Author Archive

March 17, 2013

User Experience Design: Not Just for the Web

by Shannon Fox

My time has been sucked away lately. Besides working full time, I’m taking an online course in User Experience Design. Basically, it’s a class talking about the mechanics of pattern recognition and how we can use these ideas to build functional websites for people. For ex. if you see see a down arrow on a menu bar, you know instinctively that if you click that arrow, you will get more options. One of the most interesting tenants of user experience design, is that you don’t want to reinvent the wheel. People will get bored and go looking for a wheel they understand.

As the class wraps up, I’ve been thinking about how writers do the same thing. If you write in any genre that isn’t experimental, you’re working off these same ideas. Fundamentally, most stories can be broken down into particular archetypes, with some variations. There are various discussions of the types (I have a hand-out from one of my writing classes) all over the web. Some examples of these narrative archetypes are the hero’s journey, forbidden, love, and coming-of-age. These are very broad definitions, but you can immediately start to place stories you’ve read and liked into these categories.

Why are stories like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey so popular? Because they don’t reinvent the wheel. Both of these are forbidden love stories that follow a similar pattern. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back. So, at their core, each of these is presenting a new take on something we are very, very familiar with.

Beyond story archetypes, you can see user experience patterns at work in characterization, plot structure, plot elements, sentence structure, etc. All of this is designed to give the reader a level of familiarity, so that they’re more comfortable being led into unknown territory. Human girl, boy vampire? That’s okay, because it’s basically Romeo and Juliet.

I believe that bad writing often appears when these user experiences are violated. Characterization might fall flat if you introduce a character as “narcissistic” and then in the next chapter, have him donating all of his wordly goods and possessions to the less fortunate. Now, you can make a case for this behavior. But if it’s just a passing mention and not a big part of the overall plot, you’re going to turn some readers off.

Maybe nothing is original, but there’s a good reason for that. People don’t crave out-and-out originality. What they look for, is something that seems familiar, but isn’t.

I purposefully excluded the experimental genre because it doesn’t fit with these ideas. Which explains how it got its name. Experimental fiction and poetry rarely, if ever, goes mainstream and achieves a wide audience. Because in its very structure, it IS reinventing the wheel. But that’s okay. The purpose is to do that. To destroy preconceptions. Writers in this genre don’t expect or even particularly desire to see their book on the NYT Best-Seller List.

Thinking of your writing in terms of how you can incorporate patterns of experience is useful, so long as you want your work to be more widely read. If that’s not important to you, you needn’t bother.

March 3, 2013

A Story About the Way We Tell Stories

by Shannon Fox


February 24, 2013

The Best Films Make Great Stories

by Shannon Fox

Tonight is one of my favorite nights of the year: The Oscars. And this year has boasted a particularly strong crowd of Best Picture nominees. And I actually saw a good amount of them. Usually, I might see one or two of these films. But this year, I’ve seen an impressive five!

Being the story-obsessed person that I am, I can’t get behind a film if it doesn’t have a great story and great characters at its core. Here’s my run-down of the five films I saw and why they’re more than just great films: they’re great stories, too.


I wrote a post on my personal blog after Argo came out. But, suffice it to say, Argo combines taught, nail-biting suspense, superior camera-work, great dialogue, good characters, and fabulous actors. I’m pulling for Argo the most tonight.

Django Unchained:

Ah, Quentin Tarantino. While my heart still belongs to Inglorious Bastards, Django is a close second. The story is long and sprawling, a western as epic as any other, a legend as worthy of telling as that of Brunhilde and Siegfried. Yes it’s violent and gory. But it’s also funny and heart-stoppingly spot-on. The dialogue delivery is perfect…particularly where Christophe Waltz is concerned. That man is seriously one of the best actors working today.

Les Miserables:

From book to musical to film adaptation…I can’t say what other work has has such a history as this. My first introduction to Les Mis was through the musical. I tried to read the novel, but only got about halfway through it. I was curious to see how it would translate to the screen. Well, I think. It’s a musical and you have to know that going in. It’s mostly going to sound like being at the opera. But it’s also visually stunning and compelling. Though, I do think Hugo’s story is so sprawling that when it got condensed into musical form, which became the true source for the film, the narrative continuity kind of fell apart. It spans a very long period of time and is populated mostly with minor characters. Yes, it’s a redemptive story and the story of the conflict between Jean Valjean and Javert. But it’s also a very large part of the history of France and the class relations. In short, it’s a lot for any musical or film to take on.

Life of Pi:

The cinematography of this film was outstanding. It so perfectly correlated with the surreal, kind of bizarre, almost dream-like quality of the story. It’s been a very long time since I’ve read the book so I don’t remember it all that well, but the film narrative was well-pace, well-timed. I got to watch this film in 3-d, but the whole film experience was very visceral, very real.

Silver Linings Playbook:

I love Jennifer Lawrence. She’s fabulous. And she’s even more fabulous as Tiffany. Not only is this film funny, it’s smart and it’s tragic. You go from feeling wildly triumphant to uncomfortable to fearful to cracking up. Not a lot of films can handle that many changes of emotional tone with such skill. I found out later that this was based on a novel, so I have no comparison in that regard. But, this film was pretty damn perfect.

There you have it folks. Who has your vote tonight?