Write what you know, but do it differently.

Hello everyone.  I am going to be thinking on the page at you and trying to come to some sort of conclusion, and I would like to invite comment from you as this will be more interesting and fun with reader participation.  I want to talk about one of the things you hear a lot.  Write what you know.

It is an easy thing to say, and it makes a lot of sense.  How can you write about what you don’t know, after all?  Well, research helps though some would argue that to write from a perspective you have to have experienced that perspective to write with fidelity.  I think that is a discussion for another time.  Today I will stick with write what you know.  And I will make one admission here.  I don’t know if this will work for everyone.  I know it has worked for me.  So, let us hope that you take something away from this.  I am going to tell you two brief stories first.

I am playing in a game of Dungeons & Dragons at the moment.  5th Edition if it matters to you.  My Games Master has been quite rigorous in creating a world, and encouraging us players into making deep characters.  After my initial wizard character was basically vetoed as his purpose for being went contrary to a player’s wishes, I came up with a Dwarven Character called Hadrin.  I gave him a clan, named his living relatives and gave his clan some history and their position in Dwarven politics.  Then I wrote about an encounter Hadrin had with a powerful magical being that his Grandfather, the clan leader, had a deal with.  The premise being that I wanted the Dwarven Clan to be pioneers in vehicle technology.  Since regular industry was vetoed at character creation, I worked this encounter in so as justify magical technology.  So, imagine Magic Powered flying machines for instance.  The Clan supported itself by mundane means, mining and smelting like good little mountain Dwarves.  The Games Master said he liked the idea of the magical technology.  He liked the background and history of the clan, and their position in Dwarven society.  He then said he found the fact they were mining mountain Dwarves boring.   He wasn’t vetoing the idea, he wasn’t even vetoing the fact that they were miners in the mountains.  He just wanted to encourage me to push the boundaries a little bit.  So we got to talking about it.  And eventually we came up with an idea of an offshore clan of Dwarves that live on a massive platform.  The platform has drilling shafts and lifts to the seabad where the Dwarven farms are, whilst the platform itself served as a base for them to build their dirigibles.  We took the idea of an industrious dwarf, and took him out of the mountains and made the idea work at sea.  The end result was the Coraldeep clan of Dwarves.  Dwarves that effectively live on an offshore rig, build airships and their warriors – the Tidebreakers – wear armour that is akin to deep dive apparatus.  I made a Dwarf trained to fight underwater, to protect workers from sea monsters.  Not your standard Dwarf.

My second story is about the books I am currently reading/rereading, the Shadows of the Apt series by Adrian Tchaikovsky.  They are a fantasy series set in a world where there are different kinden of human, each of which is basically an evolution along the lines of one form of insect.  And, members of these kinden take on the characteristics of their parent insect.  So, Ants have a hive mind, Mantis are really good killers and wasps have a sting and can fly.  So, it is a fantasy world with city states at a technological level somewhere between middle ages and renaissance Europe.  However, magic was once a major factor in the world in times referred to as the Days of Lore.  Magic is more or less gone, except for a rare few kinden that still practice – Moths and Mosquitoes spring to mind – and the story is mostly about the politics of city states within the Lowlands, with the Wasp Empire invading.  All sounds fairly fantasy so far?  However, in Shadows of the Apt an industrial revolution has happened.  The Days of Lore ceased as the slave races of the Moths and the Mosquitoes became Apt; technologically proficient.  And from this they developed automotives, flying machines, crossbows and more.  Magic is no longer the dominant factor in this fantasy, Industry is, and it has a similar effect on the politics of a fantasy book.  Technology becomes the “Tool” employed to defend against the Wasps, where magic might have been used in another fantasy.  The main wise character/mentor archetype in this book , Stenwold Maker, fills the roll that a wizard might in another fantasy.  He is a professor of engineering.  And a spymaster.  And when you think about it, what is a spell but a process or procedure using components in a specific way to achieve a specific effect.  Assembly of a device could fall into this category.

In both my stories there is something I was familiar with.  An Industrious Dwarf.  And a fantasy setting with a learned man aware of approaching doom.  And in both cases it would be easy to write only what we know.  About an industrious Dwarf who hails from the mines.  About a Wizard that senses the approach of war.  However, in both cases, something has been changed in the setting or circumstance without changing the fundamentals of the characters involved.

Hadrin Coraldeep is still an industrious dwarf.  However, his clan work the sea rather than land.

Stenwold Maker is still knowledgeable, sees the approaching doom and can come up with solutions others cannot.  But he builds things with his hands rather than casts spells.

