What all stories are about

Within a week of reading The Traitor Baru Cormorant I watched the whole of Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, the new episode of Rick & Morty: Never Ricking Morty, and Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Four pieces of fiction about fiction. Meanwhile Plandemic was igniting social media and making me think about why we believe what we believe. My thoughts were pushed from one to another so that these unrelated experiences became a five-pointed star holding within it conspiracies, rewritten history, and literary devices made literal.


Why does anyone tell a story? The character Baru Cormorant in Seth Dickinson’s fantasy novel lives within layers of story spun around herself as camouflage, cocoon and prison. The empire of the book tells a grand story that anyone can recognise as the knife-edge of colonialism editing the history of the conquered. Familiar from the letters of Rhodes, speeches of Churchill, and poetry of Kipling. Baru Cormorant tries to unpick the story, but first she needs to become its author. The book is about conspiracy and power, betrayal and betrayal and betrayal.

“This is why I chose to write about the problem of powerful stories.” writes Seth Dickinson, “They work. Our world is full of them, and they continue to propagate forward. We must confront them.”

Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood has been described as ‘ahistorical’ but that would only be half-way to the truth. It is anti-historical. In imagining a group of filmmakers creating a diverse smash-hit film, Hollywood the show makes good on the promise of Hollywood the legend. When a young director begs a producer to let him cast Anna May Wong in a lead role he says, “Movies don’t just show us how the world is, they show us how the world can be.”

Hollywood is story as wish-fulfillment. History rewritten just as the film within the show is rewritten from tragic to hopeful as that same producer asks, “Is that what we want to say about the world?”

Meanwhile Tarantino tells an anarchic tale in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… History unraveled and rewoven for a character study of two men who may be at the end of their careers. Sitting on a tv lot Rick Dalton cries while describing the plot of a paperback novel he’s reading to a precocious child-(method)actor.  But while Hollywood and Traitor have a certain feeling of responsibility, for Tarantino story-telling is about saying something that only he can say. Having an unconstrained voice. It’s indulgence and freedom. It’s his.

Rick & Morty has that same ego-driving the story. In Never Ricking Morty the characters are trapped in a literal narrative device. They point this out themselves. They point everything out themselves as they try to break, subvert, and escape the möbius strip of story.  In this the meta-narrative isn’t about taking control of the story, or rewriting history, or having freedom… the story is about breaking story. Rick & Morty runs along the edge between nihilism and meaning. Dan Harmon has talked extensively about Campbellian structure and tropes. Well, I say ‘talked’ but I mean ‘ranted’. Harmon is one of those people who thinks he’s a piece of shit and also better than everyone else. He thinks tropes suck and also that he’s a master of them. He’s not wrong. In Never Ricking Morty the ‘rules’ of story are broken and ripped away to show… nothing? Storytelling is meaningless illusion.

Plandemic is its own kind of storytelling, existing only as a counter-narrative – a shadow-story of distorted shapes cast by the light of intense scrutiny on the real story. Conspiracy Theories exist because the mainstream story does not convince everyone. Sometimes these independent thinkers have spotted real flaws, sometimes they’ve misunderstood something, and sometimes the story being ‘mainstream’ is all the fault they need. Trust No One. Even before Plandemic‘s surge and subsequent purge, people were writing about the rise of Conspiracy Theories. And they were usually getting it wrong by making the same mistake as the theorists: linking different phenomena together into a grand psychological narrative.

The conspiracy theorist, the debunker, and the observer are all competing storytellers wrestling over the meta-narrative while claiming Facts.

Fiction doesn’t claim Fact, but it does claim Truth. And you can see the same fight play out over and again as audiences offer or revoke their suspension of disbelief to the tellers. They fixate on details, they chant, “well, actually” and they compose sweeping essays tying unrelated experiences into a single theory.

Maybe you could stick colourful pins in a cork board and graph meta-fictions on axes of ego and idealism. You could pick out constellations and clusters, but it wouldn’t mean much. Why tell a story? That can only really be answered in each telling.





11 x 11

There’s a pleasure in symmetry, a pleasure in pattern. Rituals and habits are reassuring. Looking at 11 x 11 with its palindrome promise, makes me think it doesn’t stand for anything out of the ordinary. It can’t represent anything challenging or impossible. Can it?

