Tag Archives: Being Human

Worlds Atlas: Story telling & world building made easier

“Everyone is talking about story telling, right? This is is what it looks like!”

Sunday, we had the extended family over for Memorial Day festivities.

113-859A I called the older kids into the house to listen to Lisa W. talk about a story she is working on. 

The kids rewarded me with looks that said, “You don’t really care how nice it is outside, do you?”  

But eventually they fell beneath the spell of Lisa’s story.

Then she helped us see how she made the story, how she constructed it out of real and imagined glimpses of 19th century American, rural Georgia, small town Connecticut, aboriginal cultures, and American dictionaries. It’s a hum dinger. (And I will leave it to her to describe more fully. Look for it at a cinema or a streaming media service near you.)

Lisa has been working on this story for a long time. Years. And as I watched the kids watching her, I thought, “What are the chances, with all their school work and their extracurriculars, they are ever going to have enough time to build a narrative world of their own?”

Well, one of them, Andrew, the classicist, has actually written his own language, so apparently some of them have a little extra bandwidth to work with.

But generally speaking, building a world in order to tell a story, this will be a daunting undertaking for all of them. Before they can write a single scene, they will have to summon a vast amount of imaginative material.

Then I thought, “This is what fan fic is for, clearly.” (I am slow to see some things. An internal voice will sometimes intervene, usually witheringly.) Writing “fan fiction” using something like, say, Elementary or Sherlock as your infrastructure, gives you a lot of imaginative materials: a time (19th century), a place (Victorian London), characters (Sherlock, Watson, Mrs. Hudson), crises, back stories, many transmedia variations on several themes, and so on.  The point is this: fan fic means you don’t have to start from zero.

The trouble with fan fic is that it is for some people an all-or-nothing proposition. You take the Sherlock world more or less whole.  You are glad to have so much of the world building done for you. But your creative license is perhaps a little limited. You are the captive of a certain “creative momentum,” let’s call it.

Then I thought, “what if we can do better than fan fic? What if there were an atlas that serves as an inventory of imaginative materials with beautifully specified times, places, characters, crises, back stories, etc. These would be more modular, less motivated, than the materials we draw from existing stories. More “Chinese menu,” as the cliche has it.

jenny odell satellite google googlemaps art collage photo pacific rim somarts SHIPS
Jenny Odell

Let’s say your real dramatic interest, the thing you really want to write about, is characters who are making the transition from small towns to big cities. The “worlds atlas” can give you a range of options (medieval England, imperial Rome, ancient China, etc.) and you can choose. The Atlas will give you the envelope for your story. Not just “medieval England” but the deep historical particulars of town to city transitions in 12th century London. The why, the who and the what.

Or let’s say what interests you is people who are being whipsawed back and forth between competing cultures (official, unofficial, ancient, orthodox, emerging, marginal). (Game of Thrones gives us a glimpse of this sort of thing occasionally.)

Or let’s say you are interested in characters preoccupied with transformation. The worlds atlas would offer up werewolves, vampires, Transformers, and yes Mrs. Hudson. (No, not Mrs. Hudson. Just kidding. Mrs. Hudson is always and inalterably Mrs. Hudson.) The writer can choose from the worlds atlas. The writer can combine.

Something like this might have been the origin of Being Human, the TV series undertaken first in the UK and then more memorably in the US. Being Human brings together a werewolf, a ghost and a vampire. The results are interesting not least because the “worlds atlas” (let’s pretend there was one) gave three very different creatures preoccupied with transformation and then rinsed away the genre “coating” that normally adheres to them. Liberated from their origins and brought together as roommates in an old house in Boston (aka Montreal), wonderful story telling happens. Some story-telling elements are supplied, but no story-telling option is predictable. And that’s a lovely formulae for the construction of the new popular culture: still accessible but increasingly unpredictable.

The worlds made available in the Atlas still have a certain pre-fab quality. The writer doesn’t have to start from zero. But we have got rid of some of that “creative momentum” that can constrain fan fic. And we have “rinsed” away some of genre constraints as well. The storyteller has greater “executive privilege.” She is taking fewer “notes” from the original creator. She is calling deeper creative shots.

There are risks here. What if the outcome looks mechanical, a little paint-by-numbers?  What if the seams show? Well, possibly. But of course gifted people would alter and transform the originals so that their origins went away. They would also bring them into combinations which would have transformative effects of their own. (We should note in passing that rhetorical training in the old liberal arts curriculum routinely asked students to adopt some well known original and then transform it until the original became original.)

