Characters in therapy

On their podcast Reconcilable Differences, John Siracusa and Merlin Mann discuss storytelling in prestige TV:

John: To make a good show, a satisfying show to watch […] it’s important for the characters in the show to have some level of emotional intelligence and self-awareness that is above what a mortal being could have, especially in the moment. Because you don’t have time to have fifty episodes in five years for someone to come to a realization. Instead what you have is one or two events that surround the issue in question and then you have the character on screen very economically say a couple of sentences that let you understand what’s going down and what their reaction to it is. No human processes things that well and is able to summarize that eloquently, nor would they let their inner monologue out that way. But on a TV show you have to. And that makes a satisfying and good TV show. Television and movies have to do that. The art of doing that is doing it in a way that doesn’t take you out of the moment and say “No one would ever say that.”


Merlin: It might not be something that a real person would say, but the test here is do we believe that this character would say this. You can’t always do a Citizen Kane-style two people acrimoniously across a breakfast table over the years with a timelapse to make a point. Sometimes you need to make a point in a more shorthand way.


John: Lots of these shows, they don’t necessarily include therapy like The Sopranos, but what makes for good drama a lot of the time is for it to be a bunch of therapy sessions informally with breakthroughs. Because that’s what we want to see. We want to understand this interaction and this dynamic and this turmoil and we want the people to be aware enough of their circumstances and what’s inside them to verbalize the condensed story of their life.

Reconcilable Differences #145: The Opposite Mistake, 50:45

As Merlin notes, there are certainly other ways of showing a realization or change of attitude—Citizen Kane has that breakfast table montage. And it’s not hard to think of literature or arthouse movies in which nobody learns anything. But most popular storytelling is based on the idea of characters changing, learning lessons, overcoming something internal as well as external—or, in the case of the tragic, finally recognizing something inside you when it thwarts you.

The time pressure they describe (“No human processes things that well and is able to summarize that eloquently”) is specific to prestige TV and other genres that are in a hurry, but the analogy about a bunch of informal therapy sessions with breakthroughs applies more generally. If the world is your character’s therapy session, providing prompts and hard questions, what breakthroughs is she going to have? What breakthroughs that we see are needed will she fail to have?

Two definitions of “dramatic”

If to be dramatic is to show characters dramatically engaged with each other, motive clashing with motive, the outcome depending upon the resolution of motives, then this scene [the stagecoach scene from Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding] is dramatic. But if it is to give the impression that the story is taking place by itself, with the characters existing in a dramatic relationship vis-à-vis the spectator, unmediated by a narrator and decipherable only through inferential matching of word to word and word to deed, then this is a relatively undramatic scene.

Wayne C. Booth, What Every Novelist Needs to Know about Narrators

An opportunity here for the writer to borrow from the critic. Feeling a lack of drama? Here are two places to look: at the relationships among the characters, and at the relationship between the characters and the reader. Motivations and stakes on the one hand; inevitability of the plot and prominence of the narrator on the other.

Branching stories and inevitability

Over the last few days I’ve come across anecdotes about writers having trouble writing branching stories.

Here’s the BBC describing writers’ experiences creating parser-based interactive fiction:

A good tool interface is only the first step in writing a good interactive story. We needed to find ways to help our writers learn to think about conversation as a graph, as well as a competition you can win or lose. Tracking variables and calibrating how much agency to give a player were both new concepts, as were ‘unwriterly’ tasks like dividing graphs to optimise memory usage.

And here’s Robin Sloan, who is at work on a game:

So here I am, reading Hero Legends, reading Pullman’s Grimm, rereading my own plodding Ink, trying again, producing nothing better, getting frustrated, and, honestly, despairing a bit, which is almost always a sign that you need to take a step back.

That’s what I did. I closed the Ink editor and, instead, just… Wrote Something The Normal Way. And, almost immediately, it worked. The whole scene tumbled out, in almost exactly the right voice, casually informing the reader that a year had passed, and another, and another. It moved up and down the ladder of abstraction. It became unstuck.

I wonder, is it harder to write branching stories because of the unfamiliarity, the fact that it requires forcing new circuits in the brain to light up? Sloan lands here, with his specific issue being that it’s difficult to travel up and down the “ladder of abstraction” while writing in a programming language.

