2011-08-28

Know Your Victim

Author Ewan Morrison (on the Guardian website this past week) becomes the latest in a long line of people to sound the death knell for the book. However, he pushes farther than some to slather on a new layer of apocalyptic fervor, predicting not only the death of the book but the death of fiction and the collateral death of writing as a profession.
Ebooks, in the future, will be written by first-timers, by teams, by speciality subject enthusiasts and by those who were already established in the era of the paper book. The digital revolution will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free. Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist.
I’m tempted to want to link the hell out of this piece as a kind of “Know your enemy” parable, and to foment discussion on how amazingly worthless much of Morrison’s analysis of current media and the so-called “financial downturn in the digital industries” is. In the end, though, i’m forced to admit that i don’t actually think Morrison is the enemy. I think Morrison is a victim — specifically of the lack of faith in themselves and their work that plagues way too many writers, both established and aspiring. 



The thing that i find most disturbing in Morrison’s essay (aside from his verbatim and singular quoting of the MPAA on the effect of piracy on media, which alone demonstrates the narrowness of his focus and his lack of research) is the implicit idea in every one of his examples that the work of a creator/artist has no value outside what the publisher/producer will place on it. This is bullshit. It always has been bullshit. It always will be bullshit. The value of our work is defined wholly by its quality, its accessibility, and how much people fall in love with it. That’s always been the rule for writing, for music, for the other popular and consumer-focused arts. And as such, it’s the thing the publishers and producers have always had to control with an iron fist.

The new reality of writing takes that control away from the publishers and producers and puts it squarely into the hands of the creators. However, Morrison seems unwilling or unable to look at the full implications of those seismic shifts in the industry. The completely accurate observation that the new rules of publishing are going to destroy the old model of writers living off the advances for which they trade away their long-term control of a work is a no-brainer. However, Morrison then fails to acknowledge that there’s any potential value in writers taking back the long-term control of their work. In the end, his analysis isn’t crafting his conclusion. Morrison has already made his conclusion, and it’s crafted entirely on the fear and uncertainty that lets too many writers believe that that the control and blessing of a publisher is what grants legitimacy to writing. Faced with the destruction of the system that grants that legitimacy, Morrison crafted an analysis born of the fear of losing that legitimacy. To my mind, a better use of his time might be to think about why he’s afraid to believe in the legitimacy of himself — of his work, of writing in general — on its own terms.

2011-08-26

The Captivation of Contrasts

Appendix S: Lyonesse (Suldrun’s Garden)

If Lord Dunsany had written Game of Thrones, the result might have been something like this often overlooked fantasy gem by F&SF legend Jack Vance. The setting is the Elder Isles, a magical realm that occupies the seas south of Dark-Ages Britain and Ireland. The story is built on a wonderfully fractious narrative that spins out between a half-dozen characters caught up in the political turmoil roiling the isles’ kingdoms.

In Lyonesse (the title of some editions; others are published as Suldrun’s Garden), the princess Suldrun rejects her father’s plans to marry her off for political gain, finding peace and solace in a lost garden. In Troicinet, the young prince Allais is comfortably out of the line of succession until his uncle dies, whereupon a jealous cousin tries to murder him and sets in motion a bittersweet tale of revenge and redemption. The people and the culture of the Elder Isles are beautifully brought to life by Vance’s almost-poetic prose, which moves seamlessly between the hard edges of epic fantasy and the winsome quality of the Elder Isles’ dark fairy-tale world. Mischievous fey, witches, trolls, and powerful sorcerers define the web of magic that weaves through the high-fantasy politics of Vance’s realm, and the result is stunning.

