Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Storytelling vs. Writing

On a fantasy writing forum that I have recently joined, a member posted a question:
I know both the story and the way it's written is important, but if you had to pick one above the other, which would it be and why?
First, of course, I have to pause to sigh at the imposed false dilemma. Why is it that humans have such an urge to force ourselves and others to choose "one or the other" when there is no real need to do so? There is absolutely no reason to make one aspect of storytelling more important or more of a focus than another, unless that is your personal preference.

Second, one has to ask what the questioner means by "story" and "the way it's written". This is the missing element that bothers me in so many debates. Terms are seldom defined even though we all tend to mean different things by what we say. To be on the same page in any discussion it is important to understand how we are using certain words, to agree on how to define the terms being discussed. For instance, to me "story" includes the whole package. Story includes the individual elements of the particular story being told (plot, characters, setting, theme, etc.) as well as how it is told by the author (exposition, dramatization, characterization, description, foreshadowing, etc.). So in my opinion there is no such thing as "story" vs. "the way it's written".

However, if you define "the way it's written" as "the technical aspects of writing" such as sentence structure, word choice, and techniques based in the words themselves such as alliteration then I think there is a very important difference between "storytelling" and "writing". A difference that one has to think back to the oral storytellers of other eras to fully appreciate.

I have a book called Hibernian Nights which is a collection of the stories told by Seumas MacManus, a real Irish shanachie (storyteller), often called the last. In his preface he laments the lost art of the told story. There are certain qualities of the told story which the read story can never possess, he says. For one, the told story is a living story. The storyteller can alter it each time he tells it, adding details or flourishes or whatever he wishes in the moment. The read story, he says, is dead on the page. He describes the told story as "glowing, appealing and dancing with energetic vitality- the personality and inspiration that the good storyteller can always command into the tale he tells." In addition, he says that the read story possesses alone the value of the story its self while the told story also benefits from "the golden worth of the good storyteller's captivating art and enhancing personality- trebling its worth."

Now I agree with him to an extent. These are real problems with the written down, read story. However, I disagree that these are unchangeable qualities of the read story. I don't think it has to be that way. I think authors have been taught to write that way. Yet I have read many stories in books where the author's voice came through so well that I did feel I was being told a story and it felt alive. I love those stories more than any others. Yet across the internet I see the advice to stay far away from the feeling of the "told story", to keep yourself separate from the story. I think this is terrible advice. I think it is a real detriment to literature. In addition, the advice I see across the internet focuses on technical aspects of writing. We are told to improve our storytelling by avoiding certain types of words to avoid any storytelling technique that presents even the slightest challenge. Our tools are removed from our hands by the so called experts and we are patted on the head and told to be a good little author and write things that appeal to critics (agents and editors) instead of readers.

Seumas MacManus
But, as I said, I don't think it has to be that way. I think most of the great things about the told story can still come through a written story, if the author has the art of it. And what is lost, for instance the changeableness of it, I think is outweighed by the good. I think in many ways the written story in this day and age can move above and beyond the told story, but not if we abandon the value to be found in the told story. You build on a good foundation, you don't tear it down before putting up your walls.

We have certainly all but lost the art of good storytelling, which, as Seumas MacManus says, "was ever a propagator of joy". I think that in losing the art we've also lost the joy. My goal, at least, is to try to find it again and do what I can to propagate it a little. That's what's important to me as a reader and a writer.

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Cause for Celebration

Today I'm joining in the weekly Celebrating the Small Things bloghop for the first time. It's simple: just sign up on the linky list, post some celebrations, and hop around to share the celebrations of others. This week I feel like celebrating so here goes.

First, something that none of you will get but I have to mention it anyway because it makes me so happy. Last month, the player music system in the MMORPG I play, The Lord of the Rings Online, was broken beyond use. Now, this is my absolute favorite part of the game and one of my favorite things in life period. So I've been pretty sad about it. But on Wednesday, it was finally fixed! I spent yesterday afternoon playing music in game with friends and it was wonderful.

Second, and more important, yesterday was also my son's Kindergarten graduation. Now to understand why this is so special to us, you have to understand that my son was put in a special school program for children with autism. He's been getting therapy for his speech and motor skills because when he started the school year in September, he could barely communicate with anything other than movie quotes and he wasn't even potty trained. But his teachers are the most wonderful set of women in the world because throughout the year he has seen steady improvement. He's potty trained (though he still sometimes goes through periods of regression), he actually talks to us and understands us, he's progressing so well in math, reading and writing that he was able later in the year to join in a regular kindergarten class for those lessons. His improvement is remarkable and we are so proud of him. (Though I imagine he's still going to drive us crazy after his classes end on the 19th. Summer is the bane of all parents.)

Third, and most important of all, last weekend my brother was in a dangerous car crash after falling asleep at the wheel in the middle of the night. It was a head on collision and the two victims (my brother and the woman in the other car) were both injured. My bother had several broken bones and was believed to be in danger for a day after being taken to the hospital. However, he pulled through quickly and though he looked pretty banged up when I visited him on Monday, he's recovering well and should be able to go home this weekend. (Though he probably will seriously miss the little button he gets to push to administer pain meds.) It reminds me of the car crash I was in many years ago after I fell asleep at the wheel in the middle of the day and rear ended someone. It could have been much worse (no injuries) and I was so lucky. But at least for my brother there isn't any permanent damage and maybe he'll learn a lesson about driving tired.

