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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Intersection of Puppetry and Speculative Fiction (SiWC 2011 Notes)

Hey everyone! It's notes time again!

A few weeks ago I attended this year's Surrey International Writer's Conference. This one happens a little closer to home, as in I could take transit to get to it if I wanted, but frankly, this was my sixth year and I've come to realize how intense of a weekend it is. Staying at the hotel helps keep me sane.

Once again I had an amazing weekend. I took two master classes in addition to the regular conference package, and overall? The word I came away with to best describe my conference experience was useful. And not in the off-the-cuff, dismissive way. I mean that I was in exactly the right place to learn exactly what I needed.

This year, I had the opportunity to meet a few authors new to the conference, and one of them was Mary Robinette Kowal, whose Jane Austen-style fantasy novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, came out just last year. In addition to being an author, Mary is a puppeteer, and in this class she spoke about how the art of puppetry is very much like the art of writing science fiction and fantasy.

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The Intersection of Puppetry and Speculative Fiction
Mary Robinette Kowal

- Puppets and Marionettes
- Many genres: hand, shadow, rod, body, and string
- Just with genre fiction, the red-headed step-child
- Deal with negative stereotypes (aren't puppet shows just for kids?)

The Intersection
- With SF/F, people think juvenile SF/F is the entire genre, just like with puppetry.
- We wait for the moment when we have to defend our choices
- Present it professionally, matter-of-factly
- As writers and readers of SF/F, we are the ambassadors of our genre.
- Don’t be embarrassed.
- We can be gateways as ambassadors: ask them what they read, compare genre (e.g. recommend Harry Dresden if they like murder mysteries, not if they read Danielle Steele they should read Ender’s Game) – find out what they’re intersted in and introduce them to an adult literary example.
- Point to mainstream examples of SF/F (e.g. The Time Traveler’s Wife)
- A Christmas Carol was one of the first Urban Fantasies.
- Find a popular novel to compare it to.

Puppetry breaks things down into separate techniques.
- As writers, people try to learn things all at the same time: worldbuilding, plot, pacing, dialogue
- Take these techniques and practice them individually rather than trying to learn them all at once
- Do it to the point where you don’t have to stop and think about what you’re doing so that when you’re in the throes of writing, of storytelling, you don’t have to think about technique
- People can lose track of things, know the story isn’t working, but not know why
- Description exercise: Find a place, describe the room you’re in, space you’re in, and write for half an hour. As you keep going, you notice the tiny little details that make the description *pop*.
- Practice character in much the same way: apply a character to the space and see how they react.
- Every puppet itself, every style of puppet, is different.
- The principles to make the puppet alive are much the same, no matter which genre.
- Likewise, principles of literature are the same

The four principles of puppetry: Focus, breath, muscle, and meaningful movement
- Focus: Indicates thought. What is the puppet looking at? That’s what they’re thinking. What they notice tells a lot about the character. As writers, we have complete control over what they’re thinking, and the order they notice things in (what’s important to them).
- As writers, we can only show the audience one thing at a time, so the order becomes more important. We control what they’re thinking about, looking at. By what we show them on the page, we control what the audience is looking at.
- Breath is a motion. Indicates how someone feels. Each different breath is a different emotional feel. With writing, it’s the same: the speed with which we do things controls how the audience feels. E.g. action scenes have short, choppy sentences because it’s a reflection of breath. Punctuation indicates whre people think, pause, breathe. Short, choppy sentences indicate someone is out of breath. Also, combined with Focus, changes the speed with which a person notices things.
- Muscle: Your characters are internally motivated. Know what your goal is when doing things. When a character does something on the page, if it’s not internally motivated, you can see the author’s hand. Give them sufficient internal motivation, emotional weight. That’s muscle. Changing the internal motivation changes the meaning of the actions, and gives the reader something to grasp.
- Not every single action should be a muscle action, but they need sufficient internal motivation.
- Meaningful movement: Because we can only show the reader one movement at a time, every movement should have some meaning. We rely on the character’s body motion to convey emotion. Is it aggressive, passive, or regressive? Aggressive: motion towards. Anger, happiness. Passive: don’t move back or forward. Regressive: Movement away. Open and closed silhouettes: open: anything we want to engage with more fully / closed: do not want to engage with.
- Helps us to define the surroundings, too.
- Be more specific about body language whenever you can. Does the body language you’re using do as much for your story as you can? Is it meaningful?
- Puppetry: head bobbing: amateur. Meaningless movement. Doesn’t add any meaning to the character or story. This includes nodding. Let them have a good reason for nodding. Don’t be redundant: “Yes,” she agreed, nodding.
- Do not assume that a nod means yes. E.g. in India: bobbing from side to side is yes, but a nod is meaningful.
- Can use two pieces of body language to play in contrast, to show a character is conflicted
- Don’t just insert body language to have body language.
- Some motions can be character traits, but don’t have them do ti so often it becomes meaningless.

Parameters of the story
- Puppetry looks at deciding what style of puppetry to be used based on audience: size, age; venue, budget, story you’re trying to tell: helps decide design.
- Look at the size of your story. Every character you put on the page, every set change, will take word count to establish and do justice to. Does the story you’re writing need that set change? How long is your target length? That’s the size of your theatre. Even with novels, you need to figure out how much plot you want, how many characters, etc.

The style of puppetry changes the style of the story.
- e.g. Marionettes: good at graceful movement, not fight scenes.
- Different voice (POV) is good at different things. E.g. First person: good for grounding in a single character and that character’s perception of the world
- The action of telling the story changes the narrator. They’re not the same person at the end as they are when they begin telling the story.
- Third person: good for grounding details
- Don’t choose a voice just because it is fashionable. Write to the expectation you’re trying to set. The voice you choose will shape the story.
- Your materials dictate what you can do.

Pay attention to how much detail your mind fills in.
- The same thing happens in the page: give the audience the right details, and the reader will fill it in. (Puppet e.g.: Miss Piggy doesn’t actually blink!)
- Facial expression can be less specific than body movement. Body language is a more specific tool. What are they doing?
- We betray ourselves much more with the body.
- Character description: point of view to describe it.
- POV no stopping in front of the mirror – just describe in terms of the people around them.
- If you have built sufficient credibility with your audience, sometimes your audience will believe it even if you didn’t intend, and they’ll forgive you for much.

- The movement associated with the dialogue can completely change the audience’s perception.
- Although dialogue is important, a lot of how dialogue is perceived is affected by the setting.
- Why is your character saying something? Sometimes the character changes their mind midstream.
- Monologues do not typically work in fiction today because they’re out of fashion. Try to find ways to break it up: Insert questions, participation of another character (even nonverbal).
- Just remember that dialogue includes a nonverbal element.
- Exercise: Take a transcript of something. Write the setting around it. Look at how context affects the perception of dialogue and the perception of meaning.

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That was one of the coolest classes I've ever attended at Surrey. It got me thinking about character presence and movement in a whole new way. (And seriously. Miss Piggy doesn't blink? I hadn't realized it, because the puppeteers controlling her portray her movements that well. It's amazing how the mind fills in the blanks.)

More notes coming soon!


  1. Thanks for these notes! I loved her keynote speech, and it sounds like her class was excellent. I hope she comes back next year!

  2. You're welcome! She was pretty awesome. I had her for my Blue Pencil, and we had a detailed discussion about, plot, character, and word choice. Once again, *useful*. :D