Friday, June 29, 2007


So, I entered FeverPitch didn't I, and got turned down... boo! So, I'd put it into my head that I haven't learnt anything and am in fact a loser - thoughts which Agent Cox suggested might be detrimental to me actually getting anywhere. "Don't hold yourself back," he said at the beginning of the week.

So it was with shock and amazement - I had to leave my desk and take a toilet sabbatical before returning to the screen - that I received this e-mail from the FeverPitch team:


As you are a finalist in the Fever Pitch competition, are you able to send me your most current cv/biog as Julian Friedmann, the pitching expert, would like to see them, if that is ok.


K. M******d
Festival Co-ordinator
Screenwriters' Festival 2007

Holy crackola! Top 10 out of 600! I was certain this was a mistake, so I phoned them... and sure enough I was right - they'd e-mailed me by mistake.

I'm guessing that they wanted to rub it in! With my heart still in my mouth I began to cry, but then the nice man somehow remembered me. What? Out of 600?

He said: "Yours was the one about the guy in the coma wasn't it?"
Me: "SOB. Yes, I've just started NAW this year, and it was a screenplay I'd developed for my screenwriting module."
Him: "Oh, yes I remember that. We sent that with the top 20 for the final selection of 10. I liked the idea and your pitch."
Me: "Say that again?"
Him: "You got into the top 20. We had to send them off for a final assessment before the top 10 were picked. So, chin up. Out of 600 applicants you came within the top 20."
Me: "Oh Christ!"

What the hell does this mean? Crikey, I'm starting to do something right. Now I just have to get my head round the fact that God is trying to tell me something rather than rub my face in it.

Yay for me!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Deep Theory on the Dark Machine

Thanks to Juan for these quizzies. I thought I'd share the answers here as well as on Litopia because I believe that it's always good to look deeper into the machinations of your story world to fight off possible problems and plot holes that may occur either in the plot or as a paradox in the world itself:

This is a really interesting idea with lots of possibilities but I have a couple of questions, especially since it seems to be a TV series rather than a novel:

It was originally an idea for a novel - I adapted it to save time and actually get on writing the idea as opposed to coming up with a new idea.

-Is the day of his accident one day that he is reliving over and over (cf Groundhog Day) or is it one day stretched into a series (producer's question right there)

Actually him reliving that day only makes up the first two episodes of the 8 episode first series. After that he is forced to move into new territory and the minds of other coma victims - his deja vu/future visions will then stop

-Is this consciousness a shared memory or is it a parallel reality? (i.e. what is it that the coma victims are actually sharing? thoughts or virtual actions)

Best to think of it as a parallel reality. They are sharing virtual actions.

-How does he see the future as deja vu? (Because he's already lived in it or because he's clairvoyant? In the latter case, it's not really deja vu)

He's already lived the day so what he believes are flashes of the future are in fact just moments of the original day. Which allows me to first use them to give him information before it should arrive and then to contrast between his old life and his new one when he starts making different choices.

-The responsibility hook is a good one, makes for good drama, but I'm at a loss to see how it can be shown if he is reliving a day. Is he doing things differently? And if the others (i.e. his wife or Mark) are doing things the same way, how can they respond to his change? Or if it's a stretching of the day of the accident with Edward 'inventing' a new reality along with the other coma victims, how can we see the wife's reactions as anything other than Edward's inventions?

Yes... is all I can answer here. No wait: I had to split up this initial story into two episodes, and I've only written the first one, but I've asked myself all those questions. He starts off following the original patterns of the day, but he starts forseeing what will happen and begins shortcutting events - realising that despite his awareness of the future he can't change the outcome. The other characters seem to respond or default to their original reactions, and there's little that Ed can do to change that (he keeps getting drawn into the same arguments). Until that is, the new world (shared consciousness of coma minds) brings into play new characters that Ed's not met before. He should remember them, but doesn't - which puts him in danger. And as for his wife's reactions - yes - Edward's inventions of other people's reactions comes to the fore in later episodes when he believes he constructs versions of his wife and best friend in his mind.

-Does the Dark Machine co-opt the coma victims at the point of their accidents and, if so, is Alisha in Edward's reality (supposedly created by the Dark Machine) or reality-reality (where Edward is I suppose in a coma)?

These questions get harder... The Dark Machine is really another entity - The God Conscious to which all souls return when they die. Alisha is the only known soul to have gone in and return in her original form, but with adopted powers and access. The first series only takes place within the shared coma-worlds, and this works something like with the use of doorways to move between worlds. Anyone in a coma may move between any of the coma worlds. Does that make sense?

I liken it to the state of REM sleep - my original novel concept had coma victims sharing that coma reality (the subconscious) and REM sleepers entering that reality for a brief time.

