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.

Spoilers.

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.

 

 

 

 

Fight Write

Some thoughts on writing fight scenes

My novel, War of the Unbound, is an action fantasy in an African-inspired setting. So there are a couple of fights here and there. I love a good fight scene and a bad one makes me cringe – especially if I’m the one who wrote it. Here are some things I learned while writing the book.

There are two parts of a fight scene: the actions and the words.

The action is the mechanics of the fight, from the details of each punch thrown and techniques of the combatants to bigger arcs of upper-hand and reversals. For this I research the combat styles by watching whatever fights and demonstrations I can find online. I think about the characters’ training, skills, weapons and their bodies, and how those would interact. Then I consider the space they’re fighting in. I draw out floor plans and move the pieces around. Are there levels to exploit, or cover, or improvised weapons at hand? The choreography brings together all these elements into movement that tells a story. Do I want the hero to kick ass or almost die? Do they win by grit, cunning or luck? If they win at all. The fight needs reversals, and rise and release of tension. If the reader can tell who will win and how then the fight is boring.

All of this action needs to be expressed – scraped off the notes and doodles and shaped into prose. The first priority is clarity, then rhythm. I usually overwrite the first draft often by more than triple the word count I need. The aim is to have the bodies and their actions in the space absolutely clear. Then I start cutting to create rhythm. Writers control the time it takes to see a drop of sweat fall or a bone splinter under a strike. Or things can happen in a blur and panic of movement. Does the rhythm serve the points of tension in the story of the fight? Slow to build, fast to release is a good guideline.

A great fight scene comes down to tension. If it’s not believable, tension is lost. If it’s predictable, tension is lost. If it’s confusing, tension is lost. Pull your scene tight as a bow string and it’ll fly like an arrow and hit just as hard.


To be a beta reader of War of the Unbound, drop me a line at freelancer@jonkeevy.com

San Francisco days, San Francisco Nights

GDC Jon at the IGF Awards 2019

This is me at the GDC award show in San Francisco, part of a team nominated for Best Narrative at the Independent Games Festival. How I came to be there is a story that goes back a few years and involves friendship, honesty and dick jokes. Evan Greenwood and Richard Pieterse had a weird and super fun game featuring squishy penises with little butt-holes that they called Genital Jousting. I’m not sure why they decided to put in a story (probably a joke or a punk whim) but they did and decided they needed a writer. They got me.

After that the mission and the team got bigger. Robbie Fraser joined the core. But it wasn’t getting bigger that made Genital Jousting something to be proud of… It was how much deeper it went. It was a process of challenging ourselves and our ideas of masculinity and what it means to have a dick. The meetings with Ev, Richard and Robbie where we discussed and shared were sometimes close to therapy… These three men have taught me a lot. About games, but really about being an empathetic and reflective person. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but that’s what Genital Jousting is about, and I think that’s what life is about.

We didn’t win the IGF award. But we still won.

Good Wine

Every time I handed a wine bottle down to him there would be a soft clink of metal on glass. His wedding ring. I was elbow deep in the hall cupboard, helping my father to unpack a lifetime of dinner parties from the shelves. My lifetime specifically, as we had lived in this house since before I could walk.

I pulled bottle off the rack, wiped off the crusted years of dust with a damp cloth, and passed them down to my father to sort into boxes. ‘Spoiled’ – the corks flecked with mold. ‘Good’ – wine that would presumably find a new cupboard in my parents’ new house in Cape Town. ‘Jonathan’ – wine of dubious merit but probably fit for consumption. Wine meant for me to take. On many of the bottles there’s a label written in my father’s well practiced hand, a name and a date – the wine’s provenance as it pertained to my family: who gave it to them, and when. He has always been a note taker, a recorder of data. He has charted decades of rainfall and temperature on our little farm. He records daily life not in journals but in letters, most sent to my sister who lives abroad. An orderly mind that projects order on his world. “James, 1998” – my father reads aloud. Does this summon the memory of that night? He nods to himself and files the bottle. ‘Good’.

11×11: Three Complaining

March was a bit of a win and bit of a loss, but overall I’m leaning to calling it a success.

The month started off a bit crazy at Alexander Upstairs and got progressively more crazy as it went on. In addition to the regular work I got a number of design jobs for people’s National Arts Festival productions. Then there was the BASA/British Council fellowship, which included workshops and a conference in Joburg where I spoke on a panel and pitched for funding.

All of which is to say I have many excuses and they’re not completely unreasonable. Sort of the point of an excuse isn’t it? But I don’t buy them either. I don’t buy that me taking on more than I can handle is a reason not do the thing that I promised myself. Being there for other people is important. So is being there for yourself. Finding the balance is the most important.

This month my writing was a short play for Anthology, opening on Tuesday the 7th (this evening). It’s called Bullet Points and is a classic con story: two characters manipulating each other with layers of tricky deception. The dialogue is full of detours as they chase down the quirky reasoning and get distracted by little things. They’re not very good cons. Or are they?

I also added a lot of new material and substantially rewrote parts of Every Beautiful Thing, my January play. A lot of writing got done in March; enough that I could call it 3 down, not enough that I feel like I deserve a high five.

Lessons:

  • Regularity breeds creativity. Don’t try to squeeze all the juice in snatched moments and odd places; that’s notebook time.
  • Rewriting is an art unto itself, fear and respect it.

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