Designing story (1): The intimacy of the written word

Source: www.la-screenwriter.com

It’s telling me what I’ve already done, accurately, and with a better vocabulary. – Harold Crick, Stranger than Fiction (2006)

E M Forster said that he wrote the last two chapters of a Passage to India whilst under the spell of T S Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which shows that whilst writing is a solitary process, and reading can be too, both are acts of intimacy, in the true sense of the word.

Intimacy is a lovely word. It means comfort and familiarity which is found in a shared space of connection.  It is much bigger than just a euphemism for sex. Intimacy (or connection) gives our lives meaning. We want to be seen and understood. Well told stories, fictitious or otherwise, can do this. They tell us we are not alone, that someone else understands the very experience that has bruised or filled up our hearts, and that someone know how we feel. Stories explore our hopes and fears. They teach and inspire us. And, they describes us, as Harold says above: accurately, and with a better vocabulary.

Sharing is caring

Imagined and real experiences are managed in the same way by the brain which means that stories create genuine emotions and a sense of being in a certain place or space, and we respond accordingly. Consequently, we fall in love with characters (even scary Heathcliff regularly makes it into the top 10 romantic heroes lists), or we feel bereft when a book ends. It has all felt so special, so intimate, we want to continue being there, in that space.

Fan fiction is one way of spending time in a shared space, though it receives a mixed press. Neil Gaiman is a fan fiction writer as is E L James.

For those who are readers rather than writers, then there is literary and film tourism. We have the studio versions like Harry Potter, or travel agents who take fans to the exact film locations for Lord of the Rings, the Sound of Music, or various places where Jane Austen lived in order to gain more understanding of her life and times, so we can feel closer.

The above examples are well known and extremely popular, but there are many books we put down because that connection hasn’t been made, and we don’t feel that we have anything in common with the writer or the space offered. What is it that entices readers into spending time in a fictional world that a writer has created?  What are the key ingredients?

Time for new stories?

Joseph Campbell said that archetypal story patterns are hard wired in our psyche, and I used to believe this. Nowadays, I am wondering if is it just that we have just heard the same stories (or patterns) over and over, that they are familiar and so we connect because we like the familiarity and comfort. But is this enough? For, as resonating as the hero’s quest is, it wasn’t designed for women even they make up 50% of the population. That said, James Patterson says that he writes for women because 70% of his readers are female and our favourite hero’s quest story Star Wars now has Rey.

Last week, I attended an agile management for women seminar where one of the presenters said that there are no archetypes for strong women in business which made me wonder if that is because there are not many in stories. The first question to ask is there should be? Should there be strong female archetypes specifically design to fit into a patriarchal norm? Or, is it time to write new stories and rewrite our business structures so we don’t have to adopt any persona/archetype – armour up – in order to fit in? Thankfully, we have lots of talented women working on the heroine’s quest, author of historical fiction Phillipa Gregory is rewriting history from a feminine perspective, and script writer Shonda Rimes is putting dazzlingly authentic dialogue into women’s mouths, on prime time TV, expressing exactly how society views and validates them only in relation to men. I literally cheer and clap all the way through Scandal.

Reflecting us

If a story is to have meaning for us, if a writer wants to connect to a reader, then it has to reflect the problems that the reader has, perhaps reflecting our day to day lives, or pondering the human condition and  the philosophical question: Why we are here, which is why I chose Stranger than Fiction (2006), at the top of this blog. It got mixed reviews but it is funny, clever and moving.

Harold Crick lives a lonely life until the day he starts hearing a female narrating his life and foreshadowing his imminent death. He enlists a professor of literature theory who gives Crick a quiz to figure out what his story is:

Has anyone recently left any gifts outside your home? Anything? Gum? Money? A large wooden horse?
Do you find yourself inclined to solve murder mysteries in large, luxurious homes to which you may or may not have been invited? …
Are you the king of anything? King of the lanes at the local bowling alley. King of the trolls?… A clandestine land found underneath your floorboards?
Now, was any part of you, at one time, part of something else? …

This (abridged here) quiz is hilarious, clever and recognisable, because we all do it, even though it can seem naive and silly to refer to literature as a guide, and that message is even enforced in literature: John the so called savage from Brave New World tragically struggles because he uses The Complete Works of Shakespeare as his guide to life. 

