Tagged: Storytelling

John Ostrander: Belief Suspended

There’s the concept in fantastic literature known as the “willing suspension of disbelief” by which the reader/audience accepts fantastic elements in a story that are not found in reality, semi-believing them for the moment for the sake of the story. If the creator is invoking it, he or she must be careful not to jar that suspension of disbelief.

It’s an important concept for those of us who labor in the fields of SF, fantasy, horror, and comics. Two things I find crucial to make the concept work – an internal consistency within the story and a consistency within the continuity. By an internal consistency I mean that something that was given as true on page five remains true on page thirty. If the character knows something they can’t suddenly un-know it just for the convenience of the plot. Likewise, if something has been established as part of the continuity, you can’t just disregard it willy-nilly. It doesn’t mean that continuity can never change but there needs to be reasons that it changes unless you’re going to do what DC does and just throw the baby out with the bathwater and start continuity over.

Something else that confounds my suspension of disbelief is when something in the story just ignores reality. I went to Independence Day and I wasn’t expecting much, just a good mindless action film. Unfortunately, there was incident after incident of things that were just patently impossible that it threw me right out of the story. To wit: Air Force One is taking off despite explosions going on all around. In fact, one explosion almost engulfs it. It comes up the tail of the plane before the aircraft manages to speed away. Never mind that the shock waves would have torn the plane apart – it was a Cool Visual.

Take an episode of Doctor Who this past season, Robots of Sherwood. Aliens are escaping Sherwood Forest on a ship that uses gold to power its furnace. A little more gold will cause the power plant to overload and explode. With the help of the Doctor and his companion, Robin Hood shoots a golden arrow at the ship that causes the ship to go boom. Never mind that the arrow would have just hit the hull and never come near the power plant. Never mind that the weight of an arrow made of gold would cause it to fly about three feet.

It’s too bad, too; I actually really enjoyed the episode up until then.

I’m willing to suspend my disbelief; after all, I was raised Roman Catholic and you’re told by the Church to believe that a wafer of bread becomes the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ and that you are supposed to eat it. As a kid, I just accepted that. I’m open to all kinds of things.

Every time I open a book or enter a movie theater or turn on the TV, I’m willing to accept the premise as possible at least for the duration of the experience. It’s when I’m not allowed to stay in that moment because I’m jarred out of it by something stupid that violates the premises listed above that I actually get a bit pissy about it. My time has been wasted and I do not take that kindly.

My own rule of thumb is to always ground the fantasy in as much reality as I can. The more accurate and real the non-fantasy parts of the story feel, the more the reader can identify with it and the more likely it is that they will accept the fantasy elements. Earn a reader’s trust and they will follow you anywhere. I know I do.


Dennis O’Neil: Batman’s Toys and Storytelling

batmanAll right, everyone quiet down and take a seat. I’ve been asked to remind you about the pep rally and don’t forget that finals are week after next. Now, where were we…

Today we’ll begin with a brief review of the material we covered last week. You’ll remember that we began by discussing what Batman’s mortal enemy – I refer to the Joker, of course – called Batman’s “wonderful toys.” We mentioned the Batmobile, the Batplane and that line-shooting device, the technology of which would surely be revolutionary though Batman seems to take it for granted. Putting the shoe on the other foot…the Joker, who does not appear scientifically inclined, mixes up some sort of disfiguring goop that can be passed off as over-the-counter cosmetics – in itself, no mean feat – and then smuggles it into retail packaging throughout the city. His point is to distress the citizenry and apparently he succeeds.

I explained these wildly improbable events by suggesting that the screenplay which encapsulates them is a hybrid of funny animal/funny person cartoon shorts, the likes of which were movie theater staples when I was a nipper and can sometimes be found on television, and crime drama: call it badge opera, if you like. The critter on the screen, human or otherwise, has what he needs when he needs it and we don’t care where he got it, only how he’s going to use it. Outrageously, we hope.

