It’s purple. Not like a bruise but like an emperor. What’s it doing on my drive?
Perhaps it’s a swarm of rare butterflies on their elusive migration. The Purple Emperor avoids flower nectar and seeks out rotting flesh. Maybe what’s in my cellar is attracting them. With a shiver of revulsion, I try to brush aside the fear.
But too late. Already lepidopterists are gathering under my trees, armed with nets and small packets of Stinking Bishop cheese. I rush to bolt the door but two have taken up station with field glasses in my kitchen.
Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here
In 2004, a woman in Florida sold for US$28,000 a grilled cheese sandwich on which she claimed to see the image of Jesus Christ. The toast Jesus phenomenon tells us something interesting about knowledge.
Our brains are programmed to seek and find patterns in things. Not all the patterns we see are real. Random events can create an illusion of structure where none really exists. We think we’ve seen a signal in the noise but all we’ve seen is random noise.
Michael Blastland delivered a lecture at the Royal Society of Arts on this theme. One of his examples comes from the announcement in January 2018 by the Office for National Statistics that unemployment in the UK had fallen by 3,000 people to 1.44 million. So far so certain. But in the methodology section of the report they acknowledge that statistically this figure has a 95% chance of being true, plus or minus 77,000. In other words, unemployment might have fallen by as much as 80,000, but it might just as easily have risen by 74,000.
Blastland argues that the great threat to progress is not ignorance, it’s the illusion of knowledge.
Hunt explained, not unreasonably, that nobody could know what would happen if no deal was agreed with the EU. He noted that Parliament might block a no-deal exit and that this might lead to an election. Hunt said he was simply being honest, but Neil accused him of being slippery and untrustworthy.
We human beings prefer certainty to uncertainty. At least for some things. It’s true that we prefer not to be told how a novel turns out before we read it. And we can cope with uncertainty in weather reports. But we don’t care for it much in our politicians. Perhaps we’ll only get the politicians we really deserve when we’re less insistent on easy certainty.
Has your creative well run dry? Don’t worry. Writing isn’t a mysterious process that depends on random visits from the muse. It’s a craft, and there are craft techniques for generating ideas when none come on the aether. I should confess neither of these techniques is mine.
The first workaround comes, I think, from Boris Fishman but I may be wrong. Putting together things that aren’t related is the basis of metaphor, that mainstay of poetic creation. So, if you’re stuck, just give yourself two unrelated random things and then create a story that links them. Say you choose swan and company. Here’s my example of a story that links swan and company.
I love the mechanical simplicity of this workaround. You can create a story idea in five minutes. It comes from Dan Harmon.
Step 1. Your mind is blank.
Step 2. Start with a random idea, anything that interests you, anything at all. Harmon explains his technique with “racoons”. I’m going to be more pedestrian and use “quest” because that’s what a lot of writers write. Draw a circle as the world of the quest.
Step 3. Now draw a line horizontally through the circle, dividing it into upper and lower halves. As yourself what those halves might be. Maybe the upper half is the everyday, known world, and the bottom half is the special, unknown world of the quest. Label these halves.
Step 4. Now divide the circle again with a vertical line dividing it into left and right halves. Decide what this division is and label it. Maybe it’s fearful and brave.
You now have four quadrants. Going clockwise around the circle from the top, your protagonist will start in the known world and fearful. S/he will travel to the unknown world, where terrifying trials await. In the course of these challenges s/he will discover courage and then return changed to the known world. As you can see, this is the Hero’s Journey.
In Harmon’s example, the divisions are biological/ storybook racoons and honest/ dishonest racoons. Pick divisions that have resonance for you and which you feel excited to explore.
Stories have structures, or arcs as authors like to call them. When we think of stories in this way, we can begin to see story-types.
The simplest stories
There are two very simple structures. They’re so basic they don’t really qualify as satisfying stories.
In Rags to Riches, everything gets better. In Riches to Rags, everything gets worse. Though few self-respecting authors would tell such a naïve tale, politicians tell them all the time.
The simplest viable story
This is the Freytag triangle. It follows Aristotle’s injunction that a story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end (the Three-Act structure).
The beginning comprises the exposition and the inciting incident. The exposition phase introduces essential information about the characters and setting, while the inciting incident launches the action.
Tension rises in the middle as the protagonist struggles to achieve something. There is a turning point. And tension falls towards the resolution.
In the ending, the problem is resolved and there is a denouement where all the loose ends are tied up.
There are many ways of structuring a story, but the Freytag triangle is a classic on which a lot of others are built.
The W Diagram
This is essentially a Freytag triangle with a high point where everything appears to be resolved before the rug is pulled out from under the protagonist and a new trial begins.
A complex story like a novel may have several hills and valleys. There may also be subplots with arcs of their own.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Shape of Stories
In a humorous talk, the writer Kurt Vonnegut outlined the shape of stories, based on his rejected Master’s thesis. The diagrams and text from Vonnegut’s talk here are from Mcclure.
For those of you who like to understand method, read on. For those of you who don’t care, skip to the Hero’s Journey. These shapes were generated by analysing the words in the stories and scoring them for the degree of happiness they convey. Words like love and laughter score high, while words like terrorist and death score low. You can check this out yourself at the authors’ Hedonometer site.
Before you get too excited about this, consider the following sentence:
“Trekking through the vale of tears, dark, clammy and terrifying, we were ambushed by the monster and killed it for all of you.”
Almost every word here in unhappy, but the overall sense is one of hope. The meaning of a set of words depends on context and not just the words by themselves.
The shape generated by a machine intelligence, of course, depends on the method used. Compare these two shapes for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This comparison was done by Kirsten Menger-Anderson.
The Hero’s Journey is among the most commonly used story templates. It derives from the work of Joseph Campbell, who believed all stories, at root, followed the same archetype. George Lucas used it to structure the first Star Wars movie. In Act 1 the protagonist receives the call to adventure and is assisted by a mentor to accept the challenge and move into the “special world”. In Act 2, the protagonist is subjected to a road of trials, before winning the reward and starting back to the everyday world. Act 3 follows the road back where the protagonist delivers the reward.
For those who don’t like straight lines
The quest structure, such as the Hero’s Journey, can be represented by a “there and back” circle.