Thursday, July 12, 2007

Talecrafting: A Gathering of Winds (Part 1 of 3)

Talecraft is a new product being sold in local hobby stores and conventions around here. It's purported to be a storytelling game of some sort, although the package contains little in the way of "game" and a lot more in the way of "literary exercise". It's built around a simple premise, really: You shuffle the Talecraft deck, draw a predetermined number of cards, and make up a story that contains each of the elements in your draw.

While I did pick up a copy of the game after my return from Warsaw, I have yet to consider this a favorite. It could be that I'm far too used to coming up with plausible stories on my own; As it stands, I consider Talecraft to be more a toy than any serious writing aid.

With that said, the contests are at least relatively interesting. Play the deck by yourself, and you'll get bored easily. Play the deck with about thirty other people who are doing the same thing with the same cards, and you'll be surprised at how the competition suddenly makes things worthwhile.

The current Talecraft contest (whose deadline is this weekend), for example, has the following elements that you must incorporate into a story:

Genre: Science Fiction
Character Archetypes: The Dandy, The Haunted Hero
Additional Keywords: Diamond, Grandfather Clock, Blindness, Blood, Tomb, Escape

If you think that getting all the details right for a single story is hard, just try collecting two random archetypes and six random keywords into a single random genre. You can see why this makes for an interesting literary exercise.

I'll admit that my schedule is full at the moment, so I'm certain that I can't spend much time preparing a submission for this contest. In addition, I have other, more immediate literary obligations to fulfill -- there's the textbook I'm writing, for one, and then there's Philippine Genre Stories' call for Christmas-themed stories as well as Dean Alfar's September deadline.

What I can do, however, is a bit of a walkthrough based on these Talecraft elements. I want to see what I can make of this random assortment, and possibly get a bit of introspection on just how I go about writing the stuff that I write.

If there's any place to start, then it'll definitely be in the cards:

Science Fiction - This genre and I have a love-hate relationship: I love it for its sheer possibilities, but I hate myself for exploring little in the way of its potential. I suspect that I just don't want to sell it short. It's bad enough that anyone can integrate machines, technical mumbo-jumbo and post-apocalyptic scenarios into a story and call it "sci-fi"; I'd rather try to avoid that same trap.

So what does "Science Fiction" mean for me? Strangely enough, humanoid robots are the first thing that come to mind. I'm also a huge fan of subtle technological advances -- minidiscs, Segways, cybernetic implants -- anything that might compromise a little of our humanity without being immediately obvious. Then there's the question of how technology interacts (and interferes) with our daily lives -- like talking houses, or self-aware machinery, or DNA alteration. In a sense, sci-fi can just as easily involve playing with peoples' comfort levels as it does involve showcasing unexpected technologies.

The Dandy - I abhor this character archetype, if only because it forces me to make the character "deeper" in some way. The Dandy is supposed to be driven by vanity and fashion-consciousness; I keep thinking that these characteristics alone don't provide enough motivation for a character to do the things he/she does. What I ultimately imagine is a male personality who merely dresses well, seeks to dress well, and is an absolute blank slate besides.

The Haunted Hero - This is better, at least. I find it easier to build up a character's personality based on his or her (imagined) past experiences. I like haunted characters in particular, because you can portray them as absolutely normal people for most of a story, spring some unexpected twist on the readers towards the end, and then perfectly explain the character's motivations through some obscure episode in their past. When done well, it leaves an impression that all the jagged little pieces somehow fit together in a way that the author fully intended from the start.

I'll point out, moreover, that just because the card mentions a haunted "hero" doesn't necessarily mean that the character should be the protagonist of the story...

Tomb - I feel that this is an overwhelmingly influential keyword. It's the only item in the set that describes a location; Knowing that, how can you not set the story inside a tomb?

To make matters worse, it's not as though you can easily use a tomb as a secondary location in a story. A tomb, I think, is more a dominant location -- you can write entire stories with this in the background, without having to ask for a change in scenery.

I think that I can twist this to suit my purposes, though. It doesn't necessarily have to be an Indiana-Jones-style tomb, after all. It could just as easily be a mausoleum. Or it could be a burial plot of some sort; Wouldn't that mean that you can leave a dead body practically anywhere and have it register as a "tomb" of some sort? I wonder.

Escape - This is another dominant element, by virtue of its being the only plot direction among the six keywords. I find it difficult to separate this from "tomb", to be honest: Put the two dominant keywords together, and you get a convenient "escape from tomb" plotline. I feel that it's obvious, I feel that it's easy, and I feel that it's also pretty overused.

