Warren Ellis on Story

From Warren Ellis' Orbital Operations weekly email (a must read for creatives):

I have most of the internet turned off right now, because, as mentioned above, WRITE ALL THE THINGS. I zeroed in on a series idea earlier this week – or was it late last week? – and am writing it all down as quickly as I can between other things, because clearly I want to make myself go blind and die. Blame an excessive rumination on genre, Cormac McCarthy, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Samuel Beckett. It will eventually look like none of those things. It doesn’t matter where you start. It only matters where you end up. And sometimes it’s ideal that the latter looks nothing like the former. I suspect that the end result will be greatly tiresome to anyone who isn’t me, but, luckily, I’m really only writing it for me, to see where it goes and what it turns into. “To see where it goes” may be the entire metaphor of the project. The director Allison Anders once said of storytelling that story/plot is a clothesline, with things pinned to it, and she’s more interested in the things hanging off the clothesline than the clothesline itself. It’s one of those. The clothesline is very simple, and extends off into the distance, and the piece itself just stops and examines each item hanging off it. It’s what people mean when they talk about “story engines.”
Here’s the simplest story engine:
The Fugitive, a QM Production—starring David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble: an innocent victim of blind justice, falsely convicted for the murder of his wife ... reprieved by fate when a train wreck freed him en route to the death house ... freed him to hide in lonely desperation, to change his identity, to toil at many jobs ... freed him to search for a one-armed man he saw leave the scene of the crime ... freed him to run before the relentless pursuit of the police lieutenant obsessed with his capture.
It’s a bit flowery, because it’s the narration William Conrad read over three seasons of THE FUGITIVE. You could cut a line or two out of that easily. But that’s the story engine. That’s what activates and closes each episode of the series. You can approach something like that quite mathematically: plug in the variables like location, new characters, job, turn the engine on and generate a plot. You could, I’m sure, name several other story engines.
Story engines are, of course, very dependent on intent, otherwise they just pump out bad sausages. Years and years ago, I was struck by something the author David Morrell said at the end of an interview, when asked about marrying his intellectual background with the “carnographic” literary pulp he was writing. He said something very similar to, “perhaps I’m just trying to find how what John Barth writing ‘Creature From The Black Lagoon’ would have looked like.”
(Morrell, by the way, is much overlooked today, unfairly contaminated by the film versions of his John Rambo character. Anyone interested in thriller writing should investigate Morrell – he’s got some good tricks, like interpolating literary mirroring into action narrative, and a clever time-delay thing for concussive events.)
This is a huge intent. Barth, a core professorial postmodernist who’s stated before that his own intent is to imitate an author imitating a novel – but strongly influenced himself by the attack of Borges’ short fiction – has long been involved in a sort of circular duel with narrative. He said something once, that I associate both with self-identified novelists and experimenters, which was “the process is the content.” Put that next to people like William Gibson, who start a book with nothing more than an opening image to guide them, and say things like “I find out how to write the book as I write it” (bad paraphrase).

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