And I don’t doubt it. But I wonder: Is this difficulty simply a matter of having more balls to juggle? Or does writing a story with branches also make you tie one hand behind your back by removing certain tenets that you can rely on when writing straight prose?

I’m thinking specifically of inevitability. From Elizabeth Bowen’s “Notes on Writing a Novel“:

Roughly, the action of a character should be unpredictable before it has been shown, inevitable when it has been shown. In the first half of a novel, the unpredictability should be the more striking. In the second half, the inevitability should be the more striking.

Inevitability is always hard to get right. But it stands to reason that it would be even harder to make several endings feel inevitable, or several ways to get to the same ending.

Or maybe inevitability is more a shackle than a crutch in the context of interactive fiction. What would be lost and what would be gained if branching stories rejected the tenet of inevitability? Would readers reject it as unsatisfying? Or, with no place to go, no reason to get frustrated at getting stuck in a loop or arriving at the “wrong” place, would the pleasures of ambient media rise to the surface?

Bordwell on Shklovsky

David Bordwell looks at how Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky turns the notion of the “Swiss watch” narrative on its head:

Shklovsky asks us to think of storytelling less holistically, or at least to think of a different sort of whole. He takes us through the looking glass.

*Instead of treating a narrative as a linear chain of events—say, the adventures of an egoist like Jordan—let’s think of it as a point of intersection of various materials. Not a linear flow, but a collage of items brought in, trimmed, or discarded as needed.

*And instead of taking a narrative as determining the time it takes to unfold, let’s think of the time as determining the narrative. Think of the narrative as built to scale, with a predetermined size into which material has to be fitted.

Algorithmic storytelling

In 2011, Netscape founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen wrote that “software is eating the world” — Amazon ate Borders, Netflix ate Blockbuster, cell phone cameras ate Kodak. Old businesses that stuck around were the ones that integrated software into what they did: Disney bought Pixar for computer animation, automakers turned to building computers on wheels that do everything except steer, and that’s coming.

I’m sensing a similar shift in the art world.

To be clear, software art isn’t going to put older methods of art-making and presentation “out of business.” But the march of software has breached the borders of art. There’s already a gallery, run by Google, called DevArt. And a School for Poetic Computation in New York. And a conference called Leaders in Software and Art. Visual art has embraced code.

So where is the narrative art created and experienced with software?

There are games, which often give you the ability to experience the aspects of a story world in the order and pace you choose. But the goal and major plot turns are the same every time you play. Ditto character development, when there is any. (I vaguely remember hearing of one game that presented a forked path at the end, allowing you to choose whether the character became a good guy or a bad guy. Sort of a visual choose-your-own-adventure book.)

Likewise, with hypertext fiction, all possible paths are mapped out for the reader before she begins.

What I’m thinking of is what is closer to this dispatch by Sean Flynn from the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier program:

Doug Aitken’s “The Source (Evolving),” a six-channel video installation featuring 23 evocative, fast-paced conversations about creativity between Aitken and an eclectic cast of artistic pioneers from various disciplines and generations. The installation creates an immersive experience that begins with the viewer standing in the center of a 2,000 square-foot circular pavilion, surrounded on all sides by six looping projections and a cacophony of overlapping sound emanating from each. As the viewer moves toward one of the projections, short walls separating each screen bring the sound of that conversation into focus.

The intention, according to Aitken, is to “allow the viewer to create their own narrative, to splice together a series of ideas” by moving through the space. One could imagine the same material being woven together into a feature-length documentary, but instead the artist chose to present these conversations in a way that is “unmediated and unfiltered,” so that each visitor experiences them in a slightly different order and duration. In this sense, “The Source (Evolving)” might be labeled a “database documentary,” an emerging interactive genre that was on display in a variety of forms at New Frontier.

Notice that, just like a game, people control the order and duration of what they see. But unlike a game, in which there is a most efficient way to proceed through a preordained plot or set of tasks, in this case playing with the order and duration of the parts changes the meaning. There is no fastest way to play this documentary—it’s a different documentary every time you watch it.

