Good writers, whether they set their stories in 19th century London or in a Galaxy Far Far Away, grip their audiences by drawing them into a rich and real fictional world.
‘Real’ and ‘fictional’ seem opposed and almost oxymoronic in their juxtaposition, and yet together articulate one of the most powerful and necessary features of good story telling. Audiences need to be able to enter and believe in the world of the narrative for the story to work.
‘World building’ is a most notable skill in science fiction and fantasy, since the writer must create a fictional world from the ground up. The more realistic and convincing these alternative worlds are, the more immersive the experience.
The master of world building is of course J.R.R. Tolkien whose life’s work, multiple stories, myths, legends, poems and songs, existed within an entirely fictional world of Middle Earth. The depth to which he created his world entailed the construction of several languages with their own script, grammar and lexicons, lengthy histories and prehistories of lineages of kings, as well as mythical and magical religions, creatures and talismans of power. Tolkien’s work almost singlehandedly created a whole sub culture of fantasy and science fiction world building which continues to this day.
Why is world building so vital to good story telling?
As a child enters a game enthusiastically and will object when the rules of the game are contradicted or broken, so too audiences rebel from authors who betray the integrity of the world they have constructed.
The analogy of ‘play’ is powerful, affirmed by the naming of live theatre a ‘play’. The audience must not only suspend belief watching those on stage ‘play acting’ but they must effectively engage in the ‘play’ with their imagination themselves.
No greater illustration of this is given in Shakespeare’s prologue to Henry V.
The chorus enters and addresses the audience directly with these questions:
can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
The chorus continues requesting the audience to enter the play with their minds, to convert the small theatre into battle fields, to populate it with thousands of soldiers and horses and allow the short hours of the play to cover years of history:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass:
Audiences will feel betrayed if elements of narrative history are forgotten or rules of a fictional universe are contradicted. The world of immersive ‘play’ is jarred, and the narrative experience interrupted. The reader returns to the real world disappointed with the story, leaving it often never to return.
However, one does not need to climb through a wardrobe or up a beanstalk to enter a magical world since every single narrative is ‘painted’ through words and its scenes, characters and plot.
Charles Dickens set most of his novels in the England of his own time and recent past, however he managed to colour his world and bring it alive by giving his characters peculiar names and particular ways of speaking. His novels are full of such character names as Bumble, Cruncher, Datchery, Fezzywig, Magwitch, Noggs, Pardiggle, Pecksniff, Peggotty, Podsnap, Pumblechook, Snodgrass, Sweedlepipe, Stiltstalking, Tappertit, Toodle, Turveydrop and Wopsle; the list goes on.
Filling his characters mouths with unique turns of phrase and mannerism Dickens further coloured his narrative world. Uriah Heep [David Copperfield] is frequently heard to say while wringing his hands ―’I am much too Umble’ and Mr Sleary [Hard Times] is depicted with a lisp: …’ith fourteen month ago. Thquire, thinthe we wath at chethter.’
Lastly, Dickens set his stories against the very real social, class, cultural and economic challenges of his era including the French Revolution, racism against Jews and other foreigners, the workhouses and the plight of the poor, the marginalisation of women and the ignorance and injustices of the class system.
With every added nuance and layer of detail, Dickens builds a world so convincing and inviting that readers return time and time and again to his works. Their willingness to surrender to the immersive experience of the narrative world he created is testament to his mastery as a great story teller.
In a short essay entitled, “Why I Write,”  George Orwell outlines the four motivations that drive all writers.
First, he states, is ‘sheer egotism.’
Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown ups who snubbed you in childhood etc.
This condition is not limited to writers, he clarifies, and is shared by scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen etc.
Second is ‘aesthetic enthusiasm.’
Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and out not to be missed.
Third, ‘historical impulse.’
Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
Fourth and finally, ‘political purpose.’
Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.
In Orwell’s mind there is no such thing as a book genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics, itself is itself a political attitude.
Orwell confesses that he is a person in which the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. However, for him personally, an unsuitable profession in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, followed by poverty and a sense of failure, increased his natural hatred of authority and made him fully aware of the working class.
