Monday, July 25, 2011

The Making of "Across the Metaverse"

As the summer goes on, my work on the short stories of "In-Futura" continues. Specifically, I've been focused on finishing the final three stories in Part II: Longing. The second of the new additions is a weird tale about a doomed romantic connection in a virtual world, "Across the Metaverse".

"Across the Metaverse" was originally inspired by the idea of social networking "tribes". Depending on what social network you're logged into, your personality, how you behave, and how you present yourself changes. For example, on LinkenIn, people are all consummate professionals, on Twitter, people spread shallow thoughts and gossip, on Facebook, people are the ultimate socialites. What if I could set a love story within the context of this world of culturally-distinct social networks? What if I adapted one of the most famous love stories of them all: Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet?

Here is the synopsis:

In the future... our online social networks have replaced our families as our primary form of self-identification and group interaction. This poses a major problem for Roberto, who falls in love with a beautiful girl from an incompatible network in the virtual world of the Metaverse. When another pursuer challenges him to a duel to the death, the star-crossed lover must decide how far he'd travel "Across the Metaverse" to win her heart.

Below are three interesting challenges that I encountered while writing "Across the Metaverse":

(1) The Struggle to Adapt a Classic

The first challenge with making "Across the Metaverse" a reality was a biggie: how in the world was I to write an original take on one of the most well-known and adapted loves stories of them all, Romeo & Juliet? My first move was to learn as much as I could about Shakespeare's famous play: building a complete list of characters and the role that each of them plays, outlining the key scenes that take place in each Act, and jotting down the key themes and archetypes that are central to the story. Once knee-deep in the source material, I was ready to decide on what to "adapt".

First off, how would I modernize the characters? Should I keep the original names from Shakespeare's play, or update them slightly, to make them my own? How on earth would I blend old-English-style character names and personalities with modern-day social network names like LinkedIn and Twitter? My initial thought was to keep Shakespeare's original character names and adapt social networking terminology to give it a Shakespearean feel. This was a total disaster, and the text felt forced and awkward. I ended up with a different approach altogether: I would adapt both the character names from Shakespeare's play AND the names of today's social networks - giving them an original, yet familiar feel.

The final issue with adapting the play was one that I realized very early on: the story was just too big for a 4,000-5,000 word piece of short fiction. There were just too many scenes, too many story threads, too many ancillary characters, and too many twists to fit comfortably within a 15 page manuscript. So, rather than telling the classic story over the course of Three Acts and an array of scenes and settings, I decided to focus on one primary setting: the party scene, in which Romeo and Juliet first meet. I incorporated most of the key events in the story into this one setting, and distilled the cast into a handful of essential characters. Satisfied, I was now ready to write!

(2) Bringing "The Metaverse" to Life

The second challenge was setting this loosely-adapted classic within a weird and wacky world of my own creation: "The Metaverse", a virtual world akin to Second Life and World of Warcraft, in which real people led wholly digital lifes. As the concept demanded, each person's online persona would belong to a distinct social network: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, FourSquare, even Quora. Turning this basic concept into a world that I could actually write about was probably the trickiest part of the whole process. Would it feel like Avatar? Tron? Gamer? Or something completely different?

I made a critical decision very early on: while creating this world, I would strive to make it as outlandish and exaggerated as I could. I didn't want the Metaverse to feel mundane, boring, or familiar. I wanted it to immediately evoke a sense of wonder, to spark people's imaginations and make them feel like they were in a surreal, yet strangely familiar fantasy land. To that effect, I took the idea of distinct social network cultures a step further: one's network would determine what you looked like, how you acted, and even how you spoke. Members of the Twitter-inspired network were portrayed as tiny, gossip-hungry goblins, members of LinkedIn were tall, stately beings wearing impeccable outfits, and so on. This world was meant to be unlike any other.

Finally, this strange, surreal world needed its own Lexicon - unique terms and names that the characters would use to describe their actions, many of which would be inspired by current, social networking terminology. In the Metaverse, people would be called "Profiles", death would result in "Deletion", and leaving an area would simply require hitting the "Exit Link". Profiles could "Connect", "Recommend", "Share", and even go for a "Super Poke" when pressed with a fight. Developing the terms that would be used within the Metaverse was one of the most fun and creative aspects of creating it.

(3) Writing Against the Plan

Up to this point, I had been very strict in my approach to writing stories. As I've outlined in my 3-Part "New Additions" Series, my process when writing typically involved a carefully written outline and a plan that maps out every key scene in the story - even how many pages each scene should be. And although I did hash out a solid outline and plan for this story, what I ended up doing was out of my comfort zone: I switched up the plan. I mixed up the scenes and played with the time line - instead of unfolding linearly, the story would jump back and forth through time, mainly for storytelling effect. To make things more exciting, I even split up the climax, and told the first half of it in the very beginning in order to throw the reader into a high-intensity scene!

As I was writing this story, I also ended up combining characters and scenes on the fly. Realizing that I didn't have all of the storytelling space I needed to work with, several important, but ultimately unessential characters (like the Friar and the Nurse) were cut out completely, while other characters (like Paris and Tybalt) were combined into one major character, who would serve as the main villain. I also ended up combining scenes that were planned to be separate, and using the non-linear structure to insert short scenes that would provide some exposition and help develop the characters.

Finally, in this story more than any of the others, I simply let the story and characters develop on their own. There was no major plan or even an idea of what they would say to each other or how that would interact, I simply started writing a scene and they said and did the things that felt most natural. It's at this point - when the story seems to write itself - that a writer truly feels like they've connected to their characters and created a world with a life of its own.

Status: PUBLISHED on! Click here to read the story.

(*** Eeep! This e-zine seems to be defunct. Sorry!)