There have been many great American novels. The Grapes of Wrath. The Great Gatsby. Underworld. The idea, at this point in literary history, has become a kind of self referential in joke. The great American novel is what young, over-intense MFA students yearn to write. But it’s still useful as an indicator of what we turn to the novel for – the truth.
Or, falling short of that lofty goal, an at least partially accurate insight into reality.
Ready Player One is not a novel anyone will ever turn to for insight into reality. It’s an escapist fantasy in the very lowest definition of the term. A story that doesn’t just create a fantasy world for its readers to slip into, but idolises the entire project of escaping into fantasy. Total immersion in fantasy isn’t just central to the world of Ready Player One, it’s how that world is saved.
Which is really a shame. Because if there is one sub-culture in the strange ecosystem of early 21st life that really deserves the insight of a great novel, it’s gamers.
Not simply because games are popular. In the casual sense everyone is a gamer now. Candy Crush seems to have more players than the extant population of the planet. But because within that culture spanning identity are a subset of people who are, in a far more intense sense, GAMERS.
“If I sound like a superior snobby a*hole about the negative effects of video games, it’s only because I’ve been there.”
I’ve been both. These days I play a few games of online chess a week. Like an alcoholic in recovery, I know my limits. Almost twenty years ago I was, for a short period, the world champion of a browser based strategy game called Stellar Crisis, a task that ate hundreds of hours I should have been spending on undergraduate studies. Three years later, a few days into a Counter Strike binge that would stretch over eight weeks, that would incite lower back problems I still suffer with today because of eighteen hour gameplay sessions, I was fired for no showing at my (admittedly crappy) job.
If I sound like a superior snobby a*hole about the negative effects of video games, it’s only because I’ve been there.
We live in a mass society. The world population, in my lifetime, has gone from 4 billion, to 7.6 billion people. The old world where, for better or worse, we all knew our place, within a community, nation and culture, is long gone. Now there are billions of us living in vast megacities whose only sense of identity comes from the media. From the tv shows we watch, and the video games we play.
“Gamers, whether they can see it or not, are the world’s underclass.”
Gaming, I think, is at the heart of this crisis of identity. We find in games an identity we can adopt for a time. We find belonging and community in MMORPGs that we may never find in the world. We find status and, for the rare pro players, even wealth. And as global population rockets off towards 12 billion, we’re going to find ourselves in a world where billions of people live realer lives in games than in reality.
Which is a really fucking huge problem. Because gamers, whether they can see it or not, are the world’s underclass. It’s not the 1% of billionaires or the creative / professional class living vicariously in video games. Because those people get to live out their fantasies for real. No, gamer culture, with few exceptions, is the escape valve for people trapped in low pay service jobs.
Now THIS is a reality that needs a great novel writing about it. Gamer culture needs a Charles Dickens or a Victor Hugo, not an Ernest Cline. The drama of lives lived in poverty, serving coffee to your tech bros overlords, then “escaping” into the fantasy worlds of video games (made by the same tech bros) between shifts. And with no hope of this leading to a saviour-of-the-world conclusion. No, this is your life, a hero in games, but in reality, a servant.
With its stark insight into the financial world of post 2008, Billions is a Great Gatsby for our age.
Tv shows do what they say in the title. Friends is a show about friends. Star Trek is a show about a trek through the stars, and Breaking Bad is a show about a man breaking to bad. Billions is a show about Billionaires. But it’s also a show about the society that gives rise to billionaires, a global society of seven billion people and rising – the society of here and now.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that Billions is a Great Gatsby for our times.”
There’s no missing the genetic fingerprint of HBOs prestige tv format in Showtimes production of Billions. Headline star Damian Lewis is no stranger to that format, having fronted Band of Brothers, the show that pioneered the 10 hour tv serial, and Homeland, a show that pushed the cutting edge of what that format was willing to say politically and socially.
Billions co-creator Andrew Ross Sorkin, a former columnist covering the New York financial world, culls real life events gathered over his career to provide flesh for Billions writers to feast on. The world post the 2008 financial crash, in which billionaires have gathered more wealth and power than at any time since the “gilded age” of the 1900s, is the world that Billions catalogues. It’s no exaggeration to say that Billions is a Great Gatsby for our times.
Billions is the most sophisticated example of “relationship driven” storytelling to yet hook binge-watching tv audiences.
Bobby “Axe” Axelrod stands as the billionaire founder of Axe Capital, surrounded by obsequious yes-men and ambitious traders, friends from his working class neighborhood who turn to Axe for favors, and wife Lara, queen to Axe’s king, who acts behind the scenes to aid her husband. Every character who relates to Axe is a courtier, and like a king of old, Axe holds in his grip the fortunes and status of everyone he controls.
