Sunday, May 25, 2008

Dreams and Storytelling

Why do we love stories? I think humanity's passion for storytelling is due to the way the brain learns new things.

Researchers have found the following: If you teach a new task to a group of people, and that night disturb the sleep of half the group in such a way that they aren't able to dream, the non-dreaming group won't remember how to perform the task the next day. The dreaming group will--and will still remember how to perform it years later, too. We need to dream in order to learn.

And what's a dream? It's your brain telling itself a story.

Here's some of the most important things human beings do with their minds (while awake):
1) We figure out the logic that underlies the world we see
2) We find solutions to our problems
3) We witness the struggles of others, and when we see someone else come up with a good idea, we recognize it as such and appropriate it for our own use

If you think about what a story is, it's a narrative which describes a person figuring out a solution to a problem and thereby coming to a greater understanding of their self or their world. In other words, your protagonist is performing activities (1) and (2) above, while your reader is engaged in activity (3).

There's obviously more than that involved in the enjoyment of stories, but I do think the reason we like them in the first place is because we evolved to watch others and try to learn from them. If you think about humanity's most ancient forms of storytelling, they were usually lessons, and they always tried to make sense of both the world and the human condition.

A story is a conscious dream. We love stories because we're all hungry to know how to navigate our lives, and that's what dreams are for--literally. Dreaming is what builds our understanding of the world.


Does that theory seem reasonable to you? Does it sound insane? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments! And remember that dissent is always welcome here, so long as it's polite. :-)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Comedy and Karma

Human beings are social creatures, and that means we have in-built mechanisms that protect and nurture society. We have a sense of fairness, and we're usually kind and generous. We also are capable of empathy--we can look at another human being and see ourselves there, or at least see what we might have been had we lived that other person's life.

When a writer creates a story, that writer must establish the reader's empathy with the protagonist. If the audience doesn't connect via their hearts to the hero, they can't sustain the energy required to keep reading the book.

So you always want to go groping after reader empathy, right? That's always a good thing to get? Not always, actually; there's one important exception.

If you're writing comedy, reader empathy can be a bad thing. No one laughs if they believe someone innocent really got hurt.

The film A Fish Called Wanda has a scene where a concrete block falls on and kills a small, yappy dog. The director filmed two versions of that scene, one where you see a lone paw twitching under the massive block, and another where you see the same thing except with blood and guts leaking out. When the movie was shown to test audiences, the “clean” version got laughs. The gory version made the audience go utterly silent. “Poor doggie” was the wrong response, so the tidier death is the one featured in the finished movie.

Humour is very often about rage and pain. Think about Dennis Miller's routines--the guy is furious and he's verbally attacking everything that makes him angry. Now think about John Cleese's skits, many of which investigate all the myriad, humiliating ways in which life hurts. No wonder comedy is tricky; you have to take anger and turn it into someone else's laughter. You have to depict pain and evoke derision, not sympathy. People are basically nice, so this isn't easy.

If you want your readers to laugh, you have to communicate that the comedy didn't really hurt anyone who counts.

“[D]idn't really hurt” means it's fine to drop the loveable protagonist into the piranha tank if she comes out with only a single fish attached to her nose. It's okay for the hero to get frothing mad if he externalizes his anger and goes on an absurd attack; the reader knows he isn't going to have lasting psychological damage from his anger.

“[A]nyone who counts” means if the villain is so nasty we think he deserved his pain, we don't feel bad about giggling at his grisly downfall. If the person who blundered into the wedding cake and came up slathered in icing with a small groom sticking out of her ear is so ridiculous that we have no empathy for her, then we'll happily guffaw at her humiliation.

Which brings me back to humanity's innate sense of fairness. Jim Butcher's excellent articles on writing note that the key to delivering a satisfying conclusion to the reader is to deliver poetic justice to your characters. Those who make selfish or stupid decisions are punished. Those who make wise and selfless decisions are rewarded. Humans really are built to believe in justice, and we love to see stories where our sense of what is right is upheld. We like seeing karma in action.

So when you write comedy, think carefully about how much audience empathy each character has, then deliver no more misery than what the audience believes that character deserves. If you don't provide poetic justice, then no matter how wonderful the rest of your story was, the reader puts your book down with the nagging feeling that something wasn't quite right. It can kill the positive word-of-mouth your writing might have elicited from that reader otherwise.


How have you handled humour in your writing? In your stories, what got the laughs? Did you show ridiculous behaviour, or did you skewer ridiculous behaviour? Did you let the reader recognize something familiar but funny, or did you show them the familiar and then twist all their perceptions, i.e. deliver the equivalent of a punchline? What humour techniques work for you?


Curses and alas, I am tagged by the very talented Julie Weathers!

1. The rules of the game get posted at the beginning.
2. Each player answers the questions about themselves.
3. At the end of the post, the player then tags 5-6 people and posts their names, then goes to their blogs and leaves them a comment, letting them know they’ve been tagged and asking them to read the player’s blog.
4. Let the person who tagged you know when you’ve posted your answer.

A Meme about Various Things

What were you doing ten years ago?

Graduating university wearing strappy, sexy five-inch heels I eventually regretted.

(Recall from the last meme I am six feet tall in my socks. I like dressing up girly once in a while, but high heels are always a mistake. I frighten small children and look like a drag queen.)

What are five things on your to-do list for today (not in any particular order)?

