Category Archives: Storytelling

Complex TV – An Introduction

I’ve been tracking Jason Mittell’s ‘Complex TV’ book for a while now. He’s been writing it ‘in the open’, as it were, and although I didn’t really get a chance to get into the book as it was being written, I snapped it up once the final version was available on Kindle. And then I devoured it within a couple of weeks.

There’s a lot of good stuff within its pages. You can buy the book itself here – I highly recommend it for anyone interested in how TV (and narrative more generally) has developed in the last twenty years or so.

Some of it is probably stating the obvious to anyone with a passing interest in analysing narrative, but the way they are formulated, together with plenty of insightful passages which taught me a lot, makes it a very useful book as a whole.

Disclaimers – the book does take a mainly American focus. There are some mentions of British TV shows, but the focus is firmly on US programmes. I’d love to see an equivalent for several other shows, too. The book also almost exclusively deals with serialised narrative, as opposed to stand alone films or one-off dramas. And finally, spoilers do abound, so, sorry about that.

Now, originally I was going to do a single blog post, in the manner of Phil Gyford’s book-notes, summarising and highlighting parts of the book. However, as it stands, I have 375 highlighted passages, so instead, and rather appropriately, this is going to be a serialised set of notes – starting here, with the introduction. I’ve included the Kindle location references in brackets after each quote, and linked to the equivalent paragraph online (where possible), for ease of lookup – though sometimes the language will have changed slightly between the online and Kindle versions.


One of the key parts of the introduction is to justify, quite rightly, why anyone should be interested in the subject:

“The idea that viewers would want to watch — and rewatch — a television series in strict chronology and collectively document their discoveries with a group of strangers was once laughable but is now mainstream.” (137)

“One of the chief reasons that complex television has become a mainstream trend is the broad availability of online fan sites to facilitate collective discussions and decoding practices among fans, so these sites can provide research resources for accessing and understanding consumption practices among a program’s dedicated and engaged viewership.” (211)

“…it is vital to remember that the type of die-hard fan who participates in forums, creates remix videos, or seeks out spoilers is not a typical television viewer. But the rise of online fandom has made a fan who does embrace such practices less of a fringe outlier and more one who resides on one end of a spectrum of engagement.” (238)

“…it seems fair to imagine that the practices of this comparatively small number of participatory viewers represent broader interests that matter to a significant segment of the program’s viewership.” (245)

So far, so obvious – but a crucial point – yes, this is still probably a ‘niche’ behaviour amongst people who watch TV, but it is a growing phenomenon, and one which is worth study. Another reason for giving this behaviour validity is to acknowledge the fact that technology has changed, making this kind of analysis much more accessible and possible, to a wider set of the audience. This is what people do when they have access to this kind of technology. Those who create narrative in any media, given the technological context of today’s society, would be foolish, therefore, to dismiss this section of the audience entirely – though of course it shouldn’t mean that huge budgets should necessarily be poured into supporting this, separate from the actual production of the narrative.

The book’s focus – poetics

“This book is not focused on analyzing meanings as conveyed by television narratives. Instead, I aim to explore how such meanings are given expressive possibility through the form of televised stories, analyzing how such content is conveyed via storytelling.” (158)

“Poetics can be defined broadly as a focus on the specific ways that texts make meaning, concerned with formal aspects of media more than issues of content or broader cultural forces — in short, the guiding question for poetics looking at a cultural text such as a television series is “how does this text work?” This focus on poetics is different from more common questions of interpretation, which seek to answer “what does this mean?” or of cultural power, asking “how does this impact society?” ” (176)

The vast majority of scholarship in this area tends to focus on the meaning (and thus the societal, cultural and political importance) of particular narratives. That is obviously important, but is not the focus here – it’s the mechanics and architecture which are of interest. Mittell goes on to define three forms of poetics that the book is concerned with:

Historical poetics

“Historical poetics situates formal developments within specific contexts of production, circulation, and reception, where innovations are viewed not as creative breakthroughs by visionary artists but at the nexus of numerous historical forces that work to transform norms and possibilities.” (190)

Cognitive poetics

“…account[s] for how viewers engage with texts…we can best understand the process of viewing (or reading literature) by drawing on our knowledge of cognition and perception and then positing how the formal elements in a text might be experienced by such a viewer — while viewers are not reduced to their mental mechanics, the insights of cognitive psychology inform how we imagine the possible ways that viewers engage with film or television.” (200)

This is probably the most interesting one for me, personally. I’ve found it continually frustrating that people within the media industry talk of television viewers as ‘passive’. Whilst this may be the case for those who use the screen as background wallpaper, I would argue that anyone who is at all engaged with what’s happening on screen is far from passive, at least mentally, if not physically.

