Writing a SF story, seeking P&J advice

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Writing a SF story, seeking P&J advice

Postby DataPacRat » 18 Oct 2014, 18:23

To all gentlemen and ladies here,

I'm writing an odd science-fiction story, and will be including a future version of a Punch and Judy show. I have perhaps two or three weeks before I finalize the relevant chapter and post it publicly, and am hoping to collect some suggestions, advice, criticism, and commentary from the members of this board that I wouldn't have thought of myself.

If you're curious, the first part of the story is available at https://www.fictionpress.com/u/983729/DataPacRat , but the most relevant background point is that an event called the "Singularity" happened, in which most cities, city-dwellers, digital data, and communications networks essentially went away, leaving various pieces of incomprehensible technology, such as regions which physically alter those who walk through them. My protagonist is exploring various rebuilt city-states around the Great Lakes, and I'm just about to have her meet a Professor - and perhaps eventually consider becoming one herself, should the opportunity arise.

My purpose with the scene is to show that, even without the internet, TV, or radio, humans are still humans, and will still keep coming up with new bits of art and culture - even if the only reason for a particular bit is to turn other peoples' attention into enough pennies for a few meals. My current plan is for my protagonist and her companions (one of whom would be the bottler) being given a private show, which she is initially dismissive of, then analytically considers as the new form of cartoons, and then, with a bit of nudging, simply enjoys participating in.

Given the extent of the cultural shake-up from the Singularity, including at least the start of some linguistic drift, I'm thinking of titling the puppet-show as 'Pink and Jewel'; of changing the policeman to a local guard, and the hangman to a mayor; of including the Servant, in the form of a talking animal, or possibly just changing Joey the Clown into one; of bringing back Pretty Polly, who is first killed by Punch/Pink and then brought back as the mayor "hangs" himself by going through a transformation into another Pretty Polly; and of replacing the crocodile and devil with a city-eating dragon. But these are all preliminary notes, and I'm quite willing to change them if there's a good reason to, or to include any other useful advice.


Do you have any suggestions?
Thank you for your time,
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Re: Writing a SF story, seeking P&J advice

Postby Chris » 18 Oct 2014, 21:21

Perhaps you would like to reconsider your proposal to change the names and characters of the puppets?

I don't know the nature of the "Singularity" but it appears that it has not erased the idea of a Punch & Judy Show? That being the case, why would it retain the idea while abandoning the essence? The Punch & Judy Show has retained virtually the same characters and plot for a couple of centuries despite being interpreted and re-interpreted by thousands of highly individualistic performers. Certainly it has on occasion included topicalities and individual variations, but essentially it has remained unchanged in plot outline and basic cast, even occasionally when the original is no longer relevant. I am thinking how many modern shows still include The Beadle and The Hangman, despite the Police Force being established in 1822 and capital punishment abolished in 1969. This longevity of a fixed plot and core character set is what makes the Punch Show unlike any other puppet show, Punch is unique in this respect. So if Punch is to be remembered after the "Singularity" then surely it is his singularity that will be remembered?

By the way, in my argument above I am thinking of the Punch & Judy Show as performed in Britain. I am well aware that in Canada and parts of the US Punch has been bowdlerised, contaminated and adulterated by the need to preach, in the belief that to alter is to improve, and a worship of Political Correctness. Such shows, whatever they are called, are not Punch & Judy Shows.
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Re: Writing a SF story, seeking P&J advice

Postby DataPacRat » 18 Oct 2014, 21:55

Chris wrote:Perhaps you would like to reconsider changing the names and characters of the puppets?


I'm quite willing to consider it.

I don't know the nature of the "Singularity"


If you ask three futurists what the Singularity is, you'll get at least six answers. I've picked a particular variation which is suitable for the sort of story I'm trying to tell.


but it appears that it has not erased the idea of a Punch & Judy Show? That being the case, why would it retain the idea while abandoning the essence? The Punch & Judy Show has retained virtually the same characters and plot for a couple of centuries despite being interpreted and re-interpreted by thousands of highly individualistic performers. Certainly it has on occasion included topicalities and individual variations, but essentially it has remained unchanged in plot outline and basic cast, even occasionally when the original is no longer relevant. I am thinking how many modern shows still include The Beadle and The Hangman, despite the Police Force being established in 1822 and capital punishment abolished in 1969. This longevity of a fixed plot and core character set is what makes the Punch Show unlike any other puppet show, Punch is unique in this respect. So if Punch is to be remembered after the "Singularity" then surely it is his singularity that will be remembered?

By the way, in my argument above I am thinking of the Punch & Judy Show as performed in Britain. I am well aware that in Canada and parts of the US Punch has been bowdlerised, contaminated and adulterated by the need for change, in the belief that to alter is to improve, and a worship of Political Correctness. Such shows, whatever they are called, are not Punch & Judy Shows.


