Friday Fictioneers – Purple Emperor

demolished-purple-tent
PHOTO PROMPT © Jan Wayne Fields

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

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Friday Fictioneers – Martians

trespass_randy_mazie-1
PHOTO PROMPT © Randy Mazie

You probably remember the headlines about bacteria in that sample of Mars rock. Life on other worlds!

You won’t remember, because nobody blabbed, the bacteria were earth-like. Same genetic code, same enzymes. Too earth-like.

Buy me another whiskey and I’ll explain.

We thought contamination, of course. But the sample was four billion years old. Here’s the kicker—life on earth started around three and half billion years.

You put the pieces together. Life on Mars was earth-like. It began before life on Earth. See? Our life originated on Mars. Nothing else fits. They suppressed that.

Another? Thanks. You’re a gentleman.

 

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

Friday Fictioneers – Dilemma

ted-strutz-plane
PHOTO PROMPT © Ted Strutz

The dialysis machine clicked and hummed. Nurses came and went. Days passed, weeks.

Then there was a doctor. “I’m afraid there’s still no suitable donor. The wait might take years.”

“I don’t want to die,” I said. “And I can’t live like this.”

The doctor stroked his chin. It made a rasping sound. He looked around him and lowered his voice. “Have you considered going abroad? In China you could get this done in weeks.”

“How can they do that?”

“I’ve heard they harvest the organs of executed prisoners, but no-one is sure.”

For a long time, I pondered.

 

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

Friday Fictioneers – Holiday Town

train-station-sandra-crook
PHOTO PROMPT © Sandra Crook

There is a castle on the hill. Of course. Bright pennants fly from its turrets, and tin men issue from its gates for quests and feats of derring-do.

There’s a dragon in the valley, puffing great gouts of fire. Naturally.

There will be a bay with a captured treasure ship riding at anchor. I can’t spy it yet but I know it’s there.

And there’ll be a princess, awaiting rescue from the evil baron. That’s what princesses are for. And she’ll swoon and love me.

The summer hols stretch ahead as far as the imagination can see.

 

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

Friday Fictioneers – Urban Haunting

rockefeller-center-face-in-the-crowd
PHOTO PROMPT © Roger Bultot

Why are you chanting woo-ooo at me like an idiot? If you got something to say, speak. Oh yeah, right—you’re a ghost. The white sheet thing? Great to meet you. And I’m Santa Claus.

Listen, I’m telling you, you’re going to need a better story than this. If you’re after money, wait till Halloween. I don’t have a bean anyhow.

You want me to believe that’s your body, or at least your skeleton, in the glass case? No, I can’t see your ribcage. That’s a stack of pretzels.

Beat it, before I call the cops.

 

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

119. Brexit, uncertainty and the toast Jesus

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.

toast Jesus

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.

So how do we get from the toast Jesus problem to Brexit? Andrew Neil on 12 July 2019 interviewed the two candidates for leadership of the UK Conservative Party and hence for the Prime Ministership of the country. He took Jeremy Hunt to task for not being willing to promise that the UK would have left the European Union by the 31 October deadline.

Andrew Neil Jeremy Hunt

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.

Friday Fictioneers – Reincarnation

hydro-dale
PHOTO PROMPT © Dale Rogerson

She’s not gone. Not really, not totally. Like scent, she lingers in the air. I turn and turn the ribbon-tied packet of letters, caress the image of her face with my fingertips.

She speaks to me still. Words I remember and social media posts I’ve forgotten or never knew. Their joy slices my heart, these curated words.

How to explain it, this e-mail? Does the soul, after all, survive? Do ghosts exist? Maybe the dead persist in binary sarcophagi, amidst secret chambers of the digital pyramid.

She needn’t be gone. I have her password. She can wear me.

 

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

118. Two great ways to free your creative juices

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.

Random meetings

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.

Quadrants

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.

quandrants 1 and 2

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.

quandrants 3 and 4

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.

You never need suffer writer’s block again.

Friday Fictioneers – Breakfast

pastedgraphic-3
PHOTO PROMPT © J Hardy Carroll

I hated the way he slurped his shake—a bubbling of gastric juices. By some malign alchemy he could transform even the sweet vanilla pods of Madagascar into anger. Every slow suck was a rebuke.

“Pissant little assholes,” he rumbled round the straw. “Ungrateful.”

No need to ask who he meant. It didn’t matter Pop was angry with the whole world.

The rictus of a smile painted on my face, I raised my shake in a toast, “Happy Fourth.”

He squirted ketchup on his fries as if that might drown them, and glowered. “Yeah.”

I sighed. “Pass the freedoms, Pappy.”

 

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

117 The Shape of Stories

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.

simplest 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

Freytag

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.

W Diagram

A complex story like a novel may have several hills and valleys. There may also be subplots with arcs of their own.

 

 

multiple arcs
Hacktext

 

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.

Vonnegut Man in a Hole

Vonnegut Boy Meets Girl

Vonnegut Cinderella.jpg

Machine intelligence analysis of story shapes

Researchers from the Universities of Vermont and Adelaide tried to test Vonnegut’s idea using machine analysis of sentiment in 1,327 Western stories. They found the stories grouped into 6 basic types. The diagrams here are from Munson Missions.

six story arcs

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.

Hamlet plot Hedonometer

Hamlet plot sentiment

The first was generated by the Hedonometer. The second by another machine intelligence routine that rates sentiment (positive or negative). They don’t look much alike.

The Hero’s Journey or Quest

Heros journey linear

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.

Heros journey circular

Stories that loop back on themselves are very satisfying. Though, since a circle contains no change, a spiral may be a more appropriate shape. The diagram below was made by John McPhee to illustrate the structure of his Travels in Georgia

McPhee Spiral

And finally

Tears of Boabdil structure 3

This was the structure diagram I constructed while writing my novel The Tears of Boabdil to try to capture the layering.

Are there any major story arc devices I’ve missed out? Let me know.