As a matter of fact it can. 11 x 11 is a project I’m embarking on, a gauntlet I’m throwing down against my common sense. It stands for something a bit ridiculous in its audacity: a promise to write eleven plays in eleven months. One play every month from January to November.

This year I’m not producing any shows. I’ve produced eight shows in the last five years (four of which I wrote) and it is time for a break – time to rethink my strategy. What better way to do that than to rewire how I think about writing? If you’re like me you’ve got a folder of ideas and bits of scenes lying around, maybe a couple of promises to write the script of an idea that your table of drunk friends came up with. If you’re like me you’ve got the material, you just sat on it.

11 x 11 is about quantity, not quality. None of these plays needs to ever be produced. The goal is not the stack of pages but the experience and the practice. What does it take to be prolific? How will my process change? What will I learn from this?

The rules are simple. I have to finish a play by the end of every month. It should be about an hour (or more) so if it’s a one hander then over 20 pages, and if it’s dialogue over 30 pages. So I’ll be writing between 220 and 350 pages.

Best of all? I’ve already started and have 8 pages to go to meet my target by the 31st. This is possible and I am going to do it.

What Makes a Good Story

These are points I put down, observations about the fiction I find the most compelling. When I analyse my work, I look for these and try to make sure that what I want out of a story is what I put in to my own.

  • Interesting characters placed in situations that test their limitations and weaknesses
  • A coherent and expansive world
  • High stakes for the protagonist
  • Diverse and consistent manners of speech
  • Characters undergoing change or development
  • Pacing that balances action and contemplation, advancement and expansion, humor and seriousness
  • Solid symbolic underpinning
  • The setting is integral to the plot
  • Contrasting points of view
  • Plot is edited on the principles of similarity and contrast
  • An ending that is surprising but inevitable
  • The parts tie into the whole
  • The forces of antagonism are deeper than the action so that the outcome affects the principles of life (the classic irresistible force meeting the immovable object)
  • Clarity of action and idea
  • The thesis and anti-thesis are both compellingly explored

Telling it.

Whenever I need inspiration, or my process stalls, I turn to Robert McKee’s Story. Today I opened it at random and got this:

“At last he [the writer] has a story. Now he goes to friends, but not asking for a day out of their lives – which is what we ask when we want a conscientious person to read a screenplay. Instead he pours a cup of coffee and asks for ten minutes. Then he pitches his story.”

The exercise of writing out the story inevitably leads us to write out what happens. But this is not story. The story is the distillation of what happens, the spine under the actions and events that gives them meaning. Telling a story is to select moments out of the infinite scope of ‘what happened’ (for in fiction anything is possible) into an emotionally moving sequence. When you tell someone your story out loud you’ll see if it works in their face and their body language. Then you’ll know if you have story that’ll hook your audience or just a list of things happening. I have never found a more useful exercise than to tell a reacting person my story. At the NAF the Inspiring a Generation folk got in front of a crowd of twenty or so Grahamstown kids. We were all a little nervous. The others read bits of their scripts, scenes or poems; I read nothing. I sat close, made eye contact and told them the story of a boy and his Oupa and the hunt for the Kraken. I got more out of that than the others because I could see what engaged the kids and what lost their attention. When the play is eventually produced it’ll have puppets, projections and performers, but all that is made compelling by the story they’re telling.

Breaking Blocks

Writer’s Block and a Writer’s Workout

Too often I can’t write. I stare at the screen. I stare at my keyboard. I stare at my sandwich. I decide I need to clip my fingernails, vacuum the carpet, and bake a complicated supper I only have one ingredient for.

Writer’s block is the single biggest reason I don’t often think of myself as a writer. If I was really a writer, surely writing would be easier? But I’ve fought this battle before, quite a number of times. People who know me well can tell when I’m in a slump because I stare at nothing, get up and wander around and open the fridge without taking anything out. Also I look depressed. I am. But it’s the flip side of the beautiful moment when you are on a roll, when the words just flow. And not just any words – submerged themes surface and become clear, motivations and solutions to plot problems are as obvious and imminent as the end of this sentence.

But I’m not preaching that writer’s block should just be accepted, I think it’s a time for you to grow by trying different things. Writer’s block can be the hesitation when I’m about to finish a sentence with a cliché or it can be the days spent reading while a character hangs over the chasm between point A and B. The most basic thing writer’s block teaches you is humility. Writing isn’t easy. Yet of all the arts it’s the one that people take up with the least preparation. Writer’s block is the cramp you get because you didn’t stretch before you hit the mat, the canvas you wasted because you didn’t do any pre-sketches.