In each case the standard trope that has been changed is changed into something that serves the same or similar purpose.  However, this change in circumstance creates an entirely new idea around a particular story.  So, let us think.  What other things can be changed?  Is this idea transferable?

Horror – Vampires survive by feeding on blood.  Perhaps we create a creature that has a different survival mechanism that is equally terrifying?  Maybe we change their weakness during the day…I know that was done in Twilight.  I am sure there are other ways to change the nature of a dark creature that would add to the horror, rather than simply make them obvious.

Science Fiction – What can we change here?  It is such a huge genre, to have only one entry is inadequate.  What about a close encounter/first contact story?  Where the protagonists meet aliens for the first time?  What if the protagonists are not from Earth, and the aliens they encounter are?

Romance – This was done perfectly by Daphne Du Maurier in Rebecca, where the bulk of the book was about post marriage and post honeymoon period, whereas standard conventions have romance dealing with the courtship phase.

Crime –  What if your main viewpoint character was the criminal?  Perhaps there is a threat, perhaps of murder or theft.  And maybe the main character is somehow involved in the security operation, but is actually the criminal.  I feel this has probably been done, however I suspect if you do it well it would be masterful.

So, over to you.  What things do you write about, and what could you do differently to set yourself apart?

Advertisements

Fantasy World Building Part 1: Establish the Rules through History

Hello folks.  Welcome.  I have been wondering about what content to share with you that is different from every other writing websites out there and inspiration struck.  The one thing that Sharp-Writing has that other writing websites don’t is me.  It was so simple really.  I started thinking about my own creative writing and decided to share the process, if not the details (you’ll forgive me for keeping my stories close to my chest until they are ready for reading).  A couple of disclaimers.  I write fantasy so my posts will often refer to that – and this will be one of them.  And secondly, whilst I have studied creative writing at Degree level and consider myself skilled enough to know what works much of the time, I am not infallible.  I am going to share what I am doing just now, and perhaps it can help some people.  And perhaps some of you can help me by sharing your thoughts.  This post will be part of my Fantasy World Building series.

Disclaimers done, let’s get to the good stuff!

I am currently working on a Fantasy Story.  I have been working on this story in one form or another for the better part of 10 years.  It has gone through many evolutions, and I have abandoned hundreds of pages of work when I realised that they were going to fail for various reasons (cliche, strands pulling apart and so on).  However, I still want to tell the story even if some of the details change, even if some of the setting changes.

One of the problems I kept encountering was that whilst I liked the characters, and their goals, the rules of the world were just too convoluted.  Individually they were fine, but because they were not developed consistently.  I would write some stuff down one day, and then not add to it for months and thus forgot important stuff (highlighting the importance of Writing Daily – I did a post about that).  So, I started again.  I often start again when a rework is so monumental it would take equally long or longer to revise what I had.

I knew in my world I wanted the technology level to be somewhere between medieval and renaissance Europe.  I wanted Magic to be a thing, and even had the “laws” of magic in mind.  I didn’t want guns or cannons.  I knew I wanted necromancy and various states of vampirism to be a thing.  I knew that I wanted a Pantheist society, and I even had a few of the Gods worked out.  In my original lineup I had a major plot device spring from a division amongst the gods.  I penciled this in, but was less sure about it.  I had an idea for the over arching plot, and the underlying message and who the villain would be.  I wanted to keep that villain, so they were added as a character.  Though I decided that their background was going to be different as the original one was too convoluted and didn’t quite work.  I had all these ideas, and they weren’t dissimilar to the stuff that I had written before (yes there were some changes, but not many).  And I wondered how I could rationalise it all, and not forget it.  And that is when I decided to write, in brief, the history of my world.  Don’t get me wrong, at this stage basics were all that were necessary but I figured that I would write the history of my world and work into that history, into that story, how all the things I wanted would come to be.  And then I would have a reference document that I could update along the way, which I can then turn into a single document to read through anytime I need a refresher.  I used the software Scrivener, and if you click on the following video I will show you how I did it.

