All posts by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Director of creative writing at UoL, published with OUP and Cambridge. Currently travelling the world and writing a book.

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.

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One very useful thing to know about depression #WorldMentalHealthDay

Through the month of September 2017 I fought a small scale conflict, against an army of negative thoughts and emotions that had claimed the territory of my mind. I recognised this mental state well. It was what we commonly call depression.

To win this fight, I needed strategies. I went back and reviewed the best thinking on depression that I have found over the years. And with that work under my belt, I want to share one insight into depression that I find very useful to know.

Like many people who experience childhood depression, it began for me with a parent. My mother had all the symptoms of severe depression, and in my early teens I experienced severe depressive episodes. I went from an A student to a school dropout, and by age eighteen I was was living alone, working minimum wage jobs, struggling with drug addiction, and caught in a trap of poverty and zero self esteem.

The path out of the place was long and tough. It involved many insights and changes, too many to talk about here. By 30 my life had improved a lot. I had returned to my life’s passion – writing. A stroke of good fortune had sent me to America for a summer writer’s workshop. I enjoyed the experience hugely. One morning I woke up to the bright San Diego summer, looked into the mirror and thought.

This is what it’s like to not be depressed.

My second thought was…I will not go back to being depressed again.

I had many more life changes ahead of me to make good on that promise to myself. But, with some lapses, it’s a promise I have kept. I just turned 40, and for almost all of the last decade, I have been depression free. When I have had minor relapses, as occured last month, I’ve been able to go back to the ideas that helped end my depression. And in particular, one idea that I want to share with you.

“Once we recognise the state of depression, the next step is to understand it.”

Depression is a subtle and complex opponent, with many causes. But the experience of depression is quite consistent. The mind falls into a negative state, it becomes hard to see anything positive in life, and an overwhelming feeling of “depression” permeates all of our experiences. Depression, while it may be a slightly vague word, is about the best term we have for this state.

It’s my personal belief that many people, perhaps even a majority of people, live with depression without ever recognising it. Many people self medicate their depression with alcohol, or over eating, or other coping strategies. Others angrily deny that depression even exists. These people, in my experience, are victims of the worst forms of all engulfing depression.

So, a happy thought for those people honestly and openly talking about depression…you are ahead of the game. You recognise the problem. However severe your depression is, once you see it, you have everything you need to escape it.

Almost. Once we recognise the state of depression, the next step is to understand it. I did a lot of reading to try and understand the causes of my own depression. I found compelling arguments for the physical causes of depression. And I found equally compelling arguments for the psychological causes. Both are useful. Then I found one idea that, for me, pinned together both – physical and psychological – into a unified model of depression. That’s the idea I want to talk about.

Among the most established treatments for depression is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is a solution for many people. But it is also controversial. CBT trains people to examine their thought patterns, and to change or stop negative thoughts that might cause depression. I’ve never done CBT. I know some people swear by it. I know for others its ineffective, and can sound like a kind of “brainwashing”.

One issue with CBT is relapse. People often experience a cessation of depressive symptoms, then some weeks or months later, the depression returns. In an attempt to tackle this issue, a scientific study was conducted into combining CBT with Buddhist “mindfulness”, also an established treatment for depression. The approach proved successful, and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy or MBCT is now a widespread treatment.

This post is not an advertisement for either CBT or MBCT. I have done neither. It’s also not an argument for Buddhism, mindfulness, or meditation as the solution to depression. I am a Buddhist practitioner, but I don’t believe it’s a path for everybody. Instead, this is about one idea, that I first encountered when reading about Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, that I believe is very useful in understanding depression.

Anti-depressant drugs are the most widely used treatment for depression. They work, in many cases. I have never used them, but I am absolutely not here to argue against their use. Anti-depressants work by replenishing chemicals in your body and brain which, when their levels drop to low levels, seem to be associated with the depressive state. Topping up those levels can provide some level of relief from depression.

There is an ongoing debate about whether depression is caused by the negative thought patterns that CBT treats, or by the chemical imbalances that anti-depressants treat. The research into Mindfulness and CBT revealed a third possibility, that I find most useful. It’s the idea I’ve been working toward. It’s a little hard to explain, not because it’s complex, but because it doesn’t quite fit with how we think about thinking. In a single word the idea is.

Rumination.

Imagine a motor car, left switched on, with its engine running. With enough petrol the engine will run indefinitely. That is until it burns through its supply of oil. With the oil gone, the pistons and other moving parts in the engine begin to grind against each other. When that happens, the engine quickly starts to damage itself, becoming less efficient, and finally breaking down.

On the chemical level, your brain ia a little like this car engine. Your brain has chemicals that work a bit like oil, easing the connections between brain cells. In normal operation your brain can produce these chemicals at much the same rate it burns them. But when you start thinking really hard, you burn these chemicals at a faster rate than you produce them.

