Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The reality of living in the Land of the Giants

A while back I posted on the storytell list about taking classic tales and turning them into scary stories by cranking up the realism.

That post (see text below) covers a lot of what I consider to be important in storytelling - texture.

Probably like a lot of storytellers, some stories I freestyle, making up jokes on the fly and throwing in funny voices etc.. but some stories I develop into rich performance pieces.

While I dig freestyling a piece, I absolutely love spending months crafting out every little detail and developing a rich world in which the story takes place.

In my Jack and the Beanstalk, the giant is 35 feet tall. This is an important number. I chose 35 feet because it's how tall I am to a Barbie doll. This provides a significant frame of reference. In the piece I'm working on now, the Giant Who had no Heart in his Body, the giant is "merely" 15 feet tall.

What possible difference does this make? Let me tell you:

To a 35 foot tall giant you're the size of a Barbie. He picks you up lightly, with one hand, you're little more than an animal to him and he reacts accordingly. But besides his interactions with other characters, his size colors his interactions with the rest of the world - to him a wine barrel is a drinking glass, and a bushel of melons is like a bowl of M&Ms, he just tips them back and pours them into his mouth. This difference in size gets reflected when items pass between characters - when he tips the bowl of melons into his mouth, they fall lightly onto his tongue, but the ones that slip past the corners of his mouth rain down upon normal-sized folk as if they were dropped from a four-story building - and a melon dropped from a four story building could kill you.

On the other hand, a 15 foot tall giant, while still terribly frightening, is completely different. A 15 foot tall giant is small enough to be taken down by a couple of humans, so he has that fear to deal with. To a 15 foot tall giant you weigh about the equivalent of about 50 pounds, which is a great deal of weight, so he has to exert a great effort to pick you up and crush you, not to mention the fact that your struggling is actually effective. To him a watermelon is like a grapefruit, it's still an deadly weapon, but it has to be thrown to be effective.

I don't need to spell these things out to my listeners, but because I know these details I can use them.

Never once do I mention that Abiyoyo is 50 feet tall, but when I pick up a cow and dangle it into my mouth while saying "moooo moooo mooo" a picture is formed in their heads (and they usually whince).
The same thing occurs when my 15 foot giant picks up a person to use as a ballistic weapon - it takes two hands and he grunts and strains to heave it - as if you were throwing a fifty-pound sack of potatoes.

I love this kind of texture, not only does it paint a beautiful picture for the audience but it's a heck of a lot of fun too.

Here's the original post:

Sometimes you can find scary stories in the most unlikely of places.

I love to take classic fairy-tales and either change the setting, or add realistic detail, or both, and make it a truly scary story.

Last year I re-set the pied piper into a southern Louisiana rice farming community with a devious white-suited mayor and a harmonica playing piper, and not only did it go over fantastic, but it's a great scary story.
This year I took Jack and the Beanstalk but instead of re-setting it I cranked up the realism and turned it into an awsome scary story:

Imagine you're carrying a goose under your arm, a goose weighs about 16 pounds, and a golden goose egg weighs about six pounds. Assume, for the sake of argument, that said goose is gestating two eggs. That sets your carrying weight at close to thrity pounds. Imagine running with a thirty-pound sack of potatoes under your arm: your arm is going to get fatugued, it burns and aches, you want to drop your load but you can't, ecause you're being chased. Imagine that load is not an inanimate sack of potatoes, but a living animal, defending itself. A goose has a neck like a snake and will hiss at you, and strike at your eyes, she'll beat at your with her wings, and tear at your side with her talons.
Imagine you're being chased by a giant. We tend to play down the giant as a simple atagonist, but picture it this way - a 35 foot tall giant weighs 25000 pounds, when he chases you the ground shakes with enough violence to knock you off your stride as you run. A 35 foot tall giant has vocal chords 18 inches long, and a lung capacity of 21 cubic feet, when he says "Fe Fi Fo Fum" at a distance of a mile you can feel it in your chest, at close range it's enough to knock you down and blow out
your ear drums.
Realize that said giant is not merely chasing you to further the plot, but he's furious, you've stolen his treasure, his intent is to "grind your bones to make his bread!"
Remember that to a 35 foot tall giant, you're a barbie doll - all he has to do is reach down and squeeze your head like a grape, or lift you up and give you one quick shake and you're bread meal.

You're running as fast as you can, your arm aches, the goose is ripping at your side, pecking your face and eyes so hard that your face is starting to swell, blood is mixing with your sweat and running down your face, into your swollen eyes, you look like a boxer.
As your run through the woods, knowing your life is in jeopardy your tripping over rocks and roots, but the ground is shaking, knocking you off stride, you struggle to your feet, your lungs are on fire but you have to go faster.
Behind you the trees are crashing and cracking, you hear a monster breathing harder and louder - IT'S THE GIANT!! He's getting closer and closer, the trees around you are falling under his feet.
Then he roars so loud that your ears ring in pain: "FE FI FO FUM, I

If that's not scary, well then I just don't know what is.

These are the stories we heard as children, and we never realized just how awful they were: Cannibals living in houses made of ginger bread, stepmothers poisoning their children, and giants who can violently end our lives with a mere flick of the wrist. These are horror stories.
Take some of the stories you already know: Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and imagine that they're real - imagine just how truly scary they really are.

You'll be surprised.


  1. Charles, your calculations on the giant's mass-- what a great way to bring the giant to life, both for yourself and your audience. I'm often so focused on plot, I don't give enough time to crafting images. Your method will certainly help me in accessing the details that will flesh out the bones of the plot.
    Oh, in my version of the Giant in Jack and the Beanstalk is a mere 18 feet tall, but then again, I wanted him to be a sympathetic character for the audience.

  2. Thanks Tim, after posting this on the blog I started to look for my notes on these calculations, and I think that my weight calculation is off.
    a 35 foot tall giant weighing 25000 pounds is equivalent of a 115 pound man - not very imposing, A giant equivalent to a 200 pound man would weigh 43000 pounds - the weight of the pile driver they used to build the new bridge at the San Jose airport.
    An 18 foot tall giant would weigh ((18*12)/69) ^3 * 200 = 6135 pounds - quite the imposing figure.
    In the end, my JiBs giant turns out to be a sympathetic characteras well, his rage was born of the giant's race being mistreated by humanity in the distant past. The story of which is portrayed in the stained-glass ceiling in the giant's castle.