Emergent Storytelling

Over the years, my tastes have changed. I don’t doubt that the way I write is influenced by the way I spend my free-non-writing time. I don’t read as much as I did when I was younger, and tend to value the time I spend on as a reader with a greater degree than I might with other hobbies.

It’s a corollary of something I said in this post, that as a writer you’re renting a space in your reader’s brain. If you want my brain to do the imagining, you better pay up with something worthwhile.

On the other hand, if I’m watching a movie, a TV show, or playing a game? The creativity is mostly done.

With any form of storytelling, I’m a fan of the slow build – those moments when the snowflakes start to fall, that little by little will turn into an avalanche. Many writing sources tell you to start with a bang. The big moment, the explosion that changes everything, and screams at the reader WATCH THIS SPACE! This often gets referred to as the hook. I do agree that you need a hook, by which I (and most) mean something that holds the reader’s attention. I don’t agree that it must always be a suckerpunch left hook.

My favourite book in the entire world is The Count of Monte Cristo. A tale of humanity, character and revenge that is very slow to get moving to those sections, yet continues to incite drama throughout. It doesn’t sit still, and instead draws us into the character of Edmond Dantes, and those that would seal his fate. Even when he’s in a position to be wrathful, he does it calmly and gradually, instead of going in stabby. It’s not full of action, but there is tension there, intrigue, and well, many things I love. On the movie side of things, one of my favourites is ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’.

The former does a magnificent job with Sir Alec Guiness’s Colonel Nicholson being transformed into an unwitting villain from a historical sense through doing what he feels is right, and the very sympathetic Sessue Hayakawa as Colonel Saito showing a ruthless yet understandable antagonist who happened to be born on the wrong side of history.

Even William Holden’s Major Shears (undoubtedly the hero of the piece) is portrayed in a balanced manner. I find the moment when he quotes Saito to the young Lieutenant Joyce to be especially poetic. The movie is very slow at revealing what role each character has to play, slowly moving the three main characters around the board before revealing what the final play would be. It is Guiness’ movie though, because it’s his character that makes the piece. He never shies from his principles, and continues on completely unaware about the repercussions of his actions beyond being an example to his troops and preserving their morale.

These slow-builds are part of what was intended. It’s a very normal thing to prescribe patterns or explanations to the things around us; those burned by others in the past tend toward reservations about new people, or attributing a win by our local sporting team winning their competitive match to our attendance of their sporting. We look for reasons. Not only that, but in things that do already have a narrative.

Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead is all about a story amongst the known story, and The Lion King 3 is this by proxy. When season 6 of the new Doctor Who began and the new unforgettable ‘forgettable’ villains emerged in Day of the Moon, there were fan theories that they’d been there in season 5 – moments here and there in every episode, where a character acted strangely or spooked for no apparent reason (but always conveniently when facing off-screen), but would subsequently forget what was happening. Nothing came of it, but it was there.

Indoctrination theory was a big one for Mass Effect 3, reasoning that the ending was more about the player being tricked which to me, would have made it one of the best endings ever.

I’ve done the same in minor instances of Mass Effect 2. Shepard shoots a gas tank, and later in the game, Zaeed does the same. Though it’s not said so, I reason that Zaeed was influenced by what Shepard did – furthermore, that Zaeed being consumed with a need to get even served as a warning to Shepard to change her ways, to pull back from the same path so it didn’t consume her too. Yeah, none of that actually happens, but it’s the motivation and reasoning I saw for myself.

I’ve had moments like this in past works, where the initial goals were not apparent – sometimes by design and naughty subterfuge, and sometimes by accident. The story I’m working on at the moment didn’t mean for the protagonist to be a problem in the story, but ended up somewhere between a (TVtropes warning) Inspector Javert and Tomato in the Mirror. This started emerging as a potential plot point during the course of writing, slowly building up until it became obvious to me that it had to be so.

I don’t know if you can force these things, but keep an eye on what you’re writing. It might be there’s another layer to the story underneath what you wrote with purpose.


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