3.14: The Four Principles of Puppetry, with Mary Robinette Kowal

Aside from being a delightful author and a Campbell award winner, Mary Robinette Kowal is a professional puppeteer. She joined us at WorldCon 67 in Montreal, and totally schooled us in front of a live audience.


If you want to learn something new about writing, and I mean something really NEW you need to listen to Mary talk about puppetry. You can’t see the perpetual looks of astonishment and epiphany us jaded professionals wore during this recording, but I assure you they were there. We learned so much from Mary we decided to record two more episodes with her. Not because we felt like you, our listeners, necessarily deserved it. We wanted these recordings for ourselves.

Mary required us to share. It was part of the deal.


58 thoughts on “3.14: The Four Principles of Puppetry, with Mary Robinette Kowal”

  1. I haven’t listened to it yet but I have this vision of our Writing Excusers being turned into Muppets like Angel was in that one episode. Remember that one? That one was wacky. Except that this is an audio experience so how would we know if they really were Muppets? I mean, they could say that they were but we would have to decide if we believed them or not. Hm. Maybe I should just go to bed. Sorry. Go on about your buisness. Nothing to see here. Move along. Good night.

  2. I thought Puppeteers were part of Larry Niven’s shtick?

    Okay, that was lame. I’m still recovering from a short-story that morphed into a novelette when I wasn’t looking. (Okay, I was looking. It was all I could do to keep it from becoming a dang novella.) And this only a few weeks after your episode on trimming.

  3. Aside from the obvious awesomeness of her advice, I find this really relevant for another reason. As a software developer by day I’m actually starting to look at how I can take skills I’ve picked up from my day job and apply them to writing, which is an interesting way to explore storytelling from vastly different PoV.

  4. All right, in all seriousness that is a very cool metaphor for writing. (And things puppet-related are cool just by virtue of being puppets.)

    I like how Brandon came up with a completely different interpretation for “meaningful movement” than Mary did and yet they both made sense. (And until Mary clarified, I had a different interpretation again.)

    Hmm. Now I have an urge to run off and compare writing to mask theatre, just so I can feel as cool as that. (Realistically, I think I’d just end up with the same thing.)

    Also, oooh! ooooh! oooh! PUPPETS!

    …Just had to get that out there. For the record.

  5. Woooo….so surreal….so profound…

    Excellent Podcast. I think it’ll take a few repetitions to glean everything from this one. Much appreciated!

  6. When we finished this one and signed off, the three of us just sat there with our jaws on the floor, wondering what just happened. This is absolutely one of the best episodes we’ve ever done (and it was Mary who did it, not us). I think the only salient thing I said in the whole episode was about Jar-Jar Binks, for crying out loud, and if that’s the best I could do I should have probably just shut up and let Mary talk more.

  7. WOW. Puppets are profoundly awesome, as was this podcast. I learned a lot, and I am chomping at the bit to hear the next two installments!

  8. I am so glad you posted this. It’s great to see writing in a whole new way. Mary is so amazing and talented I hope to hear more from her in the future.

  9. Whoa. That was fascinating. Right about the three- or four-minute mark, I just started smiling BECUZ IT WAS SO AWESOME!!!! Can’t wait until the next episode with her :)

  10. “No one’s lazy in Lazy Town!”

    Now I’m curious as to which one she is.

    Otherwise, fantastic podcast, and I agree one of the best yet. I can’t wait to hear the other 2 you guys did with her, especially the 5th rule.

  11. Dance puppets dance! Yes, that was one of the best episodes you guys have had. Guests = better casts seems to be a theme with you guys like when you had Moshe on last year. Fresh viewpoints always help.

  12. Holy. Crap. That was the most unexpectedly insightful episode ever. My head exploded. Thanks.

  13. Cool! My kids love Lazy Town. And now I got some profound advice on writing that I have to reconcile with my memories of Ziggy and Pixel.
    Great episode. WorldCon episodes off to a great start. I can hardly wait for next week.
    Now, off to tweak my story and treat my characters and readers like puppets.
    Mwah Ha ha haaaaaa!

  14. I’m glad you asked me to play with you! Someday ask me about how theater design translates into story and world-building.

    In answer to the Lazytown questions. I’m an assistant puppeteer on the show, which means that I worked the hands of various characters and very occasionally took over for a lead if they were unavailable.

  15. That was a very refreshing episode. I really appreciate that Mary approached a problem (writing) from the perspective available to her and found out how it worked. That’s really a great skill to have.

    It makes me curious as to what other metephors can be brought to writing from other occupations.