Reader-oriented poetics

“…reader-oriented poetics that fuses literary reader-response criticism with close analysis of televisual form…”

This form of poetics is closely associated with Robert Allen, who:

“…in his landmark study of daytime soap operas; Allen explores the genre’s formal elements as creating potential pleasures, interpretations, and modes of engagement for its viewers, and he cross-references that analysis with a history of the genre’s reception.” (207)

The narrative as network

Mittell then goes on to talk about another aspect which fascinates me – the impact of network culture (something that James Bridle and Kate Eltham have explored in particular), on serialised narrative:

“…we cannot treat a text as a bounded, clearly defined, stable object of study. Especially (though not exclusively) in the digital era, a television program is suffused within and constituted by an intertextual web that pushes textual boundaries outward, blurring the experiential borders between watching a program and engaging with its paratexts. Similarly, the serial text itself is less of a linear storytelling object than a sprawling library of narrative content that might be consumed via a wide range of practices, sequences, fragments, moments, choices, and repetitions.” (216)

“…texts only come to matter in their consumption, circulation, and proliferation, and thus when I discuss the forms and structures of complex television programs, I treat them as part of a lived cultural practice, not a static, bounded, and fixed creative work. To understand television textuality, we must look beyond what appears on a single screen to explore the range of sites where such texts are constituted, and serially reconstituted, through practices of cultural engagement.” (223)

To which I can only say – yes, yes, yes. This is exactly why we need to consider the Web (URIs & hyperlinks) as a natural form for narrative in the modern age.

…and finally, a definition

…which is always useful, right?

“A basic definition of television serial storytelling charts out this terrain: a television serial creates a sustained narrative world, populated by a consistent set of characters who experience a chain of events over time.” (277)

It’s worth reading the whole of that paragraph, in truth. It also makes the distinction between the ‘narrative discourse’ and the ‘story’ – the former being the way the story is conveyed, the latter being the actual plot and so on. But of particular interest to me here are the concepts of a sustained narrative world (echoing the ‘design to be permanent’ ethos of the Web), and a chain of events over time, which speaks to the ‘storyliner’ within me – things I’ve explored both in the Stories and subsequent Storyline ontologies.

Next time – ‘Complexity in Context’ (read the online version of the chapter, here)

Falling out of the world – RIFT’s Macbeth

Our home for the night - Castle Aargh! (I mean castle Macbeth)

Saturday, and to Balfron Tower to witness the Rift Theatre Company’s immersive staging of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. A little context – Balfron Tower is a landmark structuralist tower blocks, designed by (Erno?) Goldfinger (he who would lend his surname, unwillingly, to the James Bond story), in the 1960s. Still inhabited today, it is about to undergo major renovation work, and thus retains its’ decaying and imposing, alien atmosphere.

I was fairly familiar with the idea of immersive theatre, despite not having experienced one yet, and was equally familiar with the play, given hazy memories of reading it whilst studying for GCSEs. So all in all, this promised to be an interesting evening. Consider this a review – three things that really leapt out at me, and a couple of minor, hopefully constructive, criticisms.

Crossing the Rift

We’re met at the base of the tower by the Bordurian border guards, and, having checked our (pre-delivered) visas, we’re warned of the dangers of crossing over the Rift into a fictional world. This immediately appealed to me – an explicit acknowledgement that we’re about to travel into a fictional world, albeit one which will feel entirely real, both to us and to those we meet inside.

Doing a @poppet - Macbeth in a tower block

This means we retain a sense of extra knowledge over the characters – we know the general shape of the narrative that will unfold, and they don’t; and we have an almost supernatural presence in the world. The characters can see us, touch us, speak directly to us, and vice versa, but the extent to which we can truly interact is limited. It is like we are truly liminal beings in this fictional world, trapped between being and not being.

Which, of course, puts us on a similar level as the very first characters we meet – the witches. They do have an active role in the world – indeed, it can be argued that they are the ones with an almost authorial force, influencing Macbeth and Banquo, setting in motion the chain of events that propels the drama.

