Thursday, 29 October 2015

Transitions, story, emotion

At my last PhD supervision, a question asked by my director of studies, Ian Gadd, set me thinking. How, he wanted to know, was I going to manage the tonal transitions in William Hayley's story?

The forms Hayley "asks" readers to complete are playful – or, to use Hayley's term, "sportive". They work well with lighter content, but what about when things turn dark? How will a playful mechanism work in the face of the long, agonising decline and death of Thomas Alphonso, Hayley's only son? Or the emotional torments suffered by Hayley's adored friend, William Cowper, whose final poem, "The Castaway", compares his lot to a shipwrecked sailor, and concludes
No voice divine the storm allay'd,
         No light propitious shone;
When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
         We perish'd, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm'd in deeper gulfs than he.
One friend of Hayley's by another: William Cowper by George Romney (NPG 1423)
 Hayley wasn't especially adept at managing the emotional transitions in his Memoirs – edited extracts of which form the backbone of my zoeography – or in the Memoirs of Thomas Alphonso Hayley, published in tandem with his own. His failure to match tone to content led his biographer Morchard Bishop (a pseudonym for the critic and novelist Oliver Stonor, originally named Frederick Field Stoner) to contend that 
"Hayley was a man much too facile in expression to feel very deeply, but he was capable, if the phrase may be pardoned, of feeling extensively…"
Blake’s Hayley: the life, works & friendships of William Hayley
, London, Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1951, p250)
I'm  inclined to pardon neither the phrase, nor the judgement. It's nauseatingly condescending and, frankly, spurious. Taken to its logical conclusion, it suggests that only people with a command of particular modes and manners of expression are capable of profound emotion: a statement that's both utterly of Bishop/Stonor/Stoner's time and class – and also clearly untrue.

However, the lack of emotional dynamics in the Memoirs presents me with an extra challenge in my attempt to engage readers with, and involve them in Hayley's story. So, I'll try two things as I go through each extract (at the moment, there are 447 of them) editing metadata and text, adding images and commentary.

Firstly, I'll see if slight textual tweaks act to increase emotional impact.

And secondly, I'll explore the possibility of rating each extract on three emotional scales (this will mean new metadata fields). At the moment I'm considering
  1. happy <––> sad
  2. calm <––> agitated
  3. a scale of intensity*. 
But, once the extracts are rated, then what? How could this information be used to improve the reader journey/experience? By varying the order in which story extracts are delivered? If so, how? And if not, what would be the point?

At present, we're working on the basis that the prototype will deliver extracts on the basis of

1. reader choice (pick three topics of conversation)
2. randomness (the software picks one of the three topics randomly)
3. order in which text appeared in Hayley's Memoirs (sorted by volume, then page number: this is essentially chronological)

with additional material inserted at predetermined points on the basis of other information Hayley "asks" the readers to provide.

But could it be more effective if stories with high emotional content were delivered via a different mechanism? Should, for instance, news of some of the many deaths – Hayley's Memoirs have a high body count – interrupt the flow of his story? If so, how could that be implemented without throwing everything else out of kilter?

In other words, it's not merely emotional transitions I need to work on here. It's how emotional transitions intersect with narrative transitions that's the real issue. Sometimes the change of emotion and narrative focus will need to be abrupt and shocking, the way it can be IRL. Other times will require transitions that are gentler, more subtle. 

Time, I think, for a conversation with the developers about the desirable and the possible…

For next week I'm going to explore and write about one of the 10 games Naomi Alderman picked as essential for any of us interested in "the future of literature" in her recent article on narrative innovation and gaming to explore and write about.

* which brings to mind Don Paterson's chilling poem The Scale of Intensity

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