I know people who don’t care for this or the other books of Vance’s Lyonesse cycle (the followups are The Green Pearl and Madouc). Vance’s prose is nothing short of bewitching, but that magic demands a certain amount of like-mindedness on the reader’s part.
Something had changed. She felt as if she were seeing the garden for the first time, even though every detail, every tree and flower was familiar and dead. She looked about her in sadness for the lost vision of childhood. She saw evidence of neglect: harebells, anemones and violets growing modestly in the shadow had been challenged by insolent tufts of rank grass. Opposite, among the cypresses and olive trees, nettles had risen more proudly than the asphodel. The path she had so diligently paved with beach pebbles had been broken by rain.
Suldrun went slowly down to the old lime tree, under which she had passed many dreaming hours. The garden seemed smaller. Ordinary sunlight suffused the air, rather than the old enchantment which had gathered in this place alone, and surely the wild roses had given a richer fragrance when first she had entered the garden? At a crunch of footsteps she looked about to discover a breaming Brother Umphred. He wore a brown cassock tied with a black cord. The cowl hung down between his plump shoulders; his tonsured baldness shone pink.
Likewise, the story is dark and light by turns, and features more than a bit of medieval-style mayhem, murder, and rapine, and the presentation of such topics in an almost fairy tale-like morally neutral cadence can take some getting used to. But just as the best fairy tales walk the line between shock and beauty, dismay and hope, so too does Suldrun’s Garden captivate with its contrasts. Not all of Vance’s metaphorical garden and its counterpart fey landscape is flowers and light.

On a more mechanical level, Suldrun’s Garden is one of those books i often rail about as being less a complete story in its own right and more of a setup for the books to come. In this case, however, there’s enough story — by turns comic, tragic, and bittersweet in spades — to carry the book to a satisfying conclusion, even if that conclusion speaks less to closure for Suldrun’s story than to portents of what’s to come as a result (right down to a “What of Character X?” epilogue whose tone pushes dangerously close to tongue-in-cheek soap opera). In the end, though, Suldrun’s Garden is a great standalone introduction to Vance’s work and world, and a fascinating hybrid that shows off the power of epic tale-telling and the whimsy of fairy tale in equal measure.

Suldrun’s Garden has a permanent place on the shelves in Appendix S because Vance’s writing is never content to be one thing or the other. And by striving to be both, it manages to achieve a beauty that’s inordinately rare.

2011-08-25

The Mirror

(A guest blog at amwriting.org. Many thanks to Johanna.)

As I imagine is true of many generally insecure people, I’m not a huge fan of catching sight of myself in the mirror. I likewise hate having my picture taken. When I somehow manage to have a picture taken of me that I hate slightly less than normal, it’s guaranteed to get used for way too long in every single place where I need to have a picture (like here, for example). In my experience, writers tend to be generally insecure people, so I suspect that a few of the people reading this might know what I’m talking about.

And it’s not that I’m uncomfortable in my own life. I’m actually very happy with who I am (general insecurity notwithstanding). It’s just that all of us effectively live our lives from the inside looking out, sensing the world as a thing around and separate from us. When we’re forced to look in the mirror, we’re forced to reduce our vision to contemplate only ourselves, and we lose sight of the world beyond ourselves as a result.

One of things that makes me very happy with who I am is that I’m a person who gets to spend a whole lot of time working in other worlds, as an author of fantasy and speculative fiction and as an editor and designer of roleplaying games. I fell in love with fantasy and SF in third and fourth grade, with five books that changed my life: Tolkien’s The Hobbit, C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, Jack Sendak’s The Second Witch, Theodore Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels, and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. However, despite my continuing love of F&SF for its imaginative transcendence, I’m the first to acknowledge that all literature has that quality of transcendence. All fiction breaks the bonds of reality to some degree in order to turn emotion into drama, event into art. Some of my favorite authors include Dostoyevsky, Doris Lessing, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad — writers whose works are rooted in the drama and pathos of the real world, real history, and the hopelessly flawed characters who inhabit that world and history.

However, when it comes time for me to write, I find myself drawn not to the real world but to worlds beyond. But here’s the thing — I don’t see fantasy or speculative fiction as mere escapism. I don’t write fantasy and SF to avoid the tough questions that life poses, or to shortcut the complexity of character that smolders and catches at the heart of all great fiction. I embrace fantasy and speculative fiction because, for me, F&SF provide the best opportunity to explore the conflicts, the pain, the triumphs of the real world.

Because when I look in the mirror, the face I see staring back at me seems too familiar. I live my life, I observe the lives of those around me, I embrace and honor the lives of those at a distance from me in what ways I can. However, the reality that wraps around all those lives creates a barrier of familiarity that can too easily insulate us from the deeper themes of our own lives.

Fantasy and speculative fiction break the barrier of reality that is the mirror we all hold up to ourselves. F&SF are the world beyond the looking glass, turning and inverting the mundane and the personal into things wondrous and never before seen.

