When I was a kid I loved Dungeons and Dragons. But this was small-town Yorkshire in the 80s and surprisingly there wasn't a queue of zany Stranger Things style kids at my door eager to do battle with a demigorgon. Until I found my tribe, all I had was my Dad reading out the stats for - I dunno - an Owl Bear, with a disbeliving laugh then rifling the rest of the pages in the Handbook saying, "I mean, what is all this stuff?"
So I grew up reading about Dungeons and Dragons way more than actually playing it.
Turns out this isn't a uniquely sorry tale - it happened to lots of youngsters in lots of different countries all at about the same time. Shame there wasn't some bizarre future-weird super-computer capable of connecting us all, right?
As a lad I remember dreaming of the day I'd been able to play D+D rather than just read about it. Which makes my current situation all the more unsettling. I have a PS4 in my front room. I have access to a future-weird super-computer capable of connecting me to geeks from all over the world. I'm a tram-ride away from Travelling Man, just a stone's throw thataway, uptown.
What do I find myself routinely doing? Reading about gaming rather than actually gaming. What's going on? Me and all the other Twitch-ers seem to enjoy our consumption with the emphasis firmly on the passive.
I gotta couple of ideas why. More on this tomorrow.
What do we class as an idea?
The British Library’s archive audio collection The Writing Life has fascinating interviews with countless authors. Here, Hilary Mantel likens a writer's initial idea for a story to a granule of grit or, as the picture has it, a mote of dust. It’s small and seemingly insignificant, but if it has promise, things accrete around it and it grows. Whether into a pearl or not remains to be seen.
Ideas start small – often they can be expressed as a sentence, a phrase or perhaps just a word. They’re rough and unformed. Often they’re lifeless until they’re combined with another idea. Stronger ideas come, says Will Gompertz in Think Like An Artist, ‘when we encourage our brain to combine at least two apparently random elements in a new way’. Take Suzanne Collins’ story of how she conceived of ‘The Hunger Games’ trilogy: ‘One night, I was lying in bed, and I was channel surfing between reality TV programs and actual war coverage. On one channel, there’s a group of young people competing for I don’t even know; and on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting in an actual war. That’s the moment when Katniss’s story came to me.’
Not everyone will see the potential of micro-ideas when considered alone. Here are five from my notebook:
The ‘good idea’ we're mistakenly assuming should arrive in one piece, might actually be an accumulation of four or five micro-ideas. Give it time.
Lots more on micro-ideas and tons of other nifty stuff in Storycraft, by Martin Griffin and Jon Mayhew, coming soon.)
Here's a September story about Mitchell, Eve and a dead deer, told in seven scenes:
1. Mitchell meets Eve at work. He admires Eve, who seems daring, adventurous and outdoorsy.
2.Eve suggests they go deer hunting. On a misty late-September morning they drive through the countryside in Eve’s truck.
3. In a tangle of forest Eve spots a deer, and together with Mitchell they approach.
4. Eve shoots the deer.
5. Then she approaches the deer’s body and shoots it again, needlessly, another six times.
6. Mitchell realises there is something seriously wrong with Eve.
7. They get back into Eve’s truck. Eve chats casually as they drive home; Mitchell is silently terrified. It’s awkward.
This sequence of events, adapted from an example in Jerome Stern's Making Shapely Fiction, is a really useful way of drawing a distinction between the story as it happened and the story as it's told. We know the story as it happened - we have it there in seven bullets. Pun very much intended.
But what about the story as it's told? A useful activity with first-time writers is to ask what the opening scene of this story might be. Which number would make a good starting point? I've had writers give compelling reasons for why it should be 3. Or 4. Or 7. Other numbers, by contrast, are rarely suggested. 1, for example. Or 5 - perhaps because, to quote Stern again, "tension is the mother of fiction."
I might finish by discussing which scenes can safely be omitted altogether or referred to only obliquely. What are you putting on the cutting-room floor, folks? There are certainly two contenders here, possibly more. Sure, there are no wrong answers. Though Stern might agree with me when I contest that some answers are certainly... wronger than others.
