2011-07-21

What’s In a Game?

A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales is out, and since the second i hit SEND on the Amazon KDP upload page, i’ve been humming and hawing about whether i’m calling the book “gaming fiction” or not. It’s a tough call on some level, insofar as “gaming fiction” is a label, and one wants to be wary of layering the labels too deeply onto one’s work. Genre fiction is already a label unto itself. “Fantasy” splits off the potential audience for a book from people’s first look at the cover. “Epic fantasy” and “sword-and-sorcery” do so again, winnowing down the pool of prospective readers based on their own experiences with what those labels mean.

All in all, labels aren’t a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with convenient shortcuts to understanding, or to giving people the tools to instinctively know that if they previously loved X, they’re likely to love Y and Z as well. However, i think that a problem arises when we as readers decide to let the labels say more than the books they adorn — or, worse, to allow our expectations of a label to inspire us to not bother checking out what lies beneath it.

Clearwater Dawn is just as much “gaming fiction” as Prayer for Dead Kings, insofar as the world of the story is a world built loosely around the zeitgeist and paradigms of fantasy gaming. Any D&D player who reads Clearwater Dawn is likely to recognize a number of familiar touchstones, from spell use to armor to weapons to rings of invisibility and boots of speed. However, Clearwater Dawn is a book that i’ve consciously chosen to not call “gaming fiction”, because it never makes it overly obvious that its narrative is hitting those touchstones (primarily by never using phrases like rings of invisibility and boots of speed). Clearwater Dawn is a book that anyone can read and enjoy, and a reader who lacks the context of gaming isn’t going to miss anything in the story as it unfolds.

It’s also interesting to think about books like George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice Fire” series. Definitely not gaming fiction, insofar as Martin doesn't game in Westeros. (I have heard he plays GURPS, though, which is kind of cool.) "A Song of Ice and Fire" wasn't conceived as gaming fiction. It wasn't built around the conventions of gaming, so it has no reason to take the label. Except that A Game of Thrones and its sequels have spawned a couple of excellent roleplaying games whose rules and game setting have been extracted from the tropes and paradigms of the fantasy world Martin has created. A player of the Song of Ice and Fire RPG who reads (or, more likely, rereads) the books will see the gaming elements like a non-gamer won’t. Does doing so turn A Game of Thrones into gaming fiction? And by the same token, any hardcore fantasy gamer who reads the Martin books for the first time (as was the case for me) is likely to automatically translate the world of the story into RPG terms just because that’s how a gamer’s brain is hard-wired. (Spoiler alert, kind of: At the point in A Game of Thrones when Eddard Stark is surrounded by Jaime Lannister and his men all out for blood, a little voice in the back of my head screamed “Dude! Bluff check!”) So can non-gaming fiction actually become gaming fiction simply in the reader’s mind?

Clearwater Dawn is also arguably a romance — another label that might or might not attract one prospective reader even as it drives away another. Likewise, A Prayer for Dead Kings (the eponymous short novel that anchors the new book) is a little bit deconstructionist on more than one level. Another label — and one that runs the real risk of pushing away readers who don’t like getting post-modernism in their fantasy, all chocolate-and-peanut-butter style.

In the end, Clearwater Dawn and A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales both explore a world in which some of the familiar tropes of fantasy are given free reign to slam up against a wedge of real character story. And i like to think that character story is as strong as a prospective reader will find in any genre, any form, any novel or anthology. In the end, the pieces that make up A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales — six short stories, the novella Ghostsong, and the short novel A Prayer for Dead Kings — aren’t gaming fiction per se. However, a big part of why i wrote these stories was to try to capture the sense of wonder that has always been the best part of gaming for me — the sense of a dark world challenging everyday characters to take up the mantle of heroism.

In the end, i don’t expect that this is what the “gaming fiction” label says to most people, but this is what it means to me.

