giving out all kinds of teachings, with the secrets of magical powers among them. And the Buddha spent years of his life studying these paths, before eventually arriving at the Middle Way described in Buddhism. So when people asked about gaining magical powers, the Buddha would simply say, that’s not what Buddha teaches. Buddha only teaches the way out of suffering. (Buddha talks about himself a lot in the third person. I know, right?)
Doctor Stephen Strange is seeking a way out of suffering. After his hands are shattered, he wants a cure. And most people who come to Buddhism are suffering. It might be a terrible illness. It might be depression. It almost certainly centers on some kind of loss. Loss of power, loss of status, loss of love. All of Buddhist teaching resolves down to the question of suffering, and how best to deal with it. And of course, gaining magical super-powers is a SUPERB way of dealing with suffering. Woosh! Just wave your magic wand and the cause of suffering is fixed! Except when it isn’t. Which is most of the time. One of the reasons I like the Doctor Strange movie is because it doesn’t let the character off the hook that easily. Strange has to accept that his hands will never truly recover. He has to accept his suffering.
The acceptance of suffering is, as best as I can express it, the starting point of Buddhism. You really have lost your job. You really do have a broken arm. You really have lost the person you love. From that acceptance, the pain might transform to something else. Or you might have to accept that it’s going to stay a long time, maybe for your whole life. It’s not easy. Nobody can do it without great attention. And it’s definitely not magic. Quite the opposite, Buddhism teaches its students to engage with the reality of the here and now, as deeply and fully as they possibly can. Which is why there’s a great irony, and no small danger, in how the entertainment industry constantly makes Buddhism a gateway to magic, fantasy and escapism.
But. If we can remember that magic is just a metaphor, a way of talking about things we can’t talk about literally, then like all myths, it can be very useful to think about. The Doctor Strange movie works so well because it’s aware of its own metaphorical meanings, in a way that a story like the vomit inducingly awful Batman vs Superman never even came close to being. If you find the time to see Doctor Strange, I hope you’ll tell me what those wonderfully woven magical metaphors meant to you. I’d love to know!
My experience, during 6 years teaching creative writing to university students, is that most writers don’t want to do this exercise. To be fair, it’s hard work. But it’s also the single best way I know to develop your skills as a writer, or any other kind of storyteller.
“But Damo,” I hear some folks in the back saying, “Big shots like Stephen King din’t do no structural analysis exercise and look where they is now!” To which I say, actually, Stephen King holds a BA in English Lit, taught English in the classroom, and even suggests this exercise in On Writing. So, there.
In more general terms, writers resist this exercise because it seems to go against the imaginative and intuitive parts of the writing process. A good story is like a great magic trick. As soon as you analyse it, the illusion is destroyed and you’re left with some smoke and a bunch of mirrors. But it’s not your job as a writer to believe the magic, it’s your job to create the illusion.
Think of this exercise as some short term pain in exchange for a lot of long term gain. And isn’t the the definition of exercise? If it was easy, we’d all be running the Boston marathon every year. But we aren’t, because getting really good at anything requires specialised effort and ultra-determination. So for those of you traipsing on the long and winding road towards literary genius, think of this as a deep muscle workout for your skills as a storyteller.
(This is one of the 7 super exercises I set my students on The Rhetoric of Story. Join in! If you have questions about story structure, that’s the place to find the answers.)
EXERCISE 6: STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS
The best way to learn about the structure of anything is to break it apart and then put it back together again. It may not work again, but you’ll learn a vast amount about how it worked. This is as true of stories as anything else.
Step One – choose a story that you know well. I’m going to assume here it’s a novel, but it can be a screen or stage play or any other form of storytelling. It’s important you know it well, or the exercise won’t work.
Step Two – you’re going to be writing a “structural analysis” of this story. It’s important to actually write this, your mind won’t really absorb the detail if you just think about it. Imagine you’ve been commissioned to analyse this story by a publisher. You need to deliver a professional report that captures the detail of this story’s structure.
Step Three – begin from the top level of structure and work your way down. Here are some suggestions for what you might be looking at:
what are the major parts of the story? Or acts in a screen or stage play? What happens in each?
who is the protagonist? What do they want?
who are the major characters? What are their relationships?
what are the forces of antagonism and how are they manifested?
what is the dramatic question? How does it manifest as plot?
what is the turning point of each chapter / scene?
how are the chapters structured?
what plot devices, like tension, suspense and mystery, are employed?
how do the character relationships change and evolve over time?
what is the balance of beats / dialogue / description / scene setting in each chapter?
what point-of-view is employed? How are POV shifts handled?
what is the narrative voice? Who does it belong to?
how is the style determined by word and sentence choice?
This is very far from an exhaustive list. Depending on your understanding of story, you might approach the analysis quite differently. That’s fine. This isn’t about applying some rote understanding of structure. It’s about seeing how the story actually works on the page (or screen / stage). It’s the difference between driving a car, and deconstructing the engine to see how all the constituent parts go together. Capiche?
Step Four – outline a story based on your structural analysis. So, if you’ve discovered your chosen novel has four major movements, with one hundred and twenty scenes, following seven characters, and so forth, you’re going to outline a novel with that structure. Take this step as far as you want. A two page outline may be enough. You might, on the other hand, decide to write the whole damn thing!
IF you complete this exercise to Step Three, and feel you need some feedback, post your structural analysis on your blog, with a link back to this post, and pop me an email on: firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll get to as many as I can.