This, in turn, blurs the boundaries between the meaning of us being in a fictional world, and them having supernatural powers – are they, therefore, closer to us than the other characters? Are they, in effect, audience members who’ve taken control of the world they’ve joined?

The Bordurians we meet, too, have a similar liminal status – they’re aware their own reality, ours, and that of the main characters, acting as our hosts, guides and chaperones, but also, at key moments, are in effect the opposite of the witches – the Bordurians are imposed upon by Macbeth and the others, so rather than having authorial influence, or the limited power of ourselves, they flit between acting in all three worlds.

This dynamic, the awareness of how our reality overlapped, or otherwise, with the rest of the people we met, was key to the immersion, for me.

The world unfolds

The other thing which strikes you, as you are led from room to room, from floor to floor, by the Bordurians, is the sheer scale of the production operation. As much as I was immersed in the fictional experience, I couldn’t help but wonder and admire how difficult this was to pull off successfully.

There are several audience groups going through the experience at a time, and staggered start times throughout the evening. Only one company of actors, though, which means that each actor plays several roles throughout the evening, being consistent for a single group, but different between the groups.

This had two effects – firstly, as we were led from room to room, our sense of the geography of the tower being fully disorientated, the world came alive. You’d be walking past nameless guards or Bordurian housekeeping staff, and hear snippets of other scenes going on. Not enough to fully realise the repeating nature of the production, but enough to feel like there truly was a world here, and you were only taking a particular path through it. Again, this really helped the immersion.

The second effect was that there would occasionally be delays whilst the actors moved from scene to scene, and from group to group. To negate this, the Bordurian hosts would essentially keep us in a holding pattern, entertaining us and making conversation. For the most part, this worked well, providing welcome moments of rest. But there were two moments of this type that had major impacts on the enjoyment of the experience – one positive, one less so.

Falling out of the world

The positive one first. As I said, moving from room to room had the wonderful effect of disorientating you, and almost forcing you into, for the most part, forgetting this was a play with a known narrative. And so, whilst your head’s spinning, and you’re still trying to keep a track of where you’re up to in the text, something truly brilliant happens.

I mentioned above about our relationship to the characters, and especially the witches – we’re visiting the world, able to be seen but trapped behind an indefinable barrier, preventing us from truly deforming the narrative – whilst the witches have that power too. So, when, in one of those lulls between action, and more precisely, during one of those mad dashes from room to room, we’re suddenly pulled aside by the witches and trapped in a room with them, the experience really becomes magical.

It’s hard to explain how much I loved this moment. The timing of it, combined with the murky and stormy weather as the sun descended through the hazy clouds, all leant to the supernatural atmosphere. We thought we knew the shape of what was going to happen, but here, in this moment, the witches aren’t content with taking control of the characters lives – they take control of ours, pulling the rug from under our feet, and pushing us into a story which isn’t the one we were expecting. A parallel narrative, which once again opens up the prospect that what we’re experiencing isn’t the full story – there’s a much wider, longer game at play here.

The actual details of what happens in those moments, I’ll not spoil – in a way, the detail matters least in this case. It was the feeling it evoked – of falling out of the world, of having a real twist in the experience. Not the kind of Hollywood twist in terms of a big reveal, but the sense of jumping a narrative track – one that really made you think, well, now, anything could happen, I don’t know what to expect from this moment on. That’s the kind of thing I really enjoy – you go into something expecting one kind of story, and you may ultimately get that, but there’s unexpected kinks and paths along the way, placing you in a real sense of narrative danger and uncertainty.

Some minor bruises

Some critique, then. The second major lull in the action comes towards the end of the play, as Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. This is a moment which should produce one of the most evocative images of the experience, being something that is incongruous on a stage, the audience anticipating exactly how the producers will choose to bring it to life.

Unfortunately, the choice made at this part of the story feels like the only mis-step – almost all the action takes place on video, which you watch whilst (mostly) safely ensconced in the flat you’ll be staying overnight in. Whilst the news reporting angle is a cute idea, for a short while, it falls flat when extended over a longer period, and I’m not convinced that the TV debate, studio guests, and reporter coverage, was the most visceral way to get this experience across.

It has a whiff of the war from The Day Today to it, and whilst part of the appeal may be the humour derived from the situation, it does deflate the drama somewhat. It’s completely understandable from a logistical point of view, of making sure the actors are able to cover the main scenes for everyone, but with the promise, suspense, and raw action right in front of you that’s been built up over the past couple of hours, it is probably the only major mistake in the production overall.