I know we are as a culture entranced by the romantic idea that real creativity comes from a single author. But the Worlds Atlas would enable (and acknowledge) a story telling that comes many sources and a division of labor. Some character development could come from one person. Some dialogue from someone else. The mise en scene from a third party. (This is pretty much how Hollywood storytelling works in any case.) The “writer” is  like a show runner, a curator of beautifully wrought materials.  (Mark Earls and Faris Yakob have both suggested ways out of conventional ideas of creativity.)

Once there is an Atlas, several possibilities open up.

the atlas economy

And if this is an atlas, it should also be an economy. As every reader of this blog knows too well, we have a crisis of employment at the moment. The problem is that we don’t have a way to pay many of our creators of culture. An Atlass economy could help solve this problem. We don’t just borrow materials. In some cases, we commission them. “Where did you get that village! Unbelievably good.” “Oh, that. That came from Gutfeld. He’s living in Vermont now, so his costs are low and his rates are good. And yes, he’s a big talent. We use him a lot.” Or we come to be seen as especially gifted “show runners” (“show curators?”) and everyone wants to work with us. We will get our name in the credits and some part of the proceeds of the culture content so crafted. Again a lot like Hollywood.

collaborative story telling in real time

Another idea we have about creativity is that it happens somewhere sometime, and comes to the audience only if and when it’s perfect. But an Atlas might open up the possibility of a showrunner who assembles the story in close to real time in an act of literary improv, with meanings flying all over the place before a breathless audience who gasp as the story materializes before them. (There is some small parallel here with the people who know “play” a video game by watching it played in a run-through on YouTube. I watch Uncharted 4 this way. It was mesmerizing.)

a directory for story sources

In a recent blog entry, I looked at the relationship between the show runner, Natalie Chaidez, and world builder Seth Horowitz at Brown, and the collaboration between them that enabled them to create a rich story called Hunters. God knows how Natalie found Seth. It compares to Malcolm Gladwell’s miraculous detection of “research juste” in a university library. The Worlds Atlas could make this easier, so that world builders can search for academics who can help.

There is an anthropology piece here. And I’m sorry to take so long to get to it. Anthropologists are good at the communicative and cultural materials of a world. They can specify rituals, patterned behavior, clothing codes, material culture, style and fashion. They can help you think about those cultural moments when people are being “whipsawed back and forth between competing cultures (official, unofficial, ancient, orthodox, emerging, marginal).” In some cases, they can supply worlds fully build, but not yet occupied for literary purposes.

Take for instance the extraordinary world captured for us by Gordon Mathews in his book Chungking Mansions. I give you the description on Amazon.

There is nowhere else in the world quite like Chungking Mansions, a dilapidated seventeen-story commercial and residential structure in the heart of Hong Kong’s tourist district. A remarkably motley group of people call the building home; Pakistani phone stall operators, Chinese guesthouse workers, Nepalese heroin addicts, Indonesian sex workers, and traders and asylum seekers from all over Asia and Africa live and work there—even backpacking tourists rent rooms. In short, it is possibly the most globalized spot on the planet.

World builders, start your engines. But first call Mr. Mathews. He can help.

Also, come to think of it, call me. I’ve spend the last couple of years looking at how people look at TV and the results are, I think, interesting. The fundamentals of story telling have been transformed. Many of the old rules of culture, the ones that gave us popular culture after World War II, have been systematically rethought. It’s not too much to say that they have changed what a “story” is and what “telling” has to be if it wants to engage an audience.  (Here’s the somewhat general view I wrote for Netflix and Wired.)

The Atlas should be an opportunity to contemplate how we want to tell stories, the imaginative grammars that may, and in some cases must, be employed.

inspiration

I remember reading an interview with David Lynch. He was talking about the origins of Blue Velvet. I believe he said that the entire story seemed to him implicit in a particular flower. Sometimes what we need are not the bits and pieces of the story but a sense of a world from which all these details will then follow. The Atlas could make these available too.

A case in point is the work of Michael Paul Smith who escaped the after-effects of a brutal childhood by building a miniature world called Elgin Park.  It’s a provocative place, a world well built, and at the moment story free. (Except for the ghosts of Smith’s past which flit here and there.)  The Worlds Atlas can be a catalogue of frames of mind, sense impressions, and other materials out of which worlds swim.

acknowledgements

Thanks to Jenny Odell for the second image. See more of her magnificent work here.