Nothing new on the writing front because with doctor appointments and end of school year activities this has been one busy and exhausting week. And tomorrow we are driving out of town with 5 kids (!) to attend a family high school graduation part. Wish me luck. 

Well, those are the things I'm celebrating this week. How about you?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Heroes and Villains from Bleach

Heroes and Villains. They make or break a good story. Today I've signed up for the Heroes and Villains Blogfest hosted by Dani at Entertaining Interests and Jackie at Bouquet of Books which has us listing our favorite heroes and villains. Now, man, that's hard for me to do because there are just so many fantastic heroes and villains I could name. I love the character aspect of story.  So I've decided to limit myself to two exceptional examples. Characters that I pondered long after the story was over and who taught me new things about story and character.


The many faces of Ichigo Kurosaki
Ichigo Kurosaki is the hero and main character of the anime series Bleach, which I've mentioned before because I'm a bit obsessed with it. As a character, Ichigo took some time to grow on me. In some ways he's a typical teenager and I've never much liked that breed. But as the story progresses you begin to see how he's different and awesome. One of the most typically annoying things about teenagers is their overweening confidence in their abilities and in this regard Ichigo is no exception. He tends to go into conflicts and battles assuming that he will be able to handle it, sure that he will win simply because he must. But the difference here is that Ichigo's confidence doesn't come from arrogance or conceit, it's not founded in himself. His confidence and his surety in battle is founded in the strength that he receives from his friends and from his need to protect them. Because of this Ichigo is able to accomplish amazing feats.

 Ichigo Quotes:

"I'm not superman, so I can't say anything big like I'll protect everyone on earth. I'm not a modest guy who will say it's enough if I can protect as many people as my two hands can handle either. I want to protect a mountain-load of people."

"It's meaningless to just live, it's meaningless to just fight. I want to win!"

"The difference... in strength... what about it? Do you think I should give up... just because you're stronger than me...? I've always known you were strong. Nothing I see now will change my mind. I will defeat you Ulquiorra."

"When you cross blades, you can tell a little of what your opponent's thinking. I'm not saying you can read their mind or anything like that, but you can tell what kind of resolve lies behind their blade, whether they respect you or look down on you. That kind of thing, you can tell. When I'm actually fighting, there's no time to think about it, so I don't usually realize until afterwards, but in general, the stronger the opponent is, the more of that "heart" seems to come across."

What Ichigo, and other anime heroes like him (Inuyasha, Natsu), teach me is that heart really does matter. Inner strength makes a difference. I like him not because he's powerful, though he is, and not because he always wins, which he generally does. I don't like him because he's got a tough attitude or because he looks cool in his Shinigami outfit, though that's true as well. I like him because he puts others first. He's able to completely throw himself into a fight without holding anything back because he isn't thinking about himself. He wants to win, he is determined to win not for himself, but for the people he is protecting. He is a real hero.

But a great hero needs a great villain. There are almost a literal ton of bad guys in Bleach, but I want to focus on the one whose conflict with Ichigo was, I think, the most compelling and whose final battle with Ichigo was easily the most epic.


Ulquiorra's normal appearance on the right and his "Resurreccion" form on the left.

Ulquiorra Cifer is not actually a "main villain" of the series. Ulquiorra is not human, but is a member of an extremely powerful caste of creatures that are born of human souls that do not pass into the afterlife upon their death and become corrupted. He is an underling of Aizen, who could be comparable to Sauron on the Dark Lord scale. Nonetheless, he is a formidable opponent. He was responsible for kidnapping Orihime, a close friend of Ichigo, which causes Ichigo and some of his other friends to attack the enemy's stronghold to rescue her.  Ulquiorra is also responsible for Orihime's care and it is in this way that a strange relationship develops between them.

The battle between Ichigo and Ulquiorra is intense. Ulquiorra, an embodiment of "emptiness" reveals multiple forms, each more powerful than the last. Ichigo is really no match against him, but continues to fight. In fact, Ulquiorra actually kills Ichigo at one point only to see Ichigo summoned back by Orihime's screams in a new, powerful and terrifying form.

Ulquiorra quotes:

"Hearts, you say? You Humans are always so quick to speak of such things. As though you carry your hearts in the very palms of your hands. But this eye of mine perceives all. There is nothing that it overlooks. If this eye cannot see a thing, then it does not exist. That is the assumption under which I have always fought. What is this "heart"? If I tear open that chest of yours, will I see it there? If I smash open that skull of yours, will I see it there?"

"Kurosaki Ichigo... Those are the words of a man who does not know true despair. Very well... I shall teach it to you. Now you will know true despair..."

"I see. This. Yes. This thing in my hand is the heart?"

Ulquiorra ultimately dies by Ichigo's hand and his dying words (the last quote above) reveal his secret longing as he and Orihime reach out to each other. Ulquiorra is, to me, a sympathetic villain. Those who live in despair, once knew hope. Those who are empty, long to fill their emptiness.

Since I spent so long talking about these two characters, I'll refrain from listing any more. This has been a fun exploration. And now, a gratuitous image of Ichigo and Renji Abarai, cause they're awesome.