Confessions of a Digital Novelist

Storytelling Theory

Elmore Leonard Passes Away at 87

by on Aug.20, 2013, under Storytelling Theory, Writing

Elmore Leonard Passes Away at 87Sad news today as the world found out that legendary crime writer Elmore Leonard had passed away at the age of 87. While he had lived a full life, wrote more novels than I could read in a lifetime and saw many of those ideas translated into movies, it is still sad to see him go.

I haven’t read him enough to render a full opinion of him or his body of work but he certainly has had a major impact on several generations of writers with his ten rules of writing. Thankfully, Gail Bowen of the Globe and Mail has reposted the ten rules. I fully recommend that you check it out. If you are a writer, then I hope these rules will have as much influence as they had (and continue to have) on me.

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A Game of Thrones Book Review

by on May.22, 2012, under Books, Storytelling Theory

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

Spook Country by William Gibson

After hearing so much about the Game of Thrones television show and the numerous media (such as Skyrim) that cite it as a reference, I decided to finally tackle the massive A Song of Fire and Ice series by George R.R. Martin. After plowing my way through the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones, it is pretty clear that I am hooked on the series. By what really struck me was the similarities between it and the recent book I reviewed, Spook Country by William Gibson.

Even though they both use multiple perspectives to tell their stories, I found that my enjoyment of the two books was completely different. Spook Country left me flat while A Game of Thrones drew me in and seduced me into reading further. But why were they so different? What did George R.R. Martin do right that William Gibson did wrong. Because of this conundrum, I decided to do a comparison of the two books rather than a straight-forward review of A Game of Thrones. I hope that by doing so, we might identify some of the general storytelling fundamentals in play.

Let’s start with their one major similarity: multiple perspectives.

Multiple perspectives

Both A Game of Thrones and Spook Country tell their stories through a third person limited narrative. In short, the narrative focuses on the perspective of a single character, but does not take the voice of this character. The reader is limited to the viewpoint of a single character but the text is written in the third person. This is a fairly standard narrative style, especially in mysteries, as the reader is limited to the knowledge of the protagonist, and thus must follow him or her as they unravel the plot, enhancing the tension. However, what makes both A Game of Thrones and Spook Country so unique in this narrative structure is that the story follows a different character in each chapter. To use the example of A Game of Thrones, the story may follow the perspective of Tyrion Lannister in one chapter and Eddard Stark in the next. Spook Country limits this perspective to three characters while A Game of Thrones changes to whichever character strikes Martin’s fancy. The end result is quite different. Whereas Spook Country is relatively dull with stilted, uninteresting characters (with the possible exception of Tito), A Game of Thrones sucks you into the characters lives and involves you intensely with the life and death struggles. Does this mean that the characters of A Game of Thrones are more or distinctively. No, not really. I don’t think its the characters themselves that make them so compelling. It’s how Martin sets up their stories, creating a sense of ….

… Anticipation

Let’s take a look at some of the characters in A Game of Thrones. WARNING: This section does contain stories.

Bran Stark
Formerly a strong climber, Bran is crippled when he thrown off a tower by Jaime Lannister for spotting him cavorting with his sister, and Queen, Cersei Lannister. Now a paraplegic, Bran try to find a way to make himself useful to a world that worships men of war. To get around, Bran gets around by riding on the back of Hordor, a slow-witted half-giant. Will he ride Hodor into battle and turn the tide?

Tyrion Lannister
A dwarf disrespected by everyone, especially his own snooty family, Tyrion gets by on his wits while holding fast to a personal code of honour that far exceeds those of the rest of his family. Will he overcome society’s prejudices to find the glory and victory he so rightly deserves?

Daenerys Targaryen
Along with her brother, the only two surviving offspring of the former King of the Seven Kingdoms. Daenerys sacrifices greatly for survival, including being married of by her brother, losing her husband and daughter, and her place in Dothraki society. Isolated and alone, she takes her three dragon (which have extinct for centuries) eggs into a pyre and watches as they hatch and bond to her as their mother. Will she lead her dragon children into an assault on the Seven Kingdoms to retake Iron Throne?

Eddard Stark
Reluctantly taking on the responsibility of the King’s Hand, Eddard must unravel the mysteries of the attack on his son Bran and the death of the former Hand, Jon Arryn. Will he unravel the mystery or will he fall in the game of thrones.

Jon Snow
The bastard son of Eddard Stark, Jon Snow volunteers to serve on the wall to find some place of honour in a world that has none for bastards. Amongst his rag-tag group of ruffians, will he overcome his station to protect the Seven Kingdoms from the unknown threats to the north?

Arya Stark
A tomboy, Arya is more interested in learning to fight with a sword than the courtly manners of her sister Sansa.  Reluctantly, her failure allows her to be trained by a cunning, yet eccentric sword master. Will she one day grow up to command respect as a warrior, not just as a prospective bride?

As you can see in each of the cases, I am filling in the story far off into the future while Martin is still introducing me to them. By setting up most of the characters as weak, unloved, ignored or disrespected, he is giving me an opportunity to fill in the story with how I want things to turn out. We all love underdog characters. We want to see them overcome their challenges and find the respect of their peers because we face these same sorts of struggles day in and day. George R.R. Martin fills A Game of Thrones with underdogs and that is why I have to keep reading. I have to find out what happens to them.

In Spook Country, we have a former rock star, a drug addict and a superhuman parkour specialist. They’re unique but they’re not really underdogs. They don’t feel overwhelmed or at risk in the world in which they find themselves. Even at the end when Hollis is captures, the tension is immediately diffused by the secret underworld character asking her to be a witness to their operations. There is simply little sense of danger and even less sense of overcoming the odds.

Sympathy

Another way in which Martin uses the multiple perspectives well is building sympathy for characters who later perish. When you are in close promixity  in someone’s shoes, you feel greater sense of loss when they are gone. It’s the reasons that we mourn for family and friends but not for complete strangers. We can react with horror and sadness but its far more abstract then when it’s someone you know personally. In the case of A Game of Thrones, we are introduced to a couple of characters who later perish. Walking in their faces, we gain a measure of sympathy for them that makes their later deaths, seen from another character’s perspective, that much more powerful. It also makes the world feel like a far more dangerous place. In Spook Country, nobody dies. It brings me to my final point when comparing the two novels.

Raising the Stakes

In A Game of Thrones, the stakes are huge and growing with each passing chapter. People die, the land is plagued by war and atrocities, and new threats can be sensed over the horizon, across the war and beyond the sea. In Martin’s opening book, characters are fighting for their future, Kings are fighting for kingdoms, and humanity in general is fighting for its survival. The growing sense of threat and danger ramp up the tension, pulling us forward and deeper into the book anxious to see what happens next. In the case of Spook Country, danger is muted. Nobody really seems in trouble. Nobody is killed and threats go unfilled. Even the central mystery falls flat, rather than the MacGuffan threatening humanity or even an individual, it comes off instead as post-modern joke. It may be clever or interesting but as a storytelling device, it falls flat. In A Game of Thrones, stakes are simpler, more menacing and easier to feel. The story greater benefits as a result.

In short, A Game of Thrones is an excellent fantasy novel that I can’t recommend highly enough. It will grab you and never let you go. I hope that by comparing it to Spook Country I’ve been able to show why it’s so effective and how it can serve as a template for aspiring authors. I’m well into the second book of the series, A Clash of Kings, and it’s still going strong.

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Michael Arndt’s Eight Steps for “Setting the Story in Motion”

by on Mar.28, 2011, under Storytelling Theory, Tools of the Trade, Writing

One of the hidden gems on the 4-disc Toy Story 3 Blu-Ray package from Disney is a ten-minute short film by screenwriter Michael Arndt. In it, Arndt reveals the eight step process that he found in films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles that helped him in writing Toy Story 3. Despite its short length, Arndt’s theory is an excellent contribution that deserves a closer look.

1) Show Your Main Character

Introduce the audience to your main character. As most of the story follows their perspective, you need to establish him in the mind of the audience. In the case of Toy Story, this is Woody. He is a toy that comes alive when humans aren’t watching.

2) Introduce the Universe that They Live In.

Give your audience a chance to see the world that the protagonist lives in. In the case of Toy Story, we see that Woody lives in Andy’s room with the other toys.

3) Show Your Character’s Grand Passion

Show your character doing the thing that they love the most. What is their Grand Passion? In Woody’s case, his grand passion is his place as Andy’s favourite toy. He has the favoured position Andy’s bed and the introductory playtime sequences always show him as the star of Andy’s imagination.

4) Show Your Character’s Hidden Flaw.

Only boring protagonists are perfect. Show the audience your main character’s flaw. Give them a flaw that comes out of their grand passion, that comes out of the thing they love doing the most. In Woody’s case, it’s pride. As Andy’s favourite toy, he has a lot of pride about his place in Andy’s bedroom. It is only natural that he gets his comeuppance.

5) Hint at Storm Clouds on the Horizon

Very subtly, hint to your audience that there is trouble out on the horizon. In the case of Toy Story, those storms clouds are Andy’s birthday party. All of the other toys are afraid of being replaced. Only Woody, proud of his status as Andy’s favourite tool, is unworried.

6) Turn Your Character’s World Upside Down

Something comes into your hero’s life and turns it upside down. It takes away their grand passion. In the case of Woody, the introduction of Buzz Lightyear changes everything. Because Buzz is such a cool tool, Andy and all of the other toys prefer him. Woody finds himself relegated to the Toy Chest while Buzz gets the preferred spot on Andy’s bed. Woody has lost his greatest possession: his status as Andy’s favourite toy.

7) Add Insult to Injury

If that is not enough, you have to add insult to injury. It is not enough to take away your protagonist’s grand passion, you always have to humiliate him in the process. In the case of Toy Story, not only does he lose his place as favourite toy to Buzz, Buzz has no idea that he’s a toy! As Woody loses favour, you can see his frustration at Buzz’s cluelessness. He’s being replaced by an imbecile! This step is important to show your character’s frustration at a world that is completely unfair.

8) Have Your Character Make the Wrong Choice

This is the big one. Bring your main character to a fork in the road. At this fork, they have two choices: a right choice and a wrong choice. Of course the character makes a wrong choice. Having seen what he has gone through, we understand perfectly why he makes the wrong choice. We even WANT him to make the wrong choice. This wrong choice comes out of his grand passion and provokes a crisis that sets us on our way to Act 2. Let’s take Toy Story again. In Toy Story, Woody, having been displaced and insulted by the deluded Buzz Lightyear, decides to try to knock Buzz behind the dresser so that Andy will have to take him to Pizza Planet. The plan goes awry, Buzz is knocked out the window, and the other toys blame Woody, leaving him no choice but to find and return Buzz to Andy’s room. That leads us right into Act 2.

Arndt shows us the same structure at play in Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. The structure works well because the plot develops from the hero’s internal character, making it more personal. It also gives us something that character, alongside the main plot, must resolve inside himself. In the case of Toy Story, Woody not only brings back Buzz safely, but he also learns how to overcome his flaws and earn the friendship of Buzz. The hero’s journey becomes as much metaphysical as physical.

But how can we apply these lessons to our own stories. In my case, Arndt’s theory forced a number of changes in the opening Act of Evermore: Call of the Nocturne. While  I found that I had followed several of his steps already, thinking his theory allowed me to make some changes that greatly improved the opening act. Please let me go through it one step at a time.

1) Show Your Main Character

In Evermore: Call of the Nocturne, the reader is introduced to Mmorpg, a geekish computer nerd who has difficulty dealing with people directly. He prefers the virtual world to the real world as he has far more control over it.

2) Introduce the Universe that They Live In.

Mmorpg lives in Vancouver, BC. But his real home is at his laboratory at the University of British Columbia where he administrates a virtual online world known as Evermore.

3) Show Your Character’s Grand Passion

Mmorpg’s greatest passion is Evermore itself. Having created the most popular Massively-Multiplayer Online (MMO) game in the world, Mmorpg is understandably proud of his accomplishment. He believes that Evermore will change the world for the better and thus he is very protective of it, allowing only himself access to the computer code that sustains it.

4) Show Your Character’s Hidden Flaw.

Mmorpg’s hidden flaw is his pride towards his creation. Enamoured by its possibilities, Mmorpg is unable or unwilling to see its possible consequences, both to himself and others.

5) Hint at Storm Clouds on the Horizon

During the opening chapters, Evermore’s Initial Public Offering (IPO) is mentioned nervously. In a few days, stock will be sold in the online world, making all of its founders, especially Mmorpg, incredibly rich.

6) Turn Your Character’s World Upside Down

Mmorpg’s world is shattered when a little girl dies inside Evermore. Having written the security protocols that are meant to protect people inside the virtual world, Mmorpg is dumbfounded by failure. He continually insists that they are perfect despite the obvious evidence to the contrary.

7) Add Insult to Injury

With the death of the little girl, it is obvious that the government will move in to shut down Evermore. All of Mmorpg’s hard work, all of his sacrifices will have been for nothing. While he watches helplessly, his life’s work is falling to pieces.

8) Have Your Character Make the Wrong Choice

Rather than choose to go straight to the authorities, as he should, Mmorpg chooses instead to perpetrate a massive coverup. He seals off the crime scene and disables the logout function, trapping everyone including the killer inside Evermore. To ensure that nobody gets wise, he tricks anyone who attempts to log out by trapping them inside another virtual reality where they log out, feel tired, and go to bed for a nap. Given that he can’t keep people locked up in the virtual world forever, Mmorpg is forced to find the killer. To that end, his organization hires a dangerous mercenary called Blue and we are into the 2nd Act.

It was here that Arndt’s advice really paid dividends. Originally, Mmorpg simply makes the choice because, well because the plot demanded it. I hadn’t made the case in the character of Mmorpg why he would do such a thing. With Arndt’s theory, I made his connection to his creation far stronger in the early going, introduced the storm crowds (the government) that threatens to take away his dream, and confront him directly with the moral choice that leads us into the 2nd Act. Now we know why Mmorpg makes that decision and more importantly, we want him to make that decision. Furthermore, this moral choice makes Mmorpg’s eventual comeuppance (no spoilers) and reconciliation far more effective.

Michael Arndt himself states that these steps are not for every story, but they are a useful tool to help you develop the opening to your story. In my case, they helped to make a good opening even better. I hope that they’ll help you too.

 

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