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Storytelling Part 6 “Originality” Lately I’ve been listening to various Movie Review Podcasts (I’m a fan of the Screenjunkies Movie Fights Podcast) as well as comicbook review channels on YouTube. I like to know what’s going on but I don’t have the time or the finances to watch every movie or read ever comic. Honestly I don’t think I’d enjoy them all anyway but as a writer I do find the information to be useful because there are lots of good ideas out there to be found and sometimes it’s helpful to learn what not to do (they can’t all be good). Studying what your peers do is valid education because no one person knows everything or is a master of every skill. It’s also very true that what works for you as a storyteller isn’t going to necessarily work for me (I either don’t have the experience to tell that particularly story well or it just wouldn’t interest me enough to go that direction). Anyhow, getting back onto topic, there is a common theme I keep hearing from reviewers in that they regularly complain about originality. These guys keep talking about how they don’t see anything new or original and judge the quality of a book or film on that basis. I would like to challenge this position by saying that originality has nothing to do with enjoyment (and even less to do with the quality of the project). Entertainment is for the masses, not necessarily the few that evaluate it, and if the general public is entertained then perhaps the piece of art was successful in what it tried to communicate. But I would like to take it a step further and say that originality is secondary to the skill employed in the attempt. Did you do it well? Did people enjoy it? Did it successfully deliver the message you intended? It’s all fine and dandy for critics to take an authoritarian attitude and judge something on the merits of how they think it should be done (and to be fair, the person may simply not have enjoyed it without needing a reason) but if it made money and was enjoyed by those who saw it was it really that bad? The fact is that truly original ideas are very rare if they are even possible at all. I have no doubt that you (the reader) have many original thoughts on a daily basis but it will also be true that a survey of people at random will reveal that at least one person had the same thought or idea. Here’s another perspective, when you go to film school what do you study? You examine the techniques and skills of those that came before you. The same holds true for comics, novels and pretty much any entertainment medium. What you are studying are the known and proven successful actions of others but this does tend to work against originality a bit doesn’t it? This also isn’t a bad thing. When you communicate with another person (and all forms of art, at their very core, are just methods of communication) you will fail if you do not first play to the expectations of the person who is receiving the communication; at least a little. Disregarding the manners and customs of the area in which you are living will tend to make people unwilling to communicate with you and may create unnecessary antagonism. The same concept applies to art forms or genres that have aspects people expect to see. Originality has no bearing on whether or not an art form will be successful. What does matter is the skill with which you apply what you know. It is said that there are only seven basic plots in all of fiction (Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth). I don’t necessarily agree with this but it is also true that all commercially successful stories fall into one of these categories so it probably is valid data. Again, if this is the proven successful formula and you cannot make another choice then there will never be any originality in storytelling. So then the only course of action is to be good at what you do, to apply the formula with skill and to be as creative as you can with the story. If people are entertained and sucked into the story, if they feel invested and along for the ride on the same terms as the characters involved, then they will be more likely to be surprised by plot twists and may not even care if they see it coming. So what does it mean to do something well? It means understanding the basics of that thing and understanding what fans expect. It means being well versed in the subject (including the many forms it can take) and its application. It means to be flexible about the application to a degree where you can take advantage of unexpected benefits and to make changes when you find that what you wanted to do isn’t working out. I find that some of the greatest innovations and unexpected creativity come from having to work within limitations. Limitations are, at least for me, creatively stimulating and usually result in something far better than what I would have come up with otherwise (in fact, one of the first things I do when writing a new story is establish the parameters/limitations within which I am going to construct the story). If you want to write a SciFi story then the thing to do is to look to the masters of the craft that you admire or enjoyed. Look to TV shows and films as well as books & comics. Who are the writers that were successful and what can you learn from their writing style to incorporate into your own works? Are there any really good ideas that can inspire you or possibly avoid if you want to do something unique? When I was new to GMing I started looking at the stories that I enjoyed and one of the writers that stood out for me was Chris Claremont (who is famous for his 16 year run on the X-Men that made that series the top selling comic in the world). His stories were very entertaining but the thing that made me pick him over others was that he was engaged in the practice of serialized storytelling. Novelists (regardless of the skill of their craft) aren’t necessarily experienced in that style but it was the skill I needed to learn. When you run an RPG you need to keep all of your Players in mind (making sure to provide something for everyone to do) and you have to be able to tell short compartmentalized stories that form a piece of a larger tapestry. This is what comic writers do (each issue in an ongoing story has to stand on its own merits as much as form a chapter in a larger tale) so it was natural to look to them as my inspiration. Chris Claremont proved to be a good example because he was a master at long form storytelling. Sadly this is not how comics are made today