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Monday, June 18, 2018

Author Interview - Brett Jamison

Today, I want to introduce you to a friend of mine. I've known him for years. We worked together at the Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center. He's been writing, acting, and producing simulator "shows" for many years. His body of work is quite extensive, but unless you attend one of the space simulators in Utah, you have probably never encountered any of his work. His mediums have been unconventional, to say the least.

He's got a lot of good advice to share, as well as a fascinating story. He's young and has years to establish himself as a writer. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next!

So give Brett Jamison a big welcome to the Far Edge of Normal! Here is his story in his own words:

I became interested in storytelling at a rather young age. My family was always into movies and television. As early as I can remember we gathered as a family to watch things like the Muppet Show or Due South or Malcom in the Middle. There was even a time my older siblings would cram themselves into my parents room weekly for the latest installment of 24. While I didn’t start writing until I was 18, I enjoyed several other storytelling mediums including acting and running interactive simulations.

I’ve since dabbled in writing for film, television, plays, short stories, poetry, video games, simulations, escape rooms, and have even done some novel work (though don’t expect anything in that medium for quite some time). Taking on each of these forms has taught me quite a bit about writing in general but there are a couple of interesting things I learned from the most obscure forms that I find important to share.

Writing for simulators: Traditional storytelling usually happens with little to no audience participation. Writing for video games and other simulations is altogether a different beast. In these mediums the audience is the protagonist. Characters, plot lines, locations, environments not only have to be compelling but they have to be adaptable. As I’ve tackled projects meant for spaceship simulators in particular, I’ve had to take a different approach to the story I’m trying to tell. Where, in my other stories I’m focused on the protagonist and creating a scenario based on their actions and reactions, with simulations I have to create characters with devices and decisions pre-rendered. Stronger motivations that will propel them toward achieving their goal whether they’re interacted with or not because the actions of the protagonist cannot be predicted. I can make some educated guesses and carefully plant evidence that will hopefully guide the participants in the direction I would prefer them to go, but for the story and the set and the computers to really give the feeling of authenticity and immersion, I have to allow those in the simulation the freedom to make choices as they see fit. 

This presented many challenges. I found myself writing failsafes into the story by way of clearer exposition or characters with higher clearance that could communicate with the audience if they’re asked any questions. I had to be more precise in my timing of the story, knowing exactly when specific things were going to happen and where so events of the story could continue regardless of where the audience decided to be at that same time. My scripts were more detailed, bigger, trying to account for every situation. The world I was playing in had to be as concrete as possible so if I had to tell the audience no, I could point to something specific that wouldn’t make it feel like I as the writer/director was cheating. 

This isn’t to say that other stories, good and bad, don’t have all of these world elements completely nailed down. In fact, I think most of the greatest epics in all of literary history have bibles they could publish about histories and timelines and events that happened outside of the actions of the main character. The difference here is that I had to be prepared, at a moments notice, to present these things to the audience. I didn’t just have to have it written down, I had to know it backwards and forward. 

Another interesting point here was that all of my stories had to happen within a set amount of time. Meaning, there wasn’t much leeway in terms of spreading the story across days or weeks. The action that the audience was participating in needed to be immediate and span the length of the simulation. Developing stakes and setting up scenarios where this sort of thing was possible made for some interesting hurdles. I think it all went back to building the world. With every story I told, I would go back and add more to the history of the world I’d created. If I wanted to invent a super villain, I’d edit a story I’d told before to add a character that would later become the super villain. That way, whenever someone would come back, the shock and awe would really hit them hard. I’d usually try to make whomever it was an ally of sorts. Those character arcs I think are the most compelling regardless of the medium.

The scope of my stories became quite a bit larger. In some cases, I’d have a storyline that followed one or two characters that spanned 10 or 15 simulations. Each of them ranging between two and a half to 18 hour simulations each. Different parts of the world would build onto histories of characters that were being interacted with and elements of the software would change based on upgrades they’d find throughout the story. The best simulation I think I ever wrote was an 18 hour mission called, “The Rise”. A story about an alien-fearing admiral and his wife who became so corrupt they almost destroyed their own people. The most interesting story I wrote was being told to 7th, 8th and 9th graders. Four two hour simulations for each grade level. The story spanned all three grades and included all sorts of scientific and mathematical problems that the kids had to solve all while visiting other dimensions and unveiling the universe’s darkest secrets. These each poured into after-school flights and set up some of the lore for simulations we’d tell during summer camps.

Similar to these space simulations, I’ve written a couple of experiences for escape rooms, the modern day entertainment phenomenon. I got into this platform because of the experience I’d had developing interactive simulation stories. After going to several escape rooms and feeling their presentation lacked a certain pizzazz, I realized adding story elements to each of the clues not only made the time in the room more interesting, if done correctly, it could give the audience a reason to want to come back and explore the other rooms because there were things they hadn’t solved yet.

These stories were similar to simulations in that I had to have time frames listed for all of the action regardless of where the attendees were in their progression of the room. There were also story elements that would trigger only when certain puzzles were solved. While I haven’t been able to spend as much time on this form in particular, I daydream regularly about the potential this type of immersive entertainment has to tell incredibly engaging and compelling stories. It’s definitely a challenge that I intend to return to some day.

I’ve most recently landed on playwriting. Finishing up my final semester of college came with a need for a senior project. I decided the best thing for me to do was put my storytelling abilities to one final test before tossing myself out into the professional world. I’m currently working on writing a full length play called, “It’s Radio Show Time”. A murder mystery melodrama set in the 1940s. Strange things are happening on the set of America’s most beloved Radio Show and one detective has to figure out what it is before time runs out.

I’ve always loved the theater. I’ve been trained in it and acting on the stage since I was 10. There’s something about interaction with a live audience that resonates with the excitement veins in my body. This is the first project I’ve tackled of it’s kind and it’s been quite the experience I think in part because of my work with simulations. In the other mediums I’ve had to have so much more going on, so much over-the-top world building, so many ties to so many different things just to make everything make sense. The world I was playing in had to be huge because it was the same world people were stepping into every time they attended a simulation. With this play, it’s much more intimate.

I’ve come to understand that this may be the only time the audience ever sees this world. I have had to cut so many unimportant ties to bigger pictures that didn’t do anything but overload the audience. I don’t have 15 people all running software during the time of this show. They don’t have the chance to dig around the documents discovered by the detective on the stage, they can’t access the police archives or the bank records. All they have is what they see and hear. Because of that, I can zoom in. I constantly have to ask myself, “why is this here?”. If the answer takes longer than 20 seconds to explain or branches outside of the realm of the main characters I have set up, it’s scrapped.

As I’ve gone through my training and development as a writer I’ve learned a lot about my authorial voice, pushing boundaries and inventing new characters. I want to do that. I do that as often as possible. Writing in so many different mediums has taught me the importance of understanding what each of these mediums has to offer and how they communicate. The better I understand that, the more effective my storytelling can become. And what writer doesn’t want to tell a great story?

Thanks for stopping by, Brett. You have a lot of great insights to share with other writers. Best of luck on your play and your future writing endeavors!