Affirming life

However, we do it subconsciously or otherwise because like Harold, we sometimes fret about whether we are living in a tragedy or in a comedy, which might cause us to ask how life should be lived and we might feel like we are living the wrong story.  In the end, Harold embraces his fate and the business of living, connecting and falling in love – all the lovely things we want in a story, and in life too.

It is the polarities of life and death which create action and tension, and, any story which explores death but embraces life, according to Christopher Vogler author of The Writer’s Journey, makes it one which is emotionally universal and intelligent.

But, that doesn’t answer the question of what makes a great story. Are polarities enough? Do we need a gestalt whole of time and place, plot and character? What about archetypes and blueprints for resonance? And shared emotions for that intimacy we crave? How do we go about designing story?

Let us tell some stories and see.

The Connection Economy: Memail, mixtapes and fortune cookies

Me, me, me, me. My favourite person — me. I don’t want to get email from anybody; I want to get memail– Seth Godin

Yesterday, I got my very first memail. Finally! It was magic.

It was from Spotify entitled: Your 2016 in music: personalised stats and playlist, and it jumped right out of my inbox at me amongst all the other stuff I keep getting in this commercial festive frenzy period we have now entered: Save on this, 50% off that, Free delivery, Last chance for Christmas blah blah blah.

I might be slightly biased because I like to talk about data and I like playlists; but I think I am like everyone else, in that, when you think about me, just me, and say or do something for me and me alone: You’ve got me.

My email said this:

You have listened for 1,827 minutes to 107 artists, and 162 unique tracks.

And then, *drumroll* ta daa, it gave me a link to my very own playlist – my very own mixtape – which I am listening to right now. It’s fantastic. It contains 78 of my current favourite tunes and I love it. And, if you want to hear them for yourself (because let’s face it, why wouldn’t you?), then I can share it with you via Spotify or Whatsapp or any other social media platform of your choice. How cool is that?

This is a perfect demonstration of the connection economy in action.

The connection economy

It was marketer Seth Godin who coined the phrase Connection Economy to talk about how marketers could do their jobs differently in the landscape of digital culture.

Now, I am not always a huge fan of Seth Godin, his blogs can be like fortune cookies because, brilliant marketer that he is, he likes to communicate in soundbites. I will never be his target market because I like to ponder anything you say for a very LONG time and come back at least three weeks later to let you know what I think and feel, and whether it is working for me. Yesterday thanks to Spotify sending me memail and a mixtape, I understood for the first time what Godin means by creating something extraordinary and making a connection with your customer. It was no longer just noisy marketing talk.

Create the extraordinary

For, the world has changed and we are overwhelmed with advertising. Everyday we get a million email, and those dreadful impersonal Twitter DMs saying Thanks for the follow please can you do this for me. (Err, no I can’t!), and 10 bajillion adverts on Facebook and everywhere else telling me to buy this, read this, feel this. I am exhausted.

So, to have Spotify send me this was so refreshing. I have said over and over on this site that at the heart of any interaction is our fundamental need to matter. We all want to be heard and we all want to feel like someone is listening to us.  When a person or business, ignores you, or changes the way they interact with you, for no apparent reason, it is painful. And, being talked at, like the emails in my inbox which threaten me with scarcity, deadlines and missed opportunities, is dreadful. The subtext is that you don’t count, you are not special, and you will have to fight for everything you want.

Yesterday, I got memail and a playlist, without even knowing I wanted them. Bottom line: I counted. Someone (well, software) took the time to understand what I liked and then created something for me – my story in song, my soundtrack of 2016 – just for me. I was recognised as having likes, dislikes, preferences. I was seen as me. How often does that happen in life?

Thank you, Spotify, I am thrilled. Merry Christmas!