This essay was first posted on Medium.  It has been slightly edited. This is now the definitive version.

apologies

I think Michael Paul Smith’s website appears down at the moment. I have left the link in place in the hopes that this gate way to Elgin Park comes back up.

a last thought

I was talking to, Tommy, one of the people who listened to Lisa W.’s spell binding story. We were talking about the courses he plans to take next year at school. I blurted out, “Too bad there’s not a course on world building.” If anyone knows of a course on world building, please let us know below.

 

 

 

Two New Rules for TV story-telling (aka things to learn from Being Human)

being human

Let’s begin here:

My Netflix research this fall tells me that the rules for making popular culture and TV are changing.

The cause?  That popular culture is getting better and this means some of the old rules are now ineffectual and in some cases actually counter-productive.

Being Human is a great case study.

This is a study in fantasy and the supernatural.  A ghost, a vampire and a werewolf find themselves living together and look to one another for guidance and relief.

It is a show is riddled with implausibilities.  Characters skip around in time and space.  They morph from one creature to another. The plot lines can get really very complicated.

And the viewer doesn’t care.  (At least this viewer doesn’t.)  The acting is so good that we believe in these characters and we are prepared to follow them anywhere.   Even when the plot tests our credulity, we believe in the show.

The key is good acting.  Without this, Being Human is just another exercise in dubiety.  With it, the show holds as a story and more important it actually serves as an opportunity to ask big questions that attach to “being human.”

There is a second show in SyFy called Lost Girl.  .  This is billed as a supernatural crime drama.  It too is stuffed with implausibility.  Lots of fabled creatures and magical spells.  For me, it’s pretty much unwatchable.

And the difference is largely acting.  The actors on Lost Girl are not bad.  They are just not good enough to deliver the emotion truth on which narratives depend, but more to the point they are not good enough to help Lost Girl survive the weight of its own implausibility.

This condition is actually complicated by the creative decision to have the characters supply the “ancient lore” that explains spells and various supernatural beastie.  I found myself shouting at the TV,

“Oh, who the f*ck cares!  The back story is a) not interesting, b) it does not animate the front story, c) in short, the back story is your problem, not our problem.  Get on with it.  Spare us the pointless exposition.”

(Yes, it’s true.  I shout in point form.  It’s a Powerpoint problem.  I’m getting help.  It’s called Keynote.)

New Rule # 1

The more implausibility contained in a narrative, the better your actors had better be.

If this means spending more time casting, spend the time casting.  If this means paying your actors more, pay them more.  Actors are everything.  Well, after the writers.  And the show runners.  Um, and the audience.  But you see what I mean.

And this brings us to the second new rule for story telling on TV.  The old rule of TV was that actors should be ABAP (as beautiful as possible).  Given the choice between someone who is heartstoppingly attractive and someone who looks, say, like one of the actors on Being Human (as above), you must, the old rule says, choose the actor who is ABAP.  (The Being Human actors are attractive.  They just aren’t model perfect.)

This rule created a trade off.  Very beautiful actors were chosen even when they weren’t very talented as actors.  Indeed, show runners were routinely trading talent away for beauty.  As a result, a show began to look like a fashion runway.  Even good writing could be made to feel like something out of the day-time soaps.

Bad acting is of course the death of good narrative.  Wooden performances can kill great writing.  But real beauty exacts a second price.  There are moments when you are supposed to be paying attention to a plot point and you find yourself thinking, “Good lord, what a perfectly modeled chin!”

In a perfect world, every actress would be Nicole Kidman, perfectly beautiful, utterly talented.  In the old days, when TV makers had to chose they would go for beauty even when it cost them talent.  But here’s the new rule.

New Rule # 2

Do not choose beauty over talent.  Beauty used to be the glue that held your audience to your show.  Now that work is performed by talent.  It’s not that beauty doesn’t matter.  Seek attractive actors.  But beauty will never matter more than talent.  Make sure the talent is there, and then, and only then, can you cast for beauty.  Think of this as a kind of “attractive enough” principal.

Stated baldly, this rule seems indubitable.  What show-runner or casting agent would ever think otherwise?  On the other hand, I dropped in on The CW recently and everyone seemed model perfect with bad consequences for the quality of the work on the screen.