I'm not holding myself to any form of Political Correctness; I've been seriously thinking about including the racially insensitive "Jim Crow" version of the Servant, only slightly updated for the particular group being ridiculed. (Something along the lines of "fur-face" instead of blackface.) That said, I'm also guessing that the Professor in question isn't merely continuing the show out of a desire to continue old traditions, but as a tried-and-true proven method for encouraging childrens' parents to part with change. In that vein, if an audience is unfamiliar with both Beadles and blue-coated policemen, but are familiar with their own guard and the pompousness that comes from having the force of law behind them; then I'm postulating that this Professor would have gotten more laughs, and thus more coins, by using the more familiar reference.

And with /that/ said - I'm quite willing to drop my idea of renaming 'Punch' to 'Pink'; having both a consonant-shift and a vowel shift might be a bit too much of a change for the number of decades since the Singularity that I'm setting things. Perhaps a name that sounds to our ears like 'Punk' or 'Pinch' might meet with more approval, while still letting me point out how the language continues to change?

Outside of the particular details I mentioned in my initial post, my current plan is to stick as close to the traditional script as feasible. Punch (by whatever name) speaks with the swazzle, has a catchphrase, throws out the baby, whacks Judy, trades jokes and songs and whacks with other characters, gets bitten on the nose, and eventually faces the Big Bad (and gets away scott-free) - all while the Professor watches how the audience reacts, and tweaks things for them in particular.

What I hope to end up with is a performance that both is recognizably part of the long tradition of Punch and Judy, but is also not quite what any past or present-day Professor would put on. My attention has been focused on changes that can be recognizably traced to the setting's history, but it might also be worth considering other possible changes - materials for the puppets? layout of the booth? ways to warm up the audience? - or things that are more important to keep constant than others.


(In case it makes a difference, with my current plot outline, I can dedicate between a few hundred to around two thousand words, maybe three, to the Punch and Judy section. If anyone is interested, once I write up a first draft, I could post it here for further criticism.)
Thank you for your time,
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Re: Writing a SF story, seeking P&J advice

Postby Chris » 18 Oct 2014, 23:30

I'm afraid you seem to have missed my point.
By altering characters and names you are destroying the essence of Punch - and I think it is that essence which might survive.
You justify your alterations by suggesting the Professor might find he makes more money by such alteration. He might of course - but my point is that thousands of other Punch Professors have proved the opposite! Over two centuries some must have have tried to modernise and innovate, and presumably have died by the wayside. The ones who have stuck to the formula, the stick-in-the-muds if you like, are the ones who survive to carry on the tradition. It is counter intuitive I know,but that is the Punch singularity.
You say "my current plan is to stick as close to the traditional script as feasible." Well actually there is no traditional script. The Payne Collier script is really a literary concoction. And the swazzle, although considered important, is not unique to Punch. Many puppet shows across the world and throughout history have used such a device.
Nor is it the plot itself which is Punch's uniqueness.
Punch is so unusual in that he has a plot and a company of actors who have, to all intents, not really changed over the years. It is not the story itself, but the fact that this single story has proved so enduring, that is remarkable.
Italian Pulcinella was a clown in many stories, French Polichinelle has a whole series of scripts illustrating his adventures as does the Greek and Turkish shadow Karogoz. Puppet heroes throughout the world entertain their audiences by their adventures and their quests. Presumably they retain their audience by an ever changing repertory whereas Punch retains his audience by not changing.

Of course, if you are writing fiction you can go where you want. You can have a puppet show and call it whatever you wish, give your characters any names you prefer, and follow whatever script you choose. However if you decide to base it on Punch & Judy then it seems a shame to me that your first thoughts were to change all the characters.
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Re: Writing a SF story, seeking P&J advice

Postby DataPacRat » 18 Oct 2014, 23:55

Chris wrote:I'm afraid you seem to have missed my point.


That is quite possible.

By altering characters and names you are destroying the essence of Punch - and I think it is that essence which might survive.


If I may ask, which parts of Punch do you think are most important, the ones that are least amenable to being changed; and which parts are less vital to the enterprise, and more acceptable to be tweaked? (This question covers the core of what I came to this forum to learn. If my initial ideas were bad ones, then I want to know not just that they were, but also what good ideas I can replace them with.)



And on an only somewhat related tangent; I've been looking up various versions of Punch booths, from near-permanent attractions to "lazy-tong" designs that can be set up in around 20 minutes... How portable could a booth be made? Would it break your willing suspension of disbelief if I made an offhand mention of one that could fit into a good-sized suitcase, plus a second case for puppets and props? Or would I have to explicitly mention something along the lines that the struts use a material that's lighter and stronger than is feasible today? Or does the geometry of a puppet theatre require a larger case, period?