The only other small criticism I’d make is that it wasn’t made clear that the story would continue the following morning. Part of the experience is staying overnight in the tower once the main action is done, and then having breakfast (on the roof, weather permitting!) with the characters and others.

Now, there were three packages for tickets, one where breakfast was included, and two where breakfast was available for a small fee. What wasn’t made clear was that there was a coda to the story taking place during breakfast – as far as my group were aware, it simply was breakfast, and the story was over. Had we been aware of this, I think we may have been more likely to stay.

Back to reality

In conclusion, then, I really enjoyed the experience – others who have experienced Punchdrunk shows and the like may feel this didn’t compare, but for a first timer, it was wonderful. The immersion, the atmosphere, the setting – and that moment when it all turns upside down – fantastic. And lastly, a huge logistical and ambitious achievement on behalf of the cast and crew. Some minor problems, but overall, a great thing, and I’d love to do it again.

Future (and Past) Imperfect

aka the first in an occasional series of analysis pieces on film, TV and popular culture, this time focusing on X-Men: Days of Future Past. Disclaimer – Spoilers for the film lie ahead, and it’s worth saying that I’m no expert in film critique (though hopefully writing this will help me learn) and I’m not hugely familiar with the comics and source material for this story.

The Mutant Gene

For my money, the central theme of the X-Men stories has always been one of interrogating difference and discrimination in society – be that sexual, racial, disability and so on. It is, in my view, a very clear reaction to the horrors, ideology and reaction to World War Two. The message being one, ultimately, of tolerance – whilst acknowledging that there are different responses to the issue of difference in society. Magneto’s more antagonistic approach isn’t presented entirely without sympathy, but it’s clear, ultimately, which side the writers fall on – that of Professor X’s calm pleas for tolerance.

This then, should be the interesting theme to explore in any X-Men story. And Days of Future Past certainly sets up some interesting issues. Leaving aside the established Magneto/Xavier approaches, we’re told that the threat in the future essentially stems from a technology designed to identify the mutant gene, and destroy the carrier.

Whilst initially conceived as a way to tackle current mutants, the flaw in the technology soon becomes clear – the mutant gene may be present, but that doesn’t mean that it’s active in the current host, or even that it will necessarily become active in future generations – but the mere presence of the gene is enough to trigger the destructive technology.

This could be the spur for a really interesting (and exciting, of course!) film which ultimately hinges around how we judge difference and how far into the future we’re willing to pursue grudges. How much should what we know about the present inform our decisions about how we shape the future?

And yet, the explanation I gave for what we’re told is the main cause of everything we see, is glossed over in a couple of sentences. Instead, the film concentrates essentially on the chase to find Mystique, and a confused dilemma between Mystique and Magneto about how their decisions might shape the future.

Note that this is subtly different from what I outlined above – it becomes one of “will the characters fulfil their destiny or change the future” – there’s even that whole discussion of whether the future is immutable or not.

But in a story like this, that’s a dead end – it reduces the whole film down to a choice of two endings – either the world is saved, or it’s doomed, and it doesn’t really matter which, given this is a film franchise which could either just stop or find some way to continue.

Instead, the more interesting angle, I would argue, would have been to stick with the main action in the past, yes, but really explore the consequences of Trask’s technology, and how that causes former enemies to unite.

Obviously the producers and writers had no control over events in the real world around the time of the film’s release, but watching it in the cinema, only days after extremists have made major strides in the both the UK local and EU Parliament elections, meant that this felt like even more of a missed opportunity. Now more than ever, we need a mainstream blockbuster that really concentrates on that main message of how to deal with difference in society. And Days of Future Past is found wanting here.

Developing Relationships

The film starts in the future, essentially in the final act of the narrative. We’re told that Magneto and Professor X are allies now (although it’s a strangely passive alliance, hardly even a hint of their different approaches which has been so central to almost any other story with them in). It’s completely glossed over in those few lines, and slightly acknowledged as Magento apparently dies.

Again, surely this would have been a better tack for the movie to take. In the excellent First Class, we saw Magneto and Xavier as allies (so we know it’s within them to work together). We then saw the friction and ultimately the consequences of their differing approaches to dealing with the rest of humanity.