2011-07-14

The Neo-Aristotelian View

Part 5 of “The Language of Story”

We’re going to talk more about the structure of film story today. But as has been mentioned, the stuff we’re talking about will ultimately be just as relevant to long-form prose fiction as it is to screenwriting. Talking about film is simply convenient, because film provides a fairly standard length of narrative (your classic 90 to 120 minutes) as compared to the completely open-ended (and thus largely incomparable) lengths of the standard novel.

Here’s a confession. For a long time, I wanted to be a novelist but I had absolutely no idea how to write a novel. I tried more than a few times, and I took the advice of many, many people who attempted to distill the process of long-form fiction down into advice and guidelines, and none of it made any difference. However, while I was failing to successfully write anything resembling a novel, I was as surprised as anyone to find myself working somewhat successfully as a screenwriter. And in the course of getting progressively better as a screenwriter, I discovered an understanding of structure that showed me how to be a novelist.

This is where I talk about that understanding of structure. Hang onto something.

Aristotle was right and wrong. Narrative story is locked to act structure. Always has been. Always will be. However, narrative story isn’t necessarily locked to a three-act structure — Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end. Rather, every story consists of the exact number of acts necessary to the telling of that story.

Now, that statement isn’t all that new or innovative. Plenty of other people say the same sort of thing, including and probably most popularly the screenwriting guru Robert McKee. McKee’s how-to book Story (which is excellent and you should read it) talks about how a feature film script can have three acts, or it can have ten, or it can have thirty-three and who really cares anyway? And if that’s true for film, then it must be even more true for novels, which I guess can have thirty-three acts or a hundred-and-thirty-three, and how the hell does that even work?

Like Aristotle, McKee is right and wrong in equal measure when it comes to talking story structure. But by looking again at Aristotle, we can understand why he’s wrong. Because when it comes down to it, Aristotle can still tell us everything we need to know and understand about story structure in any form, any genre, any medium. He just needs a little bit of an update. A neo-Aristotelian view, if you will.

(I know that a lot of other “neo-Aristotelian views” already exist in art, philosophy, and communications theory. Call this Aristotle Max, if that bothers you. Poetics 2.0. Whatever.)

Because its formal requirements are more rigid than most other dramatic forms, screenwriting would seem a perfect medium for an Aristotelian approach to structure. But what generally gets overlooked in the many interpretations using Aristotle as a starting point for strapping on mechanical processes guaranteed to Produce a Hollywood Hit Every Time™ is that Aristotelian structure is about process, not parameter. Aristotle is a means to structure, not an end. And so by taking Aristotle one step further than was the philosopher’s own nominal intent, we can create a new model which lends itself particularly well first to the screenplay form, then even more effectively to long-form prose.

What does “process, not parameter” actually mean? It means that the structural approach to writing we’re exploring here differs in one very important way from any of the standard approaches that I’ve read, studied, absorbed, used, and stolen from/discarded in equal measure. This approach to structure has no overriding principles or mechanics to which a writer’s vision has to conform. We’re not talking about inciting incidents or controlling ideas. No counting reversals or action points here; no A-story and B-story mechanics, no Plot Point 1 on page 27 spinning the story off in new directions. However, the structural paradigm we’re exploring works perfectly well with any of those notions if those notions work for you. If you want to use those more specific approaches, use them. If any other how-to-write-a-screenplay/novel/Edwardian-comedy-of-manners shortcuts prove effective for you, great.

Because in the end, this structural view of story is universal to the point where all the other more specific theories are subsumed within it. This is a universal way of viewing story in its purest structural form — a way of viewing that allows the essential form of story to be precisely and expertly shaped.

As I’m sure you all know, Aristotle rejected the atomic view of the world put forth by fellow Athenian thinking guy Democritus. That’s the idea that all matter can be divided into smaller parts, which can in turn be divided into smaller parts, which can in turn be divided, down to the smallest unit — the atom. (I’m sure it’s obvious that Democritus’s understanding of “atom” was very different than ours. Among other things, we know that atoms subdivide into even smaller bits, but for the sake of this discussion, you’ll be encouraged to get your Greek on.)