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  17. Oh, this was very very good. I think I wore out the “pause” button, I had to stop and take notes so often.

  18. This lady was surprising. I’m very fond of our guys, and have tremendous respect for their success in becoming professional writers, but their focus has always been more on the nuts and bolts than on the potential art of the craft, and this lady’s rules were far more artful than the workmanlike stuff which Excuses usually focuses on; they’re more demonstrative of an aesthetic theory common in what the boys sometimes call “literary fiction”. If more folks in the genre were capable of this level of sophistication, maybe the distinction between speculative writing and writing that’s good wouldn’t be as valid. This is why I have pinned my hopes to Patrick Rothfuss.

  19. Great episode; really entertaining and informative.

    As an aside, Brandon, Dan, or Howard ask Mary how to play the drinking game? Purely for academic reasons, of course.

  20. I wanted to share the story idea your writing prompt inspired, especially since I’ll likely never get around to writing it. Since the Schlockverse has a set of rules for being effective at a particular craft already, my first thought for the fifth principle was “Pillage, then burn”. This led to a post-apocalyptic world containing a small few communities of humans living underground. They go to great lengths to hide their locations from each other, and rely on large numbers of individually weak, remote controlled robots to cultivate and/or obtain the few remaining resources on the surface of the planet. Since said resources are even more scarce than the people, the communities often come into conflict, and so being an effective puppeteer is a matter of life and death.

    I’ve noticed the writing prompt never seems to get mentioned in the comments. I hope I’m not breaking some rule, written or unwritten. It’s just a fun thought inspired by the podcast that I thought others might find interesting.

  21. Heh heh, that Liberty Hall Writers blog above was mine (we team blog at LH).

    I had no idea you guys pick that sort of thing up. I was coming here to post that I’d blogged. I guess I’m done! :-)

    Now, @Qylvaran. I like your idea for “Pillage, then burn” as a writing principle. Pillage and gather great ideas into your story (Bradbury calls this stepping on the land mine and letting the story just explode onto the page), and then burn all the stuff that’s not needed, including those darling ideas that just don’t belong.

  22. At the risk of being redundant, I’ll add my “Wow! This was an awesome podcast!”

    Mary has clearly taught these principles before and it was a rare treat to listen to such a well-developed set of principles that could then be immediately applied to what we attempt to do with writing.

    At times I’ve felt the need to adjust scenes that were just not right, but could not consciously define why. Looking back, I can see that these principles are at the heart of many of those experiences. Now that it’s conscious, it will be so much easier to apply in the future.

    I’m looking forward to the next podcasts.

  23. Wow!! Very good podcast. I’m looking forward to reading Mary’s work now. Interesting things learned and possibly a new authour to read. It doesn’t get much better for 15 minutes worth of effort.

  24. Simply awesome. This has already changed the way I read and write.

    Also, I don’t think you should feel bad about how well she schooled you guys. As I thought about it, I realized that she has basically been a storyteller for twenty years anyways. She is just doing it through another medium now. So no wonder she is awesome.

  25. “Now, @Qylvaran. I like your idea for “Pillage, then burn” as a writing principle. Pillage and gather great ideas into your story (Bradbury calls this stepping on the land mine and letting the story just explode onto the page), and then burn all the stuff that’s not needed, including those darling ideas that just don’t belong.”

    Well, Howard once expressed that advice in the form of “well-stolen is half-composed”. If you count the “cut everything that doesn’t fit” part of the advice as the other half of composing, I think you have a pretty good fifth rule of storytelling. (Not sure stealing applies to puppetry in the real world, sadly. Stealing puppetry techniques sounds awesome. ;) )

  26. Wow! Great stuff. Who would have thought you could relate puppetry to writing.

    It’s interesting how good story telling relies on being able to act. I took some animation classes and the first thing they taught us was to act out a scene before animating it to get a better understanding of the action. I can see how this could also relate to writing.

  27. Brilliant as always. I’d love to see you come back to this though now that Mary is a full time host. I feel each of the principles could hold themselves individually as episodes.

  28. I just listened to this podcast again and I’m really bugged (not annoyed) by something missing. Mary clearly says there are five principles of puppetry. I assume because of time you skipped the fifth (although there’s the joke about the prompt being the fifth), but I want to know what that fifth principle is. Maybe it’s discussed in other podcasts, but if so, I’ve overlooked it and would need the link/episode. Either way, great podcast, and it’s great to have Mary as a permanent member of Writing Excuses.

  29. No, I was just distracted by Brandon’s greatness and Howard’s lack of pants, and said five when I meant four. There are five basic types of puppets, but four principles.

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