at least at the Big 2. When he wasn’t constrained by the mini-series format and had the freedom to stretch his legs Clarement could build momentum by feeding off of his own mythology. He would set up events that could take two years to realize and by being patient with the presentation (and knowing where it was all going) the payoff would be tremendous. This is something I really miss and why I quit reading the X-Men after he left. Superhero comics today usually are limited to short runs or miniseries with a regular rotation of creative teams. It’s really tough for me to get into the stories like I could back in the day when there isn’t as much consistency (damn, that makes me sound old). The same would hold true for film. Whenever I’ve heard famous film makers talk about their craft they invariably discuss the examples they looked to and who they emulated in building their skill set. Getting back to my original point, the people we look to as standards of excellence are anything but original but they are creative and work to better what they know. Today we see George Millar as a visionary director and at the top of his game. At age 70 he directed one of the most successful action films we’ve seen in years but if you go back to his early films they are like night and day in terms of quality. His first films weren’t very good (the first Mad Max film is 15 minutes of killer action and an hour that will put you to sleep) but he certainly has improved. I would say that to be good at anything you need to recognize that there is always something new to learn and to always be looking for how you can do better. A very wise person once said that you can’t learn anything if you already know everything and the day I applied that basic truth it changed my life. Woody
Unusual Terms Hi, My name is Woody Arnold. I like to write comics and play RPG's. People tend to write about what they know and so I am writing a Blog about RPG's (specifically how to run them) and how those storytelling techniques apply to other things. With almost 30 years under my belt I think I might have something valuable to say on the subject "but" people who aren't familiar with RPG's may not know what I'm talking about. For the uninitiated you can find an ever expanding glossary of terms below (terms in Bold have definitions elsewhere in the Glossary): aI: Artificial Intelligence; This is a term for extremely complex computer programs that possess the ability to think and reason like people "or" are sufficiently well programmed to make it look like they can. They aren't necessarily considered to be alive though that depends on the genre and setting you are using. Big Two: This refers to Marvel and DC, the two largest comics companies on the planet. Boss Fight: Also known as the Boss battle, it is uncertain if this term originated with video games (likely) or ported in from RPG's. This refers to an Encounter where the Players are taking on a major villain, an extremely powerful enemy/monster or the main leader. In video games the main bad guy is usually way more powerful than the characters however in RPG's he is often comparable in power or just a little higher (possibly benefiting from better gear). The main threat can come from traps, some aspect of the environment or more henchmen/soldiers. Campaign: This would be a series of sessions of a Role Playing game that are played in sequence and form ongoing chapters in a continuing story. I can be anything from two session to five years worth of play (or more if you're really dedicated). Character: In RPG's, this is the identity that is assumed by the Player. It is a specific individual that is created using exact rules, recorded on a character sheet and usually created using several dice rolls (for randomity). Characters are distinguished by such things as Basic Attributes (Strength, Endurance, Intelligence, etc.), Race, Skills and Special Abilities. Different types of gear can be equipped on the character as well (sometimes granting additional special abilities). The pan difference between Pen & Paper RPG's as opposed to video games is that RPG's grant about a million times more control over customization and character selection. Cyberpunk: Named after a Role Playing Game by the same name, the Cyberpunk genre usually takes place in a near future with significant advances in technology including cybernetics (often available to the average citizen), advanced weaponry, virtual reality internet (see Decker below) and oppressive governments or corporations. It is usually presented as a dark future setting though this is not always the case. Psychic powers or magic may be elements of this genre. The Shadowrun RPG and Ghost in the Shell would probably be the two most famous examples of Cyberpunk. Decker: In the Shadowrun RPG a DEcker is a person who uses a Cyberdeck to become a super hacker. A Cyberdeck is a powerful piece of computer hardware that allows for full immersion VIrtual REality and includes powerful programs to assist in the process of hacking. This sort of thing is common in SciFi stories, especially those taking place in the near future. the best example of this process can be found in Ghost in the Shell: Stand along complex. Fantasy: This is the Genre made popular by such novel series as Conan and Lord of the Rings. The first Role Playing Game (Dungeons & Dragons) was exclusively a fantasy game. The Fantasy Genre commonly includes magic (with great variability in how common it is), medieval european tropes (though other cultures are often substituted or included), fantasy races such as Elves & Dwarves, classic monsters such as Orcs & Goblins and fantastic creatures such as Dragons. Castles, epic quests and magic artifacts are frequent tropes of this genre. Encounter: This is a RPG term that refers any battle or dramatic social situation that can occur in the game. Encounters don't necessarily have to be deadly but are expected to be challenging (or just entertaining). A general rule of thumb is that if the GM instigates the encounter it is either dangerous or moves the plot forward in some way. If the Players instigate the encounter they probably expect to win and at least think they have the advantage. Boss Fights are not generally referred to as encounters. Game Engine: Also known as a "system," this term refers to a specific rules set that is used to run a RPG. It covers all the specific rules that are used to run the game and address specific situations. Frequently a particular game will have rules that are specific to itself however