Then came the Spanish Civil War and Hitler.
Orwell then confesses,
Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.
He cannot believe anyone could live in his a period like his own, and avoid such topics. The challenge is to be aware of one’s political bias and to act politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.
My starting point is always … a sense of injustice… I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.
He concludes, however, that he does not want the reader to think him selfless or his writing wholly public spirited. Oh no. All writers, himself included, are vain, selfish and lazy. Yet beyond motives, there lies a mystery. Writing a novel is …
…a horrible exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not drive on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.
However, when Orwell wrote without political purpose, he claims he wrote lifeless books, and…
…was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.
So influential has Orwell’s work been on the English language that the term Orwellian is now synonymous with a policy of control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of the past.
Orwell’s novels, Animal Farm and 1984 [published 1949] are now classics of popular and political culture, selling over 50 million copies between them.
Blake Snyder was a well known American screenwriter and theorist, and his book “Save the Cat” is a leading guide to writing for screen. In it, he outlines several tricks of the story telling trade.
One strategy he outlines is for getting the audience to side with the protagonist early on. Featured in the title, Save the Cat! it describes the manner in which the screen writer introduces the hero in an early scene doing something nice, for example, saving a cat. This creates a bond of empathy between them and the audience.
According to Snyder, the inspiration for this particular example, was the movie Alien, in which Ripley [Sigourney Weaver] saves a cat named Jones.
The contrast can be as powerful. For example, the opening montage of the TV series, House of Cards, features the protagonist Frank Underwood, [Kevin Spacey] finding an injured and whimpering dog.
He considers for a second, before strangling the dog and then calmly states:
Moments like this require someone who will act, do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.
This scene chillingly sets up his character and the whole trajectory of the TV series with its exploration of the intricasies of political ambition and power.
Saving the cat, killing the dog,: such simple motifs connect the audience viscerally to characters through emotions of empathy or distrust.
This wonderful TEDxSeoul talk [yes it’s got subtitles] reminds us of how we can over-complicate and overthink creativity.
Every child is born an artist and does not think to create for payment or accolade. We never lose this creativity but we learn to listen to the devils of doubt who would question “why” or “what for?”
But art is not for anything.Art is the ultimate goal.It saves our souls and makes us live happily.It helps us express ourselves and be happy without the help of alcohol or drugs.
[Transcript]: The theme of my talk today is,“Be an artist, right now.”Most people, when this subject is brought up,get tense and resist it:“Art doesn’t feed me, and right now I’m busy.I have to go to school, get a job,send my kids to lessons … “You think, “I’m too busy. I don’t have time for art.”There are hundreds of reasons why we can’t be artists right now.Don’t they just pop into your head?
00:39 There are so many reasons why we can’t be,indeed, we’re not sure why we should be.We don’t know why we should be artists,but we have many reasons why we can’t be.Why do people instantly resist the idea of associating themselves with art?Perhaps you think art is for the greatly giftedor for the thoroughly and professionally trained.And some of you may think you’ve strayed too far from art.Well you might have, but I don’t think so.This is the theme of my talk today.We are all born artists.
01:16 If you have kids, you know what I mean.Almost everything kids do is art.They draw with crayons on the wall.They dance to Son Dam Bi’s dance on TV,but you can’t even call it Son Dam Bi’s dance — it becomes the kids’ own dance.So they dance a strange dance and inflict their singing on everyone.Perhaps their art is something only their parents can bear,and because they practice such art all day long,people honestly get a little tired around kids.
01:51 Kids will sometimes perform monodramas —playing house is indeed a monodrama or a play.And some kids, when they get a bit older,start to lie.Usually parents remember the very first time their kid lies.They’re shocked.“Now you’re showing your true colors,” Mom says. She thinks, “Why does he take after his dad?”She questions him, “What kind of a person are you going to be?”