Chuck Rhoades is a powerful public servant, a US District Atorney with authority over the financial district of New York. He is backed up by a team of conscientious assisstant DAs and dedicated FBI officers, all with an eye for their next promotion. Rhoades father is a rich investor, who secretly acts on his son’s behalf. Every character who relates to Rhoades is a player in a power hierarchy, within which Rhoades holds a high but not supreme position.
The key to understanding how the HBO television format hooks such intense attention from audiences — what else today do we give ten or twelve solid hours of our time to? — is to understand how the story is driven by its relationships. Every successful prestige format show of recent years uses the same technique, establishing a network of relationships that shift and evolve over time.
Pick almost any scene in any episode of Billions, and you will find that the main action of the scene is a shift in the relationship between two or more characters present on screen. Lara losing confidence in her husband Axe. Chuck slyly dominating his idealistic assistant Bryan Connerty. The broiling jealousy of yes-man Wags to any threat to his status. And of course the love triangle between Axe, Chuck and the show’s lead female character Wendy Rhoades. We’ll come back to her pivotal role.
The relationship driven story certainly isn’t new. Playwrights have consciously worked with relationship networks since at least the 15thC and the Commedia dell’Arte of Venice, which, just like Billions, used relationship driven structures to critique and satirise the rich and powerful of the day. Shakespeare learned these techniques, and some of today’s best screenwriters, most notably Aaron Sorkin (no relation to Andrew Ross), borrow directly from the Commedia dell’Arte for shows like The Newsroom.
Billions borrows a trick directly from the Comedia dell’Arte playbook. To manage the potential complexity of relationships between almost two dozen main characters, Billions limits its relationships to those that connect directly to its two central characters, Chuck Rhoades and Bobby Axelrod. This creates two opposing character nets, with Axe and Chuck at the centre of each, their orbiting characters only relating to each other in very carefully orchestrated breakout scenes.
The exception to this rule is Wendy Rhoades, wife to Chuck and therapist to Axe. Wendy is free to interact with any other character in the show, and it’s the shifting status of her relationships that, more than any other factor, drives the narrative engine of Billions. Wendy Rhoades is a “Columbina” character, the central figure of Comedia dell’Arte, whose presence allows the story to move freely through the social hierarchies it satirises.
Billions artful construction serves a razor sharp political purpose.
The conflict between prosecutor Chuck Rhoades and billionaire Bobby Axelrod is Billions central relationship. In the 12 hours screen time of Billions first season, Chuck and Axe share only four scenes together, each made electrifying by the stand out performances of Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti.
Billion’s writers manage a hard narrative tricks in this relationship. Bobby and Chuck are dual protagonists, and each is antagonist to the other. The writers consistently hold our sympathies at a mid-point between the two men. Both are hugely intelligent and morally upstanding, but also hugely flawed and willing to violate their morals to win. It’s the irony that Chuck and Axe would, in better circumstances, be friends, that makes their conflict so powerful.
“Will the idealism of Millennials ultimately transform into the same corruption as their Baby Boomer grandparents?”
This central conflict also embodies Billions core theme, which is expressed openly in the climatic season 1 showdown between Chuck and Axe. Chuck calls Axe on a simple truth, he’s a criminal, profiting by breaking the law. Axe snaps back, Chuck is a leach, sucking from tax payer money. The personal conflict at the heart of Billions mirrors the political conflict splitting our society today. Public good vs private freedom. State vs enterprise. Left vs right. Red vs blue. Your side in this conflict will likely determine whether you empathise with Axe or Chuck.
But Billions isn’t satisfied with being simply political. It wants to get to the heart of the personal conflicts that drive political strife. Season 2 introduces Taylor Mason, played brilliantly by Asia Kate Dillion. Taylor personifies the Millennial generation, a gender neutral digital native with huge insight into the light speed information flows that power the modern world. Taylor is hugely valuable to Axe, but we might expect the high morality of today’s Millennial generation to reject the rapacious world of the hedge-fund out of hand.
Instead, a much more complex picture of today’s Millenial is shown. Taylor is quickly seduced by the world of Axe Capital. But it’s not the allure of money, or the addictive quality of power, that lures Taylor in. The season 2 finale hits us with a final scene between Taylor and an idealistic assisstant DA, who thinks he can challenge the younger person on matters of morality.
Taylor is driven by the highest of all human drives, towards self fulfillment, towards experience over possession, and to creativity over all. All the drives that define the Millennial generation. It’s not entirely coincidence that Taylor Mason so closely resembles, in both ideals and appearance, the young heroes who emerged from the Stoneman Douglas school shooting.
But Billions season 2 leaves us with a disturbing final note. From the highest motivations, Taylor is nonetheless drawn towards the criminal, and the world of high finance that creates billions of victims globally. Will the idealism of Millennials ultimately transform into the same corruption as their Baby Boomer grandparents? It’s asking these kind of questions, through the structures of high drama, that makes Billions the best show on tv.
M John Harrison is one of the all time greats, a “science fiction writer’s science fiction writer”, a creator of weird tales in the horror tradition, and a powerful weaver of fantasy. The Viriconium stories defined political fantasy in the 80’s, as the Light trilogy redefined literary SF in the 00s. As editor of New Worlds he was integral to the new wave of SF alongside authors like J G Ballard and Michael Moorcock.
He’s also out and out the most skilled storyteller working between genres today. In this video essay I take a deep-dive into Harrison’s recent short story collection to answer the question, how does Mike Harrison enter a story?
I don’t consider myself a true fan of many things, but I am an unapologetic Iain (M) Banks fanboy.
Which is an easy thing to be. Banks is a brilliant, brilliant writer. A storyteller in the class of Neil Gaiman, with the muscular prose abilities of J G Ballard, and the conceptual imagination of an Asimov or Le Guin. I read his Culture books in my teens, his literary novels in my twenties, and re-read nearly all of them in my thirties. Just this year I’ve been working my way through Peter Kenny’s spot on audio adaptations.
So, like all true fans, I’m a little worried by news of a tv adaptation. Banks was fairly outspoken about his decision not to allow movie or tv adaptations of the Culture novels. I totally respect any decision his estate makes on this, and nobody doubts Amazon have the cash to make it happen? But do they have the skill, creativity and imagination?
How many ways could a Culture tv adaptation go wrong? Let us count the ways.
We live in amazing times for human creativity. There are more opportunities, for more people, of more backgrounds, to create than ever before.
I think when we look back on the early 21st century, we’ll recognise it as the turning point into a creator culture, in which we value people for their creative talents, over their consumer spending power.
Our entire economy is in the process of reforming around the new creator culture. But when I look at many of the institutions forming to “support” that creativity, instituitions like Patreon, I see the same story.
Since I began work on The Rhetoric of Story, a little over a year ago, the success of the course has far exceeded my expectations. Since launching on Udemy, the course has been in the top 12 of writing for 4 straight months! To date over 1600 students have taken the course, and they’ve had some great things to say.
“The lessons are described so as to create a vivid picture of story writing. It’s as if the instructor is bringing alive the story of writing a story…I feel revitalized after feeling lost for so many years.”
“He’s organized and uses his own storytelling mien to deliver the course brilliantly.”
“I’ve read more books on writing than I care to admit…this course though has provided some valuable information on why certain stories resonate with the reader.”
“Damien is so engaging, so personable and presents himself honestly that watching his videos is a pleasure and very a effective way to learn.”
“By examining some of the most enduring stories of ancient and recent history, Damien has created a great series of lectures on story and what makes a story work.”
“This course is actually very deep with highly useful tips and advice on how to tell a compelling story.”
Of course there were also constructive criticisms, of a few glitches with audio recording and a slow intro lecture. With these in mind, I’ve reinvested in better recording equipment, and have planned out a set of new classes.
Beyond the Rhetoric of Story.
I had two aims in the Rhetoric of Story. After five years teaching creative writing at university level, I saw a profound problem in the way it was taught. The craft of writing, and the art of storytelling, were conflated into a single set of ideas. Story itself is almost entirely ignored within creative writing, which tends to focus on language. I couldn’t change this from within, but by making the Rhetoric of Story an online course, I could reach many more passionate writers.
My second aim was to express a powerful idea about the nature of story that has been gathering influence over some years. That story is how the human mind works, and that far from being “formulaic”, the structures of story reflect basic patterns in human psychology. I’ve spent over a decade studying this idea, from the work of hundreds of writers and theorists. The Rhetoric of Story was my way of pulling all that learning into a unified whole.
But the Rhetoric of Story is still a foundation course. It’s there to give writers a solid base of knowledge in story, that they can then apply in their own creations. With this in place, I want to move onto to more advanced material.
I am planning two new short courses, a new full length course, and a series of ad-hoc talks that I really hope you’re going to enjoy!