But, for a moment, consider: Could the script have been written in such a way that the anomalies are explained? Well, don’t expect me to write it, but the answer is a qualified yes.

I choose to believe that the very bright guys behind Hollywood computers are capable of the kind of mad ingenuity the job would require. In fact, they and other scriveners do something like it every day.

Let me remind you of a basic: art, which includes storytelling, involves a process of selection: the writer determines which incidents, real or imagined, will best tell his story and those are what he shares with us. He has to determine how deep into the story he wants to go. Go too deep – put in too many trivialities – and he risks boring his audience; put in too few and the thing might not make sense. Do we care where the hero bought his trusty .45? Probably not, so don’t bother to distract us with the sales slip. But if the plot requires him to shoot the sweat off a bumble bee at 100 yards, maybe we’d better have some idea of how he acquired that skill, lest in wondering where the skill comes from we lose interest in the hero and his world.

It seems to be a matter of degree, doesn’t it?

Ol’ Nobel Prize-winning Papa Hemingway had opinions on this matter and they’ll do to end this session.

Know what to leave out.

Write the tip of the ice-berg, leave the rest under water.

Is that the bell already?


John Ostrander: Secrets

Ostrander Art 130901Everyone has secrets; lots of them. As I said in my column about the TV miniseries Broadchurch, “…what gets revealed to whom, when, and how and is that a good idea really drives narrative and character. The revelation of secrets may answer some questions but may raise more.”

Some things you can tell about a person by looking at them: what they look like, ethnicity, gender, rough age and so on, but these days of social media such as Facebook, even that may be a secret. Are those pictures really of him/her? Those can still be secrets.

There are levels of secrets and not all of them are deep and dark. Your name, for example. Unless you’re wearing a name badge, it’s not immediately apparent. If you’re asked for your name, you usually give it. Some situations may alter that – women in bars may not give their real names or phone numbers, often with good reason. If a cop asks you your name, however, you’d better be prepared to share it.

There are secrets that you share with different groups of people. Acquaintances, co-workers, teachers and so on, people on Facebook perhaps, know more of your secrets than someone just passing by. There are those who are your actual friends and even within this community there are levels, some friends being closer than others. A level of trust is involved which means that you have usually have shared some secrets with them and they have proven worthy of that trust.

Family presents a parallel and often deeper level of secrets. I’ve joked in the past that parents often know how to push your buttons because they’re the ones who installed the wiring. I’ve been in situations around a family table where the adult children are telling stories of growing up and a parent will look bewildered and say, “I never knew about any of this!” They didn’t because the siblings kept those secrets. In my family it’s been joked as I grew up that if my twin brother, Joe, did anything wrong, sooner or later you’d find out because he would just blurt it out. Of me it was said that if I did anything wrong – well, maybe a decade later I might share it if I thought you were ready to deal with it. Yeah, I have a sneaky side.

There are the few people we let in very close. Deep, long time friends or, even more, the person that we love. Even they, however, don’t know all our secrets. There are some secrets known only to ourselves, that we don’t choose to share with anyone for whatever reason. Deepest of all are the secrets that we keep from ourselves, truths we don’t choose to face.

If all this is true in our own lives, and I submit that it is, then it needs to be true in our writing. A writer must know his/her characters’ secrets, especially the ones the characters hide from themselves. How the secrets are revealed, when, to whom, under what circumstances, and whether it was a good choice or turns out to be a good thing – all drive the narrative.

Sometimes the secret will be revealed to the audience before it is revealed to any character and that’s fine as well. It creates a deeper involvement with the audience and greater suspense; the audience has a vested emotional interest in what happens with the secret.

Nor do secrets need to be told all at once. This secret can be told or shown here and maybe that one there. Maybe part of the secret it told at one point and the rest comes out later. Secrets drive motivation and motivation drives the characters and they in turn drive the story.

And who doesn’t love a good story … or a good secret?