- Apart from the Matrix overtones that it would be nice to see fall away a little(almost a whole subgenre these days in itself I would imagine), there are some great possibilities for the blending of near-death consciousness with ongoing life.

One grand question is what happens to a person's coma-world when they either a) die, or b) wake up?

The coma-world (as we discover at the end of episode 1 destroys itself. Any other coma-victim still in that coma-world when it dies will die too.

But the "which reality" question is vital.

Why I hadn't thought of the Matrix link, I don't know. It's a sub-conscious level of the mind, the primal, I guess.

- There needs to be a logic we can base our feelings on. If Edward is manipulating all the responses to his 'new self' and we intuitively know this, then how can we respond emotionally to the action?

He only controls that original day and the responses of his family and friends - we see it all go wrong, because he can't change the outcome, but then that is left by the wayside as we move into the second act of the series

- The place where he 'meets' Alisha and helps his friend with the double-cross probably needs to be sufficiently outside of his control (or that of the Dark Machine) to make us follow him. Flitting between two realities could be a way to do this, but then how does his wife get to interact with him in the coma and not be a figment of his new 'consciousness'?

Really she is just a figment that Ed doesn't realise. The majority of what goes on in the first two episodes are figments, and only the five new characters who arrive and who exert changes to the outcomes realise this. Afterwards, when Ed thinks his wife and friend are dead, only he can see them - but it comes down to the power of Ed's mind. Episode 7 has him return to his original life (albeit still in a coma).Possibly you have answers to these questions that didn't fit into 150 words, but they do jump out of the premise as is.That's what I loved about the initial idea - it can go anywhere. The original concept had interactions between Ed and his wife when she was in REM sleep, and she could take those interactions back to the real world to try and help Ed out by changing real world situations and deal with other coma victims. Also I had a World War 2 type framework, where Ed goes up against a German Count who put himself in a coma during the war as part of the Nazi's occult investigations. But of course... his body died years ago, so how is his soul/mind still present in the coma worlds?


Ever get that feeling that the plot of the latest blockbuster or TV drama is pretty lame?

Well, that's what the subtitle asked of this year's FeverPitch, one of the competitions going on at this years Screenwriters' Festival over in Cheltenham next week. Just pop in your pitch and synopsis by... last Friday... and they'll pick out 10 people to go along to the festival and pitch to the crowd. Channel 4 were looking for sci-fi related stock this year (film and TV). I entered, but go nowhere (as usual) *SOB* Probably came 599 out of the 600 applicants, and only besting some poor sod who was applying for viagra online and simply e-mailed the wrong address.

At least they replied promptly - though I can't share the e-mail because I deleted it immediately before I had a chance to mope over it, wondering where I went wrong... maybe it actually said I'd been shortlisted!

Anyhoo, I pitched the screenplay series I'd been perfecting for my NAW module. It's interesting how having submitted my screenplay and analysis last week, all done and dusted, that I rewrote the 150 word synopsis a further 5 times for the competition!

Here it is... 25-word pitch:

What if the world’s coma victims shared a single consciousness that existed at the crossroads between life and death?

And the 150 word synopsis:

Edward Baker’s unaware he’s in a coma. He’s reliving the day of his car crash not realising he’s sharing his consciousness with the minds of other coma victims. Instead he’s focused upon being selfless; a trait that once endeared him to his pregnant wife, Claire, but now drives a wedge in their relationship. Edward blames himself for his parents' deaths. His guilt has driven his impulse to take on the concerns of others including his business partner, Mark’s, double-cross of a dangerous businessman. Suffering brief déjà vu-like visions of the future and haunted by a bloody reflection of his real-self, Edward struggles with his responsibilities, but he can’t be everything to everyone. When he tries to prevent the kidnapping of a Russian woman, Alisha, he is hurled into a life-threatening struggle to uncover Alisha’s secret about the crossroads between life and death and the true power of the Dark Machine.

Monday, June 25, 2007

After Dark

So, I've finished Murakami's After Dark and I must say it was a rollicking read. It's interesting to consider that Japanese writers are renowned for their dense prose and Murakami has been criticised for being "pop literature", but seriously, the wonder of him is that the writing feels so light, and free. Whilst this was my first read and I'm not yet sure I like the surreal elements involved or the lack of direct resolution (this is more a night in the life of a macrocosm of nightlife elements) where no one is held to blame by the author for their actions, it flows like no other book I've read.

Stylistically there are moments (as previously posted of the opening) where we get a wonderful sense of imagery and yet for the most part the story engages on a fundamental level of He said, she said, he did, she did, and yet we don't feel as if he's narrating to the lowest common denominator of reader. Murakami deftly picks out the pertinent descriptions from this third-person limited point of view, so that we only know what we see and what the narrator can glean from experience of facial emotions.

