There's nobody here but us chickens.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Neu future?

Vaughan at yonder Mind Hacks site pointed me to a blog called neurofuture who are holding a contest to coin neologisms around the word neuro. I submitted mine but not sure if they'll get through the moderation, as the site seems pretty transhumanist, leaving my contribution seeming a little mischievous.
Regardless, here are mine:

Neuro-tic: involuntary, even unconscious tendency to bring neuroscience into any conversation.

Neuriposte: making a comeback to based on pseudoscientific speculation as to their neuropsychological makeup: 'that's a very frontal thing to say', 'what a systematiser', 'it seems to me you've not developed your area BA10 :)'. See also Evolutaunt.

Neureality: The belief that we are stepping into a new stage of human existence defined by advances in neuroscience. 'Everything's different now.' Characterised by neuro-tics and when pushed, neuroripostes.

Neurrelavent: Best practise when dealing with a neuriposte or neuro-tic, e.g. 'that's neurrelavent and you're lowering our intelligence just by bringing it up'.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Making the case for Story Games III: Why would you need a rules to make a story together? Why not just talk it through?

I've been talking about the attraction of creating your own stories, and the incentives offered by doing it with other people. (It's worth reading these first to get something out of this post.) At first blush, it might seem like doing things in a freewheeling manner is better than worrying about a bunch of rules. Surely, you just get your creative juices flowing, and run with it? One massive brainstorm?

If this appeals, all power to you! However, there are a number of reasons why using a system may make this activity both more creative and fun.

The first was touched on above: system can be actively involved in creating story. It accomplishes this by offering well-focused constraints on what can happen in the story. The constraint "if any character commits a sin, the next step in the story is to focus on the repercussions of that sin" dictates the progress of certain parts of the story, but doesn't determine the outcome (the repercussions could be infinite in breadth). It also provides an over-arching focus - people creating the story are aware that in this story sin is a major feature - a theme or premise, if you will - and introducing it will drive and direct the story.

The second reason relates to the social aspect of creating story. You know where I said that it's very likely that other people will shake up a story just where you wouldn't? If this gave you any misgivings, hey, I'm with you. Without a guiding system, this could be a recipe for fruitless bickering, with everyone confident that their creative vision is the best. Ultimately things could end up unresolved or decided through force of personality, either way with the potential to bring about ill feeling.

With a system? The problem can largely disappear. "Allan can decide everything that happens in part one of the story - but everyone else gets one overrule that they can use to change something they feel strongly about". If you stick to the system, there's really no avenue to argue, and given a basic level of trust among everyone, the sticky points get passed by quick to get to some more great story.

The third reason I'll offer is even broader, on the social aspect of doing stuff. When I said it "can enhance any activity" I'm sure you came up with counterexamples; we all can. Some of this will be because some people are bad eggs, and a bad egg can ruin any activity. It's a shame, but there you go. Avoid. But many other people will be perfectly cool, and potentially great partners in a number of activities, but only if you're on the same page to begin with. If you want your story to avoid graphic violence, or to offer a redemptive view of religion, it's best to make sure everyone knows this. You can agree on these rules at the beginning, in which case they become part of the system you are using, albeit one spoken rather than written, or you can use a rule-set that lays out the creative experience it intends to emphasise, making sure that everyone finds this interesting. In many cases, you do both.

These are some of the ways in which rules, as a formal explicit part of a story-creating system, can be hugely useful. There is another, hugely important part of using rules. This is that it can make the process into a game*. This isn't necessarily so, as systems like Oulipo, or the strictures of a writers workshop demonstrate, but is true for almost every such system that is used for leisure. The reason is obvious: games are fun. And the very best systems utilise the fun of playing games to produce story as an outcome.

*I'm not going to get into the semantics of what a game is, but use the maxim of 'you know it when you see it'.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Making the case for Story Games II: Why make stories with other people?

There are so many reasons! I'll pick a few big ones.

First of all, you know when I said earlier that without having any kind of support, making a story isn't going to be too much fun? Here's the thing: having other people making the story with you is the best kind of support you can have. Feel like you've hit a brick wall? Ask around; someone will be packing that sledgehammer.

Closely related to this is surprise. Many wonderful stories reward us because things happen that we didn't expect. The plot twist that turns everything that came before upside down, the character who betrays our expectations and transforms our attitude towards them. (Great stuff.)

Now, I guarantee that when you make a story, you will surprise yourself. Guarantee it. Things emerge that you didn't plan at all, but when they strike you they make perfect sense and make you shiver. (In my opinion, this is even greater stuff.) By making the story with other people, you are ensuring you will hit these unexpected moments far more regularly. And crucially, they wil l shake things up where you would never dare: the aspects of the story that you had considered inviolate. And your blindspot might just be the sweetspot where truly excellent story lies.

Finally, the fun factor. Any activity done socially has the potential to be a lot more fun. The more you like the people involved, the more likely you are to get this extra fun. This fun is distinct from what you get from the content of the activity (in our case, the making of a story) - it's the fun you get at the level of relying on people, engaging in competition, and learning something about what makes the other person tick. It lies behind team games, going hiking in a group rather than solo, and having a coffee break. I know, this is basic stuff, but it's always worth putting out there. Doing stuff together can enhance any activity, and in an atomised world, it's great to do.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Making the case for Story Games I: Why make a story when there are so many good ones out there?

All stories demand a degree of involvement, and to that degree we are complicit in its creation. This is most true of written works where we must create all the sensory aspects of the fiction from what we are given textually. It is also true of dramatic works, in that events may be implied rather than presented, and the motivations and emotions of the protagonists must be drawn out by the audience. So I'm not talking about a radical step here. The story we leave the cinema/book with is our interpretation, not simply a copy of the author's intent.* We put some work in to make it real for us.

OK. But you can go further down this road. Do more, make more of it yourself. I'm not claiming this must therefore be a better method, but it is a different one, and so gives you different things back. Think of it as another option to get at story; one you can select when circumstances suit you. To take an example from a different activity, a guided tour is a perfectly fine way to get a sense of the layout and history of a city, but sometimes you just want to stomp the streets on your own with a map, a keen eye, and a willingness to ask a question or two.

Note that you don't need to do it all from scratch. Just as a map can be a good framework for exploring a city, producing story can rely on a system that gets you started. One well-established example is the Oulipo school of writing, which uses generative rules for inspiration and uses constraints to channel creativity (constraint in poetry acts comparably, although often in the service of aesthetics, the sound and feel of the words, rather than to further story per se). Being handed a blank sheet of paper and being told to "make something great" is not going to be a fun exercise for most people. Being told:
Jim came back from the war broken, his dearest friend Gavin lost somewhere out in no-man's land. His respite from his pain is his nightly drunken visits to the picture house. Half-dozing through the newsreels, he is shocked agape when he sees Gavin's face emblazoned on the screen, with the heading: WANTED-MURDER. What happens next?
could be the beginning of a great evening.

*What I've presented here is taken principally from a neat summary from John Kim.