Aristotle’s rejection of the atomic view of the world is important, because it means that Aristotle never had any reason to consider what lies beneath the dramatic divisions he set forth in Poetics.

Thankfully, he’s got us to do it for him.

Aristotle talked about drama having a beginning, a middle, and an end. Three discrete parts that could be separated out from each other by virtue of their unique features. Aristotle was wrong about the number of parts, but ignore that for now. Imagine a story; any story. Imagine that story broken up into beginning, middle, and end.

Now imagine just looking at the beginning by itself. Toss away the middle and the end. Summon up all your powers of focus as you remind yourself that the beginning of the story can stand alone as a discrete unit.

Then remind yourself that if the beginning of the story is a discrete unit of drama, then the beginning of the story must have its own beginning, middle, and end. There’s a beginning of the beginning of the story. There’s a middle of the beginning. There’s an end of the beginning.

Now set the beginning of the story aside and look at the middle. Focus on it. Ignore everything else. And understand that the middle of the story has its own beginning, middle and end. The beginning of the middle. The middle of the middle. The end of the middle.

I’m sure you know where this is going. The end of the story, looked at in focused isolation. The beginning of the end. The middle of the end. The end of the end.

Aristotle said that a story consisted of three parts. But each of Aristotle’s three parts can in turn be fed back into the dramatic-analysis machinery to yield up three smaller parts each. In applying Aristotle to Aristotle’s own analysis, we can see that that same story can be just as easily broken down into nine parts. Beginning, middle, and end, each subdivided into beginnings, middles, and ends.


Easy, right? And really, who cares? Three parts, nine parts; is this idiot saying my story needs nine acts now? What?

No. What this idiot is saying is: Look at each of the smaller bits of story we’ve created — the beginning of the beginning and all the rest. Aristotle tells us that each of those is a discrete bit of story. And that means that each of those bits can be fed back into the Aristotelian story machine, because the Aristotelian story machine is one hungry mother.

The beginning of the beginning of our story has its own beginning, middle, and end. The middle of the beginning of our story has its own beginning, middle, and end. And on and on down the line. Nine parts to our story? Hah! Try twenty-seven parts, because that’s how neo-Aristotle rolls.


If you were to feed those twenty-seven parts back in (which I’m not going to show because you wouldn’t be able to see anything on the image at this scale), you’d have eighty-one parts, from the beginning of the beginning of the beginning of the beginning all the way down.

In mathematical terms, what we’ve done is take Aristotle’s three-act paradigm and made it recursive. We feed its own results back to it, creating smaller and smaller units of story until we get to a kind of dramatic atom — a unit of story that can’t get any smaller. And here’s where the temporary focus on screenwriting comes in handy, because screenwriters have a word for that smallest unit of story — the story beat. And that’s where the recursion stops.

(Aside: The word “beat” has a ton of varying and occasionally contradictory usages in film and stage play writing. I’m going to help continue that trend by using “beat” in a more general sense in subsequent posts, which is why I’m going to consistently use “story beat” here. This is the sense of a single, indivisible unit of drama — a single pulse of something happening in a story that can stand by itself. A story beat isn’t a specific unit of dramatic time — there’s no consistent “X story beats = Y minutes or Z pages.” Rather, you can most easily think of it as a unit of independent action or decision.)

So how do we make sense of this structural monstrosity we’ve created? Well, let’s start by numbering each section and coming up with different names to our various recursive layers so it’s easier to keep them straight.


If you’ve done any screenwriting or stage play writing, that might look a little more familiar.

Using a neo-Aristotelian view of story structure — breaking the story down into its Aristotelian parts, then breaking each of those parts down in turn — we create an upside-down mathematical tree with story at its apex and successive layers of subdivision falling beneath it. We add to Aristotle’s definition of each part of the story as an act, defining each part of an act as a sequence — a shorter, though still reasonably lengthy, unit of dramatic action. We define each part of a sequence as a scene — a smaller unified section of story. Though we don’t see it broken out on the illustration, we define each part of a scene as a story beat — the smallest individual unit of narrative. Beginnings, middles, endings all the way down.