No, I think that it might be best to separate this from "tomb" as much as possible. Maybe an escape into a tomb, for a good change of pace? Or maybe an escaping tomb (the image of a stone mausoleum getting up and walking away suddenly comes to mind).

For that matter, who's doing the escaping? Is it the Dandy who escapes from the Haunted Hero, or the Haunted Hero who escapes from the Dandy? Or maybe they're both escaping from something else, or something else is escaping from them.

Blindness - I can make this metaphorical, I suppose. It doesn't have to be literal blindness; it can simply describe somebody who fails to notice some obvious detail. The problem with this, however, is that it might not necessarily register as "blindness" to anyone who reads the story.

This, I suppose, is at least more flexible. I can take this in medias res (that is to say, I can make this a condition that exists even before the beginning of the story), or I can put this up as a plot development. I can't imagine a Dandy being blind, so the obvious choice for the condition would be the Haunted Hero. That's not to say that I can't suddenly strike the Dandy blind halfway through the course of the tale, though.

Blood - I use a lot of blood in my stories. It creates a consistent effect that can nevertheless be adjusted according to your own needs: It can leave an impression of fear, for example. Or cruelty. Or desperation. Heck, you can even throw all the symbolism out the window and just use it to give readers the impression that a character is gravely injured.

I can build a story around this element about as easily as I can with the other keywords, I think. But I feel that I'm far more comfortable using this than anything else in the selection. As such, I won't give this keyword much thought. I'll definitely find a way to work it into the story, regardless of what I end up writing.

Grandfather Clock - Ugh... how does this fit into the science-fiction genre? I don't want to end up using Victorian-era steampunk just to fit both pieces together into the same jigsaw puzzle. What that means, however, is that I'll have to find some way to stuff a 19th-century timepiece into a far more technical setting.

Maybe it's an antique that sits in the corner. Maybe it's a modified device that houses far more advanced workings inside. Maybe there's a future counterpart to this thing: a grandfather-clock android, perhaps?

Then there's also the matter of fitting this and the "tomb" into the same story. What's a grandfather clock doing inside a moldering old tomb, anyway? That might deserve a long, winding explanation all by itself...

Diamond - This isn't the most obvious of plot elements, but it's also rather flexible. Where there's diamonds, there's wealth -- and that's something that the Dandy would easily acknowledge, something that the Haunted Hero can brood about, and something that you can more plausibly find inside a tomb.

There's more to using diamonds, however. A wedding or an engagement angle might work here, for example; It wouldn't take much of a stretch to work a tomb into the equation, and it might provide the needed human element in a science-fiction story. The use of diamonds may imply some element of hardness or extreme pressure as well, or it could simply imply the profession of at least one of the characters. One odd thing that comes to mind is the possibility of using diamonds as fuel of some sort -- I'll have to thank Batman's rogues gallery for that idea.

In the next installment of this post, I'll tackle what's likely to be the next step in my thinking process -- the collation of all these elements into a single tentative plotline. Or maybe this might even involve a lot of tentative plotlines; In that case, you get to see me put all but one of them on the chopping block in my quest for a plausible story.

Want to read on? The next post can be found here.


Ida said...

ah, so there's actually a game like this? it's like those things that harry potter fandoms (and i suppose other fandoms do the same thing) do. you know, the fanfiction exchange?
it's fun! :D well, good luck!

kat said...

I had the chance to try this game during the last Read or Die convention. It's a pretty nifty tool especially for someone who needs a jumpstart in his/her writing life. I haven't fully tried it or anything.

Sean said...

Ida: Yes, there is. The difference between this and the standard fan fiction listings is that this game covers open imagination, rather than being restricted to any fixed universes.

Kat: As a man who believes that there's no such thing as writer's block, I'm not sure if I see Talecraft as a method of jump-starting a writing experience... yet. But I could just be more advanced that a lot of other writers, I suppose.

Dominique said...

It's precisely with cards like this that the value of Talecraft comes to the fore -- it forces you to make use of elements you wouldn't otherwise think of using.

Completed mine, over at my blog. Very very unpolished, though.

Sean said...

Dominique: I actually caught part of your first draft a few posts ago. It looked pretty good to me already. I'm anxious to read the rest of it.

Unfortunately, however, I think I'll have to take a raincheck on that... it's probably best that I complete this "Talecrafting" session before I check out anyone else's stories.

kat said...

Yes, Sean. I consider you advanced :) then again, the way I saw this work, it's basically just a game.

Sean said...

Kat: It's nice to delude myself every now and then, though. *Sigh* I'm getting old.

Sean said...

I've just put up the second installment of this exposition here, and have amended this post to reflect the new article.