This gives a very weird feeling at a times, especially when he's directing our viewpoint with an awareness that kind of draws us out of ourselves and forces us to remain separate from the action. I'll have to read a few more to truly get a feel for him though.

One last thing, an interesting pace tool he used was to rather than write He said, 'Blah,' Murakami chooses to move into - He: 'Blah,' She: 'Blah.' I was reading it so quickly that I didn't pick up on it until a few pages in.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Indy Jones and the Ravages of Time

Spielberg's just released the first image for Indy Jones 4 (a la Harrison Ford [right]). I've stuck it alongside a photy from The Last Crusade, just to show how much 18 years have changed that grisled face. It's a shame but he's beginning to look old - how will we accept our hero when he finally arrives? I'm beginning to worry that Spielberg's decision to include so many known actors in the next one is just a way of papering over the cracks - lets hope Cate Blanchet and Harrison don't have a thang!
What does this suggest to us all? Get a move on with the big thing you're going to do in your life - that way when the press take your photo you'll be remembered as you are now.

Dark Machine - Dramatica Breakdown

Now that my screenplay is in for marking I can begin sharing the analysis and breakdown of the paradigms and the storyform. Let's start with deep theory, and Dramatica. Having completed a pass of the story I took the original paradigms, the story plan, synopsis, etc, and passed it all through Dramatica's question system. That helped develop some hard facts about the direction and what needed to happen. Here are the important results:

Main Character Dynamics
Edward resolves to change (to solve his problem(s)). His growth needs to start (for the change to occur), but this conflicts with his be-er approach (reacting only as things happen); hence the story driver is action (Edward makes decision based upon actions). His problem-solving style is logical and his limiting factor is a timelock. The outcome of his goals ends in failure but because he changes and learns, his judgement is good.

The cost to the main character is the future, because by not taking control/responsibility for others he can’t be sure whether or not they will succeed and pull through. The dividend however is innermost desires in that Edward will be able to return to them and let them live – his love and support for Claire. The requirements are doing. Edward must consciously let go of responsibility to achieve his goal. The prerequisites are playing a role, which Edward is already doing. His role must change. The preconditions are how things are changing: Edward is spread too thin and making little or no difference in the lives of those he’s trying to take responsibility for. The forewarnings are impulsive responses. Edward’s taking of responsibility is to stop bad things from happening, however his déjà vu visions are not assisting him much in that end, and are actually just highlighting the path ahead – the tornado included.


Overall Story
Activity based, this throughline shows a world in which everyone is actively seeking something – Edward seeks fulfilment by taking responsibility (to sate his own guilt), Petersen is after his data, Hakim and the Shades want Alisha, Danny wants his job or inheritance, Claire wants her family. As such they are all concerned with obtaining. The issue is their attitude – everybody is focused on their rights, forgoing their responsibilities (except Edward). The counterpoint to this is their approach. Edward can only help others by letting go and allowing them to take control and responsibility for themselves. Therefore changing the approach is better than staying with a fixed attitude. Everyone takes responsibility.

The problem is help – no one is taking responsibility and therefore no one is helping themselves (except Edward). The symptom is oppose – because everything anyone attempts to do for another person meets conflict. The response is support – Edward in particular therefore takes responsibility for everyone. However the solution is hinder – only by no longer helping, and not getting involved will everybody learn from their mistakes and grow in strength.

Main Character
Fixed Attitude based, this throughline shows Edward is preoccupied with taking responsibility for others (indoctrinated by his parents and piled upon with guilt since their deaths). As such he is concerned with hiding away his innermost desires (to support and love Claire and the baby) because he feels duty bound to honour his parents’ memory by being honourable and righteous. The issue is his denial of himself because he is “other-driven”. The counterpoint to this is closure. Edward must learn to hand back responsibility and control to others, and deal with his guilt. Therefore Edward must stop denying himself. He must come to terms with his parents death - you can't change the future even if you can see it; seeing it only makes it harder. He can't change the past either. He can only work with himself, can't change other people.

The problem is help – by taking responsibility he is removing others’ ability to learn and grow. The symptom is temptation – he can’t help but take up another’s crusade and fight for them. His response is conscience – he couldn’t live with the guilt if he didn’t intervene and something bad happened. However the solution is hinder – only by not getting involved will others learn to stand on their own two feet.

Impact Character
based, this throughline shows Hakim is stuck (like other coma patients, and indeed Edward). His concern is for the future, be it his own (how will he escape this place?) or others (he must ensure undue power doesn’t rest in the wrong hands). To that end he needs support to meet his goals. The issue is his preconception, his need to find other selfless people. He is driven to be open about what he wants to achieve, though this conflicts with the needs and wants of others. As such he is let down time and again. The counterpoint to this is openness. Hakim learns secrecy to secure support. Therefore by not being so open Hakim will secure Edward’s support.