This is how I deal with writer’s block when it happens and before it happens. Most of these things are obvious and I probably got them from any of the hundreds of books, articles and blogs on writing I’ve read. I know they work because I’ve been doing this for a decade and I’ve spent most of that time not writing. That I can work consistently now is not a result of a change in my timetable, it’s because I prepare before I write.

1.)    Keep a journal

Don’t worry about being profound; don’t even worry about being accurate. Just write every day about what has happened to you, about what you did. It gets you in the habit of writing even when you have no projects on the go, or you can’t stand the thought of being creative. I always carry around an A5 notebook; a day is usually 2 pages and takes me less than 15 minutes. I do it while I wait for food to cook. In Cape Town, if you’re punctual you’re in the minority with me – but that’s fine. In those ten or fifteen minutes spent waiting every day I have all the time I need to keep my journal up to date. Beyond its help with your writing, keeping a journal will be the best investment you ever made. Don’t lose all those memories and experiences. I only started 2 years ago and I kick myself I didn’t start sooner.

2.)    Build good habits, vary them

This is just good advice for everyone who wants to be productive and creative. The key is not to start with your dream timetable. You wouldn’t make a resolution to do a hundred pushups everyday and start there, would you? No, if your goal is to be writing for 5 hours every day, or 3000 words, or ten pages, then you set your short term goal at half an hour, 500 words or half a page. Make it stick, and then build it up. So you’ve got your goals, now fit them into your timetable.  So simple! It’s like… wow. The catch is to make the schedule flexible enough that you can try new things out. I like to write in different places, not just on my home PC. I often write in coffee shops, galleries, parks – places that offer a change of scenery and thus a different perspective. A favourite of mine is the Natural History Museum. Also try to figure out what time is your best time for writing, not in terms of convenience but in terms of your energy, your creativity. Now take risk and try a different time. The results can be surprising.

3.)    Free write: Use the Cards

OK, here are some resources for you. You’re going to need a pack of cards to use them. This is the core of my writing work out. Deal yourself 3 cards, one for each of the tables.

Now start writing about these. I like to remember the TheatreSports™ adage: “When you get a horror, start with two grannies knitting.” Meaning, don’t start with a character holding a shoe, standing in a cupboard, talking about loss. Actually, you can. Do it. It sounds like it could be great. I keep writing for at least an hour for this exercise. If the scene gets stale, if you start slowing down, then start over with 3 new cards (you don’t have to start the clock again). These scenes aren’t important. They don’t have to connect to anything. They don’t even have to be any good or make sense. They are lifting writing weights so your endurance and clarity get stronger.

4.)    Read about Writing, Write about Reading

I assume you’re already reading prose, poetry, scripts and news reports. (If you’re not why exactly do you write?) Read books about writing too. Most of them are crap – only good enough to be short articles on a blog. But there’s always something useful, some tip, an exercise or a quote that makes it worthwhile. Frequently they have recommended reading lists at the back that point you to better, wiser gurus. I’d recommend Story by Robert McKee, 3 Uses of the Knife by David Mamet, The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell and On Writing by Stephen King.

Keep track of what you read and what you learn. Like a quote? Write it down. Summarise, review and preserve what you read. Memory is fallible, that’s why writing was invented.

5.)    Try different styles

With your wide reading you should be exposing yourself to different genres and eras. And not just fiction – read reports, academic treatises and biographies. Try text books and encyclopaedias. Dip into letters and poetry. Right now I’m going through H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quartermain and the tone and sweep of the prose is fascinating. Try writing something in one of these styles.

A project I’ve been working on the background for quite a while is a science fiction novel. It requires a lot of notes to track the invented cultures, histories and geography. Instead of keeping these as bits and pieces I’ve been writing ‘academic’ articles and fragments of journals and letters. It works for me because I’m a geek and a big fan of Borges. But try it out next time you’re doing a plot summary or a character sketch. It’s all about finding a voice.