(Edited to add: After some further searching, the most portable present-day design I can find seems to be the one described at http://www.opendoordesigns.ca/PPT%20Booth.html and http://www.opendoordesigns.ca/IMAGES/Th ... -booth.pdf .)
Thank you for your time,
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Re: Writing a SF story, seeking P&J advice

Postby DataPacRat » 19 Oct 2014, 17:54

I've had an idea which may help synthesize our different approaches, as well as tie into some other aspects of the story I'm telling. After the bottler, Minerva, explains how the 'bottle' is an anti-theft trick, and the Professor is invited to do a quick performance, the protagonist sees him pause to write in a notebook:

-----8<-----

"Idea diary?", I hazarded a guess.

"A/B testing logbook," he countered, snapping it closed and tucking it into his jacket. "I keep notes on every performance." He pulled a golf-bag sized container from behind a shelf, looked around the room, and carried it over to the carpeted spot, where he started pulling pieces out of it and assembling them. "The things I can't really control: weather, time of day, audience composition. The things I can: location, the strolling booth or the rigid one, which warm-up routine, whether I call him Punch or Punk or Pinch, whether I use the Devil or the Dragon or neither, when I stay squeaky-clean and when I go blue. And after, how many laughs I get, and how much Minnie collects. When I have time, I try to figure out the patterns."

"What sort of patterns?"

He flashed his teeth at me. "Show an interest in performing, and I just might share. Here's one for free: vertical stripes on the booth garner just about as many people as a solid colour, or a pattern - but horizontal stripes just seem to turn people right off. Diagonal ones don't seem to do too well, either. When I get the right fabric, I'm thinking of trying symmetry - instead of spiraling all around, having the left ones point one way and the right ones the other."

Distracted by the conversation, he'd finished setting up his little theatre (roughly the size of a phone booth) before I'd even realized it...

----->8-----
Thank you for your time,
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Re: Writing a SF story, seeking P&J advice

Postby DataPacRat » 21 Oct 2014, 14:02

DataPacRat wrote:I've had an idea which may help synthesize our different approaches, as well as tie into some other aspects of the story I'm telling.


I've no written a first draft of a somewhat longer scene, in which I've tried to incorporate as much of Chris's perspective of what makes Punch, Punch, as I can, as well as a number of other ideas. In this scene, the Professor is trying to impress the protagonist with his erudition and apparent education, and flatter her, so she'll be more amenable to a proposal he plans on making later on.

In this draft, I gloss over a bit what the Professor plans on actually /doing/ with the new puppet; if any Punchmen reading this have any suggestions on appropriate bits of business that he might try out, then I'd be more than happy to include them in the story.

-----8<-----

"Would you like to see a show with a puppet version of you?"

"I'm not fond of seeing even fictional versions of myself dying."

The professor twitched his moustache. "Why not? Everyone dies. Victorians seemed to be positively obsessed about being reminded of that, with memento mori in various forms."

"Discomfort with mortality is certainly one reason."

"Ah, but when you put it that way, that's not your real reason."

"It's silly and irrational. You'll laugh. Or be confused. Or both."

"And that is enough to keep you from speaking?"

"... There's a very hard-to-calculate chance that, at some point in the future, whoever's still alive will want to know more about people of the past - and will investigate them by simulating them in such detail that those simulations will be just as much persons as the originals. But there's only so much data they'll have to go on-"

"Ah, so you fear your future siblings will be based on whatever stories of you remain - so you wish those stories to be of you enjoying yourself?"

"Not exactly, but close enough for government work."

"I know a woman who simply doesn't like the idea of dolls that look like her staring all the time, with dust settling onto their eyes - gives her the shivers. Everyone has fears and discomforts that need no justification."

"Maybe - but I try to have a reason for everything I do."

"Do, maybe you can manage. Feel? If you can control that, you are truly inhuman."

"Don't let the fur fool you."

"One thing art can do, that few other things can, is let you delve into your feelings, those parts of your mind that you usually cannot face, those fears and drives you'd rather not acknowledge - and, facing them, learn more about how to deal with them."

"You make it sound like getting a young child to go out on Halloween to face the scary monsters."

"A very apt comparison! But emotional holidays could make this conversation last for hours, so getting back to puppets - in the Punch and Judy shows I prefer to put on, only two characters avoid dying: Punch himself, and the clown. His wife, his neighbour, the government official, even the Devil himself get beaten, beheaded, eaten, or worse."

"Okay, then..." I started trying to think of alternative ideas, such as non-Punch shows, but the Professor held up a finger to interrupt me; I let him.

"The classic clown of Punch, Joey, is actually based on a clown who really lived and breathed, a couple of centuries ago. He fit very well into Punch's stable of characters, and so more and more Punchmen used him, until he was a staple. However - he is not the only clown."

