All stories are fractal. Here’s why.

The best storytelling has a unique quality. Wherever your enter the story from, if you switch on the tv and start watching 20 minutes in, or catch a single scene in isolation, or (heresy!) skip to the end and read the final pages, the story engages your interest. Even if you don’t understand the whole tale, you quickly become lost in the telling.

“Learn the form. Master the form. Break the form.”

Stories that work this way for me include: the novels of Iain Banks, the Sandman comics of Neil Gaiman, the historical tales of Mary Renault, the movies of Paul Thomas Anderson, and the Fargo television dramas. Your own list will be unique to you. But the stories we love almost always share this quality.

They are fractal.

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Fractals are one of the wonders of mathematics. When you chart certain equations they produce beatiful patterns. And a quality of those patterns is that they have infinite dimensions. You keep zooming in and in and in to a fractal, and find the same patterns repeating again and again and again.

The fractal displays this pattern because it is generated from basic rules. Stories also display repeating patterns because, when expertly made, they reflect the same ideas, themes and events. But because the patterns in story are far more abstract than the visual patterns of a fractal, to see them you have to take a deep dive into the core techniqes of the storytelller.

Structure is bigger than we are.

Creators of all kinds have a love / hate relationship with structure. Some equate structure with formula and reject it. Others see structure as the shortcut to success and let it overwhelm them. The truth, as with most things, is likely somewhere inbetween.

I use this basic principle to measure structure. STRUCTURE IS BIGGER THAN WE ARE. If I set out to make a car, or a cathedral, or an iPhone app, or a novel, or a movie, these things all have a structure. A structure that has been evolved over time, by creators far wiser and more skilled than I.

In martial arts there is a maxim: Learn the form. Master the form. Break the form. Untrained writers often rush to break the form. They see the work of a master, like Ray Bradbury perhaps, who broke the short story form in many marvelous ways, and assume the key to success is the act of breaking. But they ignore the years of hard work Bradbury first put into learning and mastering the form.

Stories seem to exist in a bewildering variety of forms. The 3 Act structure defined by Aristotle is arguably the most widely known. Modern stageplays often adopt a 4 act structure, while Oscar winning movies like The Godfather spread over five acts. Short stories are commonly based on an Epiphany structure. Japanese storytelling uses the beautiful Kishōtenketsu structure. I’m going to stop there, but in my research I’ve documented over 70 story structures, some famous, other entirely lost in time.

But all of these structures share that same single quality.

They are fractal.

Stories within stories.

Here’s another way into the fractal nature of story. All stories are made of stories, and are part of bigger stories. If you pick up an issue of Wonder Woman, or watch the Gal Gadot fronted movie, you’re seeing just one story within that character’s overarching story. If you watch Lawrence of Arabia, and know a little history, you realise you’re watching just one small part of the story of World War One.

As storytellers, we make decisions about the boundaries of the story we’re going to tell. Game of Thrones is the story of one power struggle for Westeros. But it’s the beautiful weaving of the history that came before, and the smaller stories within the grand struggle, that make George R R Martin’s epic so intriguing to so many.

Whether you call them acts, scenes, sequences and beats…

…or parts, chapters, paragraps and sentences…

…or story arcs, issues, pages and frames…

…all stories exist are within other stories, and hold other stories within them.

“To see a world in a grain of sand. And a heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour.”

Can you see an epic tale in every single sentence of your story? Here is one of the single best questions you can ask to raise your storytelling to a higher level. How does this single scene, or chapter, or frame, or sentence, reflect the whole of the story? And how does this trilogy of novels, or 10 hour television series, or epic poem, relate to the smallest story it contains?

It’s by thinking about the fractal shape of story, that we as storytellers create the deep resonances of theme and form, that shatter the soul of the audience. A single word in a single sentence, well choosen, can shift the resonance of an entire novel. The right story structure can alter the meaning of every scene in a film. Learning how is the true art if the storyteller.

Take a deeper dive into story structure as part of The Rhetoric of Story. Course code STORYTEN.

Learn the secret super power of story: emotion.

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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.

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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.

Learn why all stories are fractal.

Come and argue about Star Trek with me on Twitter.

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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

 

In defence of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen

Over on G+, in response to my thoughts on liberal dystopias, Jason Baryla mounts a sterling defence of the widely maligned Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.