But then comes the hue and cry of, “Hey genius — the division of story into acts, sequences, and scenes is hardly innovative.” True enough. But bear with me.


Exercise — My God, It’s Full of Sequences…

Go back to the first exercise in the previous post and think about how you defined a favorite or recently-seen-and-remembered film in three, four, or five sentences. As you probably figured out about halfway through this post, those sentences were intended to be rough summary breakdown of the act structure of your film.

(“But wait!” you cry. “Syd Field says that film always has three acts! What’s with this four and five stuff?” Syd Field is lying to you, but don’t worry — we’ll deal with him next time.)

Look at those sentences for a while — or go back and do the exercise for a different film. (If the previous exercise didn’t work for you and you felt better with a summary of six or seven sentences, that’s totally fine. As long as you’ve got a collection of sentences that feel like a solid summary of the film, you’re good to go.) When you’ve looked at those sentences for a while, focus in on the first sentence — the beginning of the film. Act 1, as it were. Then turn away from everything else. Write or type that first sentence out again on its own page if you need to, but however you manage it, put yourself in the frame of mind that your first sentence is its own self-contained unit of story.

Then dig down into that unit of story a little bit deeper, and tell that part of the story in three to five properly formed sentences, same rules as last time.

When you’re done, set that aside. Put it out of your head. Then go back to your original three to five sentences — the summary of your story in acts — and pull out the second sentence. Act 2. Focus on that second sentence. Put every other part of the story out of your mind. Then tell that part of the story in three to five properly formed sentences.

Look at the remaining sentences you used to tell the story. Rinse and repeat. Just as you broke down the story into three to five parts, you can break down each of those parts into three to five smaller parts.

(Even if you’re feeling particularly keen, please DON’T dig down deeper and break your new smaller parts into even smaller parts, creating sentences for each of the scene in each sequence. There’s a good reason to hold off on that for now, which we’ll get into when we do dig down into scenes later on.)


Here’s the neo-Aristotelian paradigm writ small:

Each part of any story — each act, each sequence, each scene — has its own dramatic structure, which perfectly mirrors the structure of the larger parts that contain it. A story has acts that define its beginning, middle, and end. Each act of the story is composed of sequences that define the act’s beginning, middle, and end. And so on.

In this way, drama can effectively be broken down from the highest level (the story itself) to the lowest level — each of the individual story beats from which the narrative is ultimately built. But more than simply noting the existence of these smaller bits from which story is strung together, the neo-Aristotelian paradigm identifies that any and all of these smaller bits must serve two very different functions.

First, each bit is a unit of drama — a story beat, a scene, or a sequence with its attendant emotional or dramatic weight.

And second, each bit is a part of the overall structure, existing in a specific place and in specific relationship to all the other parts. Remember the following philosophical classic?

“The beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it.”

Every part of a story has a function. Every part of a story has a place. And the one thing that most cookie-cutter approaches to writing fail to identify in a casual disassembling of story into acts and sequences and scenes is that the dramatic positioning of scenes and sequences is ultimately as critical to whether a story works or fails as is their dramatic content.

The dramatic content of a scene is a product of the language of words.

We’re going to build on the mechanics of the exercise above a lot more in coming installments. And as we do so, we’re going to see and understand that the dramatic positioning of scenes building sequences, sequences building acts is the language of story.

NEXT: There’s Something About Syd

2011-07-01

The Tyranny of Structure

Part 4 of “The Language of Story”

For any dramatic medium, from film to prose fiction to stage play to choliambic-hexameter epic verse, structure is the root of the process of storytelling. If you’ve done any dabbling in screenwriting, you’ve probably been hit with the mantra “Structure is story.” And this mantra is actually both wrong and stupid, but like most hymns of the great religions (Hollywood being one of those), it kind of touches on the truth in a way that lets you actually see the truth if you know how to look for it.

