The one valuable part of the Northwestern Summer Writers Conference I went to last year was a class on creative writing structure. The instructor brought to us forms and techniques from screenwriting, well-known building blocks of stories like Three-Act Structure, and The Hero’s Journey, which underlie great tales from Homer’s Odyssey to Pulp Fiction. Learning these structures was like the day someone finally tells you how sex works: you’ve seen all the parts before, and you’ve seen the results, but oh, so that’s how it works.
Since then, I’ve read my way through Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler and the essays of literary critics from Mythological / Jungian schools and Reader-Response schools and if you want to write stories, you should too.
A few months ago, I re-read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and again I was fascinated by how the way the story is written sucks you in and keeps you reading. Ender’s Game is a great book but it’s not a Great Book, and I don’t mean that in the snooty or academic sense: Slaughterhouse Five and Fahrenheit 451 are Great Books, and they have time travel and aliens and robot dogs, in different degrees. Continue reading →
Don’t use onomatopoeia. You know, when you’re reading a book, and you come across a part where a gunshot suddenly rings out, so you see written in the book: “BOOM! KABAM!” Or something loud falls, and you see it described by the word, “KA-POW!” Or the character can hear a calming stream: “swisssssh, swissssssh.” Perhaps as a writer, you’ve worked some onomatopoeia in to give readers a sense of the sound you want to convey.
I want to take a minute and talk about Kurt Vonnegut because Kurt Vonnegut believed stories are what cause wars. Kurt Vonnegut didn’t like wars, because he was in one. He was an American soldier in World War II who was promptly captured, and taken by the Germans to a city called Dresden full of art museums and civilians.
And Kurt Vonnegut was there, held in a P.O.W. camp underground, when the U.S. and Great Britain bombed Dresden, leaving it a smoking ruin full of dead families – and alive P.O.W.s, saved by their underground location. The Germans put Americans to work recovering the bodies of all the dead men, women, and children so they could be disposed of. At one point, there were so many dead people in the wreckage they couldn’t be recovered anymore. Flamethrowers were used, to just burn all of the victims.
When Kurt Vonnegut, who was a writer, returned after the war he was planning to write a standard heroic book, one with manly men who sling guns around and spit tough lines from the corners of their mouths that aren’t dangling cigars. After a conversation with another P.O.W. friend and his wife, Kurt decided to tell the truth instead. The truth is that families like yours and mine get burned up and killed, even by the good guys.
Several months ago I was forced to shoot my best friend and this got me thinking. I was playing the game Black Ops II from the series Call of Duty and this is not a series known for its meaningful player choices or deep story: in fact, it’s ridiculed as the opposite. I assumed, therefore, when the bad guys brokered a deal where I would shoot the evil terrorist from long range while he was tied up and gagged with a shroud over his head, that I had no choice but to comply. The problem was (spoiler here), I have an IQ, so I’d already figured out that it wasn’t really the terrorist leader I would shoot. It was my in-game character’s best friend under the shroud.
My students (High School Sophomores, who love Call of Duty’s lack of meaning and shallowness) informed me that a player can shoot for the leg, saving the friend’s life. That interactivity in the narrative got me thinking. There are excellent, well-written games out there where player choices influence the story . What if there was a game where player knowledge influenced the story? Continue reading →