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“Maybe it’s because of how much Donald Trump resembles Baron Vladimir Harkkonen”

Sorry if this is off-topic, but I cannot agree with this statement. The Baron was a hedonist with obvious aspirations to wealth and power, and while that may mirror Trump’s narcissistic delusions of grandeur, the two cannot be any more different.

The Baron had a calculating mind, approaching Mentat levels of awareness (quite possibly the reason he was selected for the BG breeding program), and he always had some contingency plan in place. His contingency plans even had contingency plans. He never did anything unless he was damn sure it would work, or that any failures would be immediately mitigated or redirected away from him and House Harkonnen in general.

Trump, by comparison, is wholly reactionary, impulsive, and ignorant (in the truest sense of the word). His public statements are superficial at best and often show a remarkably lack of understanding of the topic at hand. For him to resemble the Baron, his words would need to be at odds with his actions. However, we see his policies contain the same myopic, short-term goals portrayed by his words. Any of his attempts to redirect attention away from himself are done in a way that only spotlight the fact they are redirections.

In short, aside from some surface similarities, they are polar-opposites.

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In my own defence…I realy just meant the pustules!

Aaaaand the entire Dune series on Kindle!

Liberals have to do better than Brave New World

The future that liberals want only looks great for the Alphas who can buy a place in the techno-corporate hierarchy.

Maybe it’s because of how much Donald Trump resembles Baron Vladimir Harkkonen. It’s hard to have a conversation about the weird landscape of politics today, without referencing at least one scifi dystopia.

“a much more inspiring vision than a society dictated by the Alpha clones of Mark Zuckerberg”

Whether it’s the worrying parallels between Trump’s America and Maragaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Or how very much our mass media looks like The Hunger Games. Or the cognitive dissonance of seeing Fahrenheit 451 becoming a reality before our eyes.

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None of this is shocking. These fantasy dystopia’s were written as metaphors for real world politics by very smart people. People like Ray Bradbury and Suzanne Collins, who had the intellectual flexibility, and imaginative muscle, to stand outside political dogmas, and see the human frailities our society keeps repeating.

The most popular game in political debate today is to blame our potential dystopian future on our political enemies. Depending on who you talk to, George Orwell’s 1984 is an allegory for the evils of capitalism / communism / socialism / conservatism…just delete as applicable.

If I could put my name to a political law, it would be this:

Walter’s Law : any political ideology left unchecked will ultimately resolve into somebody’s utopia, and somebody elses dystopia.

Dystopia / utopia aren’t political issues. The human frailities that cause them are inherent in the structure of our mind. Greed, hatred, delusion. These qualities exist in all political ideologies, and manifest as unique forms of dystopia.

I’m liberal by inclination with, like the majority of my generation, a large helping of socialism. I look at the insane demonisation of socialism in the United States, and see the consequence of 40 yearsof propaganda, upon the most brainashed population outside North Korea.

But that brainwashing was possible because it’s built on a seed of truth. Yes, just as religious conservatism becomes an Atwood-esque theocracy, socialism given total power risks becoming the authoritarian nightmare of 1984. I think we all know this.

What we think about less on the left, is how terrifying liberal political ideals look to many people. Especially to people in poverty, people that liberalism stridently claims it wants to help. If liberalism is its own dystopia, and we must believe this is possible, then it’s best represented in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

The new elite of Silicon Valley, the financial industries, global corporations, and political leaders like Hilary Clinton, who represent liberalism, all look worringly like Huxley’s dystopian vision. The future that liberals want looks great for anybody who can buy their way into an elite college education, and a position in the techno-corporate hierarchy, up among the Alphas.

For everbody else it looks remarkably like just more of our current consumerist bullshit. More working meaningless Gamma and Delta jobs, then anaesthetising ourselves with video games, superhero movies, and other kinds of soma, while the elite get shitfaced at Burning Man, and claim they’re building a new capitalism.

Liberal politicians have spent the last two years losing elections they should be winning. Because while Brave New World is arguably a less worse option than Mad Max or 1984, it’s still a horrifying option to most of us. Until liberalism can articulate a much, much more inspiring vision than a society dictated by the Alpha clones of Mark Zuckerg, it’s going to continue to lose.