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

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.

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!

One Plot, Two Movies and why one of them failed at a crucial point: A study in plots

You may well have heard people say things like “There are no original stories anymore” or there are “…only seven basic plots” or something like that indicating that most literature (and I am sure there are academics out there that will challenge my use of the word in this context since I am using movies as an example – challenge away, and expect to lose) is limited as a result of what has gone before.  I write this in response to that, with a bit of theory and then apply it to a couple of mainstream movies.

The Theory Bit

To understand where I am coming from you will need to understand some terminology.  Some of it is what was taught to me by academics, and some is what I have appropriated to help with this example.  The terms are

Audience – The individual or individuals who are consuming/reading/viewing/whatevering the literature

Literature – Any form of storytelling that is recorded in some fashion, be it in a book, orally or visually

Narrative – All events in a specified sequence, in chronological order

Plot – How a storyteller chooses to assemble the events in the narrative, and present them to the audience

Story – The result of an assembled plot intersecting with any given audience.

 

So, Audience is fairly straightforward.  The readers, the viewers anyone that is going to experience the story at the end of the process.  Literature is also straightforward, however, I should note that I am hijacking the word and re-purposing it as its definition generally refers to written works, and considered of “Value”.  Value is completely subjective, so I have no problem appropriating that, and in the sense that written language is merely arbitrary symbolism given value by readers, I have no problem including any form of media.  (I will write a blog about language and symbolism, particularly referring to graphic narrative in future weeks).

Everyone has an idea about what a narrative is, and I am simply applying it to a specific viewpoint.  It is every event in a story in order, regardless of plot.  Which brings me to plot.  Plot is a construction of the producer of literature, and the producer/writer decides whether or not to keep things chronological or not, whether to omit things or not and what viewpoint they are seen from.  And finally, story happens when the audience intersects with the produced plot.  A story is a living breathing thing, it is the offspring of two parents: Either a one night stand or a lasting romance between the reader and the writer via the plot.  The Writer’s ideas feed the plot, and the audience’s experience shapes that plot into their child, their story.

In this respect you could have two identical plots, but entirely different stories.

 

One Plot, Two Movies, some spoilers

I cannot do the rest of this blog without spoilers.  If you don’t want to know anything about Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon or Avengers: Assemble, don’t read on.

I have seen both movies.  I like both movies.  They are both entertaining, though they are also not cinematic greats.  They both also have the same plot structure.

 

Prologue

The setup for the main story happens here.  In TF, it is an exciting space pursuit as an Autobot Starcruiser, the Ark, attempts to flee Cybertron and crashes on Earth’s Moon, only to be discovered by Neil Armstrong + Buzz Aldrin.  In Avengers, Loki invades a top security SHIELD base, mind controls several people (Including Hawkeye – effectively cutting his role in the film in half and more, which is why he is cut in half in the banner.  In tribute to the naff treatment of a cool character otherwise handled well), steals an item of incredible power and disappears.

Act 1

Establish the activities of the protagonists.  In TF, the Autobots have been working with the US to deal with human problems, whilst hunting down Decepticons.  And Spike is going through the horrors of job application.  In Avengers Assemble, we see what the various members of the Avengers have been doing since we saw them last, all of whom get the summons.

(I simplified)

But in essence, act 1 is about what people have been doing since we saw them last.

Act 2

Establish the Antagonist’s plot, and make the audience think, “What’s going on?”

In TF the Autobots have found the Ark and Sentinel Prime, found a few components of Sentinel Prime’s space bridge invention and realise there is some conspiracy regarding the Dark Side of the Moon.  Act 2 concludes with a dramatic highway chase, a standoff between Sideswipe/Ironhide and some unnamed Decepticon Troopers, culminating with the death of Ironhide and the revelation that Sentinel Prime had made an alliance with Megatron and had betrayed the Autobots (albeit to save Cybertron).

In Avengers, The team has assembled and Loki is in custody but we realise that his mindslaves have already vanished and are “Off the Grid” as it were.  There is a bit of a mystery as to why Loki would allow himself to be captured so easily, and more surrounding what his overall endgame is.  Act 2 ends with an assault on the SHIELD Helicarrier, Loki’s escape and the Death of Agent Coulson.

In Essence, Act 2 is the part of the plot that makes the audience think that there is more going on than is obvious, and it climaxes with an intense action scene and a fatality.

Act 3

In TF, the Autobots are banished from Earth as a result of an ultimatum made by Sentinel Prime.  They are apparently killed when their starship is destroyed attempting to leave Earth.  The Decepticons attack Chicago with an army of disposable bots, their HQ being (I kid you not) Trump Tower (where Human collaborators are Headquartered.  Make of that what you will).  Naturally, the Autobots didn’t die, and they invade Chicago and fight their way to the end of the movie.

In Avengers, the team is torn apart, literally and figuratively.  The Hulk is MIA, it is implied Thor cannot lift Mjolnir, Hawkeye has regained his memory but is sulking over the deaths caused by him whilst under Loki’s spell, and Iron Man butts heads with Captain America over their different coping mechanisms regarding the death of Coulson.  But they come together when an alien army invades New York with Loki leading.

Act 3 – weaken the protagonists, set up the antagonist in a location with seemingly unbeatable but completely unremarkable unnamed forces (I make this point to show that we aren’t suppose to care if the antagonist soldiers die or not), and then at the end destroy a big maguffin that has the knock on effect of neutralising most of the disposable baddies so that a named character can pound the villain.

 

So What?

Good question.  The answer is, everything.  The point is both films have the same plot but different stories.  And I said one of them failed at a crucial point.  That was Transformers and it was when Ironhide was killed.  In the scene he is shot by Sentinel Prime, and his body melts from the inside out.  The literary critic in me sees that as the destruction of his heart, symbolic of betrayal.  This should be a scene loaded with Pathos.

It isn’t.  It is barely referenced again in the film.  It is on par with the death of Jazz in the first movie, which is commented on in one line.

“We have lost old friends, but gained new ones.”

I heard, “Jazz is dead.  Meh.”

Ironhide, a classic Autobot dies as a result of betrayal and it isn’t worth mentioning again.  It has zero impact on the remainder of the film.  It also doesn’t help that Ironhide (and Ratchet, and Jazz, and Sideswipe) are largely ignored in the movies in favour of Prime, Bumblebee and the slackjawed-yokelbots of TF 2.  We have no opportunity to invest in the character, and when he dies it is barely a footnote in the film.

Whereas, in Avengers Assemble, when Phil Coulson dies it has a major impact on the remainder of the film.  The team can’t function until prodded by Nick Fury, using Phil Coulson’s Captain America trading cards.  We get the sorrow.  We get the pathos, and we get the resolve.  And when Iron Man challenges Loki, he intimates that he is doing it for Phil.  This is a major deal given his social inadequacy!  And lets not forget that Coulson has appeared in 3 movies by this point and at least on short on youtube.  He is given character, screentime and as a result we care about him.  I was shocked when he was impaled by Loki!

 

So, my final thoughts.

You can apply a plot to a new narrative and get a new story.  Even if the audience are the same.

Don’t underwrite/undersell secondary characters.  Readers might need to care about them someday, and that can have a profound impact.

They are both weak films in the sense that the huge unstoppable army is effectively defeated by a killswitch plot device.

Avengers Assemble is the stronger movie.  But I still like Transformers.

All the best.