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.


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 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.


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 ;)

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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.


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?


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.


“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.


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.


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.

A Neuromancer movie in 2017 will look a lot like a documentary

It’s well documented that William Gibson started out writing science fiction, and book by book progressed towards the future he had once predicted. By Pattern Recognition in 2003 Gibson was writing about a London that seemed to come into existence even as the book was published. I know, I was living and working in the city of Gibson’s imagination.

So news of a film adaptation of Neuromancer, long speculated on, makes me wonder how fictional that story will seem today. It’s been 33 years since Neuromancer was published. The novel takes place at a non-specified date in what was, in 1984, the near future. Have we arrived at that future already?


In technological terms, not quite. We don’t jack into the net, yet. We don’t have a spindle in orbit over earth. We don’t even have fully operation cybernetic limbs. But Neuromancer remains the greatest science fiction novel ever written, because it was never about the tech. The tech is a metaphor, for a world Gibson saw coming, and that world is with us.

We are lost in cybernetic spaces, the strange screaming voids of social media, accessed by staring into dark glass mirrors. Our democratic systems have bought out by billionaire clans who wield power through technology. Replace Tessier-Ashpool with Alphabet and the picture doesn’t change that much. Some, like the philosopher Timothy Morton, argue that emergent AI is already with us, in the cybernetic systems of 21st century capitalism.

A talented movie maker, and I have a feeling Tim Miller is such, might realise that, instead of conjuring yet another cliche Hollywood “future” (remember how Minority Report was supposed to be the future?) Neuromancer can evoke far more power and emotion, simoly by looking like our here and now today.



Your Voice Is In The Sentences You Write

20 years into making my living as a writer, I’m neccessarily a sentence obsessive.

I chose to spend my weekend revising sentence structure, a task I undertook with the help of Brooks Landons’ Building Great Sentences, my favorite text on the subject. Sentence revision filled my Saturday and Sunday for two reasons; I’m planning a new course entitled The Nomad Writer, which has prompted me to review my own stack of writing skills, and on reviewing those skills, I decided my sentences could do with some work.

Learn the Rhetoric of Story, and the 7 foundations of powerful storytelling, with course code STORYTEN.

Sentences are where the hard work of writing begins, but also where a lot of the joy in that work happens. I think it’s a shame that sentences don’t get more attention and love. Not only because, 20 years into making my living as a writer, I’m neccessarily a sentence obsessive, but because understanding sentences unlocks many of the mysteries of writing. Among them the diffuse artefact of writing craft we call “voice”.

Here are my condensed revision notes. A sentence begins will a kernel or base clause, usually composed of a subject and a predicate. The base clause and any information added to it express a set of propositions. Sentences grow from a propositional base in three ways; connective, adjectival or subordinative. Information is added to the base clause with modifying phrases, either bound to the phrase they modify, or as free modifiers. Cumulative syntax takes a base clause and adds information as free modifiers, usually in the end place but also at the start or middle of the sentence. Modifier phrases are either coordinate or subordinate to other phrases and can be mixed in the same sentence. Periodic or suspensive syntax withholds the base clause to the end of the sentence. Within either cumulative or periodic syntax, sentences can assume patterns; twinned, balanced, tryptych and so on.

I’ll stop there. If you know your sentence structure you’ll be wanting to correct me. If any of that left you bemused, seek the assisstance of Professor Landon above.

What does this have to do with voice? Well, the choices we make as we build sentences define the voice the reader “hears” on the page. If you rely heavily and routinely on what we have called above and exemplfied in this very sentence as bound modifiers, your writing will be complex, hard to process, arguably pompous, and make you sound like an academic. If your primary mode of adding information to a sentence is adjectival, you will unavoidably begin to stray into purple hued prose of pulp cosmic horror sylists like H P Lovecraft. If you demand simple sentences. If you hate complex sentences. If length in a sentence enrages you. Then you will stick to propositions. Then you will sound like a hardboiled crime writer.

Sentences aren’t all of voice, but they are the heart of it. When I’m paid as a copywriter or journalist, I’m paid well because I can adopt the voice of the publication or business I’m writing for. I literally sit down and analyse how that voice is structured on the sentence level then imitate the style. Or in many cases define a style for places that don’t have one. As creative writers we talk about “finding our voice”, but that can often mean relying on a small set of sentence structures we have learned unconsciously. Often the best thing to do with the voice you have found is to break it, then rebuild it, the same but richer.

Originally published for my patrons.

Tolkien’s myths are a political fantasy

In a world built on myth, we can’t ignore the reactionary politics at the heart of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

What is the Rhetoric of Story?

It’s a double-edged magical sword, being a fan of JRR Tolkien. On one hand we’ve had the joy of watching Lord of the Rings go from cult success to, arguably, the most successful and influential story of the last century. And we get to laugh in the face of critics who claimed LotR would never amount to anything, while watching a sumptuous (if absurdly long) adaption of The Hobbit.

“A balanced telling might well have shown Smaug to be much more of a reforming force in the valley of Dale.”

On the other hand, you also have to consider the serious criticisms made of Tolkien’s writing, such as Michael Moorcock’s in his 1978 essay, Epic Pooh. As a storyteller Tolkien is on a par with Homer or the anonymous bard behind Beowulf, the epic poets who so influenced his work. But as works of modern mythology, the art Tolkien called “mythopoeia”, both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are open to serious criticism.

To understand why takes a little consideration of what we really mean by the word “myth”. The world can be a bafflingly complex place. Why is the sky blue? What’s this rocky stuff I’m standing on? Who are all these hairless chimps I’m surrounded by? The only way we don’t just keep babbling endless questions like hyperactive six-year-olds is by reducing the infinite complexities of existence to something more simple. To a story. Stories that we call myths.

Science gives us far more accurate answers to our questions than ever before. But we’re still dependent on myths to actually comprehend the science. The multi-dimensional expansion of energy, space and time we call the Big Bang wasn’t literally a bang any more than God saying “Let there be light” was literally how the universe was created. They’re both mythic ideas that point at an actual truth our mammalian minds aren’t equipped to grasp.

Myths are a lens through which we investigate the mysteries of the world around us. Change the myth, and you can change the world – as JRR Tolkien well knew when, alongside other writers including CS Lewis, he began to consider the possibility of creating new myths to help us better understand the modern world – or if not to understand it better, then to understand it differently. Tolkien borrowed the Greek term “mythpoesis” to describe the task of modern myth-making, and so the literary concept of mythopoeia was born.


Tolkien’s myths are profoundly conservative. Both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings turn on the “return of the king” to his rightful throne. In both cases this “victory” means the reassertion of a feudal social structure which had been disrupted by “evil”. Both books are one-sided recollections made by the Baggins family, members of the landed gentry, in the Red Book of Westmarch – an unreliable historical source if ever there was one. A balanced telling might well have shown Smaug to be much more of a reforming force in the valley of Dale.

And of course Sauron doesn’t even get to appear on the page in The Lord of the Rings, at least not in any form more substantial than a huge burning eye, exactly the kind of treatment one would expect in a work of propaganda.

We’re left to take on trust from Gandalf, a manipulative spin doctor, and the Elves, immortal elitists who kill humans and hobbits for even entering their territory, when they say that the maker of the one ring is evil. Isn’t it more likely that the orcs, who live in dire poverty, actually support Sauron because he represents the liberal forces of science and industrialisation, in the face of a brutally oppressive conservative social order?

The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings aren’t fantasies because they feature dragons, elves and talking trees. They’re fantasies because they mythologise human history, ignoring the brutality and oppression that were part and parcel of a world ruled by men with swords. But we shouldn’t be surprised that the wish to return to a more conservative society, one where people knew their place, is so popular. It’s the same myth that conservative political parties such as Ukip have always played on: the myth of a better world that has been lost, but can be reclaimed by turning back the clock.

Whatever the limitations of his own myth-making, Tolkien’s genius as a storyteller rekindled the flame of mythopoeia for generations of writers who followed. Today our bookshelves and cinema screens are once again heaving with modern myths. And they represent a vastly diverse spectrum of worldviews, from the authoritarian fantasy of Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game, to the anti-capitalist metaphor of The Hunger Games. The latter is so potent that the three-finger salute given by Katniss Everdeen has become a symbol of freedom. What clearer sign could there be that the contemporary world is still powered by myth?

Originally published in The Guardian.

Why teach writing? To learn of course.

There’s a story of a lazy Buddhist adept, whose name escapes me, who was made to teach a lesson by his master. The student never paid attention in class, or did his chores around the monastery. But when made to teach, he gave a long lecture on compassion, that remains a high Buddhist teaching to this day.

I’m guessing the lazy adept didn’t know how much he knew until he taught it.

“In a classroom full of writers, the writing teacher is the most dedicated student of all.”

I think about writing as a practice. It’s a path that many people choose to walk to give their life shape, and that helps us develop and grow. With all the challenges that come with a pro writing career, when I think about who I would be if I’d never disciplined myself to write, I literally shudder.

(I know many writers who can’t rub two pennies together, but none who are shambling shopping mall zombies, so every writer I know is a winner.)

At some point in your writing practice, teaching becomes a logical next step. And here’s the thing. That will probably happen before you reach the titanic success levels of Stephen King. In fact that was true of Stephen King himself, who taught English and writing as a postgrad student, in the space between publishing his early short stories and his first novel. I think it’s likely the teaching process helped King in that evolution.

Teaching makes you do something really hard. You have to take all that knowledge you have acrued as a student, years of it, swilling around in your mind like an ocean, and structure it into a form that you can communicate to others. This is not a comfortable or neccesarily fun activity in and of itself. But you will never understand your own craft as well as you will by teaching it. In a classroom full of writers, the writing teacher is the most dedicated student of all.

My reward for composing The Rhetoric of Story as a course, a process that took over a year, wasn’t recruiting 1300 students or making a useful bonus income, though both are nice, but is that I understand my own storytelling process infinitely better. Now that courses can be preserved forever in video, I love knowing that future writers will be able to see into the process of so many other creators. It’s going to lead to the telling of many great stories.

Game of Thrones is epic fantasy for social justice warriors

Game of Thrones and Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall offer two different takes on how social justice overpowers aristocratic elites. In the age of Trump, we need these social justice metaphors more than ever.

The cosmetic similarities between Game of Thrones and Wolf Hall are not hard to list. Both occupy a similar period in history, soon after the fall of the Plantagenet kings (recast as the Targaryens in GoT) and the early history of the dynasty that succeeded them. Both wallow in the power plays of courtly intrigue and its brutal consequences, from the Blood Wedding of fantasy, to the endless beheadings of history. And both have dominated the recent consciousness of storytelling.

“If ever a fantasy character has represented the ideal of a Social Justice Warrior, Daenerys Targaryen is she.”

The differences are also quite clear. There are no dragons, dire wolves, blood magic, white walkers or talking tree roots in Wolf Hall, while GoT wanders rather drastically from the history and geography from which its fantasy is spun. Wolf Hall is crafted as a tight internal monologue that never takes us beyond the perceptions of its protagonist Thomas Cromwell, while GoT moves the reader from one point of view to another in a rather more workmanlike style. These are differences of emphasis: one is designed to play to mass audiences attuned to televisual storytelling, the other for audiences who value emotional depth above narrative lucidity.

The dramatic question at the heart of each story is, nonetheless, identical: Who rules and why? What makes a just monarch? Both stories set their audience the same conundrum. A society dominated by great families and inherited wealth, representing a history where the most greedy, the most deluded, and the most violent have tended to triumph, leaving a world riven by corruption and injustice. We’re always hungry for stories that reflect the dynamics of power because we are never free of them, but it seems more than coincidence that GoT and Wolf Hall have risen to popularity in a period of modern history where the super-rich have reclaimed much of their old power.


GoT’s answer to this age-old problem is in the tradition of most popular fantasy from King Arthur to Lord of the Rings – to achieve a just world, a just king must rule. Or more accurately, a just queen. Thundering up from the fiery end of the fantasy map in this Song of Ice and Fire is Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, in every sense the most just candidate for the Iron Throne, with a trio of dragons on hand to incinerate any lords who oppose her. And she’s liberating every slave, whore, eunuch or other downtrodden soul along the way to demonstrate just how just a ruler she can be. If ever a fantasy character has represented the ideal of a Social Justice Warrior, Daenerys Targaryen is she.

What is the rhetoric of story?

Wolf Hall’s challenge to social privilege is slightly more radical. Thomas Cromwell is no king in waiting. His story foreshadows the rise of the power that would truly threaten the ruling aristocracy – the modern democratic state. It is the state that will rein in the power of the rich, transform taxation from robbery to redistribution and enfranchise women and the poor with the vote. If Thomas Cromwell resonates as a modern-day hero, it is because we sense once again the need for strong democratic statesmen.

How will these two stories of our time end? History certainly suggests that Cromwell’s will not end well – though Wolf Hall has already ventured close to alternate history in its characterisations (as Thomas More apologists would tell you). Imagine the possibilities if she were to take that further in the third volume. George RR Martin has certainly shown himself more than happy to brutally murder even his story’s most empathetic characters. Daenerys may end not on the Iron Throne but in the basement of the Red Keep as a new plaything for Ser Gregor. A nasty climax to a fantasy story, but not such a long way from reality.

Originally published in The Guardian.

How do stories work?

The Rhetoric of Story isn’t a writing a course. It’s the answer to a question that has fascinated me for over a decade. How do stories work? How do a few words on a page, some flickering images on a screen, convince us for a time that we are a different person, living a different life, in a different world?

When I first launched The Rhetoric of Story a year ago, a good friend told me to give it a more exciting name. Well meant advice. But while “”The 7 Secrets of Kickass Stories” is more eye catching, it’s less useful. Because the Rhetoric of Story is more than a title…it’s the heart of the answer to my question…how do stories work?

Storytelling is magic. It’s a kind of illusion. The storyteller shapes words, images, symbols, and we are transported to other worlds. You don’t have to be a brilliant literary writer, or a genius auteur filmmaker. If you can pull off the magic trick, and immerse people in a story that transports them, they will love everything you create.

The Rhetoric of Story is big and ambitious. Nobody has tried before to set out a simple framework, a “rhetorical mode”, for how the immersive effect of story is created. If your storytelling can embrace all 7 foundations – Change, Self, Other, Conflict, Events, Structure and Emotion – then whether it’s a 2 page short story, or a 10 hour tv show, it will work.

As a teacher, I want to give my students the clearest possible guidance on achieving the single most important goal for any writer – telling a great story. I think in The Rhetoric of Story I’ve achieved that. And now you can find out for yourself…

…the course is now on Udemy and, for one week only, it’s free. Click the link and use course code STORYTELLER at checkout.

The Rhetoric of Story.

Game of Thrones: 6 predictions for season 7

Just watched episode one of season 7 and RAWWWWR that’s some powerful storytelling. George has been skillfully setting up these epic conflicts, getting us emotionally invested in every one, and now they’re all about to pay off. Ice and Fire are ready to clash at last. The only question now is, what twists will GRRM throw at us along the way?

These aren’t spoilers, BUT, I’m spookily good at predicting stories. Don’t be shocked if they all come true.

Things go badly for Daenerys and Jon.

Thrones is a gritty, pseudorealistic fantasy world where death is brutal and strikes at random. But two characters do not live by the established logic of Westeros. Jon can fight an infinite number of men and win, while Dany is literally fireproof and rides the fantasy equivalent of an Apache attack helicopter in battle. George lets his two leading heroes get away with murder…but don’t expect that to last for this season. The two Targaryen’s wedding to unite Westeros is the obvious ending…and therefore the least likely.

Cersei has the bankers on her side.

Things aren’t looking good for the Lannister twins. Cersei is bat shit crazy, Jaime is going grey and jowly. On the strategic map of Westeros, they are a single state surrounded and at war on all fronts. But consider this…the Iron Bank are into the Lannisters for an epic sum. And they’ll only recover it if the Lannisters win. Banking clans have a long real world history of dirty tricks to put their puppets in power. Expect to see the Iron Bank throw some serious black ops behind a win for Cersei.

Tyrion for Prime Minister.

The littlest Lannister carried the first two seasons of Thrones. Most viewers are expecting a new King, but the show has an outspoken social justice agenda, that doesn’t sit well with the values of Monarchy. While electoral democracy is some distance off in Westeros, we could see see a constitutional monarchy with a rudimentary parliament. Tyrion would be the natural choice for PM, with Varys as Chancelor.

Matriarchy for the win.

Strong women are now in charge of most of the map of Westeros. Dany and her Dothraki hoarde, the Dornish Sand Snakes, Cersei in Kings Landing, Olena Tyrell in Highgarden, Sansa in the North, with Brienne as the toughest sword in the land and Arya poisoning entire halls of men while sparing all women. Jon Snow and Jaime are both well under the thumb. Thrones is going to be an all woman affair from here on, as the matriarchy replace the old patriarchy of Westeros.

Bran finally gets to do something.

Bran’s story is the most compelling in the books, a psychological journey through trauma and grief and a slow awakening to magic and grief. All that interiority has never translated well to screen. But in this final season Bran is no longer an adept. He’s now the only true wizard in Westeros, with unbounded powers, ready to make merry hell on the battlefield. Army of zombies? No problem, Bran can field a whole army of wargs.

Personal Betrayls.

The final battle for Westeros will be won or lost on loyalty. Jon and Sansa, Cersei and Jaime, there are serious fractures within each of the camps vying for power. Jaime could well be the one to kill Cersei, and then himself. The open question about Thrones at this point is how willing GRRM is to upset the audience by foregoing pat heroism and epic final battles, in favour of more realistic politucs and human fraility that have defined the show up until this point. Whatever the answer, I’m certain George has a few very nasty suprises for us before the Game of Thrones is won. Or lost.


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