Posts filed under ‘ds106’

Lack of Empire and Story Toolkit

Although I mentioned Empire in one of my previous posts, I’m afraid I don’t have much to report back yet about the wonders of LARP as a storytelling medium.  A bit of a stomach bug and -11 degree temperatures with wind chill in the middle of an open field (ie with lots of chance for the wind to chill) I only actually managed one afternoon of actual roleplay after spending a day setting up.  Luckily the next event is at the end of May which hopefully should be considerably warmer and with less of me being sick.

Meanwhile, I think I’m building up a fairly good case for storytelling as part of project wrap up to be a good idea only if properly supported/managed.  In my previous post I mentioned how creativity takes time, in terms of space to be creative and in terms of time to hone storytelling skills.   Week 5 of ds106 kind of rams that home as it is about how to become a better photographer.  Now there are lots of ways to be creative, and ds106 seems to be encouraging learners to become good at all of them.  Admirable undoubtedly, and for the full time students on the course a worthwhile goal, but anyone who has passions and hobbies outside work knows that you can only cram in so much after day to day work, home, family and friends if you want to have any sleep.

I’ve been coming to the conclusion that it shouls be possible to create a toolkit or something to give people the structures and building blocks required to create quick and dirty stories.  It would need how to tell what your story should be about, help on basic story structure, types of stories, media to create stories in, maybe a couple of very quick creative exercises…

But this idea has got to be too simplistic.  I’ve just been going on about how storytelling takes time and creativity and skill and yet it’s also true that we tell stories all the time – it’s how we’re wired and it’s why they’re so useful as a communication tool.  As long as we’re not looking to create great literature or the next film festival winner it should be possible I think.

I’m going to have a think about how this might be done, but if anyone has any ideas (or thinks it’s a little crazy) I’d love to hear them!

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April 9, 2013 at 2:23 pm Leave a comment

Audio and serious storytelling

And this is the day my long avoidance of Week Four of ds106 comes to an end.  You see, week four is introducing audio storytelling and I really don’t like audio.  My husband thinks I’m a little strange as we have totally different ways of listening to things – he likes the complex harmonies in choral singing and will quite happily listen to the radio all day and absorb everything that’s said.  On the other hand I like the strong beats of dance and metal (to me choral singing is a drone of meaningless sounds) and the second I don’t have total focus on what’s on the radio it goes completely past me and I don’t remember a word.  Combine that with the standard hatred pretty much everyone has for hearing recordings of their own voice and I’ve decided to let a lot of week four be quietly swept under the mental rug…

But!  There are some good videos (praise the video gods) that are linked to which have made me think, which is always a good thing.  The videos are a series of short points by Ira Glass which I think are applicable to just about any story, though his emphasis is on video and audio.

Some of his points are fairly standard though said in a slightly different way: he describes stories as actions interspersed with moments of reflection which tell the viewer/listener why they should care about what’s going on.  He also says that stories raise questions to act as bait to encourage you to keep reading – such a simple idea, but I hadn’t thought of it quite that way before.  He makes the point that raising these questions implies that you will answer them and I can certainly think of stories that have broken that rule and greatly frustrated many a reader/viewer (Lost for example – I still think that show was a psychological experiment of some kind to see how long you could string an audience on without giving them anything).

The two points that I think create a sticking point for stories in other settings though (I’m thinking projects, but also about any other non-traditional arena) are time and taste.

The John Cleese talk on creativity makes the point about time as well, though they make the point slightly differently.  Cleese encourages taking time where you’re free to play to encourage creativity, whereas Glass talks about giving yourself time to fail: potentially many many years to go from failing horribly every time, to just failing a little every now and then.  Having the time to perfect your ability to tell a story.  Cleese’s point can in theory be worked into most schedules – finite time set aside for creativity.  Unpopular and probably hard to justify if you’re not in a creative field, but potentially possible.  But what about Glass’s point?  If you don’t have the years and years behind you of getting good at storytelling what can you be expected to produce?  This is why there are creative agencies after all – to get someone who knows what they’re doing to do it – but the increasing slant towards using stories in learning and teaching, for project reports, for blogs and all the other reflective and social side of employment this hardly seems feasible.

Which brings me to the last of Glass’s points which I will mention: taste.  Glass says that people get into creative industries because they have a sense of taste which drives them to perfect what they’re doing.  To be able to tell when what they have produced is crap and to try and work towards something better.  Now it seems we’re asking people with no sense of taste for storytelling (a horrible generalisation I will cover in a moment.  Also I would argue that taste could be applied to any person who has a feel for the work they are doing, “creative” or otherwise) to create stories.  There’s no reason why they should know whether they are good or bad stories, and it hardly matters because they won’t have the time they need to improve them anyway.

Now, I’m not saying that this means that storytelling shouldn’t be expanded into this area.  I think stories are a fantastic way to learn, to get points across, to engage with just about everyone.  This is because my generalisation above isn’t quite right: I doubt there are many people with zero taste for storytelling.  Still, this is a lot to ask of people who are already experts in what they’re doing – oh and by the way now you need to be a storyteller as well.

There’s increasing amount of guidance on storytelling around, but without time and taste is that enough?

March 25, 2013 at 2:54 pm 1 comment

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


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