Dennis O’Neil: Graphic Storytelling… and Excess

O'Neil Art 130815A big black hole –

The galaxy’s bowl?

Captain Power’s goal?

Enough poesy. What we’re dissertating on today is not verse, which I’m pretty sure I don’t quite understand, but goals.

But first, a brief look at what are widely considered the seven basic plots. I’ll be courteous enough to add, under each one, an example of what it is. This I will do in italics.

Here we go:

Overcoming the Monster – Gilgamesh

Rags to Riches – Cinderella

The Quest – Lord of the Rings 

Voyage and Return – Wizard of Oz

Comedy – Modern Times

Tragedy – Oedipus Rex

Rebirth – Christmas Carol

Most of what I’ve just tossed at you are narrative germs that involve somebody trying to get or accomplish something – somebody with goals to achieve. (Tragedy and Rebirth are hereby excused. And Comedy can take a nap, if it wants.)

That’s mostly the stuff we see at the monsterplex and it is a sturdy beast that’s been transfixing audiences for…I don’t know – fifteen centuries?

But, I shall now claim, to be as effective as they can be, goalish-stories must have clarity: the goal itself must be clear and the obstacles between the hero and his goal must also be clear. In order to pull us to the edge of our seats, the storyteller has to let us see and know exactly what the hero has to overcome and in so doing, generate and the suspense and thrills and chills that we’ve paid for.

And here comes the kvetch: Some of our storytellers are failing, just a bit, by giving us too much. You’ve probably seen it: Good guy has to rescue good girl and to accomplish this he must get past the head villain’s henchman. Okay, fine. But – we don’t know who these henchmen are, how many there are, what they’re capable of. So good guy stalks through someplace that’s badly lit and has a lot of corners, and maybe a lot of door and-what the hey? let’s throw in a balcony or two, and a skylight would be nice. Now, the big action: out pops a bad guy and bangbangbang. Out pops a bad guy and bangbangbang. Out pops a bad guy and bangbangbang. Out pops a bad guy and bangbangbang. Out pops a bad guy and bangbangbang. And bang bang bang…We don’t know how many of these faceless nasties the hero has to vanquish so we can’t tell exactly what he’s overcoming, nor what progress he may be making. And he does pretty much the same couple of things to achieve his victories: a trio of shots from his Glock, with the occasional lethal martial arts move for lagniappe. Finally, he confronts the chief stinker and do we doubt that, after the hero’s dispatched legions, he’ll be stymied by this loser?

Are you bored yet?

Two words, Mr. Filmmaker: rising action. It’s part of your medium’s basic vocabulary and it is still as potent an audience-transfixer as when, way back, Laurel and Hardy used it to get laughs.

The same act of mayhem repeated and repeated does not constitute rising action.

And who the hell is Captain Power, anyway?


FRIDAY MORNING: Martha Thomases


John Ostrander: Head Writer

We all tell stories. All the time. To make sense of the stimuli created by our senses, the brain creates narrative. “Minds seeks patterns,” David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, says in his often troubling book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. What makes it disturbing is that Eagleman is not a philosopher or a psychologist; he’s a scientist working with what the brain actually does. Through tests, through imaging, neuroscientists like Eagleman can see what part of the brain lights up when certain stimuli comes in or certain tasks are performed. Consciousness, as he points out, actually plays a very small part in the brain’s overall functioning.

We make up the stories in order to make sense of the world around us. We crave stories to explain the apparent chaos we find ourselves in. When my late wife, Kimberly Yale, was dying from breast cancer, I could take refuge in the scripts and stories I was creating. Yes, I needed to do that in order to keep money coming in to the household, but it’s where I went where things still made sense. There was a sense of control that certainly was not present in the so-called “real world” for me.

It’s not simply lies we tell ourselves; it is a narrative we need to form in order to have a functioning inner reality. We need story. It gives a “why” to the “what.”