The articles continues about another, similar project:

Perhaps most striking about this algorithmic approach to storytelling is that there is no director commentary, no central narrative that ties the women’s lives together, no big documentary lessons to be learned. Harris characterizes it as an “experiment with story DNA,” a tool to unearth “sub-stories” within a larger narrative. In this sense, the experience of navigating “I Love Your Work” places the user in a role akin to the documentary editor sifting through raw footage, looking for a story to emerge. Yet even in the absence of a traditional storyline, we can find voyeuristic pleasure (and meaning) in the opportunity to gaze momentarily into the daily lives of others.

I love that phrase, “algorithmic approach to storytelling.”

I haven’t had a chance to watch any of these yet. I wonder how satisfying they are to watch once the thrill of the experiment wears off. A large part of successful writing, one hears over and over, is assuring the reader you are in control of your story, that you aren’t wasting their time, that your hand is there to guide them, carry them. With algorithmic storytelling, that is no longer true. It might be too extreme to say that the creator hands over her part of the meaning-making project, but improvised narratives with machine collaborators definitely open the door to the reader/viewer reacting with “So what?”

Despite the specter of “So what?”, experiments continue. The Tribeca Film Institute and CERN are hosting a storytelling hackathon to explore storytelling using “visuals and data.” As with the Tribeca documentary examples, the experiments begin with material reflecting the real world. What I want to know is, Where is the fiction? Is it possible to apply algorithmic storytelling to fiction? Or is it that without either the constant guiding hand of the creator or the anchor of historical reality, “So what?” becomes too likely?

UPDATE: Turns out I’m behind the times. In 2008 a novel written by a computer was published. Humans took eight months to write the software, and the software took three days to write the book.

UPDATE 2: Now we are as far back as the 1960s.

Convergence and screen aesthetics

A. O. Scott recently articulated a trend that a lot of people sense: the distance between movies, TV shows, web series, and video games is growing smaller and smaller:

Equally hard to refute is the idea that we are approaching a horizon of video convergence, in which all those screens will be equal and interchangeable and the distinctions between the stuff that’s shown on each one won’t seem as consequential as it does now. We still tend to take for granted that a cable drama, a network sitcom, a feature film, a web video and a first-person combat game are fundamentally different creatures, but they might really be diverse species within a single genus, their variations ultimately less important than what they have in common. They are all moving pictures, after all, and as our means of access to them proliferate and recombine, those old categories are likely to feel increasingly arbitrary and obsolete. The infrastructure of a multiplatform future is before us, and resistance to it can look like an especially tiresome kind of sentimentality.

Spoiler alert: Scott doesn’t think cinema is going away. But convergence doesn’t have to mean a complete dissolution of boundaries between media, and it is a useful context to think of the connections between these forms.

The common element linking films, TV, video games, etc., is often thought to be story. And that’s a useful vector to approach the question of convergence, but perhaps not the most fundamental: films can be non-narrative, and I’ve heard of non-narrative video games also.

A candidate for a true shared foundation comes from a recent essay by designer Frank Chimero. In “What Screens Want,” he starts with what is often heralded as the beginning of cinema and instead posits it as being, more generally, the beginning of an aesthetic of screens:

Muybridge’s crazy horse experiment eventually led us to the familiar glow of the screen. If you’re like me, and consider Muybridge’s work as one of the main inroads to the creation of screens, it becomes apparent that web and interaction design are just as much children of filmmaking as they are of graphic design. Maybe even more so. After all, we both work on screens, and manage time, movement, and most importantly, change.

Rather than pixels or celluloid, Chimero sees this capacity for movement as the most salient material quality of screens, one that binds together the art forms presented on them:

Just like any material, screens have affordances. Much like wood, I believe screens have grain: a certain way they’ve grown and matured that describes how they want to be treated. The grain is what gives the material its identity and tells you the best way to use it. […] the grain of screens is something I call flux […] Flux is the capacity for change.

Cinema and graphical software are blood relatives. And Chimero paints film as the father, mentioning that software developers would do well to adopt some of the language we use to understand the cinema.

This isn’t a new idea: there are experiments at the intersection of software and traditional arts both old and recent but with the film and video game industries on a collision course and high definition interactive screens in a majority of pockets, this is not going to remain solely an avant garde concern very long.