Yes, we’re given some good scenes in Days of Future Past where the two characters confront what happened in First Class, but again, it doesn’t really move on from there. I would have loved to have seen the circumstances in which their, and indeed, the ‘normal’ humans’ antagonism, is forced to falter in the face of Trask’s weapons. Confronting the horror of what has been unleashed, and seeing how the consequences unfold, would have been a much more interesting story, than just skipping to the end and telling us that there’s an unstoppable menace at large.

Time Travel

The other main selling point for this film was the time travel aspect – or rather, the blending together of the cast from the original trilogy, and the First Class crew. Once the film settles into the initial premise – stop Mystique – there was one moment in the film where I thought we were going to be in for something really special.

There’s an assault on the White House, and in the ensuing chaos, the young Stryker (he who will go on to experiment on Wolverine) is electrocuted, and is on the verge of dying. This leads us to a lovely sequence where the consequences of such a death are played out – very reminiscent of Back to the Future, where the consequences of time travel are real and dangerous.

This was excellent – for the first time in the film, it felt like there was real jeopardy for the main characters, and the potential of a real twist in the plot. Sadly, it was never followed up on. Which is strange, because we’re told that changing the past is essentially what will save the future. So, aside from the film not seeming to want to concentrate on what the underlying theme probably should have been, when the *apparent* main message is dealt with, it’s thrown away moments later.

This is especially evident in what happens with Magneto. The film takes great care to make something of the relationship between him and Mystique – quite rightly (Fassbender and Lawrence are great in their respective roles). But once the initial crucial event is prevented, and Magneto starts to take matters into his own hands, this would have been the moment to reintroduce the concept of both changing the future, and of the real underlying theme I discussed previously.

Because this is the interesting thing – what is Magento’s motivation, and how is it shifting and changing throughout the film? Like I said at the beginning, his rationale is ultimately presented as wrong, but it’s never really presented as evil – it’s understandable, and thus ripe for exploration. That conflict – whether to take arms to protect your kin, or to work together with your enemy to acknowledge a diverse society, lies just behind all of Magneto’s actions, and yet it’s never really explored. Instead we get flying stadia and Iron Man-lite robots.

No Future

I’ve already talked about why the scenes set in the future don’t seem to carry much menace – instead being an excuse for special effects. But this is worsened by two other things.

Firstly, the aforementioned lack of antagonism between Magneto and Professor X in the future. Yes, it’s fine for them to be allies, and yes, McKellen and Stewart are getting on in years, but there’s hardly even a flicker of what surely should be an age old argument of different approaches between them. They’re allies, certainly, in the face of an enemy without empathy, but you would have imagined that their fundamental differences would have manifested ever so slightly more.

Secondly, Ellen Page is criminally underused – forget the slight plot weirdness over her powers, and presuming that her part is small due to other production reasons (ultimately we have to be realistic and realise that such things will affect the story being told, though I’d be interested to hear whether this film passes the Bechdel test) – there’s the moment when Wolverine, in the panic of the assault on Stryker, impales Page’s character.

Now, given the cold start to the film, where it’s assumed the audience is pretty familiar with most of the characters, we can also make the assumption that this moment is meant to be a call-back to a similar incident (albeit I think with Anna Paquin’s character?) in one of the previous movies, where Wolverine accidentally does the same thing, but the victim is healed.

Given too, that this moment of tension occurs at the exact same time as the plot is seemingly about to go into full on twist mode, finally giving us something that would be an exciting surprise, it’s strange that again, there are really no consequences to this action. Yes, we see in a couple more scenes that Kitty Pryde is still mortally wounded, and that this *might* have an impact on her ability to send Wolverine back in time – but it doesn’t. It’s not even hinted at. Which again negates the whole point of it.

Imagine if those two moments, which seem to work in perfect harmony, had been given a much bigger impact – not only is Wolverine expected to change the past by uniting Magneto and Professor X much earlier than usual, and stop Mystique, but he now has to do it whilst the future is ripped out from beneath him. Again, real danger for our protagonists.

Indeed, apart from having the thrill of having Patrick Stewart utter a single word (alas, it’s ‘Future’ rather than ‘Space’) as the first line, I would have *started* the film in the 70s. Take it from the point of view of First Class Magento, Xavier and Mystique. They have their own problems to work through, their own conflicts and different approaches to resolve, when suddenly Wolverine appears on the scene, seemingly crazy and talking about the future.