Right now, we’re asking a lot of “why.”

On Friday, twenty-year old Adam Lanza, after first killing his own mother in their home, forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, and shot and killed 26 people, including twenty children. A stunned nation was left with the question, “Why?” We desperately search for a narrative, an explanation, a reason why this man, why anyone, would do such a thing. What is the story here? We need a story. Something to make the event comprehensible. Something that will keep the chaos at bay.

There are plenty of narratives starting to surface that I’ve seen loosed on the Internet. “He was nuts.” (I think that’s a given; killing twenty children is not remotely what one would call normal.) “It’s because God and prayer were forced out of schools.” (Dubious at best; a God that would kill twenty children because prayer wasn’t allowed in school is also pretty nutso.) All of the stories, the explanations, presented come from the individual’s own story, their own narrative.

What was Adam Lanza’s narrative?

A lot of our personal narratives, our own private realities, allow or justify some of our own actions, no matter how dubious. Here one of my writing rules apply: no one thinks of themselves as a villain. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot all thought they had good reasons for the mass murders they performed. We are, in our minds, the heroes of our own lives. I’m assuming Adam Lanza was as well.

What was Adam Lanza’s private narrative that allowed, that perhaps compelled him to kill those children? Will we ever know? Lt. J. Paul Vance, a CT police spokesman, said, “The detectives will certainly analyze everything and put a complete picture together of the evidence that they did obtain, and we’re hopeful – we’re hopeful – that it will paint a complete picture as to how and why this entire unfortunate incidence occurred.” In other words, we’ll have a story of some kind. To what extent will any of us recognize elements of that story in ourselves?

In Act III, Scene 1 of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark observes “I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me.” I can relate to that. I am all the heroes I have ever written; I am all the villains, too. To write convincingly of a character based on Adam Lanza, I would have to find the Adam Lanza inside of me. I have no doubt that I could. That is not, however, a journey I would like to take.

David Eagleman again writes, “There is an ongoing conversation among the different factions in your brain, each competing to control the single output channel of your behavior.” Some terrible part of Adam Lanza won out and made him who he is. He ended the narratives of all those he killed. As President Obama said of the children in a press conference, “They had their entire lives ahead of them – birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.” All their own stories, ended with gunshots.

Adam Lanza’s personal narrative has now made him part of the nation’s narrative and part of the personal narrative of each one of us. We will make stories, on both a personal and national level, to cope with it, to make sense of the chaos. It’s what we do. It’s what we must do.

MONDAY: Mindy Newell


John Ostrander: Narrative – Putting The Story Together

Last week in this space  I discussed some political incidents, namely Rep. Todd Akin’s comments about women and rape, Tennessee state Sen. Stacey Campfield (R) who talked about how heterosexual sex doesn’t result in AIDS, and how Texas Judge Tom Head talked about how Obama’s re-election could result in Civil War. I said, “Individually, they are incidents; link them together and they’re a narrative.” Let us examine that further.

Our lives are filled with narrative. Elements are selected, others are omitted, some are highlighted and some are downplayed. That’s how a story is put together; what’s important to the narrative we’re telling? Does that make it untrue?

No. Not all elements, not all facts, are pertinent to a given narrative. An honest narrative attempts to get at a truth; a dishonest narrative tries to obscure it.

We all create narrative. I was listening to David Eagleman on NPR; he’s a neuroscientist with what sounds like a fascinating book – Incognito: The Secret Lives Of The Brain that I’m getting. He said (and I’m paraphrasing but I think I got it right) that our mind takes in all the different stimuli that our senses give us and, in order to make sense of the world around us, creates a narrative – our version of reality. It’s why so many different people can experience the same thing and walk away with a different narrative about it – a different reality. It’s not a lie; it’s a different interpretation. It’s one of the reasons we create stories – in order to share our realities and see if they match up with anyone else’s reality.