02:16 But you shouldn’t worry.The moment kids start to lie is the moment storytelling begins.They are talking about things they didn’t see.It’s amazing. It’s a wonderful moment.Parents should celebrate.“Hurray! My boy finally started to lie!”All right! It calls for celebration.For example, a kid says, “Mom, guess what? I met an alien on my way home.”Then a typical mom responds, “Stop that nonsense.”Now, an ideal parent is someone who responds like this:“Really? An alien, huh? What did it look like? Did it say anything?Where did you meet it?” “Um, in front of the supermarket.”
02:52 When you have a conversation like this,the kid has to come up with the next thing to say to be responsible for what he started.Soon, a story develops.Of course this is an infantile story,but thinking up one sentence after the nextis the same thing a professional writer like me does.In essence, they are not different.Roland Barthes once said of Flaubert’s novels,“Flaubert did not write a novel.He merely connected one sentence after another.The eros between sentences, that is the essence of Flaubert’s novel.”That’s right — a novel, basically, is writing one sentence,then, without violating the scope of the first one,writing the next sentence.And you continue to make connections.
03:40 Take a look at this sentence:“One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.”Yes, it’s the first sentence of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.”Writing such an unjustifiable sentenceand continuing in order to justify it,Kafka’s work became the masterpiece of contemporary literature.Kafka did not show his work to his father.He was not on good terms with his father.On his own, he wrote these sentences.Had he shown his father, “My boy has finally lost it,” he would’ve thought.
04:10 And that’s right. Art is about going a little nutsand justifying the next sentence,which is not much different from what a kid does.A kid who has just started to lieis taking the first step as a storyteller.Kids do art.They don’t get tired and they have fun doing it.I was in Jeju Island a few days ago.When kids are on the beach, most of them love playing in the water.But some of them spend a lot of time in the sand,making mountains and seas — well, not seas,but different things — people and dogs, etc.But parents tell them,“It will all be washed away by the waves.”In other words, it’s useless.There’s no need.But kids don’t mind.They have fun in the momentand they keep playing in the sand.Kids don’t do it because someone told them to.They aren’t told by their bossor anyone, they just do it.
05:00 When you were little, I bet you spent time enjoying the pleasure of primitive art.When I ask my students to write about their happiest moment,many write about an early artistic experience they had as a kid.Learning to play piano for the first time and playing four hands with a friend,or performing a ridiculous skit with friends looking like idiots — things like that.Or the moment you developed the first film you shot with an old camera.They talk about these kinds of experiences.You must have had such a moment.In that moment, art makes you happybecause it’s not work.Work doesn’t make you happy, does it? Mostly it’s tough.
05:37 The French writer Michel Tournier has a famous saying.It’s a bit mischievous, actually.“Work is against human nature. The proof is that it makes us tired.”Right? Why would work tire us if it’s in our nature?Playing doesn’t tire us.We can play all night long.If we work overnight, we should be paid for overtime.Why? Because it’s tiring and we feel fatigue.But kids, usually they do art for fun. It’s playing.They don’t draw to sell the work to a clientor play the piano to earn money for the family.Of course, there were kids who had to.You know this gentleman, right?He had to tour around Europe to support his family —Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart —but that was centuries ago, so we can make him an exception.Unfortunately, at some point our art — such a joyful pastime — ends.Kids have to go to lessons, to school, do homeworkand of course they take piano or ballet lessons,but they aren’t fun anymore.You’re told to do it and there’s competition. How can it be fun?If you’re in elementary school and you still draw on the wall,you’ll surely get in trouble with your mom.Besides,if you continue to act like an artist as you get older,you’ll increasingly feel pressure —people will question your actions and ask you to act properly.
07:02 Here’s my story: I was an eighth grader and I entered a drawing contest at school in Gyeongbokgung.I was trying my best, and my teacher came aroundand asked me, “What are you doing?”“I’m drawing diligently,” I said.“Why are you using only black?”Indeed, I was eagerly coloring the sketchbook in black.And I explained,“It’s a dark night and a crow is perching on a branch.”Then my teacher said,“Really? Well, Young-ha, you may not be good at drawing but you have a talent for storytelling.”Or so I wished.“Now you’ll get it, you rascal!” was the response. (Laughter)“You’ll get it!” he said.You were supposed to draw the palace, the Gyeonghoeru, etc.,but I was coloring everything in black,so he dragged me out of the group.There were a lot of girls there as well,so I was utterly mortified.