Fantasy and speculative fiction have no effective bounds, and this is both a blessing and a curse for those of us drawn to write those genres, whether gritty urban fantasy, epic space opera, or all the myriad worlds in between. It’s easy sometimes for F&SF to focus on worlds and wonder to the exclusion of real character, real conflicts, real story. However, by virtue of the fact that F&SF is a literature that can be anything, F&SF is a literature that can do anything. This, for me, is the challenge for fantasy and speculative fiction in all its forms, and for all writers who stake their claim in the light and darkness of the worlds those genres build. From Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings, from The Left Hand of Darkness to Dune, fantasy and speculative fiction can draw us in to tell us things about ourselves that the most realistic mainstream fiction often struggles in vain to achieve — because too often, when we look in the mirror, our first instinct is to look away.

Fantasy and speculative fiction let us look beyond the mirror. By doing so, the worlds of imagination in F&SF can impart the most vibrant, most memorable understanding of the real world we all share.

2011-08-10

There's Something About Syd

Part 6 of “The Language of Story”

We’re going to continue to talk about film story structure, but even if your interest is primarily in writing long-form fiction, please stick around. This post kicks off a longer discussion about expanding the basic neo-Aristotelian dramatic paradigm talked about last time, using feature film story and structure as a starting point. Even you don’t want to write film, I’m willing to bet that you’ve seen a few, and the innate understanding of film form we all share as a result of the death of literate society makes a good foundation for talking about the language of story.

Syd Field.

Syd, Syd, Syd, Syd, Syd.

I don’t know Syd Field. I’ve never met Syd Field. I certainly don’t hate Syd Field, if only because I make a point of not hating anyone that I don’t know and have never met. Syd Field is rich and famous, while I’m neither, and I’m led to believe that means he wins or something. One of his books (Four Screenplays: Studies in the American Screenplay) is damn good, so I owe him for that. I’ve given Syd Field money for a lot of his other books that were less good, so he arguably owes me as well.

But in much of what he says regarding the structure of screen story, Syd Field is wrong in a very big way. What’s even more annoying is that Syd Field almost got screen story structure perfectly right, and the way in which he failed to get it right continues to cause countless neophyte screenwriters to shoot themselves and their stories in the head.

Syd Field is the originator and chief proponent of “the Paradigm” for film story — the three-act structure. And I’ll be really honest, I don’t even know how seriously people take Syd Field anymore, because the ranks of Hollywood screenwriting gurus has expanded considerably since he defined that niche all by himself in his 1979 book Screenplay. But every guru who followed Syd Field started out by reading Syd Field, and so the pernicious foundations of “the Paradigm” and Fieldian three-act structure extend into virtually every corner of contemporary screenwriting theory.

Here’s a secret. Most feature films (by which we mean narrative films of ninety minutes to two-and-a-half hours or so) don’t have a three-act structure. Never have; never will.

Most feature films have a four-act or five-act structure. In Aristotle’s terms, most feature films have a beginning, and either two or three middles, and an end. The exceptions to this rule are films that are really long (your Quentin Tarantino/Peter Jackson epics, which might run to six or more acts) and features whose running times are between sixty and ninety minutes. Comedies that clock in right at the hour-and-a-half mark can be easily handled by a proper three-act structure (though not all do). A lot of the classic Disney animated features (with running times at 75 minutes or less) fall squarely into this category. So does the standard 22-minute sitcom format. If you think about those shorter films and ultra-short TV shows (hearken back to the exercise from a couple of installments ago), coming up with an honest-to-goodness, workable three-part act structure is dead easy.

Where Syd Field screwed up is that he defines his three act-structure as follows: an Act 1 that’s approximately 30 minutes, an Act 3 that’s approximately 30 minutes; and an Act 2 that’s approximately 60 minutes with a break in the middle. Now, maybe it’s just me, but that breakdown sounds an awful lot like four acts of 30 minutes each. But, as said, Syd Field: rich, famous; me, not so much, so what do I know?

Oh, wait — I remember what I know. Syd Field is wrong.