CNN columnist L.Z. Granderson does a masterful job of creating a narrative as he links Akins comments to the GOP platform that rejects all abortions without exception. As the Brits would say, I think it’s “a fair cop.” Akin’s comments illuminate the thinking behind the GOP plank. The GOP VP candidate, Paul Ryan, co-sponsored bills Akin put up to ban all abortions. That’s relevant.

Akin went on in his comments. “But let’s assume that maybe that [the female body closing down] didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.” In that statement, what element is missing? The woman who was raped. That’s the element left out of Akin’s narrative because it’s not part of his reality and it’s left out of the GOP plank because its not part of their narrative, their reality, as well. The woman who was raped is not an important part of their equation.

The narrative in this case becomes that all of these stories, taken together, is how the GOP right wing thinks. You can sell that story. I could sell that story to an editor. Can the Democrats sell it to the voters? We’ll see.

MONDAY: Mindy Newell


Josepha Sherman

Josepha Sherman: 1946-2012

Josepha ShermanJosepha Sherman, folklorist, anthologist, and science fiction and fantasy author and editor, has died at the age of 65.

Josepha published many books over the years, know equally for her tie-in work on Star Trek, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Highlander, Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, and Xena, her original fiction such as the Prince of the Sidhe series, her anthologies such as Rachel the Clever: And Other Jewish Folktales and Urban Nightmares (which happened to be where my first original short story, “Dark Of Night”, was published) and her academic and educational books.

Her last fiction book was Epiphany: Vulcan’s Soul Trilogy Book Three, co-written with Susan M. Shwartz. Her masterwork, the 904 page Storytelling: An Encyclopedia of Mythology and Folklore which she edited and contributed to heavily, was published in 2008. With her focus on pop culture and folklore, collaborator Mercedes Lackey called Josepha “the common man’s Joseph Campbell”.

She was also a tremendous fan of the ponies, and she would invariably greet me whenever we met with, “So, who do you like in the (insert next big horse race here)?”

Funeral services will be held in Connecticut on Monday. Details to follow.

Our condolences to all her friends and fans.

John Ostrander: Narrative Selection

We’re all storytellers. It’s the common currency of our social interactions. We use story to explain, to amuse, to communicate and a host of other tasks in our daily lives. Some of us get to make our living telling stories. Some of us are better at it than others.

The problem with some people who tell stories verbally (and I have been guilty of this from time to time) is that we tend to lose our audience. That’s because we forget to check in with those who are listening. If the eyes of the listener are glazed ever so slightly, you’ve lost them. It’s harder to tell when this happens when you’re writing a story but it can happen there, too, and often does.

A big question is – how much do we need to tell to communicate the story? Actually, I should say how little do we need? What’s the minimum? What is really necessary? What is necessary to know and what is necessary to tell?

I have what I call the iceberg theory. The bulk of an iceberg exists under the waterline; only about ten percent of it shows above it. That other ninety percent is necessary, however, for the top ten percent to show. That’s plenty enough to sink an “unsinkable ship.” The same is true with character and story: you have to know a lot about the characters, the setting, the background of the plot and so on but only a small part of it can or should be used. You’ll sometimes have an author (and, yes, this is another thing of which I have been guilty of from time to time) who, having done all this research, wants to use it. Guaranteed fatal error; the audiences eyes glaze and they’re lost.

Or the author may want a certain scene or bit of dialogue in the story because, you know, it’s so swell and makes them look really clever. Those bits need to be cut out unless they are moving the plot, the characters, or the theme forward. It’s called “kill your darlings.” Elmore Leonard said that when he goes back over a draft he removes anything that sounds like writing. He’s pretty successful and that’s good advice.

A lot of the time, whether in story or in real life, I think we over-explain. We don’t want to be misunderstood and there’s lots of good reasons for that; we see all too many examples of people not only misunderstanding but willfully misunderstanding. Witness the current presidential election season. However, it’s fatal in storytelling.