This way, we have no idea if we can trust Wolverine, but we slowly reveal what’s happening in the future – via the Back to the Future-esque moments, and then finally we flick between the two eras as the conclusion comes into view. That’s what I would have done, anyway. I appreciate I’ve offered a lot of critique, with relatively slim solutions, but I’m not a screenwriter (yet), and well, I’m not intending to insult the choices made in production – just put across my thoughts after having seen the film.

So, whilst being a fairly entertaining film, with some moments of quality, and a brilliant cast, Days of Future Past ultimately feels like a missed opportunity and a disappointment. I can only hope that the third instalment in the series returns to the roots of the franchise and concentrates on developing characters, rather than fancy set pieces and an emotionless future.

My Mission for 2014: Writing is Structure

It will come as no surprise to anyone that I’m interested in writing, and specifically the writing of narratives. I’ve always harboured a desire, if not the will or confidence, to write stories – scripts, sketches, that kind of thing. And, in the realm of technology, I’ve long been interested in structure. It’s often said that structure can be bad – too restrictive, too cookie-cutter. That’s not the kind of structure I’m interested in.

Things like Mythology Engine, Storybox and the Stories Ontology were attempts to convey the kind of thing I am interested in – but they, too, can be interpreted as trying to dissect narratives, and thus ultimately destroy them. In contrast, I guess what I’ve been trying to investigate is the structure which informs the creation of narratives, as well as the analysis, with the latter being only so that the narratives can be discussed, shared, and in turn, inspire new narratives. So my interest is more in conveying meaning, where possible – telling stories to the machines, as I’ve noted elsewhere. But also in using structure as a guide, as an inspiration.

Many times when I’ve tried to start writing a story, I’ve struggled. At first, the fear grips you that it’s down to two things – you can’t write, and you don’t have any good ideas. The first fear can, after a while, be dismissed, especially with the adage that is prevalent in technology as well as writing – just make/write something, a terrible first draft, just so you’ve got somewhere to start from.

The second fear, of no ideas, is a harder one to shake. Primarily because, in a lot of the writing I’ve read on writing, it concentrates literally on the process of writing, of scrawling on paper or typing on a computer. Giving yourself time to write, setting a target of a certain number of words a day, even in terms of writing prompts, little sentences designed to spark your mind.

But I’ve never really found this helpful either. What is helpful, I’ve found, is structure. Again, not as a ‘this is how you must write your story’, but as inspiration – ‘try this way of structuring your story, and see where that takes you’. Robert McKee’s book, Story, is a step in the right direction, but it felt a little too focused solely on screenwriting, and was a tad too opinionated and didactic for me. I got about a third of the way through the book, and, feeling it wasn’t for me, gave up, falling back again on the thought that you just had to sit in front of a blank screen, perhaps with a writing prompt, and see what happens.

Then, two things happened – David Varela’s tweet – ‘Writing is structure’, provided a spark of light, for me. For so long, I’d been under the impression that structure was always viewed with suspicion by writers, for the ‘cookie-cutter’ reasons above. But this gave me confidence.

And then, I read FilmCritHulk’s Screenwriting 101. I found it incredibly inspirational, broad-minded and enlightening. It doesn’t really talk about the process of writing as I’ve mentioned above (the ‘just sit down and write’), nor the slightly worn phrase ‘writing is rewriting’ (the latter, which may indeed be true, doesn’t help, in terms of a narrative, if you’re trying to work out how to start).

What it does, is help you focus on the inspiration for narrative and character, and suggests several structural approaches for both analysing and creating. Things like the five-act structure, character trees, snowflakes, ‘therefore and but’, and so on. Seriously, read the book. Again, it doesn’t insist that you write every story in these ways, but it gives you frameworks, approaches – things you can try, which will help you structure a narrative, before you get to the stage of literally writing the dialogue and so on.

That, that is what I’m interested in. And I want to know more. Firstly, because ever since reading the book, whenever I watch a film or TV show, I’m consciously looking out for five-act structures and so on. But secondly, because I want to build something. You see, as far as I’m aware, all the tools out there for writers are either ones that are very general purpose ‘idea collection’ tools (mind-maps, post-it notes etc), or purposely script-writing ones (things like Final Draft, or Adobe Story). But I’m not sure there’s anything in between. Something which takes the structures and frameworks and leads you through them, or helps you create narratives using them, or even just helps you analyse existing narratives through that lens. So that’s what I want to build.

