Friday, February 13, 2009

Workshop: The role of language and culture in stories

I'm noticing as I look at the material here that I'm making a lot of comments about potential ways that language can influence the stories. In some cases I'm getting a reaction of "wow," and in others I'm getting "well, that doesn't work because my story has to do this."

Let me be clear: I don't expect you all to change your stories to make them about language and culture. On the other hand, language and culture can give some unexpected benefits to just about any story, and that's what I'm looking for here. Possibilities. Since language and culture are such broad areas, in many cases I'm having to feel around your descriptions of your stories, to get a better idea of where I can be of most help. So I appreciate all of your cooperation in answering questions on the workshop. Thank you.

Now I'd like to discuss some different kinds of places where language and culture can serve to enhance stories. If you read this and any element resonates with you - particularly if it's something I haven't detected or mentioned in your comments to this point - do let me know.

1. Premise
I think of premise as the basic set of assumptions that a reader needs to accept in order for a story to work. For any story (like mine, for example) that has aliens in it, the existence of some kind of alien language forms a critical part of the premise. The story itself may or may not depend on the nature of this language, but if the language sticks out as unrealistic or somehow physically or culturally impossible, that will make it difficult for readers to accept any kind of story placed in that context. The questions I've asked about channel (auditory versus visual) and about linguistic history in David's arcati world are premise-level questions.

2. Plot
This is "what happens" in the story. Language and culture influence the plot of a story if the story is specifically about language difficulty, or if language difficulty or cultural misunderstanding cause a distinct change in events at any point in the story. My own stories involve this stuff all the time. I know David has plans in this area, and I think this may also apply to K's story at certain points, with misunderstandings of the Terran versus Eyan cultures.

3. Setting
In this case I'm not talking about the physical setting, but the cultural and linguistic setting. This is something that I believe is applicable to every story. Quite often it's done well on gut feel alone, without any kind of analysis. Look for any way in which the people in your story are divided into types, and there you'll find a great opportunity to explore language and culture. This doesn't just mean how the different groups speak. It also means how they are described by others, and how they describe others; what expectations are held for them and how those expectations are explained; how their role and values are judged. This is something I've definitely seen in pyraxis' rsakk story, in K's story of Dalkans and Eyans and Terrans and how these groups perceive appropriate behavior, in Catreona's story of Plague Children and the respect with which they expect to be treated, and in wordjinn's families of djinn with their different values. I'm not sure how deeply David's gone into the divisions between the arcati, but I know the groups are there, with the guilds etc. So in this area everyone can dig in; one of the things that can help you to do that is character.

4. Character
A character is a wonderful tool for language and culture building in part because of point of view. If you want to learn about how some group of people regards the others around it, experiment with writing the answers to a set of questions from the point of view of one of the members of that group. Trying to take a point of view often makes it easier to explore the answers to language and culture questions, and value judgment questions. How does your character talk about people he or she respects? Hates? Every character has a personal history, and a personal culture (even aliens or fantasy characters without a known group from our world); these things influence character behavior and judgment in every circumstance.

5. Dialogue
By dialogue I mean how your characters talk. Do you want them to speak in British dialect? Should they speak with an accent that is indicated by alternate spellings of known words? Do they use a lot of slang? If you consider that they are speaking a foreign (usually their own) language, do you want to have that reflected at all in the way their English dialogue is written? If they're communicating on a channel that isn't auditory, such as empathic or telepathic or pheremonal signals, what information are they conveying by that means and how do you want to express that in English?

6. Voice
This one means narrator voice - the language of the voice telling the story. Whether you've got a story told in first or third person, the narrator has an identity, and that identity is indicated by the words you use to tell the story. The narrator can be an epic storyteller, or one of the characters considering his or life retrospectively, or one of the characters experiencing the story in the moment; as a character (invisible or no), the narrator has his or her own culture that is reflected in language. This element can be tricky to step back from and work with, but if you ever really want to go whole hog with an alien point of view, for example, it can be invaluable.

So for my workshop participants, please look through this list and give me your thoughts on which areas you find most promising for your own stories. Play around with the possibilities in your head, or even create an alternate story experiment file and see what kind of impact on the storyline may result from language and culture changes. You might decide you don't want to change the existing details - but you might gain a different kind of insight into the story events, and discover a change that can enhance the story's impact without detracting from your overall intent.

More soon...

A note for wordjinn: I have some comments for you after reading your blog posting (thanks for that!), but I haven't managed to put them together quite yet. I'll try to post them for you in the next day or so. Thank you for your patience.