Some rules I try to follow in my storytelling: 1) Assume the reader’s/listener’s intelligence and goodwill. Assume they want to be told a good joke or read a good story. 2) What is the minimum they need to know to understand the premise? Usually less than you might think. 3) When in doubt, cut it out. If you’re not sure a line/character/scene is really working, try taking it out and see if everything still makes sense. If it does, then delete the junk permanently. 4) Fewer words are better. Leave your audience wanting more instead of wishing you were done already.

What you choose to tell is what makes it your story. Another person might choose different elements to tell the same story. It’s why different people can tell different versions of the same joke.

Remember, glaze is fine on a doughnut; not so much in your audience’s eyes.

Hmmmmm. Doughnuts!

MONDAY: Mindy Newell, R.N., CNOR, C.G.


Review: ‘Up’, Pixar and Storytelling

Review: ‘Up’, Pixar and Storytelling

One of the things that I love about Pixar is that they
remember what a lot of filmmakers – and sadly, particularly those working in
the CG medium – have forgotten:

A film needs a story.

So many films today focus on technological dazzle, shock value, making pretty
pictures, or cleverness. None of these are bad things; any and all of them can
add enjoyment, but for me a good story is more important than anything else. I’ll
enjoy the spectacle, the beauty, the wit, but what stays with me is the story.
If story is absent, everything else fades quickly. Pixar’s films have had
consistently strong storytelling, letting the characters carry the viewer along
on their adventures, and this summer’s offering, [[[Up]]], is no exception.

Up doesn’t come near to matching the sheer dazzling brilliance of last
summer’s [[[Wall-E]]], but it is a sweet and charming movie in its own right,
and like Wall-E, it remembered to have a story.
Not only that, but Up takes a startling number of storytelling risks,
particularly for a movie aimed at children.

First there was the absolutely heartbreaking montage of Carl
and Ellie trying to save for their dream trip, and having their dream
constantly derailed by crisis after crisis, only to have Ellie fall ill and die
just as the trip was finally in their reach. This montage is also a rare
instance of a wedding being the beginning of a couple’s story rather than the
“happily ever after.” Seeing Carl lose the legal battle to stay in his home was
also painful.


Sarah Palin: Storytelling, by Martha Thomases

Sarah Palin: Storytelling, by Martha Thomases

John McCain, in what is assumed to be an attempt to woo feminist Hillary Clinton supporters, nominated an inexperienced first-term governor of Alaska as his running mate. In state-wide office less than two years, Sarah Palin includes in her resume a term as mayor of a small town, and a stint on her local PTA.

But wait, he says. When you hear her story, you’ll love her!

As an aspiring novelist and a voracious reader, I love stories. I love well-developed, idiosyncratic characters, and I enjoy imagining their lives. My favorite comics have great characters whose human foibles make their adventures more exciting.

The Creeper? A great character. Rorschach? A great character. Peter Parker? A great character. I’m not prepared to vote for any of them. Aside from being fictional, they do not display the qualities I look for in elected officials.

Hillary Clinton’s story is very much like my own. Not that I’ve done as much as she has, nor have I been as successful, but we are close in age. We were the women who were the “firsts” – the first to wear pants to a restaurant, the first to juggle family and career, the first to demand to be considered as our own selves, not as adjuncts to our husbands. I admire her career, but I didn’t vote for her. We did not agree on the issues most important to me.

John McCain, who once joked that the reason Chelsea Clinton was so ugly was that Janet Reno was her father, would have us believe that his nomination of Sarah Palin is a testament to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Hillary Clinton has spent 35 years in public life. She has championed the Children’s Defense League. She has worked for universal health care. She has run for the Senate in one of the largest states, and been elected twice. She has an excellent reputation in the Senate among her peers, and has worked on several projects with her colleagues on the other side of the aisle. Although she was not my candidate, I respect her, and would have voted for her if she was the Democratic nominee.