I raised an eyebrow. "You want to make a clown of me?"

"He is not the only type of clown, either. Many of my books suggest that Punch shows derive from Italian performances called commedia dell'arte, which had a variety of zannis - one of whom became Punch, another of whom formed the basis of Joey's original."

His hands started sifting through various scraps of fabric, darting and weaving, as he spoke. "I don't think you would wish to be a second zanni, who were called lo stupido, you can guess why. You don't strike me as an all-trusting Pierrot, anyway. Even though Joey Grimaldi's character, the Clown, started out as a second zanni to Harlequin, Joe Grimaldi turned him into a first zanni in his own right. Hm... Brighella? Too cruel. Tartaglia? Too fat, and you don't stutter. Pedrolino is a prankster; Harlequin dances around; Columbina is the only one who has two brain cells to rub together-" He glanced directly at me, and smiled. "Ah, so that's what appeals to your vanity, is it?"

I shrugged, a bit embarrassed. "My brain's about all I've got going for me, these days."

"Well then, let us see what we can see. 'Columbina' means 'little dove'; 'little rabbit' would be, hm, 'Coniglia', I believe."

"Is this - kosher? Whipping up a new character like that?"

"Are you familiar with the cartoon character, 'Porky Pig'?" At my nod, he continued, "He is Tartaglia, as that character exists in a world of talking animals. Every character varies, and is adapted by each performer and into every medium. Some versions do better than others, and become established in their own right - others become failed experiments. I am now imagining an experiment that never happened: that one of the many variations of Columbina was Coniglia, and that, through some odd sequence of events, that zanni was the inspiration for the clown in Punch and Judy, rather than Joey. Coniglia's too long a name, of course - Coney, maybe, or Bunny? What would make her stand out? A trick puppet, maybe with floppy ears like Pretty Polly's swinging arms? No, a one-trick puppet wouldn't have lasted so long as a frequent foil to Punch... Someone who tricks Punch? Punch himself is the Trickster, and that seems too much of an overlap... someone who manipulates Punch? Ah, that might have potential. Everyone tries to get Punch to do something, with orders or force or law, but always coming a-cropper in the end. But would that be enough of a hit with the audiences for Coney to have lasted as long as Joey? Everyone knows what clowns are, so any Punchman can improvise something for Joey. What would make an audience laugh at Coney? Well, we're inventing her to be a character that doesn't die - so perhaps we turn that up to eleven, and make her someone who'll do anything to keep from dying?"

He kept talking, getting further and deeper into theatrical and artistic terminology that I'd never heard of, all the while he bent pieces of wire, sewed bits of coloured fabric, and shaped fur. After a while of that, he stopped, and held up the result to me: a rabbity head, as pink as my own if somewhat more blockish and simplified, on top of a white-and-blue dress. (Or should I call it a sleeve?)

"Here we are, the very first Coney puppet that has ever been. Would you like to try her on?"

I felt oddly reluctant, but put that down to the same instinct that made some people distrust photographs and held out my hand. He slipped my counterpart onto it, and I frowned; then I twitched her little arms, bobbed her head - and without even planning on it, I'd had her reach up and pet her ears into place.

The professor smiled at me beatifically. "I could jabber on about brain structures and mirror neurons and mind-projection - but the long and short is, they come alive to us, whether we mean for them to or not. Shall we see how she does on stage, in a proper Punch and Judy performance?"

Coney and I turned our gazes from each other to him. "Would it be one? A 'proper' one, I mean, if you use her," I nodded at Coney, who waved at him, "instead of Joey?"

"Punch was performed long before the human Joey was even born - and many performances don't include him at all. It's a very philosophical question - is Punch and Judy still Punch and Judy if Punch loses to the Devil at the end? If there's no Beadle enforcing public order, but there is a Policeman, or a City Guard? If he's called Punk? If he wears blue instead of red? If he's a marionette or a cartoon instead of a glove puppet? I like to think there is a /pattern/ to Punch and Judy, instead of a border. The more of that pattern that any show encompasses, the more true it is that it's a Punch and Judy show. No particular element is vital - but the more elements that are lost, the less of a Punch and Judy show it is, until, at some indefinable point, it isn't. Outside of the titular pair, characters come and go, waxing and waning over the years and lifetimes. In fact, trying out new puppets is, itself, part of the Punch and Judy tradition. Of course, so is leaving them out if they don't make the audience laugh. I've already had a few ideas about how Coney might make you laugh - how about we see if they're good enough for her to last, maybe not all the way to your strange future ancestor-simulator people, but at least to the weekend show?"

I looked down at Coney. She shrugged up at me. I shrugged back, then pulled her off my hand, and handed the soft bundle back to the Professor.

----->8-----
Thank you for your time,
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