Maslow’s hierarchy of social media

Maslow's Social Media Hierarchy

The above image has been doing the rounds for a while, because it is an interesting premise to consider: Does social media fulfill a human need? If so, what better way is there to ponder this question than with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

When we look at why the most popular social media apps were invented, it was because they were answering specific needs. Needs which had arisen and were fulfilled because the Internet compresses time and space to create an environment of sharing:

  • Flickr was invented to share photographs online.
  • Instagram was invented to create polaroid style pictures for sharing.
  • Facebook’s originated because people wanted an online Harvard student network and some say because Mark Zuckenburg wanted to invade peoples’ privacy.
  • LinkedIn got started as an online business networking tool.
  • Twitter came about as a way of sharing SMSs to lots of people simultaneously.
  • YouTube was invented, so the story goes, so that a group of people could share videos of a wedding they had all attended.
  • Pinterest was created so people could save and bookmark all the lovely pictures they found surfing the Internet.
  • WordPress was invented so that people could easily blog online and have lovely pages without having to learn html/css.

Each one of these solved a need, which is why google+ did not become the next big thing in social media. Former Google employee Chris Messina says that whilst it was a good idea to stop Facebook’s major marketshare, google+’s only goal was to replace Facebook, and without a specific need to address, google+ tried too hard (and failed) to be everything to everyone.

What everything is to everyone is impossible to define, as we are constantly changing and adapting, which is why social media does not fit into Maslow’s Hierarchy in the way the image portrays.

Maslow said that humans begin at the bottom of the pyramid and then work their way up. So, once the need for food and water is satisfied, shelter is next, and so on. But, this is not how social media works. So, once I have created my identity on facebook, I don’t move up to the level of twitter for self-esteem. We use multiple social media channels simultaneously, so today when I finish this blog I will publicise its existence on facebook, twitter, google+, etc.

Instead, I believe that we have a fundamental human need to be seen and heard, valued and accepted, and our greatest need when it comes to social media is to share our human experiences good and bad, happy and sad, in order to make sense of them, and to feel connected. This is demonstrated by why the channels were invented in the first place. So, it is not the social media channel, the how we share, which should be fitted into Maslow’s hierarchy, it is what we share that fits into this pyramid.

Last summer, I went to the London Content marketing show which was packed full of great talks, which the audience tweeted throughout the day #contentmarketingshow. I listened to many talks about what types of information people share and what is the most popular type of information. As I took notes, I realised that you can categorise the information which gets shared most into the various levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

  • Physiological: Information that make users fearful or angry is shared more often than information which makes them happy, because we all need to feel physically safe and we have that neanderthal fight or flight thing still going on.
  • Safety: Information that helps others and is useful is shared informally or in a formal context such as online educating and learning for the workplace or the classroom, because we all like to feel safe and education is one way of ensuring our safety.
  • Social: People share information about their identity – likes and dislikes, in groups or individually, because we all want to be seen and heard, and to belong and feel loved.
  • Esteem: People share information as social currency: they look cool, they have the latest yoga pants or they have a skill, they blog about something they are knowledgeable, and can influence others, or they wish to be perceived as an influencer, because we need in society to respect ourselves and we like to respect and follow others.
  • Self-actualization:People like to share compelling narratives – anecdotes, stories, pictures, quotation which have helped them grow or to they share to encourage others grow.

And, there is another category of information, which is one of surprise. The type of information which is shared more than anything else on social media is surprising information – in the form of stories, short videos, images, apparently, we all seek that twist in the tale.

Maslow added a similar category after he had completed his pyramid. He called it the self-transcendance or spirituality category. He put it at the top of the pyramid but stressed that it could go hand in hand with the lowest of needs such as food and water. Surprise does help us to transcend/forget ourselves or to see things in a different way.

Life coach Tony Robbins in his research refers to this as variety and say that although humans need certainty (Maslow’s physiological and safety needs), they also like variety and surprise. We crave new stimulus, to take us out of ourselves, to be lifted up and make our day.

And for me, this is the best bit of social media. Social media can make our day and lift us up. I believe that the person who drew this image thought that too, and gave social media the authority of Maslow’s hierarchy. Used correctly, social media can be a fast way for us to transcend ourselves and feel part of something bigger as we climb up our pyramid of needs.

Beautiful content by Bitstrips

image

…and the technology to write her own comic strip. Awesome.

Emerging technologies: New ways for shared experiences

Victorian travel

Recently, Rebecca Solnit in The Guardian described the year 1995, as that old, slow world you could describe the way George Eliot described life before the railroad.