So, that short video deals with creating a history of your setting, in the example a history governing one of the rules of the world.  I alluded to it in the video, however I will reiterate it here.  I am more likely to remember the rules of my fantasy world if I remember the history, the story that created them.  This is because your brain remembers thinks that are more vivid and evocative.  History is a story.  Rules are bland.  Writing the background history establishes the why, and once you understand that you don’t forget it.  And, as an added bonus, writing background can generate unexpected story.

knowing the history of your world helps you remember the rules of the world and can generate story

It occurs to me that I have talked about needing to be able to understand the rules of my world but never said why.  And it is simple.  It is about consistency and stability.  If your world has sorcery that can conjure fireballs, seemingly from nothing, then that needs to be part of the rules of the world.  And thus that means anyone can do it under the right circumstances.  Fantasy Narratives are a hard pill for some folk to swallow, but nothing helps them fall apart more quickly than when the writer breaks their own rules.

So, does this seem like it is of use to you?  What do you do and how does it work for you?

Frankenstein – A peek behind the curtain

Hello folks, you are most welcome here.

Today, I want to talk about one of my favourite books, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.  I should also say, this post contains affiliate links, and potentially spoilers if you don’t know the story.  I would also say that this post won’t have much in the way of creative writing advice, so much as it is intended to help the reader understand stories from a different perspective.  I found, during my time at university, that if I was able to pull a story apart and figure out what the writer was doing and how, then their tricks and skills became mine to use as I saw fit.  Anyway, I am focusing on Frankenstein and if you haven’t read it, and you enjoy horror, you really need to give it a look as it is an atmospheric, gripping and multilayered horror.

I suspect if you are reading this website, you have heard of Frankenstein, at least, and hopefully are aware that it is about a man who tries to create another man by less than natural methods, and by that I mean science and grave robbing.
The tale is set around the beginning of the industrial revolution, in Switzerland, and follows Victor Frankenstein through his life. Victor is the son of a wealthy family who develops a passion for the sciences, and as he grows older he becomes obsessed with the idea of creating a man from constituent parts. He succeeds, but when he looks into the eyes of his creation for the first time he suffers some form of nervous or psychotic break, fleeing his lab in the process.

The creature is presumed to flee, and Victor blocks the memory of the event and the creation whilst trying to carry on with his life.  His health, which he neglected in the process of creation, gradually recovers despite family tragedies and it looks like he might have a chance at a happy life.  And then his creation returns, having learned that humans are cruel.  The creature recounts the tale of his missing years, and delivers an ultimatum to Victor.

What follows is a tormented account of Victor’s life as he wrestles with the creature’s demands and the demands of his conscience.  The conflict is complicated by his responsibility to the creature as the only parent it has, and also the responsibility to the rest of the world should he comply with his creature’s demands.

This story is about Victor and his hubristic ambition.  Victor is incredibly well written and in the first chapters of the book he was a sympathetic character.   He is driven, partly by curiosity and partly by ego to discover and to challenge the unknown.  And,  as with any great tragedy this is the seed of his downfall.  In fact, Victor is an extreme egotist who challenges the natural order which, given the time period, could be interpreted as a challenge against God.  Remember, the full title of the Novel is Frankenstein: Modern Prometheus.  Prometheus stole fire, symbolic of life, from the gods and was punished for this.  Victor Frankenstein plays god creating life in death, and is ultimately punished for his arrogance.

There are a number of elements that bear further study and I will draw your attention to them, so you can do that or even deconstruct them for your own use.

Victor’s health deteriorates as he creates the monster.  It isn’t a huge leap of logic to refer to him as an Urban Gothic Necromancer, sacrificing of himself so his creature can live.  And his health is only restored when he abandons the creation, and returns to his family and more healthy pursuits and happiness.  Of course, Victor’s happiness is short lived as his life is beset tragedy, which is entirely appropriate to the undead metaphor, making Victor not only a metaphor for a Necromancer, but also a Vampire or some other form of evil parasitic spirit.

The creature, we discover, is quite capable of cruelty.  Which was hard for me to credit, given its account of the missing years.  However, I was making an error in judgement.  I was treating the creature like an adult because it could speak like one.  However, Victor’s creature was effectively a child abandoned at birth.  A child with no role model to teach it how to act, and no parent to teach it right and wrong.  As such, the creature’s psyche can be interpreted as that of an impulsive child, with no moral compass, throwing a particularly violent tantrum.

Aside from one scene, which I daresay could be explained away as a delusion, no one ever sees the creature, aside from Victor (and his victims).  Of course, the creature tells Victor he met people.  And people die at the creatures hands, but no one ever sees him.  So, another interpretation, which I find intriguing, is that there is no creature at all.  Or at least, it never lived.  In fact, the horrors are committed by Victor, who has suffered a psychotic break and now believes he has a tormentor.  In fact the tormentor, the killer, is him; desensitised to death due to his grisly excavations, perhaps his psychosis now compels him to end lives to study the process by which life leaves the mortal coil.  With this information, his next effort will be successful.  Of course, even a desensitised egocentric needs some form of psychological protection from the horrors committed and so he invents the creature;  a being ostracised by society that feels justified in his murderous urges.

Of course, if I was to share this with one of my former tutors he would tell me, “Interesting John.  So what?  You can’t prove it, so where are you going with this?”

Yes, I have had the conversation with a tutor.  It proved useful as my assignment took a new direction and got a better mark.  Anyway the purpose here is not to create a ridiculously lengthy academic study.  My point was to peel back the layers of a known story and show that there are other interpretations, some almost believable and some fantastical.  In looking at my three interpretations, I think there are probably many lessons to be learned.  I will share my thoughts, however I would then encourage you to do the same with any ideas you have.

Genres are much closer to each other than you might think.  Frankenstein is a gothic horror, however, as I noted above it wouldn’t take too much to move it into fantasy horror, or dark fantasy.

Sometimes cruelty and viciousness comes from unexpected, but perfectly understandable quarters.  One of my hobbies is playing in roleplay games, and one of the scariest characters I encountered was an utterly unpredictable child, who could be innocent one minute and a murderous psychopath the next.  Also consider, childlike is often associated with innocence, however innocence turns to horror very easily when parental guidance is removed from the equation.  This brings you to “What if” writing.  What if the child was abandoned?  What if we removed this other factor from an individual?  What impact would it have.  What if we added something, instead of subtracting?  There are countless stories to be told simply by exploring what if.

“A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question…”

Stephen King, writing in the Guardian (talking about his book On Writing )

Full Article Here

Psychology and the mind, properly employed, can give a logical explanation for the seemingly supernatural.  In fact, this is probably even more effective as a tool in horror as it has the added weight of forcing the reader to realise that it isn’t some invention of the writer, rather it is a condition that could happen to anyone.  And something like that can make a villain terrifying and sympathetic at the same time.  This is not something that should dabbled with lightly.  Study of things like psychosis, multiple personalities and schizophrenia is likely to be difficult, if not harrowing.  And you do sufferers a disservice if you misrepresent them, so if this is a route you would explore then I would suggest tread cautiously

I hope you found this of interest, and and of use to you.  These realisations have certainly helped me.

All the best.

 

Let’s talk fan fiction…

Just a short post today.  Quite possibly people are going to think it strange that I talk about fan fiction on this website, however I am going to, and hopefully we can have a meaningful chat about it afterwards.

Fan fiction is a label that evokes quite a strong response in a lot of people, and in all honesty, it isn’t always a favourable one.  It is my belief that a large portion of the reading community is dismissive of Fan Fiction as a genre, or even writing.  How hard can it be to come up with a story in a world that already exists with existing characters, after all?  It isn’t proper writing if you didn’t invent the characters yourself?  Right?

Let us have a look at why people seem to dislike fan fiction and we can answer those questions.

Quality of Writing

There is a perception that fan fiction is the playground of amateurs, and as a result it is poorer quality writing.  I have read fan fiction.  Some of it is very poor quality.  However, I have read other pieces of general or genre fiction that are just as bad.  I have also read fan fiction that is of very good quality.  The quality of writing is independent of Genre, and entirely dependent on the effort and skill applied by the writer.  For this reason I no longer dismiss Fan Fiction due to the quality of writing.  (Once upon a time, I did)

 

It is all about Sexual Fantasy/Wish Fulfillment

No it isn’t.  Some of it is.  And if it makes a person happy to write about their fantasy and then let other people read it, then where is the harm.  (Unless the fantasy itself is harmful, in which case seek expertise from someone other than a blogger who blogs about writing…).  Personally, I wouldn’t want to write about and share this material, but then I don’t really understand the selfie phenomenon either(unless the picture tells a story).  The point ere is that it isn’t all about the writer’s fantasy.  Sometimes it is fun to take an existing canon and ask “What if…?”

 

There is no skill or art involved in writing about pre-established characters

Are you sure about that?  Write a couple hundred words about your living room.  Did you get good prose on your first draft?  (I am presuming not).  If you decided to actually spruce the language up a bit, was it easy?  (About as easy as any editing?)   Just because something is pre-established doesn’t make it easy to write about.

One of the things you need when you are writing is passion for your story, and it is my observation that fan fiction, whilst not always polished, is not lacking in passion for the subject.  Is it not just as hard to write a character that already has pre-established ground rules that other fans will challenge if you break?

And to say there is no skill in writing a character that may exist as part of another media is flat out wrong.  If you are writing based on a TV series and the character has a trademark style and demeanour, you have to convert something visual into something described.  Imagine someone trying to write a fan fiction in response to a video game, or roleplay game.  How do they do that?  A story is going to appear clumsy and dull if your post apocalyptic hero keeps finding ammo crates and medkits in the wilderness.  And how do you portray your RPG character who spent an hour of the game talking to other characters in one room, in no particular order, all of whom patiently waited for you to come talk to them.  The writer needs to find a way to make their work more compelling than that.  The point here being that sometimes you learn new skills trying to convert one form into your writing.  (This has certainly been my experience)

 

So what?

When I started University I was given the impression that my favoured genre, fantasy, would struggle to achieve the same marks as general fiction.  I decided I was going to ignore that warning.  I wanted to write fantasy and I wanted to write it well.  Good writing is good writing regardless of genre (and the opposite is also true).  I think the point I am making to the novice (or any) writer is that if Fan Fiction is your thing, then don’t let anyone tell you that it isn’t a worthy genre.  I would also say that just because some folks look down on it doesn’t mean you should treat it with less care than you would literary fiction.  Write your story and edit it to good quality.  Don’t give folks free ammunition to shoot you down.

To the readers, I would say, judge a story on the merit of its words and not the category you find it.

The relationship between reader, writer and finished story is built on respect.  The writer’s respect for the reader and story by telling it with passion, knowing the source material, and making it the best it can be; and the reader’s respect for story and writer by judging on the merits of the finished product and not the labels with pre-judgements attached.

There is enough negativity in the world already.  We writers and readers don’t need to add to it.  Let us create good stories worthy of being read, and let us enjoy those stories realising that fan fiction is not a shortcut.

Have you, in your reading or writing, come across any other forms of fiction that are considered sub-par?  Share in the comments and let us have a chat.

Don’t Breathe – Thriller Movie and a discussion about the use of Eyes in fiction

I recently watched a movie called “Don’t Breathe”.  This is a film about a bunch of kids/young adults who decide to rob a blind war veteran who they are aware has had a major payout as a result of personal tragedy.  The film is a thriller, as when the kids get into the house, they get more than they bargain for when the blind veteran locks them in, and begins hunting them.  I guess he was supposed to be the villain but all my sympathy was with him, until the writers did something to make me lose sympathy for him (It was like reading Volpone all over again).  It’s a decent movie, with Stephen Lang playing the part of the blind veteran.

However, review is not my purpose here.  I am going to talk about one of the things that made Lang seem incredibly sinister.  His eyes.

I should preface this post by saying I am not an expert on the medical side of blindness, nor do I have experience of dealing with blindness or helping someone suffering blindness.  This post is not intended to upset anyone, however I have used some blunt comparisons.  Please consider I do this as part of a theoretical discussion about use of one element, eyes, in plot.

His character is no Daredevil.  He doesn’t have radar senses, he just has his hearing and combat training.  That makes him dangerous to the trespassers, but not sinister to the viewer.  However, his eyes help achieve that.  They are fixed ahead, and cloudy as you might expect.  And this doesn’t seem natural.

It is perfectly normal for us as humans, and for the characters we read/write/see to read the intent of another person by looking at their posture, their face, their eyes.  There is something alive about the eyes that communicates to us, and on some level it unnerves us when they are rigid.  I wanted to ponder that.  last week I talked about automata.  I believe that rigid, cloudy, eyes add to the impression that an individual is automata.  By definition, automata gives the appearance of life, but not necessarily actual life.  If we read the eyes because they are alive then does it not follow that we interpret rigid eyes, automaton eyes, as dead?  Are we unnerved because we see someone apparently alive, going through the motions, but carrying something within them that makes us subconsciously think of death?  (I am curious about your thoughts on that)

Taking a slightly different perspective, if we read emotions from eyes because they are “Windows of/to the soul”, then rigid eyes are surely walls?  In one of the most basic methods of attempting to connect with another person, a barrier is erected.

And then we have the idea that a person who cannot see should be at a disadvantage to us.  What then are we supposed to feel if the impairment is no disadvantage at all?  (And in case I need to re-iterate the point I made at the start, this is not an attack on blindness, and I have abounding respect for someone deprived a sense but capable of functioning without it).  Do we make the assumption there is something we cannot see, or understand at play?  Something supernatural?  Something uncanny?  Or perhaps we think they are faking?  Perhaps we suddenly think they have lied.  Lied, to gain advantage?  What else might they be lying about?

Now to the point of this theorising.  How do we use this as writers?

The obvious answer is through the point of view character.  Then we must make a decision.  How does that character react?  Their reaction will plant ideas in the minds of our readers, it helps us set the terms, language and ultimately genre of the plot.

Do we use the life and death metaphor?  If our story is supernatural or fantasy genre, then perhaps.  Discussion of life and death very much ticks the right box for supernatural, and rigid eyes might be the first step in your fantasy stories introducing Golems, or other such constructs.  Or perhaps even some form of curse where someone is brought under the control of another.

Do we use windows and walls?  Perhaps if we are dealing with a thriller, a foe that is unreadable even to our super-agent or our canny journalist can help the reader feel the frustration, and keep them guessing.

Or does the protagonist see their foe/antagonist, see their rigid/blind/milky/whatever eyes and wonder at how they are so capable?  They wonder if there is more going on, making the the antagonist’s blindness a form of blindness itself for the viewpoint character.  Perhaps as the protagonist tries learn to “See” in this new reality, we add mystery and hardship, helping the reader really feel the ordeal.

 

What do you think?  Comment below, and lets have a chat!

 

note – I have drawn some inspiration from this post reading Freud’s “The Uncanny“.  Worth a look if you are an aspirant of horror.

Elements of Horror: Automata – Looking at Hush, Don’t Breathe, and Pontypool

I’ve watched a few horrors lately, namely Hush, Don’t Breathe and Pontypool.  I enjoyed all of them, to one extent or another and it gets me to wondering, what are the elements a writer needs to master in order to spook the reader.   I am going to drift about on this post, and it is not intended to be exhaustive, and is purely opinion based on observation.  The topic I am drifting towards is Automata.  In this context, the semblance or appearance of life, but with certain things removed with the ultimate effect of dehumanising the automaton.

Hush was a standard slasher film, where an assailant with a white mask that made them look like a mannequin terrorises a deaf girl in her forest home.

Don’t Breathe is about a bunch of thieves breaking into the isolated home of a blind war veteran, trying to rob him, and getting more than they bargained for when he locks them in his house and starts hunting them.  (I guess he was meant to be the villain, and for much of the film, all my sympathy was with him)

Pontypool is a zombie movie, where the zombie infection is spread through infected words.  The action takes place inside the local radio station, the place uniquely suited to get word out about the new plague, but also risk communicating it.

I also studied the Uncanny whilst at University, if only for a short time and already had a few suppositions about what makes things scary.  I am going to go through each film, one by one and try to bring it together with previous studies to draw some form of a conclusion.

Hush

Currently available on netflix UK, and worth a watch.  If you want a review of it, you can find a good one over on Raistlin0903 Blog HERE (He does frequent movie reviews that I particularly enjoy, and often agree with – his review encouraged me to watch Hush).

So, we have a girl who is deaf living alone and in isolation.  First fear factor, without hearing she is deprived awareness of her surroundings except what is in her field of vision.  This effectively renders the intruder invisible to her, until he wants to be seen.

We then add to this the fact that the intruder wears a paper mache style mask.  Concealment seems irrelevant, since his intent was always to murder her and anyone who gets in the way.  So, you have to assume the mask has a different function.  I will posit that the mask is rigid, and this was the point.  A flexible mask that moves when a person talks, or looks around still feels human up to a point.  A rigid mask looks more like a doll, or a mannequin.  Taken on its own, each aspect might slightly unnerve us but let us consider what putting them together means.  We have an intruder with a face that equates to a mannequin, and a girl who cannot hear.  In essence she is deprived of several stimuli that should scream human.  Humans have eyes, and faces and sounds.  But if something moves like a human, but doesn’t have a face and doesn’t make sound then we are getting into territory that Freud spoke about in The Uncanny.  We have something that resembles an automaton.  A being that mimics the form of human, and goes through the motions, but is absent defining characteristics.  I am going a bit deeper than the film perhaps intended (but maybe it did intend this discussion).  One thing I know.  Dolls are creepy.  The idea of a featureless, soundless being walking or moving in a similar fashion to a human is also creepy.  I think we can justify saying that Automota is one element that can be used in horror to unnerve, if not scare.

Don’t Breathe

Don’t Breathe actually takes one idea of horror/thriller, the Intruder, and flips it as the protagonists are the intruders and would not have been in danger had they not broken into the house of the rich, blind, war vet played by Stephen Lang.  He has no particularly special powers.  He isn’t Daredevil with radar senses.  He is just a guy, a trained guy, but a guy nonetheless defending his house.  (There was a plot macguffin inserted to make you lose sympathy for him.  It kinda worked, I wasn’t keen on it.  But my purpose isn’t review).

Lang was blind.  His eyes, milky white.  And I think this is the most unnerving thing about him.  You can read intent in eyes.  If not emotion, you can see where eyes are looking and extrapolate intent.  But if they are solid, blank and unmoving then you get a similarly uncanny effect as with the solid mask in Hush.  Again, we have something taken slightly away from what we expect, moved in a direction that makes it less human and the result is Uncanny.

On a side note, I used this once in a roleplaying game where I had created a Wizard named Felix.  Felix lost his sight due to out of control sorcery, however I asked the Games Master if my character could start the game with eyes forged from silver.  They didn’t do anything other than see, but I wanted my character to have strange eyes.  The Games Master approved, and fortunately we have only encountered undead so far, so it hasn’t been a problem.

Pontypool

As noted, Pontypool is a Zombie movie where the infection is spread through infected words.  The infected wander around, hunting, repeating the same phrases over and over. This isn’t necessarily automata or blank eyes as with the other two movies, (though a zombie movie by definition is about automata) however the taking of phrases and repeating them over and over and over makes the infected sound like a broken record player, a broken machine.  The fact that the infected are simply transmitting the same phrase over and over also makes their voices “Undead” or “Automata”.  In essence, the words emulate a voice but it is only an approximation of voice.

 

Automata

When seeing something resembling human, acting in ways that a human might but deprived of essential human elements, such as active eyes, facial expressions or a voice then we wonder what exactly we are seeing.  Is it a biomechanical engine?  Does it bleed?  Feel pain?  Feel Joy?

It unnerves us because we have no frame of reference.  How do you deal with a flesh construct?  A vicious animal, a deranged shooter, both are terrifying in their own right but we understand them somewhat.  They are familiar.  We know that they have emotions, and they have motives and in some respects we can try and evade or reason with them.  Don’t reason with a tiger.  They are notoriously hostile diplomats.

But we don’t understand the automaton.  Does it have will of its own?  Does it have a master.  How do we deal with it?

If it simply looks human but is a construct of other material, is it alive?  How does it work?

If it appears human, but outward signs of humanity are gone, in the eyes, the voice, the expression/emotion, then more terrifying is the question:  Can it happen to us?

I am not claiming expertise on this subject.  What are your thoughts on use of automata in your writing?

 

Pontypool – How changing an old idea can work

There is a, perhaps less well known, horror movie out there known as Pontypool.  It is currently available free to Amazon Prime customers, and if you are fortunate enough to have a subscription, then I would recommend it as a movie.  As usual, this is not a review, but a basic overview and then applying it to your writing.

I am going to be referencing this movie in a couple of blogs, as it is surprising how many useful elements can be drawn from it.

Pontypool is essentially a Zombie movie, set in the rural Canadian town of Pontypool. It is heavily implied the locals are very much involved in everyone else’s business, and for news beyond gossip  the citizens turn to Grant Mazzy – Talk Radio DJ with aspirations beyond his (local) station.  It is implied he was once mainstream, and respected in the business.  Mazzy, played by Stephen McHattie, is desperately trying to matter in a situation where he doesn’t feel relevant.  And then, strange things start happening in the town.  People start acting in herds, chanting repetitive nonsensical phrases, attempting to kill and eat other townsfolk (none of this is shown on screen – I’ll talk about that in my Pontypool – A Short Story Movie Blog).

Like I said, it is a zombie movie.  However, and this is the part that had my attention, was the twist on the idea of zombie infection – the zombie virus/condition was not transmitted through fluids, bites, scratches or even airborne transmission.  It was transmitted through infected words.

Yep, I said infected words.  And despite IMDB only rating Pontypool 6.7*, I have to say, this was a brilliant idea.

Zombies, if you’ll forgive the pun, have been done to death since the 60s.  Anyone who has seen one Zombie movie knows that the contagion spreads through bites and scratches and, despite the virility of these, there are ways to defend against them.  Polearms, Armour, Guns, chopping off hands and teeth.  All are viable defences in fiction.

Pontypool has taken a genre that everyone is familiar with, everyone knows the tropes and introduced an X factor, changing mode of transmission.  And this makes the story fresh.  It brings about a new perspective on the Zombie genre.  I will talk more about its effectiveness in adding to the horror of the situation in a future blog.  For now, I just want to examine the process here.

Take a genre that everyone is familiar with, that has established rules and tropes.

Take something integral to that genre.  And then change it.

Now that I think about it, Pontypool is not the only story I have encountered that plays with genre stereotypes.

For part of my degree, when studying romance, I was required to read Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.  We were taught that a standard trope of the romance formula was that the hero or heroine falls for someone (maybe not the right someone), pursues them, all the while obstacles appear in their path (in the form of the other man/woman, or the fact that the person is not the right person for them in the first place).  The romance is essentially a quest narrative with the reward being the protagonist getting together, happily, with the right person at the end of the novel.

Rebecca doesn’t do that.  The nameless protagonist marries her love by page 50.  But this isn’t happy ever after.  Now the protagonist has to come to terms with settling down, which is nowhere near s exciting as the brief romance on the Riviera, and she is constantly compared to her husband’s deceased first wife.  How do you find love when your opponent is a ghost?  (not literally, she is dead and only her memory remains).

Mitchell & Webb, the British comedy duo, did a fantastic sketch turning this on its head.

In this case, the effect is comedic – taking the idea of a husband holding his wife to the impossible standard of his other wife – in this case, his future wife rather than his first wife.

How can we use this?  Truthfully, I have been wracking my brain about this for a while now, trying to figure out other corruptions of tropes that might serve as a starting point – and let me tell you, it hasn’t been easy!

 

Have a think about your favoured genre.

What are the accepted practices of that genre?  Are any of them often repeated?  How do they come together?  What can you change about one element?  What effect does this have?

I cannot create a list of possibilities, but lets try at least one – fantasy.

Young/childlike hero.  Possibly with a powerful artifact.  (Works for The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Sword of Shannara, The Belgariad.  Sword of Truth)

There is a mentor, possibly an old man and maybe even a wizard.  (Works for all of the above)

The Mentor may die, to motivate the protagonist (Actually, only 2 of 6.  You can increase to 4 if you change it to removal of the mentor to force the protagonist to act on their own terms.  It has been a while since I read the Belgariad or the Sword of Shannara.  I cannot recall this happening in those books).

There is an evil power from times gone past.  They might have an army (More or less true for all, though Smaug doesn’t have an army but he is an evil from times long past).

The destruction of the evil power is linked to the protagonist or their artifact. (again, works for all)

There is usually a journey involved, both geographic and metaphoric. (not really the case for Harry Potter, at least not physically, but he does grow over time throughout the stories.  In every other listed story there is a long journey involved).

Let’s put that all together.

A youthful/naive protagonist, possibly with an artifact, is induced to go on  quest by a wizard/grandfather/mentor figure.  They must travel far to find the ancient evil that now threatens, as only they protagonist/artifact are capable of defeating the evil.

Lord of the Rings plays around with the artifact idea.  Frodo Baggins must carry the Ring of Power to Mount Doom to destroy it, but in doing so he must carry it into the realm of Sauron – potentially delivering it into his hands.  So, the thing of power that can destroy the enemy is also its greatest weapon.

Harry Potter does not go on a geographic journey, he goes to school and grows that way.  What other ways might a person grow knowledgeable without having to walk longer than the Proclaimers?

Why is it only the Protagonist that can carry the artifact?  In the Sword of Shannara, it is due to Royal Blood.  In the Belgariad, if I recall, it is the same.  In the Lord of the Rings, it is the innocence of Hobbits, acting as a shield against the malevolence of the Ring of Power.  In the sword of truth it is worthiness, as determined by the mentor character. What other characteristic might make the Protagonist appropriate?  Does that change them from youthful and idealistic or naive?

Why is the mentor often portrayed as a Grandfatherly wizard?  Because to a youth, the elderly know everything that has gone before.  They might even be perceived as a bridge to the time of the evil.  They are powerful, but lack something the hero has (youth, for instance).  Maybe something else portrays some of these characteristics?  Or maybe the mentor idea has no place in your story.  If so, who/what motivates an teaches the protagonist.

Does the grandfatherly wizard have to be the mentor?  Can their role be shifted in the story?  If so, to what?

Does there have to be an artifact to destroy, or that can destroy the evil?  Could there be something else instead?

Does the Evil have to be from times gone by?  If not, what does that do to the whole quest narrative/roadmap?

 

I hope that has left you something to think about.  If you have any ideas, feel free to share them, or link me to your bestseller when it hits amazon.  Happy writing!