Archive for February, 2013

Story Shapes

I’ve had a chance to look through ds106 this week a bit more than I was expecting.  I’ll admit I skipped past the posts on week one and two which seemed to be mostly for enrolled students, but week three has grabbed me.  It looks at a premise by Kurt Vonnegut that stories have simple shapes that can be graphed.  This infographic is a pretty good summary, though I disagree with a couple of her shapes which I’ll come to later.

I was really taken with the video on the week 3 blog post.  I think it’s fairly safe to say that most stories probably fall into only two or three different shapes, but two things struck me:
What gives the story it’s shape? And,
What about the stories that don’t fit the standard shapes?

The examples in the video focus on the main character as defining the shape of a story.  A man gets into a hole and gets out of it again.  Boy meets girl, thinks he’s going to lost girl, gets her back.  And Cinderella.  In theory the majority of more complex stories can even be boiled down to this kind of shape even stories that have all kinds of depth and meaning, for example, Lord of the Rings: hobbit gets embroiled in bad stuff, saves the world.

But what about stories without a clear main character?  Lord of the Rings isn’t a bad example as you could argue that it’s about Aragorn taking his place as king, or about Gandalf or about Sauron (which would make it: being tries to take over, taken out by puny hobbit changing the point of the story from “good triumphs” to “pay attention to detail”).  And yet I’m going to use the recent Avengers movie as an example instead because it’s way easier.

For those who haven’t seen it The Avengers is about a group of superheros, each with their own franchise, coming together to kick evil butt.  The key here is: each have their own franchise.  They each have separate backstory, different motivations, and different feelings about what happens when they are forced/tricked/asked to come together to fight the bad things.  The film arguably has 6 or 7 main characters: Thor, Stark, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Captain America, Hulk (and possibly Nick Fury).  Overall the shape of the film is: average day, bad stuff happens, day saved – so pretty much man in the hole.  But if you graph each of the main characters you get something a bit different.

avengers

Here I’ve poorly graphed in Paint: Stark (red), Captain America (blue), Hulk (green, natch) and Hawkeye (grey), chosen because they had interesting curves that don’t quite follow the man-in-hole dynamic.  For example Stark – he’s egotistical enough to be pretty much close to max happiness at all times…Apart from that tricky part where he almost dies, but then he’s fine again.  Captain America wants to fit in and while bad stuff is certainly happening it’s what he was trained for and what he feels comfortable doing.  Hawkeye gets possessed at the beginning of the film…Sucks to be him.  And Hulk is effectively tricked into joining, doesn’t want to be there, hates it, rages out and destroys everything…And then is given completely free reign to SMASH THINGS and goes to his happy place.

Now one of the reasons I don’t completely agree with the infographic I linked to is because the person (note: I don’t know whether the author has got this from Kurt Vonnegut or has come to this conclusion themselves) has denoted Hamlet (disclaimer: my favourite Shakespeare play) as a flat line with the idea that it’s too complex and too like real life.  Personally I would disagree: I think Hamlet is half a Cinderella story.  Suicidal (working for evil stepmother), gets happier and happier as he goes on with his crazy plans (ghost as fairy godmother…ish), kills the King (akin to dancing with the Prince), then dead and Norway seizes the throne (strikes midnight)…It’s just you don’t have the happy ever after.

This got me thinking about two things (three if you count my concern that this blog post is going to get far too long). 1) are eastern stories in different shapes to western ones? And 2) can I find a story that is mostly flat?

Well I wouldn’t call this next example flat exactly, but it certainly is far too complex a shape to graph easily: The Prestige.  Brief synopsis: two magicians continually screw each other over trying to be the best and failing horribly…That really doesn’t do the film justice at all, but we’re about basics here today.  Now, how to graph that one sentence synopsis………..On it’s own I have no idea.  So take the two main characters and you come up with something like this:

prestige

The curves don’t denote exact points in the film, they were just to give a vague impression (very vague given my drawing skills).

But do eastern stories follow similar shapes to western stories?  Now I’m going to generalise horribly here so you should know that I by no means consider myself an expert on eastern culture.  I have looked a fair bit into some traditional Japanese folk tales and modern anime/manga.  The one thing I feel comfortable saying therefore is that, the Japanese at least, are much more comfortable with leaving loose ends, or actively ending stories on a down note.  All our stories end upbeat, even if they dredge the pits of despair in the telling, but the Japanese have plenty of stories where people end up worse than when they started, which is perhaps a reality that we prefer to keep out of our entertainment.

February 28, 2013 at 11:04 am 5 comments

LARP and the variety of stories

There has been a bit of a delay since my last post.  This is primarily because I’ve been involved in trying out a completely different type of storytelling altogether: LARP.  Namely preparing for the new Profound Decisions LARP, Empire, which has it’s very first event over Easter weekend this year.  As well as trying to get my head around larping (something that my husband has done for years, but I’ve never tried), I’ve also been trying to flesh out my character, contribute to the group backstory and make ALL THE COSTUMES!  Well costumes for myself and Martin anyway, and with the layers we’re wearing that’s quite enough.

For anyone not familiar with larp it stands for Live Action Role Play.  Most people are probably familiar with computer games like World of Warcraft where you play a character (normally fantastical) who goes on quests, gets experience to get new skills (normally in some way magical and/or superpowered) and go beat up lots and lots of enemies.  Larp has some things in common and others not so much.  For a start you’re acting out the character you are playing (hence the need for costumes) and while there is a certain capacity for battles, in theory in a game like Empire, where player-characters aren’t actively trying to kill each other, it should be possible to have a character that doesn’t kill anything at all.  But you still gain experience to spend on abilities and the setting is still fantastical.

The story happens with the interaction between the players and the organisers.  The organisers provide the stimuli (plot) which the players respond to, as their characters would respond, and with the abilities the characters have.  Then there is the interaction between the characters themselves which can generate circumstances that the organisers then have to respond to, building up into a world of combined storytelling…I was going to say “co-operative storytelling”, but I get the impression that the story is rarely developed by people co-operating with each other.  The games last for years and while the organisers may have a vision for certain events that will happen during the life of the story they can’t dictate how the players will react and so the story grows in its own way.

It’s got me thinking about the huge variety of types of stories, and story building, there are out there.

As it happens I’ve also been looking into some of the digital storytelling MOOC’s, mostly ds106: a programme run out of the University of Mary Washington on a regular basis for students there, but also open online to anyone who wants to jump in at any point.  What with my brother-in-law’s wedding and the Empire first event coming up I’m not going to have as much time as I would like to be looking at storytelling over the next few weeks.  Still, I’m hoping that, as I prepare for some low-tech fantasy storytelling, I’ll also to get the chance to delve into some of the more in depth resources ds106 has for enrolled students and find out how making storytelling digital widens out the potential types of stories and story structures you can create.

February 22, 2013 at 1:09 pm Leave a comment

Project Story Outlines – Review

On my previous two posts I went over some potential project story outlines, with the Project Manager as the main character or the Organisation as the main character.  This time I want to compare these approaches.

The main difference between the two types is obviously that the Organisation stories are more abstract than the Project Manager stories.  Not getting the personalities of those involved in the project into the story has a number of effects.  On the plus side it can take some of the likelihood of getting fired out of the story while still remaining honest and on topic.  It gives the project manager some distance, a way to think about the project more objectively (rather than ranting) while still creating a story that will be interesting to the audience.  However, I’m not convinced that Organisation stories will be as interesting in general.

Really good storytellers can make non-living things into fantastic characters, but I’m not convinced that the many storytellers would succeed in making a story from the organisation’s point of view really interesting if they were do it in a traditional format.  Organisations just aren’t as dynamic or intriguing as people.  On their own they don’t have motivations or desires.  I don’t think it’s impossible to make a story about an organisation compelling, I just don’t think it’ll be easy.

Leaving aside how easy or diffcult such stories would be to tell, do the Organisation stories put forward the right message?  I would argue yes.  Not only do there seem to be subtly more ways you can slant the story’s message to fit your audience, I would argue that it also communicates the message in a more helpful fashion.  When telling the Project Manager stories everything gets coloured by how the PM sees things – it is their point of view or how they were affected after all.  The Organisation stories on the other hand get to the point of the project – what effect did it have on the organisation?  Which, lets face it, is what people want to hear about.

But if it’s dry and boring because it’s too abstract will it have any more effect than a standard final report?  I think so.  There’s something about the structure of a story compared to a report which is just more engaging.  I’m pretty sure I’ve seen studies people have done and everything, but I’m not going to go trawling through the internet trying to find them again.  I also think that digital stories, with their engaging formats, make it easier for potentially novice storytellers to grab the audience’s attention even if they have some fairly dry subject matter.

February 6, 2013 at 3:07 pm Leave a comment


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