A change is taking place in our culture.  And over the longer term, it will provoke a changing of the guard, a veritable migration in the entertainment industry .  Actors who are merely talented will have a more difficult time finding work.  And, counterintuitively, actors who are blindingly attractive will have a more difficult finding work.  What used to make them effective now makes them distracting.

As popular culture becomes culture, there will be many more changes.  Watch this space.

Tweeting television (now locked in a box)

spreadable-media-libro-71784I have a friend who believes  every article, post, tweet he needs to read will come to him every day by new media.

And he’s right.  We  act as editors for one another.  We see something, we say something…on Twitter, Facebook, Tumbler, LinkedIn and elsewhere.

But he’s  wrong.  I bet he misses things.  I know I do.  Plus, some things can’t get into new media.  They just don’t.

Take TV.  We watch a lot of TV.  And my Netflix research winter tells me that we watch this TV with new attention to detail and a deep inclination to talk about it.  We find favorite scenes, brilliant bits of acting, very special effects, but all of this remains locked in the box.  It just isn’t  “spreadable,” to use the language of Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Josh Green.  (That’s their book cover above.  Highly recommended. Forgive the Italian subtitle.  Buy the book here.)

This is a classic case of the old media failing to seize the opportunities opened up by new media.  Imagine how many of the shows that failed this fall season might have made it if their early fans could have got the word out.

What we need is some tech overlay that makes clipping and sharing easy and possible.  Build it into the remote control.  Put on an IN button and an OUT button and a CLIP button and a SHARE button.

I am sure there are legal issues here, but I am equally certain Lawrence Lessig  or Jonathan Zittrain could sort them out over lunch time.  The copy right holders are, after all, deeply incented to permit the passage of small clips.  Permit?  What Jenkins, Ford and Green say about spreadable media, applies especially to every new season of television.  If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.

In the meantime, we can resort to efforts of our own.  Here’s a clip from one of my favorite shows, Being Human.  This is Sally, a ghost, explaining how she intends to protect the house from sale.  (Remember, she’s a ghost and therefore invisible to  mortals.)

I shot this with my iPhone.  Something less that stellar quality.  But good enough for the  internet, as they say.   Some people are put off by Being Human because it’s on SyFy (they don’t like science fiction) or because the show has such a weird premise (the creatures “being human” are a ghost, a vampire, and a ghost).  But I think this scene takes us beyond odd premises into the heart of the show.  Several “barriers to entry” fall.  SyFy wants this clip to click.

God knows, we have quite a lot of content circulating on line.  The numbers are simply breathtaking.  But the fact of the matter is that TV preoccupies us.  And it’s getting better.  As it stands, this part of our culture is excluded from the conversation.  This should change.

Being Human, US and UK versions

I am a big fan of Being Human, the US version, that recently appeared on SyFy.  

It’s a wonderful “what if.”

What if there was a vampire, werewolf, and a ghost living in a house together?  I have to say that my initial response was puzzlement.  As in, “um, er, I don’t know. What would happen if they lived together?”

Some part of the show comes from how well the producers work out the “what if” in a manner that satisfies my sense of the plausible and takes me places I never would have guessed.  Being Human works a productive balance between “oh, that makes sense to me” and “wow, how interesting!”  

The new media consumer is especially fond of things that satisfy a sense of the plausible and the possible.  (We get to keep a foot in the familiar and one in the new.)  Managing both is key…and difficult.  (I was able to predict the death of The Good Guys early because it was clear it could not find this balance.) 

When Pam got me Apple TV for my recent birthday, I was thrilled to see that it contained BBC America and that this contained Being Human, the UK version.

What a delicious opportunity to consume what Henry Jenkins calls “transmedia,” one story told in more than a single form.  (I know someone is going to object that both shows are TV and this is not transmedia. Saying that British and American TV are the same medium is like saying British and American football are the same game.)  This transmedia opportunity is sweetened by the fact that the media in question are transatlantic. With their special relationship, the UK and US continue to be, for certain purposes, variations on a theme. How interesting then to see what these two cultures would do with the same cultural artifact. 

The first thing to notice is a bit stunning.  In the old regime, the American version of a transatlantic exercise would feature actors who were more beautiful and less talented. This is NOT what is happened in the case of Being Human.  The UK actors are better looking and the US actors might actually be the better actors.  (They may be tied on the acting question.) 