it is not uncommon for a company to use the same set of rules for multiple games it publishes (or to license a popular rules set to another company). See also, Game Mechanics. Game mechanics: This term refers to the rules of a RPG however it also covers, more specifically, how they are arranged (compared to other games) and what is specifically done to address certain in-game issues. It covers such things as how combat is handled, damage, skills, character creation, etc. Think of it as being similar to the programming that runs a video game except that a flesh and blood person had to do all the computing as opposed to a machine. Game Time: This is the amount of time that occurs during the course of the story, which is going to be very different from the amount of time your Player's experience. Game Time is very fluid in that you could skip forward hours, days or even years (glossing over what ocured in the interim) while a 2 minute battle could take more than 3 hours to play out. Gamer: This term refers to anyone who plays games of any sort on a regular basis as a hobby (and occasionally a profession) however it is often taken to assume that a person primarily plays Video Games. See Pen & Paper below. Genre: This would be simply defined as a particular style of world setting which includes such things as styles of clothing, tech level, the presence of psychic abilities or magic, specific races and other specific things that are usually associated with that genre. Every genre has certain things (sometimes uniqute to that specific setting) that fans have come to expect. GM: Game Master. This is the guy who runs a Role Playing Game. also known as a DM (Dungeon Master), referee and all manner of other clever things. Megacorporation: These would be corporations that are so big and powerful that they can stand toe to toe with national governments. They are truly global conglomerates with holdings in every continent and participate in a wide variety of business ventures (frequently being so diversified that they are also completely self-sufficient). Megacorps are commonly depicted as being completely separate from national government and not bound by their laws even when operating on their soil (corporate land is considered to be sovereign territory). Megacorps are a key part of the shadowrun RPG and are a common element of various sciFi settings. Pen & Paper: Pencil & Paper would probably be more accurate, but this term is generally applied to the tabletop rPG genre to distinguish it from the video game RPG Genre. Historically speaking, Pen & Paper came first however the video game industry stole the term to describe the video games (such as Final Fantasy) that were being created based on this style of game. As a result of the massive jump in popularity of the Video GAme Genre in the 80's & 90's, video games overtook their predecessors and the terms RPG & Gamer came to be applied more to people who played video games. As a result it became necessary to clarify and redefine the type of game when one refers to himself as a Gamer to avoid any confusion. Player: These are the people in a Role Playing Gamer that are actually playing. Usually they only get to control one character at a time. RPG: Role Playing Game; It's a lot like improv acting with rules. A Game Master sets up the scenario and the Players (who have fully fleshed out characters with all kinds of cool special abilities) get to go on an adventure. It's very similar to games like Final FAntasy however the storyline is usually waaaay more free form & flexible. Session: this is a single session of a Role Playing Game, usually running about 4 to 6 hours depending on the group. setting: For Role Playing Games, the term "Setting" refers to a particular game world that the characters exist in. This is a technical term separate from (though similar to) the usual dictionary definition. A Setting in an RPG would usually fall under a specific Genre but have qualities and characteristics that set it apart from other world settings. Differences could include such things as higher or lower levels of technology, the presence of magic (to greater or lesser degrees) and unique countries & histories. Space Opera: This is a sub-category within the SciFi genre that usually focuses on faster than light space travel, encounters with alien races, interstellar wars and space exploration. Good examples of this would be Farscape, Star Trek and Star WArs. Super Heroes: This term is jointly owned by Marvel & DC (or more correctly Disney and Warner Bros now) but is also used to describe the Genre these companies created. The Super hero Genre is usually contemporary and focuses on exceptional individuals with special powers, skills and/or training that set them apart from normal people and allow them to accomplish superhuman feats. Characters in this setting are either Super Heroes, Super Villains or some sort of secret organization (or government) that is involved with or opposed by either group. The Heroes are usually champions of the average citizen while the villains tend to be focused on using their abilities to make money, get revenge on a hero or dominate the world. Epic battles between heroes and villains are common. Space travel and contact with alien races is a common Trope of this Genre. In this Genre the world usually looks the same as the current time period however the average tech level will be a few grades higher and specific people may possess technology that is centuries ahead of the average. The comics published by Marvel & DC are great examples of this Genre as are the films produced by those companies. Table Top: Though technically it could refer to RPG's This term generally refers to board games and occasionally card games as they must be played on a flat table top. This term was recently popularized on Will Wheaton's show on GEek & Sundry. TPK: Total Party Kill; This is a scenario where all of the characters are wiped out in a single evening without being able to bring in replacement characters. This is frequently the end of the story whether it was planned or not. Trope: websters defines a Trope as "a common or overused theme or device." BAsically a Trope is a common element you will see in a particular Genre and forms part of the flavor of it. Tropes are not necessarily good or bad but are instead just what is usually done and the quality or effectiveness of it depends a lot on who is telling the story and the interest level of the person experiencing it.

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