For more on story shape and structure, check out Storycraft, available now from wherever you get your books.
Movie criticism, huh?
I gave myself a wry smile when I saw this recently. Crawl is a fine film; a solid survival actioner and proud upstanding member of the 99-Minute Movie Club (more about this mysterious organisation in the coming days.) I'll make no claims that it's perfect, but it is claustrophobic, tense, and frightening - a fabulous way to kill an hour and a half. I loved it.
So why the yawning gap between their take and mine? Downton Abbey - the receiver of a four star review in the same paper on the same day - is apparently twice as good as Crawl. That's how star systems work, right?
Most movie reviews don't tell you how good movies are. Even ones like this are a delicate negotiation that have to pay sufficient homage to...
(i) current concensus (aim: have broadly the same opinion as others)
(ii) fashion (aim: look current, cool, part of the right gang)
(iii) intelligence (aim: appear clever)
Perhaps the feral gator that is Rotten Tomatoes is eating newspaper film-criticism... or perhaps newspaper film criticism is eating itself.
I recently listened to a panel discussion in which one contributor described Stranger Things as 'nostalgia-porn.'
This phrase bugged me somehow as I drove home from whatever school I was visiting that day. Why nostalgia-porn as opposed to 'nostalgic'? If Stranger Things is nostalgia-porn, is Super 8 nostalgia porn? Is Rim of the World nostalgia-porn? Certianly not every novel, movie or TV show set in or celebrating the recent past would qualify - the suffix '-porn' is pejorative, I'm guessing, and suggests viewers are there more for the pleasure of the nostalgia rather than anything else. At least I think that's what's implied.
Plus, since the setting only speaks to people of a certain age, Stranger Things must qualify as nostagia-porn for me, but not for someone ten years younger. Which surely makes the phrase pretty useless. Anyways, I don't watch Stranger Things for the time it is set, I watch it for the cool characters, deft plotting, elegant script and... monsters.
What if we tried to extend the use of the '-porn' suffix? Is The Walking Dead a zombie-horror soap... or zombie-porn? Is the Match of the Day Highlights show football-porn? Or is it goal-porn, since all the other stuff is taken out? Set-piece porn perhaps? Would more people tune in if we refered to it as corner-porn?
Then there's Sanditon. History-porn, Gerogian-costume-porn, Austen-porn or just - ahem - porn?
I first saw this in a Product Design classroom. Since then I've played with it so that it helps me improve narratives. You could probably do better!
Swap the roles of two characters – their positions or status. Or swap their genders or ages – see what happens. Swap the locations in which things happen to see if it feels fresher.
Clean up Cliché
Examine your work for anything familiar or expected – a setting your reader will have seen before, a character they’ll be familiar with, a conversation or line of dialogue. Remove your clichés – then try and use ‘reverse’ or ‘swap’ to produce something more interesting.
Take a section of your work you feel is weaker (a character? Plot point? Location?) and adapt someone else’s idea into your work. Borrow a character from somewhere else and adapt them to fit. Borrow another location and adapt to fit… and so on.
Take something – a character, a place, an event – and make it twice-as-much as it was. Or ten-times as much. Magnify its drama in some way.
Take two characters and turn them into one – pairing up their characteristics into one person. Does this give you space to add another character? Are there other characters who could be combined?
Take out an element of the story out and check what happens. Persist with this, checking elements and removing them. Does the story improve as a result of eliminating something?
Take an event or plot point and try and reverse it – make the opposite happen. Or take a character and make them the complete reverse of what you might have planned. Something entirely unexpected might emerge.
From Storycraft, by Martin Griffin and Jon Mayhew, coming September 2019
When my little girl was three or four we did a lot of painting. Here's what happened. She'd start carefully, holding a brush in a tiny fist and slashing a colourful line across the page. Then a second and a third. It'd be looking pretty good.
Then she'd go back for more paint, splotching blue, red and yellow together; more lines, blocks of colour bleeding into each other. She'd add some black, throw some more purple down. The paper would begin to soak and wrinkle. Eventually every painting ended in the same place: a deep brown splat, utterly indistinguishable from every other splat she'd produced.