6.)    Skip ahead

Sometimes I can’t get characters from point A to point B. The plot seems to make sense but there’s a gap of action that sinks my best efforts. Mostly it’s because I don’t know enough about where the story is, geographically, or I haven’t spent enough time with the characters. It can be tempting to solve every problem as it comes up while you’re writing but the most important thing is momentum. The first 30 minutes of writing are the hardest, stick to it though and you’ll see the reward when you really get in the groove. Stopping to google a map of the city or the history of the cardigan is not going solve the greatest concern, the story.

7.)    Never be afraid of starting over

Last year I had a hard drive crash and my back up failed in a series of unlikely events. I lost 90% of 3 years of writing. But it might as well have not existed. Nobody is poorer for its loss. In fact, I may be better. I think that this world tells us that work that produces nothing tangible is wasted; I think that’s wrong. Whenever we have to start over we’re never really starting from scratch, even if we have no words or materials. If you continue to build something up on unsound foundations your finished product will be unsound, that is real wasted effort. Stopping half way and then starting over to create your best work takes patience and effort, but I believe it is the only worthwhile way to create art. I was forced to look at the foundations of my work, the hardcopy notes I first made of the stories. I had to ask myself in each case what was worth rebuilding, and why.

Just Say Yes. Or don’t. Part 3

Part 3: Story

The second thing that compels an audience’s attention is Story. Story is how a character gets from point A to point B, it’s how a situation changes. So for it to be a story something has to change from the beginning to the end, whether it’s a shift in power, status, money, love, happiness, value or self-esteem. A story in which nothing happens is not a story; it’s a situation, a portrait or a houseplant. Sure, they may have their merits, they may even entertain, but they cannot satisfy an audience the way a well told story can. The audience’s expectations vary according to the genre and length of the scene, a minute scene can end with one neat tilt or punchline while a long form game requires a major reversal of fortune for a character. A lot of people have opinions about what an audience really wants, but there is one thing we can agree that they don’t want. They don’t want to be bored. And even surprises can become boring if they don’t having meaning. Which leads me to the improviser’s dilemma, how can we work together to create a story and make something surprising and satisfying?

Most of the performers I’ve played with love stories from many different media. They watch plays, movies and TV shows and read books and comics. They know the component parts of a story, from the basic structures to the various tropes of different genres. In this sense every proposal they make is drawing on this wealth of experience while being reinvented by their unique voice and the electric sparks between their fellow players. It is this sensitivity to the currents of narrative that cannot really be taught, only nurtured. Or maybe I’m just saying that because I don’t know how to explain it. That magic moment on stage when all the performers suddenly know what’s going to happen? I don’t know how we leap from shared pop-culture experiences and ‘say Yes’ principles to that. But here are my thoughts on some of thing that do go into that leap.

So – back to Yes and No. As we make and accept offers we create settings, relationships, wants and needs, opposition, status and stakes – all the aspects that build a story. When a performer first stands up and makes an offer anything can happen but as more offers are made the possibilities become fewer. This is what Keith Johnstone refers to as ‘the circle of possibility’, as the story progresses the circle becomes smaller. So we have, in a sense, a field to select actions from; which actions we select are based on a performer’s thinking, not a character’s. An improviser must balance being ‘in the moment’ with seeing several moves ahead and setting up a sort of ‘collapsing field’ of possibility whose outcome is a compelling story. A performer who is too much in their character will not advance the story; will instead dwell on conversations and minute actions. A performer who is floating just out of character is able to build tilts and jokes out of the circle of possibility, but they are thinking of their egos, not of advancing the story. It’s this middle ground of performer that is often the most frustrating to work with, though clearly talented and often funny, their scenes are dogged by pointless originality and never quite find the ending.

The most experienced players though have mastered thinking long term while keeping the moment alive. This was my revelation watching some great scenes being built – they trust that humour and character will happen, but they work on the story. Not on character, not on setting up gags, they are thinking about what will change the status/situation/location/dynamic and how to move toward that. They are thinking about where the other performers are trying to take the scene and they throw their lot in to getting it there. All the terminology I’ve discussed and the strategies I’ve glanced over in part 1 and 2 are tools to communicate on stage through choices and actions. All are there to create story.


I think story is one of the most complicated issues of all in improvisation. I’ll be wrestling with it at a topic a lot I think. Also, I should put more pictures in these posts. Maybe satirical cartoons.

I have been a performer of TheatreSports since 2005 with ImproGuise (formerly Improvision) and owe a lot of my ideas and understanding to the members of the company, past and present, especially Megan Furniss. And of course to Keith Johnstone and the ITI.