Solnit goes on to describe her stately 1995 routine: She read the newspaper in the morning, listened to the news in the evening and received other news via letter once a day. Her computer was unconnected and so, behaved like a word processor on a desk.

Nowadays, her computer is more like a cocktail party full of chatter increasingly fragmented streams of news and data, leaving Solnit to feel like an anachronism in this completely different world.

As a computer scientist in 1995, my experience was quite different. I already had my first webpage: ‘Hello World!’ and felt connected. I was a graphics programmer and HCI researcher, and I loved sharing information on newsgroups or by email. I lived in Switzerland and was thrilled when the UK newspapers went online. I no longer had to wait for day old news from good old Blighty. Technology helped my research and enriched my life daily.

Ten years on, I trained to be a journalist. During the course, we were told to read all the newspapers everyday and then pitch articles which were very similar to the ones already in the paper. Anniversaries of public events and the deaths, marriages of famous people, were always good fodder to fill up the papers. And a spot of ambulance chasing could get you that human interest story.

It did strike me as all a bit old-fashioned. So, I shouldn’t be so surprised that Solnit feels left behind. This new technology is threatening her way of life when really it could be helping her. And it is interesting that Solnit compares the rate of change today with the Victorian railroads and the fast changing world back then. It is a satisfying comparison.

Alison Byerly, in her book, Are we there yet? Virtual travel and Victorian realism recently reviewed in the TLS, compares chat rooms to railway carriages, SimCity to hot air balloons, and blog links to K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. She also gives a lovely example of Victorian armchair travel when she describes Albert Smith’s Ascent of Mont Blanc (1851-6), which was an interactive scene of a full scale chalet exterior, a pool of water containing live fish, and ten Saint Bernards who would trot about the auditorium delivering packets to chocolate to children. Smith targeted people who would never actually go to Mont Blanc. It was too far and too expensive to travel in their lifetimes. But they could go along to his exhibition and experience the thrill of the ascent.

Today, with a click of a button, we can watch footage of people climbing Mont Blanc and eating chocolate on YouTube. Byerly mentions virtual reality (VR) as another parallel for Smith’s exhibition: but really how many people do you know have a head-mounted display and data-gloves? And really is VR what we need? After, it is a shared experience we are seeking, something we can talk about and take part in together in order to understand. Elsewhere in her book, Byerly gives examples of Victorian full-scale recreations of train crashes and other disasters.

Recently, the New York Times ran a long feature called Snow Fall online about an avalanche at Tunnel Creak, Stevens pass, Washington. There are slide shows of the deceased and their families, pictures of the history of Tunnel Pass, and a computer-generated simulation of the avalanche. It is a great piece of journalism enriched beautifully by technology. It is the modern day equivalent of the Victorian exhibitions.

According to Wikipedia, journalism began in 1400s. Italian and German businessmen wrote down the latest news and circulated it to their connections in the city. The practice grew, especially during wartime so that the people back home would know what was going on. Journalists were providing a service – informing and updating peoples’ lives.

And, now we have access to the latest news all the time. From the simple #hashtag on twitter to longer news articles which are presented in a magazine format by Flipboard. But it is not always new information that we need. Sometimes, we need in depth analysis and explanation, a shared experience, a shared understanding.

At best, journalists are recorders of our time. They bring us life changing historical events, perceived injustices, and remind us of things we should never forget. They write it down and revisit so that we don’t forget. Good journalists articulate our thoughts and connect to our minds. Now they can do this better than ever with insightful visualisation whilst connecting information to give us insight and enlightenment.

Magazine mogul, Chris Anderson, started the TED talks because he felt that television wasn’t challenging enough and he believed intellectual mobility was the future. In an article in the Guardian, Anderson talks about crowd-accelerated learning, and bringing intellectual stimulus and experience to YouTube audiences by the world’s leading thinkers.

The positive adoption of technology by broadcast media and TV networks (like OWN) and some journalists is exciting. Many broadcast and media courses now teach emerging technologies and so the potential is there to create enriching and enlightening features that educate us all.

Emerging journalism: a new way of sharing experiences.