Crowdsourcing "Coraline"

Can a hundred Neil Gaiman-imitating twitterers produce anything worth reading?

Published October 23, 2009 12:23AM (EDT)

Last week, BBC Audiobooks America announced that it would sponsor the creation of a story via Twitter feed, using a first sentence written by author Neil Gaiman as the seed and inviting the public to collaborate in completing it, one 140-character passage at a time. The experiment was widely pronounced "cool," as such things usually are, then promptly forgotten by everyone but the participants -- again, as such things usually are.

The several dozen people who contributed to the story seemed to have fun, and perhaps that's all that really matters. A Web 2.0 version of the old surrealist parlor game known as "exquisite corpse," the twittered story was intended as a publicity stunt for BBC Audiobooks America's line of "distinctive single-voiced and full-cast dramatized audiobooks," and surely succeeded at that. Yet BBCAA intends to publish an audio-only version of the story, read by Gaiman himself, which makes this as apt an occasion as any to raise some questions about the creative potential of social networking. How is a good story invented? Is it yet another of those decision-based endeavors that can, according to the technotopian, freakonomical wisdom of our time, be performed better en masse than by the hopelessly antiquated individual? Can fiction be crowdsourced?

Although this is far from the first Twitter-generated story, Gaiman may be the ideal writer to preside over such an undertaking. No popular author better demonstrates how openly borrowed material can be transfigured by the force of a powerful imagination. His work combines elements of fairy tale, folklore, classic British children's fiction, comics, horror and hard-boiled mystery. "Coraline" taps into the tradition of countless stories about bored children who find portals to other worlds, partakes of the evil-stepmother motif from the Brothers Grimm, structures it all into a save-your-parents quest reminiscent of "A Wrinkle in Time," and so on, but Gaiman's limpid style and heady imagery (those button eyes!) also make it indisputably original. The Newbery-medal-winning "The Graveyard Book" performs a similar alchemy by combining Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book" with (improbably enough) the modern-day serial-killer thriller. This method makes Gaiman easy to imitate but -- and here's the rub -- impossible to equal.

Gaiman's kickoff sentence for the the BBCAA story is, "Sam was brushing her hair when the girl in the mirror put down the hairbrush, smiled & said, 'We don't love you anymore.'" What follows, coaxed out of the Twitterverse, is a patchwork of extremely familiar motifs: malicious animated puppets, cuddly talking animal pals, an ominous castle, a sinister music box and spookily chanted rhymes -- all tied to the obligatory chase after objects of obscure magical importance (otherwise known as plot coupons).

The twittered story (which as of this writing has no title) is Gaimanesque, yes, but only really in tone. Much of it is simply lifted -- from "Coraline," from "Alice in Wonderland," from "The Wizard of Oz" and, above all, from the storehouse of shopworn Hollywood clichés -- to form a patchwork that never resolves into anything more that just that, a hodgepodge of random stuff you've seen a zillion times before. The considerably muddled narrative describes the adventures of a girl who is either 1) kidnapped by her mirror reflection and trying to get home or 2) bravely attempting to rescue her little brother from an evil queen, or both (it keeps changing), but Sam's exploits turned out to be far less compelling than the spectacle of their composition. Witnessing this story come together was an object lesson in the trials of collaboration and the limits of the wisdom of crowds.

Here's how it worked: Although anyone could tweet a suggested next sentence, an editor at BBCAA selected which ones would be incorporated into the canonical version of the story. (Gaiman's involvement in the creative phase of the operation seems minimal, which didn't keep one participant from grandiosely claiming to be "writing an audiobook with Neil Gaiman" elsewhere on the Web.) Oddly enough, no one was bothered by this "gatekeeping" role, even when the BBCAA editor repeatedly rebuffed a campaign to give a minor character a bigger role in the plot. (He/she later gave in, though.) Anyone who took a good look at the chaotic selection of potential paths forward could see that somebody had to steer. Yet, even with a skipper, much of the time the tale didn't seem to be sailing anywhere but in circles.

It's tempting to attribute this meandering quality to the lack of a master plan. However, contrary to what people often think, improvisation is a vital part of the fiction-writing process. Remarkably few single-person authors outline their plots in advance of writing. Many, like the science-fiction novelist Samuel Delany, report that they start out with a few images and then see where their intuition leads them. "Among those stories that strike us as perfectly plotted, with those astonishing endings both a complete surprise and a total satisfaction," Delaney once wrote, "it is amazing how many of their writers will confess that the marvelous resolution was as much a surprise for them as it was for the reader."

Nor is the problem always a matter of too many people pulling the story in too many directions. True, if you're only going to get one or two of your own sentences into the end product, you're going to want them to be boffo. Consequently, most of the proposed passages represent bids to initiate a pivotal plot development ("Suddenly" has to be the most popular adverb deployed), attempts at high drama ("'No!' The Queen shrieked, 'this will not be allowed! He is mine!'") or articulations of some grand insight or theme ("You have to face her. She's part of you"). Without much in the way of simple scene-setting or nuance, the story lacks texture, atmosphere and the variety in pacing and intensity that makes fiction dramatically effective. Instead, with the emotional volume knob stuck on high, the result is just one damn thing after another.