Pee (don't laugh; that's first on my list of things to do in the morning)
Don't get distracted from writing by the shiny internet (Doh!)
Get dressed at some point

What are some snacks you enjoy?

Most variations on the theme of carbohydrates and fat

What would you do if you were a billionaire?

Set up a charity that provides birth control for free to those who can't afford it--particularly those in poverty-stricken countries where being able to control how many kids you have, and when, might give you a fighting chance of making sure all your children live to adulthood.

Either that or set up my own space program.

What are three of your bad habits?

Most variations on the theme of carbohydrates and fat
Laziness Procrastination
Doing hermit imitations

What are five places where you have lived?

(I shall keep this vague, since I don't believe in giving out too much personal information on the internet.)
The prairies
The arctic
The prairies again
Here where there be mountains and ocean and culture, oh my!
(There isn't a fifth one)

What are five jobs you have had?

Paper carrier
Cleaning lady
The photocopier's sex-slave
Assembly technician for the BaBar drift chamber, now installed at SLAC
Laboratory instructor

What were the last five books you read?

See here.

What are five web sites you visit daily (in no particular order)?


What, I'm supposed to pick just five? Inconceivable!

What’s playing on your iPod right now?

iPod? Wazzat?

I'm supposed to tag five people. Won't! Shan't! But if you'd like to do this meme, feel free and drop me a comment here; I'll link to your post.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Congratulations with sprinkles on top to Stuart Neville, a.k.a Conduit for not just getting an agent, but getting Nat Sobel as an agent! Squee!

It couldn't have happened to a nicer fellow, but it's also hardly a surprise, because Stuart's writing is just that darned good. I hope to be buying his books soon!

Everyone rattle your pom-poms and give it up for Conduit! YAYSES AND HURRAH!


And in other news, real life is kickin' my butt this week. My apologies for not getting a post up this weekend and my deepest genuflects and grovellings for not having replied to anyone's comments in a while.


Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Evaporating Pigeons

The principle of conservation of matter is being challenged by pigeons.

Allow me to back up.

Last year, a pigeon laid an egg on our deck. Yes, some people hate pigeons, but we thought mommy-pigeon was quite adorable. Unfortunately, one day while we were at work, the egg tipped off its precarious perch and broke. Mommy-pigeon then disappeared.

And so did the egg shells.

We found the yolk and white lying in a puddle on our deck that evening, but no shells. And just how does a pigeon sweep up and dispose of broken egg shells?

Flash forward to this year. Another pigeon (or perhaps the same one?) laid an egg in one of our planters. We were again charmed, and put out birdseed and a water dish for her. Her mate popped by regularly to trade off on the egg-sitting with her, and we became one big happy pigeon-human family (meaning they probably thought of us as the embarrassing in-laws who kept dropping by to visit.)

According to The Great Spider-God of Wisdom (Google), the gestation period of pigeon eggs would put hatching day

Today, I peeped over the shrubbery to check how mommy-pigeon was doing and found--


No Pigeon. No pigeon-baby. No egg. No egg shells.

Solid pigeon (as opposed to liquid pigeon) is apparently capable of de-materializing.

Egads; no wonder they seemed poised to take over the world. Next time you get pooped on by a bird you didn't see? Consider the possibility that you couldn't have seen it. They're breeding stealth-pigeons, I tell you.


All silliness aside, I feel a bit down tonight. A childhood friend just called to let me know her dad passed away last night. He had only been ill for about a month and was certainly too young to go. He was also a wonderful fellow--joyful, zany, warm-hearted and ferociously loyal to his family, and he never let adversity even faze him. He had a weak leg due to having polio as a child, but he wore shorts and went hiking regardless. If the leg gave out and sent him tumbling, he'd be back up and laughing about it in a second. I'll really miss him.

Happy journeys, Doug. They've got an awesome walking stick and a brand new leg waiting for you in heaven; you're going to love it there.

Friday, May 02, 2008

You Are All So Frighteningly Talented!

First of all, thank you to Travis Erwin, who not only entered the Happy 100 contest but also linked to it and thereby brought some very talented writers (including himself) here. I really appreciate it, Travis!

Eight brave souls oiled up their sleekest 100-word flash fiction, dressed it in its finest spandex and spurs, then hurled it into the ring to scrum for the not completely lame prize of the Happy 100 contest!

And they were all so darned good. If you haven't already, please go read the entries and give the authors some well-deserved adulation. I was truly impressed with the high quality of the submissions and found it hard to choose a winner. I liked each and every story--so well done, competitors!

There's only one winner, but I've picked two runners-up also because I loved their stories so much I'd like the excuse to say so publicly. Unfortunately, the runners-up don't get any prize other than being added to my blog roll. *points to the right*

Drum-roll, please.

In third place, with this wonderfully funny story:

Mom In Scrubs!

In second place, with this also-hysterical story:

Reid Kerr!

And, without any further pregnant pauses to drive you out of your mind with impatience, the winning entry is this atmospheric bit of creepy-beautiful, which is brain-squeezings of:

Josh Vogt!

Congratulations Josh! I agree with Writtenwyrdd's comment: I love that haunting last line. Please email me at:


and let me know what email address you'd like me to send your Amazon gift certificate to.

Thank you to everyone who entered; this was great fun and I really was thrilled with the quality of the entries. Come back in another 100 posts to try again! :-D

Pageloads since 01/01/2009: