Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Most Horrid Story

Today I wrote my tenth episode of Malice-Upon-Woe…
It’s horrible.

It made me feel incredibly uncomfortable when I’d finished writing it. I feel a bit ill. I need to go and do something else for a bit.

Happy halloween!
Turns out the writer from the very darkest part of my soul emerges on halloween.

Also, here is a picture of Jesus that I saw on the white board today, staring benevolently down at me as we were lectured about story archetypes and the heroes journey.

Can you see Jesus?

Can you see Jesus?

 

There he is!

Praise the Lord!

Tim Wright on ‘How To Create A Fictional World’

On 16/10/2013 I wrote to Tim Wright (Memories of Oldton, Mount Kristos, Online Caroline.) asking him about creating a world.

I explained that I am writing a radio series, and I know a few things about it, but currently I am having trouble making it ‘real’. He responded, very kindly, with some words of wisdom.

Here’s what he told me, summarised into a few keys points.

  1. Draw a map of your world.
    Start with the scenes you already know and go from there.“Can you piece these locations together? Can you get a piece of paper and a pencil and draw where all these locations are in relation to each other? Can you then imagine the walk or the drive from one to another – how long does it take? is there more than one route? what do you pass along the way? who do you meet?”
    Once you have some stuff in place, you can begin to fill in the gaps.
  2. Allow for the impossible.
    Don’t let your world become too real, so it can’t handle a little bit of illogic; time travel, that sort of thing.
  3. Let other people invent stuff for you.
    Ask other people to add to it.“Different people have different memories and ideas about the same things. If it all comes from your own memory and ideas, the world can get a bit samey and predictable.”
  4. Don’t ignore the finer details.
    Perhaps even start with innocuous details.“I often find I can sucker people into believing a big story because I started with a small but interesting detail or snippet of info that it just didn’t seem to the listener that it would be worth my while to lie about…”
  5. Look at how real places are portrayed.
    What would people in your story world record? What would end up on the internet about it?  Think about how many layers and fragments there are to a place, and put them together

There was a bit more to it than this, but I thought I’d try and condense it.

Many thanks to Tim Wright for taking the time to write back to me and help me out. There’s some important things to consider here now, I think. I’d better start thinking about what little details I’m going to lie about.

Why ‘Strong, Female Characters’ Are Terrible

Strong female characters. Everyone wants one, it seems. Until you write one of these:

  1. A Kickass Hottie
  2. A [Negative Adjective*] female
  3. A depressed and/or absent mother
  4. A “tart with a heart”
  5. A facilitator of the lead male’s emotions

(*Usually depressed and responsible for the death of someone else (usually a sister), the negative adjective used most often to describe female character archetype number 2) is “guilt ridden”.)

NEWSFLASH: All of these female characters are BORING. Why? Because that’s all we ever seem to get as script readers, filmmakers or consumers, that’s why!

I’ve said it before at my site Bang2write multiple times, but I’ll say it again here: human beings prize novelty.  That’s just the way it is. As a writer and/or filmmaker you can fight that – and lose – or you can start thinking about how your characters are DIFFERENT to “all the rest”.

But stop right there!

Don’t kneejerk and go to the OPPOSITE end of the scale, either. That’s how we ended up in this mess in the first place, with “strong female characters” ending up invariably just “men, with boobs” or as a plot device for a male character’s justifications – or worse, gratification – as he does all the cool stuff going for **that goal** … of his.

But this is just it. To stand out?  You don’t want a “great female character” … You want a great character, who happens to be female.

But how to do this? Answer: Stop seeing your character as FEMALE FIRST. The best female characterisation comes down to this:

Personality first; gender second.

Gender is (usually) an important part of a person. But it’s not everything about that person. Yet it’s personality, not gender, that should act as the catalyst for that characters’ desires/goals, as well as their actions in driving the story forward. Writers seem to get this when they write their male characters, but very often end up writing “the girl character” in their screenplays. You know, the one that’s defined by her “femaleness”. Ack.

But guess what – it’s not even just the male writers who do this, either. Female writers do it too. In ten years of script editing, I have seen NO correlation between gender of the writer and “good” or “bad” female characters in their work. Writers make the same mistakes, whether they are male or female themselves … But by that same token, ANY writer has every chance of writing a well-drawn, authentic character regardless of their own gender.

Well, duh.

Truly great female characterisation is rarely about role reversals for the sake of it, or going all out to be supposedly “ground breaking”. The best female characterisation I have read in screenplays or seen on screen is left of the middle: those great female characters are whole & rounded, no matter what their ambitions are; what they do for a job; who they spend their time with; what level of education they have; where they’ve traveled or whatever else you want to write into their character bios.

But equally, don’t strive to make all female characters ACTUALLY “good”, either. This is patronizing and ultimately foolhardy, since drama is conflict. There’s a strong chance you won’t want your female characters to behave logically or well all the time, else there will be no movie. That’s not to say every female character needs to be ditsy or a seductress with an Evil Plan, but she does need to feel authentic and “real”. Do you or the women in your life behave perfectly, 24/7? I know I don’t.

And forget “female empowerment”. Personally, I think resting the whole cause on the shoulders of one screenplay or a single movie is unrealistic. I think it’s better to think of female empowerment as a cumulative build up: a “drip, drip” effect, if you like. Movie making is a business first, art second. So let’s support the movement by getting behind female filmmakers and consuming movies with those great characters **who happen to be female** in them.

So, think again about those “usual” characters I mention at the beginning of this post … Maybe your female character *is* able to kick ass; maybe she has a tragic backstory; maybe she ignores or disappoints her children; maybe she’s a stripper or sex worker; maybe she is able to tap into the lead male’s psyche … whatever. Just make sure that’s not ALL she does.

Put your female characters under the microscope and think left of the middle. Take an element of your character and twist it; give us details of WHO she is and WHY – don’t reduce her to a single role function. In short:

Don’t be the “usual”. Don’t be boring.”

 

– Lucy V Hay (for London Screenwriter’s Festival 2013 4/8/2013)

Ten Tips to Writing – Sam Bain

1. Your first draft will never ever be your last. Unless you’re directing, producing and paying for the film or series yourself – in which case, may God have mercy on your soul. You will end up rewriting the bloody thing five, 10, 100 times. Whatever the total number of drafts you eventually reach, the only guarantee is that it will be at least two (and possibly 200) more than you thought were strictly necessary.

2. Forget point 1. When you’re writing that all-important first draft, treat it like the last draft you’ll ever write. Why? Because there’s no quicker way to kill off creativity than the thought: “That’ll do.” Pretend this weak baby gazelle of a script – spindly legs burdened by the weight of expectation, inexperience and its own tortured story logic – is the best it’s ever going to be. Give it everything you’ve got. That’s the only way it will be anywhere near good enough to earn its passage to the second round of the endless Script Olympics.

3. There are two distinct roles you must play in the writing process: writer and reader. When I’m writing I move constantly, like a shark, never reading over what I’ve written out of fear that its total awfulness will sap my self-belief and I’ll never get to the end. And getting to the end is everything. No one ever had two-thirds of a script produced (although some would argue that George Lucas achieved this not once, but three times).

4. Once a draft is done, it’s time to take off the writing hat (the racing helmet worn to protect the wearer from dangerously high typing speeds) and don the reading hat (the deerstalker in which one can comfortably absorb a good yarn). Leave as long as you can between hat-changes. It takes a generous cushion of time to forget all the great reasons why super-criminal Toby Nutkins just has to be wearing red trousers when he’s confronted by the Beagle – and see him instead as an annoying character worthy of being attacked with a hatchet and a cry of: “Who wrote this shit?”

5. Writing any script – especially your first – is an act of unparalleled arrogance. “Here I sit, Josephine Shithead, preparing to join the hallowed ranks of the Coen brothers, Lena Dunham and the guys behind the Scary Movie franchise by writing a script. A script so goddamn great it will pole-vault its way over the scripts written by all the other shitheads who think they are the real deal when in fact they are not. Whereas I, on my very first try, quite definitely am.” It is essential to be drunk on a neat shot of 100%-proof arrogance while writing. A balanced view of one’s own capabilities and the odds against success would mean the balloon of self-confidence deflating halfway through the first scene, leaving nothing but the low pathetic hiss of dead ambition.

6. But that neat shot is strictly for First Draft Guy. First Draft Guy can be as arrogant as Han Solo, but subsequent drafts need to be written with the humility of Yoda. Otherwise you’ll be just another shithead with a terrible script he thinks is great. And Lord knows we don’t need any more of those.

7. Professional writers must make friends with deadlines. But without deadlines – when no one is waiting for you to deliver your script, or frankly gives a fig whether you finish at all – you need contingencies …

8. So create artificial deadlines. Much like a six-year-old who imagines if they step on the cracks in the pavement a bear will attack them, pretend that if you don’t finish a scene by the end of the day, a bear will attack you. If you don’t find a bear attack convincing, go for a different threat. Try: “If I don’t finish this scene by 5 o’clock, I am an utter failure as a human being.”

9. Problems start when these fear tactics work too well. You find yourself typing sweatily, looking down the barrel of a lifetime of self-hate you have so enthusiastically promised yourself, unable to write anything half-decent. To work, the brain needs to be supple, not clenched. You may find that taking a walk in the park is as crucial to your creativity as banging away on a keyboard. Just as long as the walk doesn’t end in the pub/crackhouse.

10. If you are tempted to run away after all this, remember: the bear will find you. Not a metaphorical bear, the actual bear you hired me to bring round at 5 o’clock – remember?”

– Sam Bain (for The Guardian 31/7/2013)

Defining Horror

“Horror is about the player. Everything else is irrelevant. Historically, horror games got sidetracked quickly into resource management as being a relatively easy way of introducing anxiety into play. But that’s not true, proper horror – that’s tension and anxiety and they are different things. They work alongside horror and fear, sure, but they are different and distinct and that’s important to remember.

 

True horror is story driven. True horror is about what isn’t represented, it’s about co-opting the player’s own imagination, it’s about the emotional landscape of their immersion in the game. The most frightening moments in games are not mechanic driven, they are driven by atmosphere and the space and time for a player’s imagination to fester and erupt into terrifying new forms.
This is what Frictional understood so brilliantly with The Dark Descent. the first hour of that game is not terrifying because of not having any tinder boxes, or some visual FX to suggest you are going a bit nuts. It’s terrifying because of what is missing. And what is missing is a monster. The lack of actual stimulation, this incredibly light gameplay in technical terms creates a fucking nightmare playground for your imagination, because you start creating your own monsters to fill this yawning gulf of stimulus.

 

The best part of Dead Space 2, the return to the Ishimura, works for exactly the same reason. Ghosts and Dead City are the standout sections of Metro 2033 and Last Light. Exactly the same principle. When it all starts going down in a game, you shift emphasis from imagination to solutions. Horror isn’t about solutions, it’s about inaction. When you have a player too terrified to even press a key, to have the game progress, then you’ve absolutely nailed it.

 

One of my biggest inspirations as a writer is the Hemingway short story: “For sale. Baby’s shoes. Never Worn.” It’s a work of genius, because in six words, he creates a catalyst for imagination in a powerful and deep way. Great horror games work with a similar principle.
Just enough gameplay, just enough story, just enough system to engage, then hand over the work of creating terror to the player’s imagination.

Never show or tell too much.

Never expose the mechanics of the ghost train.

Never let them off with a simple explanation.

Never think you can outpace the player’s imagination in terms of generating fear.”

– Dan Pinchbeck

 

 

I think this absolutely hits the nail on the head. It is what I have been saying about Horror for years. The scariest thing is not the monster, it’s the thought of the monster. As a child, the Dark is scary, not because it, as a thing, frightens us, but because of what might be hiding in it. A few weeks ago, I drew up a graph defining what I consider to be one of the most basic rules of horror (this is not absolute) which stipulated:

Horror 101

Horror 101

Jumps are all well and good, and moments that make us twitch are fine, but jump scares are not going to stay with us. Psychological trauma is what scares us, and to employ successful horror, one must get into the mind of the audience.

The reason why ‘The Blair Witch Project’ is so good, in my opinion, is that the ‘Blair Witch’ itself is never seen. It is all in the mind, or in the effects that it has on the characters in the films. There is nothing frightening about a pile of rocks, until they start mysteriously appearing outside of your tent in the middle of the night, and now they’re not just piles of rocks any more. They represent your graves. This is why the Blair Witch Project works.

I will go back to the definitions of ‘Eerie’ and ‘Uncanny’. “Eerie’ is the presence of something that ought to be absent; ‘Uncanny’ is the absence of something that ought to be present. The key to horror is know the difference and utilising it efficiently. A man with a big axe or something may well be scary, but what’s even more scary is knowing that the man with the big axe is nearby, somewhere, but you don’t know where, and you don’t know when he’s going to reveal himself. This is the essence of horror.

The Closest Example I Can Think Of To A Perfect Story In Six Words

“For sale: Baby shoes . Never worn.”

– Ernest Hemingway

Points of View

This video, an advert for the Guardian from 1986 titled ‘Points of View’ makes an interesting point about storytelling. Although this may not have been their initial intention, what they have done is highlighted in importance of narrative.

One character’s narrative in any given story would be drastically different from another’s. It is vital to the story that you are trying to tell to make sure you tell it with the right narrative.

If it was your intention to tell the same, or similar stories, from different viewpoints, most of the time (at least in films) the story will follow a relatively linear narrative, which is why it is so important to know whose story you are telling, and whose point of view it is from.

Simply changing the angle of approach on a story can, and will, change the story entirely.

What if Star Wars had been written from the point of view of the Empire? Or if Memento had been made from the point of view of Teddy? Narrative is vital, and the subject of the narrative can dictate that.

Sugar/Water – Cibo Matto

More notes on writing: Ajay Ohri

“1. Write 50 words. That’s a paragraph.

 

2. Write 400 words. That’s a page.

 

3. Write 300 pages, That’s a manuscript.

 

4. Write every day. That’s a habit.

 

5. Edit and rewrite. That’s how you get better.

 

6. Spread your writing for people to comment. That’s called feedback.

 

7. Don’t worry about rejection or publication. That’s a writer.

 

8. When not writing, read. Read from writers better than you. Read and perceive.”

 

 – Ajay Ohri

Constructing Truth From Lies

If I was to create an imaginary town, how difficult would it be to make it exist?

I wouldn’t need much of a masquerade to fool most casual internet users.

In order to create a reasonable shroud of smoke and mirrors, I am going to have a look into:

  • creating maps
  • creating Wikipedia entries
  • creating a ‘Tourist Information’ website
  • creating a facebook page
  • creating photographs of the imaginary place

With just a few mirrors in place, if I create enough smoke, I could create something very interesting.

And then there’s the postcards. I’m going to get the attention of people by sending them postcards from my imaginary town, with a cryptic message on them.
Signed from the person I am sending them to, perhaps?

iamamiwhoami; ‘bounty’ & ‘kin’

In 2009, on December 4th, a videos were uploaded to youtube, and the URL sent to a number of music journalists, blogs and magazines. The video was a surreal music track accompanied by visions, limbs growing from trees, a woman and a picture of a goat.

A series of videos would be released, all in a similar vein, surreal visions accompanied by music and a picture of an animal, each titled with a series of seemingly meaningless numbers. A mysterious blonde woman was also featured in each video, although her face was always obscured, either never fully in shot or covered in some sort of substance.

The videos featured (in order):

In the final video; 23.5.12.3.15.13.5-8.15.13.5.3383, we finally hear what sounds like legible words being sung by the woman, who finishes the video by saying ‘Why?’ (or ‘Y’, I’m not sure.)

Throughout the videos, there are numerous references to the plant genus Mandragora. The Mandrake was fabled to be a human plant, grown from the semen of a hanged man. The male mandrake was fabled to be white, and the female to be black. When the numbers of the tracks were translated, using their number to identify the position of the corresponding letter in the alphabet, they were translated as “educational”, “I am”, “its me”, “mandragora”, “officinarum”, and “welcome home”.

Soon after the end of these releases, another series started to appear. A video simply titled ‘b’ was released, in which the mysterious woman reappears, covered in tape, her voice distorted as she plays a piano. More videos; ‘o’, ‘u-1’, ‘u-2’, ‘n’, ‘t’ and ‘y’. In ‘o’ we hear the same melody as was sung in 23.5.12.3.15.13.8.15.13.5. Finally, in ‘t’, her face was revealed without any distortion, and turns out to be Swedish singer Jonna Lee, working under her new pseudonym ‘iamamiwhoami’.

Combining the videos for ‘b’, ‘o’, ‘u-1’, ‘u-2’, ‘n’, ‘t’ and ‘y’ a sort of story is revealed, although the message may be a little unclear.

In February 2012, another prelude was released: ‘kin 20120611‘, spelled the release date for the first album from iamamiwhoami and her label ‘To Whom It May Concern’. The album was to be entitled ‘Kin’.

When I found out about all this, I was enthralled, and picked up the CD/DVD as soon as I could. These seemed like such an unlikely series of events, I wanted to know what was going on.

The music was beautiful. I love it. And I fell in love with the container immediately.

front

back

left: DVD right: CD

What I had bought was a black, cardboard CD wallet, with only a small square on the back  which displayed the track titles… The rest was black. The wallet opened out into three sections, a CD which contained the music (black) a DVD which contained all of the videos in order (black) and a booklet (black) which, over several pages, starts black and, page by page, slowly reveals Jonna Lee.

kin inlay booklet

A year later, and I had the physical copy of Bounty preordered, with two new tracks, ‘;john’ and ‘clump’. The same deal, only the box to ‘bounty’ was white.

The enigma that came with the releases, the slow reveal of the artist and the complete surreality of the videos is wonderful. I heartily recommend you watch the videos for ‘kin’ and ‘bounty’ in order.

I intend to take a leaf out of iamamiwhoami’s book, and perhaps reveal my project in a similarly enigmatic fashion. At some point, I’d love to do something similar. It’s such a wonderful story and the final product does not disappoint either (if you’re into that sort of thing. Which I really am.)