Art is as much about knowing when to stop as it is about knowing how to start. As much about what you leave out as what you put in. Guess that goes for stories too.
In my copy of Stephen King’s The Green Mile, King writes about how he structures stories as he’s trying to go to sleep each night. Here he is: “I tell [them] as I lie in the dark, writing them in my mind just as I would on a typewriter… Each night I start over at the beginning, getting a little further before I drop off.”
That’s me too. It was only recently, though, that I heard the phrase alpha state to describe that relaxed, almost dream-like frame of mind in which we are more creative and receptive; less critical and convergent in our thinking. Finding out that something you do - a place to which you go as you drop off - has a proper name and everything... well that somehow gives it credence.
At the moment I'm starting each night by conjuring up an imaginary pine-locked mountain town called Navigation, for a project that may or may not ever emerge from its chrysalis. It seems, for me at least, that this alpha-state pre-sleep stage is a sort of testing ground for ideas. If it's not a pleasure going to sleep thinking them through, or if they quickly become tiresome, they're returned to the netherworld from which they came.
Fingers crossed for Navigation. I like it a lot.
As a kid I used to pick up my Dad's thrillers, skip to a random page and start reading, trying to figure out what might have happened a hundred pages in. I wasn't one for let's start at the very beginning, it's a very good place to start.
Guess it's a habit I've yet to break; I skipped two seasons of Fear the Walking Dead and jumped straight in at four because I saw Lennie James looming over the other characters on the ensemble artwork. So I came for Morgan, but stayed for John Dorie. ("Like the fish, but with an 'ie' instead of the 'y'," he drawls, shy and embarrassed.)
Opening the season in episode 1, and at his best in episodes 1 through 8, John Dorie is a character so clearly delineated you could use him in a screenwriting class. He's got a clear want - he's desperate to find the woman he loves and will stop at nothing to seek her out. He has a rich and complicated background; first cop, then gun-toting country fair entertainer, a sudden change in direction that's the consequence of a tragedy. He's complex - wanting isolation, fearing it and seeking out friendship. He loves language, playing scrabble alone; a man of practical routine in the flashbacks. Then there's the boiled sweets he offers as a sign of friendship and trust... and the showground pistols he keeps so carefully locked up.
Dorie got me thinking about talismans. Fascinating characters often have some sort of talisman - either physical or metaphorical. Dorie has his sweets and guns (a complex and counter-intuitive juxtaposition.) In The Poison Boy, I gave Dalton Fly a lucky playing card that sorta made decisions for him. At the moment I'm writing about a character with a log book of stolen items she obsessively updates.
If I'd felt the obligation of chronology, chances are I'd never made it to season four. And never met Dorie, therefore. There are advantages to skipping forward.
‘The best kinds of failures,’ note Tom and David Kelley in Creative Confidence, ‘are quick, cheap and early, leaving you plenty of time to … iterate your ideas.’
Software engineer and project management guru Steve McConnell echoes this sentiment, refering to ‘thrashing’ early, that is, doing the difficult creative decision-making upfront: ‘you explore all of the ideas for a project at the beginning, when it’s most cost-effective’, he says.
Thrashing is arguing, debating, questioning, failing, disassembling, ditching and reconceiving. In essence, thrash and fail early, and your project is likely to emerge the better for it.
Otherwise you end up in Rogue One territory.
Screenwriter Tony Gilroy was paid a reported $5,000,000 to fix the Star Wars movie months before it was due to be released. It was allegedly confused, difficult to follow and varied wildly in tempo and tone.
Speaking about the experience to the Hollywood Reporter, Gilroy said of the project: ‘they were in terrible trouble’. Gilroy needed to do a complete overhaul – to find the heart of the story in order to fix it. ‘If you look at Rogue, all the difficulty … all the confusion … in the end when you get in there, it’s actually very, very simple to solve,’ he says. ‘Because you sort of go, “This is a movie where … everyone is going to die.” So it’s a movie about sacrifice.’
I love Rogue One. Still, $5 million dollars – that’s the high cost of thrashing at the end, not the beginning.