07:51 None of my explanations or excuses were heard,and I really got it big time.If he was an ideal teacher, he would have responded like I said before,“Young-ha may not have a talent for drawing,but he has a gift for making up stories,” and he would have encouraged me.But such a teacher is seldom found.Later, I grew up and went to Europe’s galleries —I was a university student — and I thought this was really unfair.Look what I found. (Laughter)
08:23 Works like this were hung in Basel while I was punishedand stood in front of the palace with my drawing in my mouth.Look at this. Doesn’t it look just like wallpaper?Contemporary art, I later discovered, isn’t explained by a lame story like mine.No crows are brought up.Most of the works have no title, Untitled.Anyways, contemporary art in the 20th centuryis about doing something weird and filling the void with explanation and interpretation —essentially the same as I did.Of course, my work was very amateur,but let’s turn to more famous examples.
09:01 This is Picasso’s.He stuck handlebars into a bike seat and called it “Bull’s Head.” Sounds convincing, right?Next, a urinal was placed on its side and called “Fountain”.That was Duchamp.So filling the gap between explanation and a weird act with stories —that’s indeed what contemporary art is all about.Picasso even made the statement,“I draw not what I see but what I think.”Yes, it means I didn’t have to draw Gyeonghoeru.I wish I knew what Picasso said back then. I could have argued better with my teacher.Unfortunately, the little artists within usare choked to death before we get to fight against the oppressors of art.They get locked in.That’s our tragedy.
09:48 So what happens when little artists get locked in, banished or even killed?Our artistic desire doesn’t go away.We want to express, to reveal ourselves,but with the artist dead, the artistic desire reveals itself in dark form.In karaoke bars, there are always people who sing“She’s Gone” or “Hotel California,”miming the guitar riffs.Usually they sound awful. Awful indeed.Some people turn into rockers like this.Or some people dance in clubs.People who would have enjoyed telling storiesend up trolling on the Internet all night long.That’s how a writing talent reveals itself on the dark side.
10:27 Sometimes we see dads get more excited than their kidsplaying with Legos or putting together plastic robots.They go, “Don’t touch it. Daddy will do it for you.”The kid has already lost interest and is doing something else,but the dad alone builds castles.This shows the artistic impulses inside us are suppressed, not gone.But they can often reveal themselves negatively, in the form of jealousy.You know the song “I would love to be on TV”? Why would we love it?TV is full of people who do what we wished to do,but never got to.They dance, they act — and the more they do, they are praised.So we start to envy them.We become dictators with a remote and start to criticize the people on TV.“He just can’t act.” “You call that singing? She can’t hit the notes.”We easily say these sorts of things.We get jealous, not because we’re evil,but because we have little artists pent up inside us.That’s what I think.
11:34 What should we do then?Yes, that’s right.Right now, we need to start our own art.Right this minute, we can turn off TV,log off the Internet,get up and start to do something.Where I teach students in drama school,there’s a course called Dramatics.In this course, all students must put on a play.However, acting majors are not supposed to act.They can write the play, for example,and the writers may work on stage art.Likewise, stage art majors may become actors, and in this way you put on a show.Students at first wonder whether they can actually do it,but later they have so much fun. I rarely see anyone who is miserable doing a play.In school, the military or even in a mental institution, once you make people do it, they enjoy it.I saw this happen in the army — many people had fun doing plays.
12:23 I have another experience:In my writing class, I give students a special assignment.I have students like you in the class — many who don’t major in writing.Some major in art or music and think they can’t write.So I give them blank sheets of paper and a theme.It can be a simple theme:Write about the most unfortunate experience in your childhood.There’s one condition: You must write like crazy. Like crazy!I walk around and encourage them,“Come on, come on!” They have to write like crazy for an hour or two.They only get to think for the first five minutes.
