Monday, July 16, 2007

Talecrafting Analysis

Following Sean's analysis of his Talecraft storytelling process, here's my own take based on The Tesseract.

A quick introduction to those not familiar with Talecraft: Talecraft is a card-based storytelling game developed by Davao-born artist and developer Ria Lu. The fat deck consists of Genre, Archetype, and Key cards. The mechanics are simple: pick some cards at random and tell a story using the elements you turn up.

I first encountered the game at ToyCon 2007 at SM Megamall. Though I did badly on my first try (and will probably continue to do so -- live performance is not my strong suit), I thought the game had promise and so decided to sell it in Davao and Dumaguete. (Yes, you may contact me if you want to buy a set. It's P350 per deck, same price as in Manila.)

The Talecraft contest site threw us a doozy of a curve ball. Essentially: write a SciFi short story involving a Dandy and a Haunted Hero with Diamond, a Grandfather Clock, Blindness, Blood, Tomb as elements and Escape as a plotline.

The difficulty is reconciling the Dandy and Grandfather Clock into a science fiction story. These are not the typical elements for the genre (unless you're a Doctor Who fan -- which I am, by the way.) But this is where the value of semi-random nature of the Talecraft game comes to the fore: it forces you to mix elements which you might not otherwise think of using.

My immediate instinct was to associate the Dandy and the Diamond. The image fits quite nicely. The Dandy is typically vain and shallow; thus, a Diamond would be a good object of his covetousness. And between the Dandy and the Haunted Hero, I actually thought the Dandy would be a much more interesting character.

Next: how to turn this into a science fiction story? Taking my cue from Doctor Who, I turned the Diamond into a plot device, specifically, an alien plot device. Cheating? Maybe. In any case, with these the Dandy and the alien Diamond, I already had the first two paragraphs of my story:

Even afterwards, when he had plenty of time to contemplate the matter, Desmond's thoughts always flew back to the diamond. Yes, the diamond, calling out to him with its irresistible siren song, its every sparkle a seduction of the senses, and its very touch exciting him to pure ecstasy.

That the diamond was of alien origin, there was no doubt. By the scientists' estimations, it was immeasurably old. These were the quaint oddities that had first piqued his curiosity that day he attended the function at they Singh-Meyer Space Institute. Little did he know that it would become his deadly obsession.

By the second paragraph, I already had some inkling of the conflict between the Dandy and the Haunted Hero in the form already present in the story. The Haunted Hero unwittingly brought the Diamond back to earth, and the Dandy would covet it. But how to up the ante for the hero? Well, have the Dandy strike through the Haunted Hero's wife.

Starting the story by way of retrospection was a method I picked up from "The Flood in Tarlac." Nevertheless, I found it apt. The reader would know that, yes, the Dandy had survived but would still leave enough room for suspense. In my mind, I already knew what the ending would be -- that the Diamond would also be the Dandy's Tomb.

In order to flesh out the character of the Dandy some more, I decided to add a few more touches. This came in answer to a few other questions: What brought him in first contact with the Diamond? A swanky function at a space institute. Is this the place a dandy would go? Probably not. So why would he go? At the insistence of his lover, Nigel!

Aha! the bisexual sybaritic touch would just the thing to round out the Dandy's character.

He recalled that he had not even wanted to go. Nigel, being one of Institute's investment angels, had insisted on his company for the exhibit's premier. "I'm delighted you'll turn another billion, Nigel, love," he had said, "but must I tag along? Scientists and explorers, phooey! I'll simply be bored to tears."

Along the way, I had to introduce a few minor characters. Nigel was a necessary addition, and turning him into a venture capitalist was just the thing to develop the background. Initially, there was no Rajiv Singh, but he had to come into the picture because there was no way Hank Meyer could run the company. Meyer, the Haunted Hero, was meant to be bold but socially inept; and for that reason, he needed a smooth CEO.

I was through a third of the story when I realized I had not actually incorporated the Grandfather Clock. Could I introduce it later in the story? Not without unbalancing the story with an obviously minor detail pulled out from the hat. So I decided to introduce it early, in so doing introducing the Blood element as well.

With the revision, the opening now read:

Like an eternal monument, the ancient grandfather clock stood unmoving, its hands forever fixed at a half past one. The brass pendulum hung a few degrees off apogee, but neither rose nor fell. Remnants of the glass window, smeared with blood, were as jagged teeth of the broken case. From one of the jutting splinters a fresh crimson dollop threatened to fall, yet clung stubbornly to the wood.

That didn't segue so well into the previous opening, so I decided to make the further revision:

Desmond regarded the unmoving scene, bemused by the irony. Time was all he had now. Well, time and his own sardonic self. Nothing more to do, then, but dwell on the sins that had brought him thus.

Even now, Desmond's thoughts flew back to the diamond. Yes, the diamond, that which called out to him with its irresistible siren song, seducing him with its window to infinity.

With this addition, it became more logical to use the Grandfather Clock as a story marker. And that's what it does, throughout the three parts of the story. Now we open with the Grandfather Clock in its final static state; midway through the story is the Grandfather Clock still operational; and near the end is the Grandfather Clock destroyed but still in real time. The Grandfather Clock served to symbolize the frozen-time element in the story, too.

Along the way, the nature of the Diamond changed somewhat. Now I already knew that the Diamond would be a fourth-dimensional construct of some kind (hence the title, though I did not explain). Somewhere the idea of psionics also came into the picture. At first, it was just going to be an imaging device, but that seemed insufficient to get investors excited, so I turned it into a mysterious energy source.

The portrayal also changed. From a sparkling temptation, I turned the Diamond into a dark obsession. This was a difficult transition to make as I had to rewrite several paragraphs, but it was a warranted effort because I wanted the Diamond to be as alien and mysterious as possible.

Hence, the final version:

Inside was the diamond, but it was a fact perceived rather than seen. One felt it when one was not looking at it directly. And though one could not see it, one knew it came in the shape of a diamond.

The skips in time were necessary to the mechanism of the story. I know I left out a lot ot detail, but I felt they could be safely omitted. In fact, I thought they would heighten the tension. Besides, it was all in keeping with the retrospective structure of the story.

And Rosalie? Poor Rosalie, just a plot device, not a hint of dialogue, and in the end, a fresh corpse by the Grandfather Clock. Again, it was in keeping with the nature of Desmond the Dandy -- cruel, opportunistic and uncaring -- to portray her as such: just an object to be used.

Everything else just fell into place. The original Escape plotline was meant to show the Dandy's escape from the Haunted Hero. Escape into where? Into an eternal Tomb! I had conveniently forgotten about Blindness, but then it worked well enough as the anti-hero's obsession. Only when I finished the story did I realize that the Dandy was a Haunted Hero as well!

"The Tesseract" is by no means a perfect story. I've resigned myself to the fact that the short story is not my strong suit. With a lot more polish, I'm hoping I can squeak it past some sleepy editor. But as illustrations go, it shows how Talecraft can inspire an unconventional tale.