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.


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:


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

Project Story Outlines 2

Following on from my previous post I present – part 2!

In these story outlines I’ve tried to focus on making the organisation as the main character, by which I mean the organisation is the thing which is changed by events, for better or worse.  It was surprisingly tricky – I’ve never really played around with non-living things as characters before and I found it awkward to put write from that position.  In the end I think they get my point across and I think these are by far the safer options if you’re going to be writing a project story for any kind of official audience.

Option 3
Type – How the organisation has changed
Events – cross-department communication, preliminary work begun, progress made on improving current systems to a point where they could feed into a system in the future.
Message – Change is happening (and more needs to happen) even if there are no concrete results yet.

Scene – Organisational context for project, the need, desired outcomes etc.

Development – Existing issues are uncovered that need to be dealt with first.  Work begins on the fundamental issues in each department.  Chanels of communication are developed slowly between departments.

Crux – change doesn’t happen quickly enough to warrant continuing with the project

Outcome – Some new channels of communication now exist which will facilitate all cross-department project work in the future.

Option 4
Type – Lessons learned
Events – learned things the hard way
Message – Acquired knowledge for the organisation

Scene – Organisational context for project, the need, but also the barriers that exist from the start.

Development – Project vs management structure difficulties are quickly an issue as are communications between departments and interfaces between technical systems.

Crux – Becomes clear that it would be more beneficial to try to resolve some of the fundamental organisational issues first.

Outcome – Project highlighted important weaknesses in organisational attitude towards projects and existing CRM and technical systems.  This will inform future work to streamline processes and systems.

Option 5
Type – Promotion of the outputs
Events – what the outputs will do for the organisation
Message – Something good has/will come out of it

Note: this is the hardest type to do with the scenario I’ve picked and would work better with a project that actually had even relatively successful outputs (what does that say how about how likely I think it will be that projects will be successful? o_O)

Scene – The project – how it failed and what the lessons learned were.

Development – plan for integrating the lessons learned

Crux – the direct affects of this

Outcome – how this will improve the organisation as whole and help going forward.

These outlines I think are more platable that with the PM as the main character, but minimising or ignoring the place of the actual actors has it’s own pitfalls which I’ll have a look at in my next post.

January 31, 2013 at 1:58 pm Leave a comment

Project Story Outlines 1

Following on from the types of message project stories might have from my last post, I’ve decided to work them up into story outlines.  The plan is that I’ll take the same setting for each story and show how they come out differently (assuming that they do).

I’ve decided to go for a four step story structure in each case.
Scene – Introduction to the setting and characters.  Room for foreshadowing
Development – how events and characters developed over time
Crux – the exciting climax
Outcome – epilgoue/resolution.

I’ve also include a note on the events in the story and the specific message of the story (as well as the general message type) to try and highlight how what happens in a story is different to what the story is about.

In this post I’ll just be concentrating on those types with the Project Manager as the main character.  Next post should be the ones with the organisation as main character.

Note: the following setting, project, people and organisation are all completely fictious.  I’ve made an effort to try and make sure it doesn’t reflect any project I’ve ever been a part of, though, as many projects share similar issues, hopefully there should be some aspects that resonate.

The Townsville Software Co has decided to implement a new Customer Relationship Management System.  Currently account managers manage contact with clients individually on a variety of systems and non-systems.  This project involved a cross-department project team including, marketing, sales, IT, as well as a project manager and officer from the company’s project office.  It was expected that an external system would be bought in, with bespoke modifications as necessary.
At the time the story is submitted, as part of the final report, the project is over deadline, has failed to deliver and the project team has disbanded.

Option 1
Type: Full disclosure – what the PM took away from the project
Events – The so-called project team refused to do anything towards the project.
Message – this team/organisation can’t work together!

Scene – Introducing each of the team members and their hang ups/the roadblocks they bring from the very beginning.  Also all the issues that were just mounding up waiting to happen.

Development – how it starts to go wrong: team members not showing up, not doing what they are asked, deliberately being argumentative and making things difficult.  Also there technical issues, but the focus is on how impossible it was to get anything done.

Crux – Got ridiculously over deadline.  Project meeting with only one project member aside from the PM meant time to call a halt to the project.

Outcome – This team cannot work together – PM gives up!

Option 2
Type: Promotion of the Project Manager
Events – The PM tried to hold it together as long as possible and worked really hard.
Message – The PM is great even in adversity.

Scene – PM does as much as possible to get the project team together (light on the specifics of how they do this apart from sending reminder emails) and starts what bits they can on their own.

Development – PM continues to get no help from team.  They try and try to get team together to no avail.  They start to do what work they can themselves even though it’s not their job.  Technical issues start to appear, but those were outside of the PMs remit.

Crux – PM tried did their best, but they are only one person and couldn’t keep up.

Outcome – PM has proved they are good at what they do so should continue to be put on to challenging projects.

Next post: How the organisation has changed, lessons learned and promotion of the project outputs.

January 27, 2013 at 2:03 pm 2 comments

And the moral of the story is…

Every story needs to be about something.  Not the events that happen, but the purpose behind the story, the reason why the reader should continue and the message they will take away from it. The problem with writing a story about a project, as I’ve mentioned before, is they are generally messier things than you want to admit to bosses or clients.

I had been thinking of the Project Manager or the Project Team as the main characters of a story about a project, but, arguably, the point of a project is to produce the deliverables.  So if the deliverables are what the story is about, then that makes the organisation itself the main character as it is what is going through the change.  Interestingly that probably makes the project manager (and team) the antagonist who is forcing this change…Kind of an anti-villian rather than an anti-hero – an antagonist making the main character change for their own good…

But what is a project story about?  I reckon I’ve thought of a few basic types of reason for a project story.