Syd Field almost figured out that many feature films have a four-act structure, but even that’s not quite there. Most feature films have a three-act to five-act structure, with four acts or five acts more common for dramas; three acts or four acts more common for comedies. But here’s what’s especially important about understanding how Syd Field and his three-act minions missed out when they decided that three was as high as they wanted to count:

A variable scale of three to five dramatic beats is an optimally manageable amount of story.

(As promised from last time, here’s where I confuse things by introducing one of the secondary definitions of “beat.” We talked about the “story beat” being the smallest, indivisible unit of drama that underlies each individual scene in a story. Here, “dramatic beat” refers instead to the general rhythms of storytelling. When we summarize a story in three to five sentences, we’re creating an act structure for that story in three to five dramatic beats. When we break down each of those acts to three to five sequences, we’re once again creating a structure of three to five beats. To keep things clear, even as I use “beat” to talk about these general dramatic beats, I’ll always use “story beat” to refer to those indivisible moments of decision and action from which scenes are built.)

What Syd Field almost got but didn’t quite connect with is that three to five beats is the perfect amount of story.

Three to five beats is a universal pattern of narrative that the rigid-three-act structuralists have missed out on. And as a result, way too many screenwriters have missed out on it as well.

Here’s something that everyone knows intuitively, and that many writers know by the name of the rule of three. When you’re telling a joke, creating a threefold progression is consistently the funniest way to present information. Do all great jokes obey the rule of three? Obviously not. Are there great jokes that don’t use the rule of three? Sure. But it’s a universally observed and expected rule that if you toss out two pieces of straight information followed by a third piece of absurdism, it provokes a humorous response. Beyond comedy, the rule of three is a powerful tool of speechmaking and oratory. There’s simply something in the human psyche that responds to that specific pattern of words.

Likewise, there’s something very basic in the human psyche that responds to a flexible pattern of three to five beats used to tell some part of a story. Anything less, and the story seems thin. It seems incomplete. Anything more, and the story begins to lose its focus.


EXERCISE — Based on a True Story!

Writing from your own life experience, think about a significant event that’s happened to you. It doesn’t have to be overly serious, but it should be relatively complex. Think about being in a position where you have to answer someone else who asks you: “What happened?”

Answer the question by describing the event in two sentences. Then answer the question by describing the event in three to five sentences. Then in six or seven sentences.

Don’t worry too much about which description is the most accurate. Accuracy isn’t always the goal in storytelling. Most of us are painfully aware that some of the most dramatic and compelling things that have happened to us make for lousy tales when we talk about them. What we’re shooting for instead here is the feel of a compelling story.

Focus instead on the rhythm of the story as it’s told in two beats. Then in three to five beats. Then in six or seven beats. Think about which structure feels the most compelling. Think about which one holds your interest more.


You can think about this in the form of the exercise from a couple of installments back. When attempting to craft an ultrashort summary for feature film, most people find it most effective to do so in three to five sentences. Two sentences often doesn’t feel like enough; six or more feels like too much story. However, it’s easy to argue that this is just a simple function of running time. Maybe feature films do break down most effectively into three to five act beats — but that’s just a function of the arbitrary 90- to 120-minute length of feature films, as determined by studios, cultural convention, and distributors wanting to maximize the number of showings in theaters.

But if you have the same experience with the exercise above as most writers who’ve done it with me, you know that there’s more to it than that.

A friend comes up to you, visibly shaken and emotionally distraught, and says, “You would not believe what just happened to me,” and then proceeds to tell you.

“First, this happened. Then, something else happened.”

Tell the story in two beats and it almost always seems like something’s missing. The story feels compressed. Two beats often seems to come with a built-in sense of “Wait… is that all?”

Alternatively:

“First, this happened. Then, something else happened. Then, another thing happened. Then some other thing happened. Then another different thing happened. Then something else happened.”

Six beats this time. And even within the complete artificiality of this generic presentation, you can feel for the rhythm of the story being told. Much of the time, six beats feels too long. The central thread of the narrative is somehow lost.

“First, this happened. Then, something else happened. Then, another thing happened. Then some other thing happened.”

Though it’s a small change in terms of content, four beats feels different than two beats. Five beats feels different than six beats. Three to five beats feels more complete; more cohesive. Three to five beats is the optimal delivery system for compelling story.

Three to five beats is the universal pattern on which the language of story is built.

NEXT: It’s Complicated