While we’re in the middle of a strike over the impact of the Internet on writing, I’d like to invite you to check out The Loose-Fish Project, an experiment in using the web as a storytelling medium which we launched at BarcampLA4 this past weekend.
For the past several years, I’ve been writing screenplays, tv specs and stage plays. But I’ve gotten burned out on scriptwriting. Scripts are very strange little creatures. And I’ve come to believe that they’re just not good vehicles for telling stories, at least not in the straightjacketed fashion that Hollywood demands they be written. When you want a good read, do you curl up with a screenplay? They’re not used as primary texts. They’re blueprints for someone else to tell a story. Or in most cases, they’re just used as sales documents, and treated with as much care. Now, I’ve never heard of anybody whose life’s ambition is to write the Great American Powerpoint Deck. It’s certainly not why I started writing. But I found I’d become less concerned with “am I telling a good tale?” and more concerned with, “how do I keep from doing anything that could make a script reader or development executive stop reading.”
Many of my writing projects are adaptations. I like taking classic stories, revamping and reformulating them (yay public domain!) One screenplay I wrote took the Shakespeare play Coriolanus and made the protagonist into a modern-day baseball player. If you ever want to blow a pitch meeting, just say the word Coriolanus. Another project I spent a long time working on was a sci-fi adaptation of Moby-Dick. I think these ideas are highly commercial, but alas, I seem to be the only one.
There are loads of other kinds of artists who don’t worry about persuading the middlemen anymore. They’re using the Internet to go directly to their audience. Novelists, short story writers, musicians, video makers are uploading their work to the web, and viewers and readers can experienced it as their creators intended. But for screenplays, or really any form of dramatic writing, it’s not quite the same. You can’t really just put your script up online and expect people to read it. So, how do screenwriters get in on some of that hot circumventing-the-gatekeepers action?
You could produce the work yourself, which a lot of people do. But what if your stories are of a larger scale than you can produce with even the most hardcore group of dedicated friends? You can’t really self-produce Moby-Dick with and handycam and final cut. Well, maybe Orson Welles could, but he’s dead.
So what to do?
I found an answer in Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs. What the heck is an ARG? I was fortunate enough to be involved as a player during the 1st great ARG, The A.I. Game, also known as “The Beast.” Those of us who played it spent years trying to explain it to others, without a lot of luck. So let me defer to the wikipedia definition, which reads: “An alternate reality game is an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants’ ideas or actions.”
I found myself wondering if you could have an ARG without the Game component. Just story. And then I wondered if I could take these classic stories I’m so fond of working with, and adapt them into that shape. There’s an explosion of new platforms, and every week, there seems to be some new channel, technology or social network. I started to see how they could be used as narrative surfaces, as carriers of story content.
But I was on the fence – I’d been working for over a year on my Moby-Dick screenplay. Was I really jut going to chuck it out the window so I could go in a completely new, experimental direction?
And then I read this quote from Warren Ellis and I knew I had to do it: “The hurdle to credible publishing on the web, now, is the nine dollars it costs to buy a domain name from GoDaddy, which can be mapped on to a free Tumblr or Blogger space.”
Nine dollars to publish my own work when and where I wanted in, in a format that wasn’t weighed down by a century’s worth of cruft.
Thus was born The Loose-Fish Project. It’s a storytelling hub with online distribution via the medium or media that best suits the particular qualities of each given story.
This past weekend, we unveiled the first of these stories: The Good Captain, a science fiction mystery tale told via Twitter. It’s based on “Benito Cereno,” a novella by Herman Melville. I chose Twitter because the original story hinges on the viewpoint of its protagonist. What better way to get inside the perspective of a character than the first-person descriptions of a Twitter feed? The story will unfold over the course of 6-8 weeks. We’ve started with a handful of updates per day, but shortly the pace will pick up.
While The Good Captain is playing out, I’ll be starting work on the second story — adapting Spoon River Anthology into a series of profiles on Facebook. After that, we’ve got several more stories in development. A contemporary version of Pride and Prejudice where the Bennett Sisters run a group blog. A series of linked websites that retell the story of Dracula.
And one I’m very much looking forward to. I mentioned before I’d been writing a sci-fi epic adaptation of Moby-Dick. Most people think of Moby-Dick as a revenge story, but what its main theme really deals with is that, no matter how much information you possess, how much you classify and quantify the world, some things are inherently unknowable. For a story about the collection of knowledge, what better vehicle than a wiki.
As part of this hub is a blog, The Fishery, which will be a discussion site for brainstorming about new narrative forms, examples of similar projects, and anything else that could be relevant to developing the future of online storytelling.
One of the things that we’ve been talking about is that the web-as-storytelling-medium is currently where the movie industry was in 1905. We’re just at the beginning of the journey, and who knows where it will lead. It’s all really wide open.
Which brings me to one last thing. Why “Loose-Fish?” In Moby-Dick, there’s a chapter called “Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish,” which talks about the laws that govern possession of whales on the high seas. A fast-fish is one which is claimed, or fastened to a ship. One that’s been tied down. Any fish that isn’t fastened, is up for grabs, or loose.
The future of storytelling is one whopper of a loose-fish.