13:01 The reason I make them write like crazy is becausewhen you write slowly and lots of thoughts cross your mind,the artistic devil creeps in.This devil will tell you hundreds of reasonswhy you can’t write:“People will laugh at you. This is not good writing!What kind of sentence is this? Look at your handwriting!”It will say a lot of things.You have to run fast so the devil can’t catch up.The really good writing I’ve seen in my classwas not from the assignments with a long deadline,but from the 40- to 60-minute crazy writing students didin front of me with a pencil.The students go into a kind of trance.After 30 or 40 minutes, they write without knowing what they’re writing.And in this moment, the nagging devil disappears.
13:48 So I can say this:It’s not the hundreds of reasons why one can’t be an artist,but rather, the one reason one must be that makes us artists.Why we cannot be something is not important.Most artists became artists because of the one reason.When we put the devil in our heart to sleep and start our own art,enemies appear on the outside.Mostly, they have the faces of our parents. (Laughter)Sometimes they look like our spouses,but they are not your parents or spouses.They are devils. Devils.They came to Earth briefly transformedto stop you from being artistic, from becoming artists.And they have a magic question.When we say, “I think I’ll try acting. There’s a drama school in the community center,” or“I’d like to learn Italian songs,” they ask, “Oh, yeah? A play? What for?”The magic question is, “What for?”But art is not for anything.Art is the ultimate goal.It saves our souls and makes us live happily.It helps us express ourselves and be happy without the help of alcohol or drugs.So in response to such a pragmatic question,we need to be bold.“Well, just for the fun of it. Sorry for having fun without you,”is what you should say. “I’ll just go ahead and do it anyway.”The ideal future I imagine is where we all have multiple identities,at least one of which is an artist.
15:21 Once I was in New York and got in a cab. I took the backseat,and in front of me I saw something related to a play.So I asked the driver, “What is this?”He said it was his profile. “Then what are you?” I asked. “An actor,” he said.He was a cabby and an actor. I asked, “What roles do you usually play?”He proudly said he played King Lear.King Lear.“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” — a great line from King Lear.That’s the world I dream of.Someone is a golfer by day and writer by night.Or a cabby and an actor, a banker and a painter,secretly or publicly performing their own arts.
15:58 In 1990, Martha Graham, the legend of modern dance, came to Korea.The great artist, then in her 90s, arrived at Gimpo Airportand a reporter asked her a typical question:“What do you have to do to become a great dancer?Any advice for aspiring Korean dancers?”Now, she was the master. This photo was taken in 1948 and she was already a celebrated artist.In 1990, she was asked this question.And here’s what she answered:“Just do it.”Wow. I was touched.Only those three words and she left the airport. That’s it.So what should we do now?Let’s be artists, right now. Right away. How?Just do it!
Laptop malfunctions and some travelling has pushed me offline of late. This post comes started from a tablet (awkward to type) in an airport stop over in South East Asia.
But what bountiful fodder for musings is travel?! No wonder writers , musicians and artists have written, sung and painted from postings far afield, aboard trains, caravans, boats and from mountain tops, desserts and villages.
My travels have taken me to Vietnam and Laos – countries rich with history, narrative and art.
I can’t help but share here my thoughts in coming days.
This infographic is the end result — a labor of love months in the making — is this magnificent visualization of the correlation between writers’ wake-up times, displayed in clock-like fashion around each portrait, and their literary productivity, depicted as different-colored “auras” for each of the major awards and stack-bars for number of works published, color-coded for genre.
The writers are ordered according to a “timeline” of earliest to latest wake-up times, beginning with Balzac’s insomniac 1 A.M. and ending with Bukowski’s bohemian noon.
The most important caveat of all, of course, is that there are countless factors that shape a writer’s creative output, of which sleep is only one — so this isn’t meant to indicate any direction of causation, only to highlight some interesting correlations: for instance, the fact that (with the exception of outliers who are both highly prolific and award-winning, such as like Bradbury and King) late risers seem to produce more works but win fewer awards than early birds.
The most important point, perhaps, is a meta one: A reminder that no specific routine guarantees success, and the only thing that matters is having a routine and the persistence implicit to one. Showing up day in and day out, without fail, is the surest way to achieve lasting success.