To that end, this year, I want to learn and understand as much as possible about the structure, craft and process of writing narratives. I’m not as interested, as I say, in things like ‘how do you find time to write’ or ‘do you just sit down at your computer, type, look over it, and type again’. I want to find out more about the different ways you can structure a narrative – what are they, how often are they used, where are they helpful, how might they be combined.

I want to speak to as many writers as possible about this. If you’re interested, get in touch (I already have a short list of folk I’d like to talk to, so expect emails, but get in touch anyway!). If you don’t really use structure, that’s absolutely fine – I’m not trying to force everyone to use it – I just want to provide something for those who do use it, or are interested in it. Similarly, if there are tools which already do this – I’m interested in terms of research, but I’m still going to build something, if only for my own learning – please don’t bring me down 😉

I’m thinking this could result in a series of blog posts, or perhaps even a podcast series, of interviews with writers – and then ultimately a tool, based on all that knowledge.

Let’s see where this takes me.

P. S. Things that also helped inspire me to write this – John Yorke’s Into the Woods, Matt Locke’s Don’t get bigger, get weirder, and Kim Plowright’s Guiding Principles.

P. P. S. Oh, and I guess I should write a blog post about the slightly-different new job at some point, too..

P. P. P. S. Also worth clarifying – I’m not looking to build something whereby machines auto-generate stories. Whilst that may be an avenue worth exploring, I’m not interested in taking authorship out of the hands of humans. This is about giving more tools to humans to create stories, and, perhaps, to widen the audience of those stories to include machines as well.

Designing Webs – Euro IA 2013

On Saturday, I presented a talk at Euro IA 2013 called ‘Designing Webs – Information Architecture as a Creative Practice‘. Rather than write the talk up in full, for now, I’ll just link you to the slides (with my speaker notes), Martin Belam’s write-up, and Boon Yew Chew’s sketch-notes (ooh, my first ever sketch-notes!).

This talk was a long time in coming. The ideas contained within have been bubbling around my head for most of the year, indeed, ever since I (re)discovered TARDIS Eruditorum and, at the same time, was pointed to John Higgs’ book about the KLF (thanks, Libby!). Reading both at the same time, the connections between Alan Moore’s concept of magic, the ideas of alchemy, and linked data/internet of things, were both fascinating and strangely familiar.

I wasn’t the first to make these kind of connections – Dan Catt has touched on similar things with his Artisanal Numbers project. Indeed, a lot of the content of the talk owes much to others – Michael Smethurst, Leila Johnston, Alyson FieldingTom Coates, Tom Armitage, James Burke, James Bridle, Russell Davies – all far cleverer and more accomplished than I. And yet, I wanted to draw all these threads together. I’ve had about three draft versions of blog posts just touching on the magic/alchemy thing sitting on WordPress for ages, and I could never quite get it to gel. The talk, being forty-five minutes (or just under, once I’d cut out the various comedy clips I was going to include, given the rather tenuous Edinburgh Fringe connection), doesn’t cover all the ideas I would have liked to, or in enough depth. I’ve probably been far too simplistic about the ideas of the people I’ve mentioned above, but there is frankly loads to say. Indeed, I’m hoping that an upcoming episode of Henry Cooke‘s Unevenly Distributed podcast will expand on a few of them (it was recorded a month or so prior to writing this talk).

I’d also like to explore the themes a lot more – getting my hands dirty with Arduinos, bringing to life the Internet of Fictional Things and so on. Also, I can certainly see how the talk might be perceived as a little too wooly, hand-wavy, naive. In response, I’d say that yes, the magic/alchemy thing is just a metaphor, albeit a really interesting and fun one for me, but there are practical points underpinning it. Not least that by thinking of your product, service or creative work as a web, rather than purely as a website, you get to the absolute essence of what it is – which helps you design for both now and the future. Martin makes the point that when redesigning the Guardian’s Culture section, he tried a similar approach – yes, it’s not necessarily easy or possible to complete the task straight away, but remember, you’re trying to build something that will last, something that will add to human culture and society in the long run – something which one day we may not even need a screen or visual interface to interact with – we might be able to appreciate each web for what it is.

So, yes, there it is. Thank you to all those who encouraged me to write the talk, refine it and so on – oh, and one note of caution – the domain model for sport (really just football) which is at the beginning (and you may have seen in a much more visually appealing state in some of Mike Atherton and even Louis Rosenfeld’s presentations) – that’s not actually the official BBC one, it’s one I created myself a while back, but has influenced the BBC’s Sport Ontology.