Structure is not story. Structure is a part of story. Words are the other part of story. Syntax and execution is how we qualify and analyze our use of the language of words. Structure is how we qualify and analyze our use of the language of story.

Touching back to the introduction to this series of posts, anyone who’s studied writing and storytelling knows that for a long while now, one particular set of structural paradigms have provided the cornerstone on which our sense of the structure of narrative drama is built. In the fourth century BCE, a Greek Thinker of Great Renown™ named Aristotle penned a little volume on dramatic theory called Poetics.

In the course of the sections of that book that have survived and come down to us through history, Aristotle analyzed the Greek theater of his day in an attempt to understand its creative foundations. (The first half of the book is what we know, dealing with drama; the second half explaining comedy was lost, which is why I’ll never be able to understand why people find Adam Sandler funny.) Aristotle identified specific components and elements of great drama, including the reversal and the tragic flaw of the protagonist, the distinction and relationship between plot and character, the way that speech works differently on stage than it does in real life, and so on.

Now, Poetics is a cool book and you should read it; or you should at least read other people’s analyses of it, because if you’re serious about writing, it’s important to understand other people’s views on writing as a means to being able to sharpen your own views about writing. But in one very important way, you already know and understand the most essential part of what Aristotle was talking about — because as a consumer of fiction in the modern age, you’ve had this paradigm relentlessly drilled into you whether you were aware of it or not. Because Aristotle was the first to articulate the concept of act structure.

(This is an aside. You can tell because of the parentheses. We’re going to talk about film here and in later installments, but the underlying importance of what we’re talking about translates to prose fiction — novel, novella, short story, what have you — just as much as it does to film story. Film is simply convenient to talk about because most people have a good sense of film story by virtue of the amount of film we consume as a culture, and because feature film story tends to be relatively consistent in its length. Star Wars and Citizen Kane don’t share much in common storywise, but we can compare both films structurally in a way that it’s hard to compare the original novel versions of Catch 22 and Moby Dick.)

(This is another aside. I’m not going to be comparing the structural paradigms of Star Wars and Citizen Kane, though you should totally feel free.)

Aristotle’s observations on structure seem pretty obvious in hindsight, but they were groundbreaking in their historical context. Drama succeeds, he said, because of its cohesive structure as a series of parts — a beginning, a middle, and an end. But the problem is that the Aristotelian approach is hamstrung by its overly sublime simplicity, because Aristotle defines the beginning as:

“…that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it.”

Yeah.

And so the Aristotelian paradigm works okay for providing an obvious sense of structure after the fact, letting you look at a story and say, “Well, that was the beginning, and that looks like the middle, and that was definitely the end.” But its use as a tool for creating drama is limited, because it does nothing at all to help you figure out what the beginning, the middle, and the end of the story you want to write is supposed to look like.

Because its effectiveness as a front-end creative tool is lacking, Aristotelian structure generally becomes a part of some other paradigm when applied to writing. In film, where Aristotle gets a whole lot of traction, there’s a guy named Syd Field. (We’ll talk more later about Syd Field.) Syd Field loves Aristotle, so much so that he wrote a book explaining that all feature films have exactly three acts, and that this is what the acts look like, and this is how to write your movie so it follows that three-act structure right down to having your named plot points appear on the correct freaking page.

A lot of people have knocked out screenwriting books since Syd Field. But unfortunately, most of them started out by reading Syd Field, whose teaching thus spreads as if he was some sort of Patient Zero of hack structuralism. And so the vast majority of screenwriters believe (at least initially) that a feature film and the screenplay on which that film is based has exactly three acts that are each a specific number of pages long, and each of which has a certain number of specific mechanical characteristics. This is a paradigm that I like to see referred to as “cookie-cutter storytelling,” because it teaches that story is a series of molds into which you cram the raw material of character and conflict, and out of which a properly structured narrative work will emerge, all toasty and delicious from the oven. And in my opinion, that attitude is stupidly, dangerously wrong.