Still, most of the participants have a pretty firm sense of what the parameters of "a Neil Gaiman story" ought to be, and even the rejected tweets had more in common than you'd expect. There was the occasional marginally literate non sequitur -- "'Sir, do you know what is this egg?' Asked Sam to the badger. 'Of course, lady. This is an Catoblepas eggs.'" (Huh?) Yet even these fell within the same essential thematic register. There were few contributions that came entirely out of left field -- no Mach-5 race cars, say, or sessions of Parliament.

Instead of being bombarded with too many ideas, what the twittered story really suffered from was too few. The handful of contributors who could come up with interesting motifs or turns of phrase had no idea how to constructively inject these into the whole, while the ones who were good at moving the plot forward tended to write exclusively in clichés. The dialogue is particularly lamentable, imported exclusively from the most formulaic of action movies: "'Events are already in motion,' the Prince said. 'We must act'"; "Sam screamed 'Nooooo'" "'Sam! Listen to me!' the Prince shouted, 'You must go, we will hold them off, now RUN!'" I was thinking they'd managed to hit every overplayed note of the blockbuster pulp factory except for the venerable "Don't die on me, damn it!" -- when, sure enough, Sam sobs to the stricken Prince, "No, you can't die!"

The same tired devices turned up over and over again. Any shift in the action always seemed to be accompanied by a mysterious glowing light, and the heroine was forever being "enveloped" or "engulfed" in this glow, if not in darkness or some other featureless miasma, as a way of getting her from one indistinct setting to another. At one point she even finds herself transported to a featureless, solid blue vacancy -- much like the green-screen backdrops used to film connect-the-dots CGI blockbusters.

Despite an endless series of chase scenes, by the fourth day of tweeting with the projected 1,000th-tweet end point approaching, the plot wasn't especially close to a resolution, and key elements remained unexplained. Who was the evil queen (besides a lift from "Coraline," "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and "Snow White"), and what did she want? What promise had Sam broken? Who didn't love her anymore? What exactly had happened to her brother? Why had she been sucked into the mirror? What was her reflection doing back in the real world? She'd collected two sidekicks (a badger and a wisecracking puppet, motivations unclear), as well as a green marble egg that intermittently pulsed (pulsing being almost as commonplace as glowing in this story), a gold key, a blue crystal rose, a music box with an evil talking doll inside and a confusing back story involving royal twins, a puppet maker, a magpie with a magic mirror and several doppelgängers, none of which added up to a coherent explanation of what was going on. A lot was happening, and it was all pretty boring.

Consensus began to break down, despite efforts among the contributors to sort out the loose ends while the BBCAA editor was off getting lunch or a little shut-eye. Occasionally a sentence made an obvious plea for answers ("It was that voice again. That voice that had haunted her the first time she reach the castle. And then she realized ..."), but no one took up the challenge, leaving those ellipses sadly unfulfilled. It's so much easier to just introduce another new development! As @Toujours_Diva, the group's self-appointed heckler, wrote sarcastically, "You know what this story needs? A few more extraneous characters." (Some of the collaborators interpreted that as a sincere suggestion.)

Raymond Chandler once offered this piece of advice to his fellow writers: "When in doubt, have a man with a gun come into the room." Yet even the excitement of an armed intruder wears thin by the time you've got 30 of them milling around for no apparent reason. Well past the purported 1,000-tweet limit, Sam was still reviewing the pieces of the puzzle confronting her and wailing, "I don't know how to put it together!" She was not alone. At one point, BBCAA put up a poll asking participants where Sam should end up after yet another engulfment, and the response was evenly divided among several major alternatives. Then they tried literally smooshing all the characters and plot coupons together (because they're all part of Sam!) in a climax that involved yet more glowing and pulsing. And it still wasn't over. People were confused and, it seems, still dissatisfied. Time for another poll! Even the ol' "It was all a dream/the ravings of a lunatic" finish was seriously contemplated.

At some point, every tale needs to stop expanding so it can begin to contract into a coherent whole. People often ask great storytellers, "Where do you get your ideas?" but the real question is "How do you make sense of your ideas?" Delany believed that good writers read so much that they "internalize" certain "literary models" and thereby acquire an instinctual feel for a story's proper shape. As they build on that evocative first image or scene, while they are still venturing further out into the unknown, an unconscious part of their creative intelligence is figuring out how to knit it all back together again. Writers who never develop that instinct tend to keep dragging new gunmen into the room until the story stalls out, which is why a decent ending is so much harder to write than an enticing beginning. The ability to pull it off is one thing that separates the Neil Gaimans of this world from the rest of us saps.

But gather together a hundred people who don't really know how to do this and they're still not going to be able to do it. Even if a handful among them actually do have some aptitude, their efforts will be sabotaged by the well-meaning but misguided inclinations of the rest of the group. Like any art, good fiction requires a combination of talents -- eloquence, inventiveness, pragmatism, decisiveness and taste -- rarely found in a single person, and a prevailing feeling for form that can only be located in a single person.

Most of us do recognize the real thing when we see it in action, but that's another matter. As Delany put it, "While many -- or even most -- people can internalize a range of literary models strongly enough to recognize and enjoy them when they see them in ... new works that they read, very few people internalize them to the extent that they can apply them to new material and use them to create. Lots of people want to. But not many people can." Not many people, and certainly no crowds.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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