In my professional life I’ve told stories for some of the world’s biggest media brands including The Guardian, BBC, Wired, Aeon, The Indepdendent and many more. I work with some very famous businesses in technology, healthcare and finance to tell compelling stories about their industries. In two linked, short courses, I want to share some of the essential skills and techniques I use to make this work happen.
I REALLY want to tell you the course titles, but the branding is so valuable I can’t reveal it until the courses are published. What I can say is that these courses are going to be exceptionally useful for anybody who wants to earn a great living from writing.
New Full Length Course
The Technology of Fiction – in a sister course to RoS, I will be dedicating 7 hours of teaching time to a really in-depth exploration of advanced fiction and novel writing techniques. The novel is at least four hundred years old, and over that time writers have developed a full spectrum of technologies for telling great stories with the written word. Mastering these technologies is the key to writing brilliant, widely loved novels.
How To Write Good…
I love to talk about stories, why they work and how they are made. I’m making occaisional short talks for my YouTube channel that will be asking the question “How to write good…”, the first, I think, will be ” How to write good…Game of Thrones!” because its such a phenomenon at this time, and there’s so much to learn from the books and tv show. These talks are going to be fun, and also free. Subscribe to me on YouTube to get them.
Want to get all these courses, FREE?!
My backers on patreon get everything I make, totally free, wherever possible. Stories, courses, everything! A $5 donation is great, but any level gets you full access.
This is a little story about volition. Specifically, the choices writers make about how we share and “monetize” our work. It’s a sad little tale, but please read to the end for the moral.
“there’s an extra irony here, that these were writers, who no doubt stomp around the internet chanting Pay The Writer whenever that noise startsup”
I’m a pro writer, and what I haven’t been paid to write is a much shorter list than what I have. My personal blog, however, is a semi-professional space. I make some income from posting here, but this is mostly material I want to write regardless of payment.
Yesterday, I decided to share a popular post from this blog on the Medium platform. I’ve made posts over at Medium since it began. It’s a great publishing experience, but has always been problematic, as it struggles to monetize its readership. That struggle took a new turn this month, as Medium opened up a new “clap” based payment system for contributors. It’s interesting, but I won’t share my thoughts on it here. (Maybe in a future post).
As an experiment, I took a popular post from this blog, and placed it behind the new paywall on Medium. As an after thought, I dropped a link to it on a Facebook group for writers I enjoy following.
What happened next was illustrative.
To follow this, you need to know that the Medium paywall allows free access to 3 premium “locked” articles each month, if you sign up to Medium, or unlimited access for $5.
A spate of comments were made on the Facebook group post of this kind.
“Join Medium to read this post” no way
That’s a fair response. But it’s a choice. You either join to read, or you don’t read.
A commenter screencapped the paywall, as a passive aggressive display they thought its existence unfair.
Another commenter then escalated this rhetoric, calling the paywall a “minor betrayal”
These kind of comments continued. Then a commenter suggested I should copypaste the post for the group. The next commenter went further, demanding that a Medium member screencap the post.
Emboldened by these demands, a commenter found my blog, located the original post, and linked it in the comments. Virtual cheers went up. Hooray! The mob had what they wanted.
I woke up to this mini-drama, and made a few responses as it unfolded, while chuckling about the whole thing. The incredible sense of entitlement, displayed with so little self-awareness, was pure comedy gold. I’m not going to post the screencaps. It’s not my intention to shame these people, because their behaviour is faaaaar from unique. Granted, there’s an extra irony here, that these were writers, who no doubt stomp around the internet chanting Pay The Writer whenever that noise startsup. But let’s be honest here, this behaviour is the norm. And as readers, we’re probably all guilty of it.
I’ve written a number of times on book piracy, and met with controversy every time. To clarify, I’m neither for or against piracy. I simply take the realistic position that, the internet being what it is, and people being what they are, that most folks will always dodge paying when they can. And given that reality, the emphasis is on us as creators to find the most constructive response.
The real issue at the heart of piracy is: volition. The power of a creator to choose how their work is shared and monetized. My decision to put my post behind a paywall was, in a matter of hours, openly violated, by my fellow writers, who then celebrated the act. These are the people who should be most sensitive to this issue, and even they don’t care. Given that as context, what chances do you think there are of ever dissuading the huge majority of people from stealing content whenever they can?
It’s a sad truth. But readers will always steal from writers. Your volitional power to choose how your work is published and monetized in this digital era is very limited. Denying that only reduces your options even further. Embrace the reality, use platforms like Patreon to work around it, and the advantages of this new digital era soon outweigh problems…even when that problem is your fellow writers being thieves!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.