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Notes from the Physics of Storytelling

Earlier today I attended a fabulous open forum put on by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Communication Arts department entitled the Physics of Storytelling, featuring TyRuben Ellingson, Toni-Leslie James, Ronald Keller, and Matt Wallin as speakers. The talk focused on an artist’s role in the story telling process, especially in the mediums of video games, stage productions, and cinema.  I thought I’d share some of the notes and wisdom I walked away with. Some of this is stuff most people doing creative work already know, but it’s always worth stating/restating.

  • Objects, sets, props, and costumes should, even in fictional and fantastical settings, be informed by the rules and reality of that world.
  • Even if just designing costumes or settings or characters, read the script. Understand the script. Figure out the story your work needs to help convey and re-enforce.
  • Think about a character’s past. Even if it’s not part of the script, speculate on one. A character’s past should inform how that character dresses.
  • For games specifically, how does level design, game play, and narrative tone affect the character design?  How does the game play and game design inform the game narrative, and vice versa?  There should be connections there.
  • Collaboration and meshing your work with the work of others is a vital part of your creative skill set. One that you must work on.
  • Restraints and limitations often births some of the greatest creativity. Don’t spend time wishing you had better technology or a bigger budget. Figuring out what you can do with what you have can often produce even more interesting results.
  • Don’t let “trying to make the biggest and most grandiose” overtake “trying to make what’s right for this story”. Sometimes bigger isn’t better and it can undermine what the story’s trying to say.
  • Love your ideas, but don’t marry them.  You’ll often be asked to change them by people who can basically force you to change them. If you really believe in your idea don’t just say “No,” to changing it, try to convince the other parties why it’s the best idea. Search for solutions that can make everyone satisfied. Stay flexible.
  • Be open to experiences, even if they don’t relate directly to your field of work.
  • Be a student and historian of your field. Want to make games? Know who Will Wright and Miyamoto are.
  • Practice transcendent skill sets. Technology changes. Genres change. Mediums change. Stuff like thinking out of the box and good research skills never change though.
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