This tells us that American TV is getting better or at least ballsier.  Not to lead with beauty, or (to think of this as the trade-off it probably it was) to go with talent even when it costs you beauty, that’s a big shift for an American culture producer.  

The second point is harder to assess.  Being Human uses diversity to propel itself out of genre.  By this time, we have a pretty good idea of what and who vampires are.  Indeed, the genre is starting to congeal and now takes quite deliberate innovations (True Blood) to sustain life (all puns intended).  Ghosts too.  As a culture we have gone from having no idea what a ghost is to having a pretty clear script.  (Blame Whoopi) Goldberg.  Werewolves, not so much. 

So Being Human has a built-in “refresh” feature.  Just as we are beginning to think “been there, done that” about any one of the subgenres, we are obliged to follow the story line as it crosses these subgenres.  Or, less abstractly, just as we are thinking “vampires, yawn” we are obliged to watch a vampire interact with a werewolf and then a ghost.  New life returns to the vampire.  (ditto).  And definition comes to the werewolf.   

In effect, Being Human is an interesting and successful TV series because it is not the product of the grammar that comes from genre.  It is interesting and successful because it contains a grammar that helps it escape genre.  It is not generated but generative.  Being Human contains the secret that characterizes all the culture we care about these days.  It is both familiar and unpredictable, both from genre and beyond genre.  

Being Human, Being Jenkinsian

I watched the opening episode on Being Human on SyFy this week.

The fun thing about science and fantasy fiction is that you never know which of the assumptions that govern your world will be reconstituted in the present one.  And even once you’ve spotted the difference(s), it’s still hard to anticipate what differences the difference(s) will make.

This is distinctly the pleasure of Being Human.  You can’t guess, beyond the obvious things, how vampires, werewolves and ghosts will coexist, and its fun to wait to see this play out.  The ghost (and the actress who plays her, Meaghan Rath) is especially interesting because she is still figuring out how to be a ghost and divides her time, in the meanwhile, between being a busy body around the house, and wailing, properly, at the sheer injustice of her fate.

Shake well.  Repeat as necessary.

Putting a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost in a house is interesting.  Putting this vampire, werewolf and ghost even more so.  It’s not that this has ever been for me a matter of burning curiosity, as in “I wonder what would happen if…”  But it makes a diverting pretext on which to sharpen on our wits.

Because we don’t just sit there.  We are Jenkinsians.  We are hunting and gathering the simple where, what, and who.  We are also working out the back stories.  (It turns out the werewolf is Jewish and that woman we thought was his girlfriend is actually his sister.  To know something about this family makes what we may think about his identity as a werewolf richer and more interesting.  I mean, otherwise, he’s just a one trick pony, er, werewolf.)   And we are performing a kind of cultural Sudoku.  If this is true, and this is true, we tell ourselves, then this is probably true.

The cultural participant, the Jenkinsian observer, is looking for 5 things:

1)  What are the differences that create this little world?  (And have they been well chosen?)

2)  What differences do these differences make?  (How will this play out?  I will want to be rewarded for my perspicuity, what there is of that.  And I will want to be rewarded by developments I couldn’t possibly anticipate, that will thrill me in the unfolding.)

3)  What is the field of possibility? (What am I given as background and back story?  And what can I do with them?  How rich and engaging a field is this?)

4)  What can I assume, reliably and speculatively?  (Given what I am given and can surmise from questions 1, 2 and 3, what is my own invented Being Human.  This is where the cultural Sudoku comes in.)

5)  Has the world been successfully jumbled?  Have things been brought into collisions that are normally kept asunder, and does their combination deliver present, and promise future, interesting, outcomes?

6)  Oh, there’s a 6th.  I think we are looking at each of these characters and asking "what would it be like to be like that?"  

This is the unofficial viewer’s guide with which I watch Being Human and probably any show. We are active viewers, digging, poaching, reworking, creating, empathizing, as we go.

References

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual poachers: Television fans & participatory culture. New York: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Media Consumers in a Digital Age. NYU Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2008. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Revised. NYU Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2009. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. The MIT Press.

Post script: I hope Henry, my esteemed colleague, will forgive me taking liberty with his ideas and his name.  This idea was buzzing around in my head, and I had a 50 minutes to turn it into words on the train.