This is one reason why intellectual effort is literally tiring. As you exert your brain, these chemicals burn out, and thinking gets harder. Eventually, you have to stop thinking so hard and do something that uses little or no brain power, like watching Game of Thrones. Of course your brain is still doing things, even when you sleep, but at a sustainable level.

The real problems begin when your brain enters a state in which it can’t or won’t stop thinking too hard. One example are states of high anxiety. If you’re really worried about, say, a trip to the dentist, your brain can just kick into a high gear that you can’t switch off with an episode of Star Trek. We’ve all been there, and it can be awful. High anxiety can incite periods of depression. But usually these states are temporary, and the depression often passes with them.

A more dangerous situation arises when the brain begins to obsessively think about an issue on the unconscious level. Maybe there is a difficult situation at work. Consciously, you think about it now and again. But unconsciously, your brain is chewing it over all the time. And it’s burning brain oil* in the process. One name for this persistent, often unconscious thinking, is rumination.

* not actual brain oil, metaphorical brain oil

Rumination has many forms. We ruminate on short term problems. We ruminate on childhood traumas. We ruminate on imagined futures. You name it, your brain has a habit of ruminating on it. Sometimes rumination is conscious. You know you are doing it, but you just can’t seem to stop. Distraction doesn’t work, your mind carries on ruminating behind the scenes. Even when we sleep, the rumination just carries on.

Rumination places your brain into a state of overwork. Hours, days, weeks even months in this state use up the brain’s resources, and it begins to degrade. Like a dysfunctional app on your laptop or smartphone, a ruminative process can eat up all of your brain’s processing power and destroy its chemical balance, leaving you tired, unfocussed…and depressed.

Rumination opens up a different, and I believe very useful, way of understanding depression. Negative thought patterns and chemical imbalance aren’t sole root causes of depression, they are parts of a depressive cycle of which rumination is also a key driver. It’s not what you think that’s the issue, it’s the sheer repetitive length of time you spend thinking it.

Rumination overworks your brain, this depletes important chemicals, without which your brain functions poorly, which create negative thoughts, which you then ruminate on, which overworks your brain, which…creates the negative feedback loop that makes depression so very dangerous.

Rumination is the idea I find very useful to know about depression. It is not in itself a solution to depression. But many of the recognised treatments for depression intervene in the cycle that rumination causes.

  • Anti-depressants replace the chemicals that rumination depletes, but they don’t stop the processes depleteing them.
  • CBT and talking therapies unpick the negative thoughts that we ruminate on, but rumination will always find a new focus.
  • Sleep slows rumination and gives the brain time to recoup, but rumination can keep going even when we sleep.
  • A piece of cake, a pint of beer, a shot of heroin, provide a pleasure hit that can disrupt rumination, but it often comes back.
  • Distractions like a good book or video game session can push rumination aside but it can, again, keep going in the background.
  • Solving the problem that you are ruminating on helps, but a brain trained to ruminate will likely find another fixation to continue ruminating on.

If we can reduce the rumination itself, all of these treatments become much more effective.

I do not present rumination as equally useful for everyone. We all have our own ways of conceptualising the world, and rumination will not fit the model that everybody works with. But. If you do find the idea useful, I think there are two ways that it can help reframe depression in useful ways.

First. You do not have to stop having negative thoughts in order to stop being depressed. Which is good, because we all, however happy we are, have all kinds of negative thoughts. Negative thinking and depression are not the same thing. You can be happy, and yet often worry about whatever it is you worry about. These aren’t mutual exclusive states.

Second. You can’t think your way out of every problem. In fact, there are whole categories of problem that are completely insoluable to thought. When we’re depressed we often believe that if we can just think of a solution to this or that problem, then that will resolve the depression. In fact, thinking too much about the problem, IS the problem.

If rumination is the problem…how do we stop ruminating?

There is no way to reboot the brain. Stopping ruminative thought processes is very hard. I haven’t found an answer to the problem of how. My personal path to escaping the depressive cycle, and limiting rumination, included counselling, meditation, exercise, healthy diet and making important life changes. I don’t believe there is a singular “magic bulket” treatment for depression.

But understanding the role of rumination in the cycle of depression was, in and of itself, an important breakthrough for me. It reframed depression from a scary happening that I had no control over, to a recurring problem that I understood and could begin to control. And learning about rumination lead me to ask, when I felt depression approaching, what am I ruminating on? Identifying ruminative thoughts is, very often, all that is neccesary to defuse them.

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The full research on MBCT and its insightful model of rumination and depression is available in a new editions: Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression.

If you’re interested in exploring mindfulness further I recommend reading Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen vietnamese monk who founded the Buddhist sangha I attend in the city of Chiang Mai.

For a deeper exploration of meditation, I recommend American teacher Jack Kornfield.

I hope this idea is of some use to you as a reader. You can talk to me about this on Twitter @damiengwalter. And you can help reduce my existential angst about turning 40 by backing me 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.

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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.

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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 ;)

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.

Come and argue about Game of Thrones with me on Twitter.

Get special treats as a patron.

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.

Get special treats as a patron.

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.