Exercise — Well, It’s About This Guy…

Think about a roughly two-hour narrative film you really love and have seen more than once. Or think about a roughly two-hour narrative film you enjoyed recently. Anything where you remember the story well enough to easily recall the broad strokes of the plot to mind.

(As said above, we’re talking about film right now because there’s a certain kind of consistency to the length of film story that makes it easy to talk about. However, everything we’re talking about here is completely applicable to prose fiction, as we’ll explore in upcoming installments.)

Now imagine you’re hanging out with a friend and this film comes up in the conversation. “Never heard of it,” the friend says. “What’s it about?”

Tell the friend what the film is about — in exactly two properly formed, easy-to-read sentences. If the film you’re describing is a strongly multiprotagonist piece, you have permission to add a maximum of one (1) semicolon to each sentence, in a “Character A does such-and-such; meanwhile Character B…” kind of setup. Otherwise, no funny punctuation, no footnotes, no dicking around. Two sentences.

When you’re done, tell the friend once more what the film is about — in exactly three properly formed, easy-to-read sentences.

Then tell the story in exactly four sentences.

Then tell the story in exactly five sentences.

Then tell the story in exactly six sentences.

Then tell the story in exactly seven sentences.

Do the exercise in the above order, and don’t skip any steps. Likewise, don’t simply break up and repunctuate sentences in order to increase their number. Come up with at least slightly different sentences each time. It’s important to feel how having to constrain, then expand the story focuses your perception of it.


I have two secrets to share with you.

Secret number one is that you already know how story works. You already know more about story than Syd Field and any of his minions. Each of us knows how story works, because each of us has spent a lifetime consuming story. Picture books. Grade-school readers. Kids’ novels, adult novels, genre fiction, classics. Film and television to the absolute soul-saturated bursting point.

No matter what our preferred media, each of us who has spent a lifetime consuming narrative has an extraordinarily well-developed storyteller’s mind. But the problem is that despite how well we all understand story on the most innate, instinctual level, being able to reverse-engineer that understanding while in the middle of writing a story is almost impossible. (We’ll come back to that point a lot, but just keep it in mind for now.)

If you’re anything like the vast majority of the writers who have done the above exercise with me, you probably found it relatively difficult to tell the story of a film you know well in just two sentences. If you’re anything like those writers, you probably had an easier time telling the story in three, four, or five sentences. Likewise, even if they find it easier still to tell the story in six or seven sentences, most writers also find that those extra sentences feel somehow unnecessary. Even with more space in which to summarize the story, something clicks in your mind in a strange way, and you become conscious that your description doesn’t feel right.

(If you don’t have this reaction to the exercise, don’t worry too much about it. We’ll be repeating it in subsequent entries in this series, at which point the rhyme and reason behind it will make more sense — and where we’ll see that there’s a difference between summarizing a story in the easiest way and summarizing it in the best way.)

That sense of “doesn’t feel right” is your subconscious sense of knowing how story works. You know how story fits together on a purely mechanical level, because you’ve been working with story your whole life.

If you’ve got a story you want to write, you already have the unparalleled understanding of story that can tell you how that story needs to work. You just need to figure out how to let the subconscious understanding of story that you’ve gleaned over a lifetime transform itself into a conscious understanding of the language of story.


Exercise — The Play’s the Thing

Grab your copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. (What do you mean you don’t have a copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare? Shame on you. And get thee to the Internet; I hear you can find them there.)

Have a look at the act breakdowns of Shakespeare’s plays. Keep track of how many of the greatest works of narrative drama in the English language were written in exactly three acts.


Secret number two is this. As he was across much of his career, Aristotle on story structure was both brilliantly right and catastrophically wrong at the same time. Story is indeed relentlessly tied to an act-based structure. It always has been; it always will be. But story in any form only rarely fits into exactly three acts. Novels, stage plays, novellas, epic poems, and — most importantly — feature films have a more complex structure. And understanding that fact is what fuels our understanding of how story truly works — and how to let that understanding shape the stories we want to tell.

NEXT: The Neo-Aristotelian View