Full disclosure of what you will take away from this project

Main character: PM/Team

You give the full account of the personal, professional and technical demons faced, what you will take away from the project.  This has the virtue of probably being more exciting the more difficult the project was, but would need to be handled carefully.

Example: “Should not have tried to engage with X department/person/organisation and done their work myself from the beginning”

How the organisation has changed

Main character: Organisation

The purpose of any project is change and as long as you’ve succeeded in some part of it something must have changed.  Focus on before and after, the changes your organisation has gone through, rather than what was supposed to change or how difficult it was for the team.  What did the organisation have to go through to make that change?

Example: “A change in a significant system is not fast, but the organisation is now more efficient.”

Lessons learned

Main character: Organisation

This is sort of a way to get away with Full Disclosure some reduced risk.  The point is to tell how  the organisation have learned lots of new things that will make project run smoother in the future.  You may have learned these through interesting means, but by focussing on the change in the organisation you might be able to make it a bit less personal.

Unfortunately higher-ups will probably want to know more than just the lessons learned.  This would probably work best for a experimental/pilot project or a failed project.

Example: “Failures in process highlighted and process changed for next time.”

Promotion of the PM/Team

Main character: PM/Team

Self serving, but in some respects relatively safe.  Focus on how well you/your team did rather than how anything was bad.  Likely to be dull and most project directors will see right through it, but I’ve known managers at previous jobs who’ve got away with this approach.

Example: “We are just that amazing that everything went perfectly.”

Promotion of the outputs

Main character: Organisation

This is a bit more like a scenario – instead of reviewing the project at all just look at the future and tell the story of how the outputs will effect the organisation.

Example: “These great new things will cause these great effects”

There’s got to be more types of purpose for a project story – would love to hear any anyone else can think of.  Although I think I will have a go at writing up some story outlines to go with these next.

January 17, 2013 at 1:25 pm 1 comment

Detracting from storytelling and Guitar Hero

Extra details detract

I read two very interesting blog posts over Christmas (well more than that, but I’m going to mention two here) related to storytelling.  The first was on the Quest site (Thoughts on Interactive Storytelling and the Hobbit).  The Hobbit part really interested me.  If you’re not interested in reading the post, the writer talks about how the Hobbit has been produced in ultramegasuper spec (admire my technical filmmaking knowledge!), which is just fine and dandy except for the fact that it actually detracts from the film.  There’s no need for it – it doesn’t add anything to the story or the characters.  In fact this new form takes enough extra brain power to process the ultramegasuper realism that actually we have less left for the story.

A classic phrase any writer will probably be familiar with is “murder your darlings” (I’m not sure where it is from – feel free to let me know in the comments if you know).  It signifies the process writers (and presumably other artists/creators) have to go through to get to what the essence of the story is. You often need to cut a lot before every single word of your story has a purpose.  It’s why I fail to understand sometimes how “We need to talk about Kevin”  is so critically acclaimed – it’s a real “why use one word when three will do” kind of book.

Back to the point – anything that doesn’t guide your reader through the purpose of your story detracts from it.  So how does that relate to interactive stories where you have multiple routes through?  I would argue that each route should still have a purpose, but I have been finding it tricky to decide what to cut and what to keep in.  I could easily provide an avenue for every single decision in the story, but not only would that make the story cumbersome to go through, I think, like the fancy filming, using too much brain power on unnecesary bits that will ultimately have to lead to dead ends could easily detract from the point of the story as a whole.

Pictures are another related issue.  If pictures are abstract (there just for something to be looking at) rather than illustrative will they detract from the story?  I would argue probably yes.  But would the gamebook format look bare without them?  Probably also yes.  The easy answer would be to make sure all of the pictures are illustrative so that they add meaning and understanding to the story, but the scenario I’m working on at the moment is talking about potential future processes and systems…I will need to do much more thinking about it before I can come up with pictures that can illustrate that…

A Musical Analogy

The second was on the inklewriter site (A Musical Analogy) was linked to the idea of how to structure an interactive story.  Inkle has been exploring some quite adventurous means of storytelling.  One of their projects “First draft of the revolution” where you get to re-write the character’s personal correspondence to each other to change the outcome of the story.  I had a go and I can see why they’ve had some comments that it feels quite constrictive – it doesn’t feel like you can change things very much.

The Musical Analogy blog post likens interactive storytelling to Guitar Hero to explain this.  Guitar Hero doesn’t give you limitless possibility to create fantastic music, you play along with the songs it has.  Similarly interactive stories aren’t providing the reader a way of creating fantastic new stories, just a way to play along.  I think where the problem comes is managing the expectations of the reader.  In First Draft it feels like you should have total free reign so when it pushes you down certain paths you can get irked.  Whereas the majority of the adventure games I’ve played have only got one ending and yet you don’t feel like you’re been shoved in that direction all the time.  You’re following and picking up the pieces of the narrative so even if you do things in a slightly different order or in a slightly different way from another player you still feel like you’re a part of the story.

In that way it’s kind of a matter of perspective.  Is your reader a part of your story or are they the narrator?  If they are a part of it they follow a character, see their options and direct them, and as  the storyteller you can tell them what their options are and guide them down the route of the story without making it look like you’re forcing one route.  If they are the narrator then they feel like they should have control over everything, so when they can’t do what they want it jars them out of the emersion.  I guess in theory this could restrict your reader to one point of view, but as long it is clear when you switch POV and that the reader switches completely to become that POV I think it could still be done.  Dreamfall: The Longest Journey is a good example of a point and click adventure with multiple POVs that works well.  Each time you switch your motivations, abilities and options completely change so you’re completely invested in that character until the next switch.

Definitely going to have to be clear in the scenarios what point of view I’m in at any one time and not be too generic.

January 15, 2013 at 4:27 pm Leave a comment

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