The problem is pursuit – Hakim is too wrapped up in his pursuit of Alisha and the greater good. The symptom is oppose – Hakim’s beliefs and direction aren’t shared by others and so they oppose what he wants. The response is support – by supporting Edward and giving him the solution to his own situation he may endear Edward to trust him in spite of Hakim’s mysteriousness. The solution is avoidance – Hakim will remain mysterious and directed, making demands on Edward that Edward will allow because Hakim is teaching him.

Subjective Story
Manipulation based, this throughline shows that Hakim will manipulate Edward to help him. The concern is in changing one’s nature – Hakim has already made himself aloof, he just needs Edward to focus and stop taking responsibility for everyone and everything. The issue is obligation – Edward feels obligated by guilt and indoctrination to take responsibility for everyone and everything. The counterpoint to this is rationalisation. Hakim will make Edward see that he must allow others to learn from their mistakes and therefore grow from them. Edward must rationalise his obligations.

The problem is help – Edward is helping too many people and not himself. The symptom is feeling – Edward feels that guilt too much and needs to understand that he can come first. The response is logic – Hakim helps Edward see that it is logical to allow others to take responsibility for themselves. The solution is hinder – by not involving themselves in the lives of others, others can learn from their mistakes, and Hakim and Edward can help obtain Alisha.
Througline Order

Thursday, June 21, 2007


Oh, Haruki Murakami is good! I've never read anything by him before, but I just picked up his newest After Dark and having only read the following paragraph (the first), I've gotta' say I love it. Just as Crace's opening to The Pesthouse drew us into the life of Ferrytown effortlessly, so too does Murakami draw us upon his breath and simply blow:

Eyes mark the shape of the city.

Through the eyes of a high-flying night bird, we take in the scene from midair. In our broad sweep, the city looks like a single gigantic creature - or more like a single collective entity created by many intertwining organisms. Countless arteries stretch to the ends of its elusive body, circulating a cointinuous supply of fresh blood cells, sending out new data and collecting the old, sending out new consumables and collecting the old, sending out new contradictions and collecting the old. To the rhythm of its pulsing, all parts of the body flicker and flare up and squirm. Midnight is approaching, and while the peak of activity has passed, the basal metabolism that maintains life continues undiminished, producing the basso continuo of the city's moan, a monotonous sound that neither rises nor falls but is pregnant with foreboding.

Beautiful. The reader gets drawn into, the senses brought alive not by the stating of colour, or real movement but by simply metaphors. Murakami captures the essence of a city's dreaming life, choosing words of movement and life. When he comes to the end of the paragraph it is to listen to basal metabolisms, basso continuo's and the city's moan. Not forgetting the wonderful three line repetition that sounds and feels like slow breathing; the living of the city.

I'm going to enjoy this, and you should too...

Thinking Outside the Bollards

Something I don't often do myself. Where have these conscientious workmen gone wrong?

Fantastic 4 - The Rise of Internet Grannies

So, I saw it, I hoped to enjoy it, and I was disappointed... again. Though not as I was in Spidey 3... and yet I think I enjoyed Spidey 3 more (yes, I know, despite my lambasting of it).

So what is the problem with Rise of the Silver Surfer? Well, it's not the reference to the pensioners who learn to surf the internet - I know how the Norrin Radd is, I've got a few comics from when I was 12 (yes, ha-ha... last year).

Okay, before you proceed... SPOILER ALERTS. You've been warned.

Now then, why it didn't work:
  1. One of the subplots regards Sue Storm wanting a quiet life. She badgers Reed to quit the high-life so that they can settle down and have kids away from the limelight. Reed agrees because he loves her and it raises momentary tension with Johnny and Ben (as much as the writers could be bothered with given all the other goings on). So, how do they resolve this issue, having brought it up once as character conflict before a big fight midway through the film? Well, they don't speak of it again until the very end when Sue admits the world needs them, they can't give up the team... whoo-bloody-hoo. Aside from her near-death experience there is nothing to give us any inclination of internal dramatics to resolve this issue. Like much of the plot tensions in Silver Surfer, the writer's have opted for a switch rather than a character arc: I do want to split the team up and have kids >> Actually I don't!

  2. The Surfer's only purpose is to prepare a world for annihilation by Galactus. That's all well and good. He's been doing it for a millenia and he's very good at it. Those of you that know Surfer lore know that he agreed to become Galactus's (he may be a God, but he doesn't get the Ancient Greek God-nod of Galactus' [no extra 's']) herald to save his home planet, Zenn-La, and the woman he loves - fair do's. His planet is saved, he's imbued with cosmic powers. His purpose is to serve. So why is it that a) we and Sue Storm are told that she reminds the Surfer of the woman he loves back on his homeworld when he saves her? and b) it is the fact he fancies Sue that makes him finally resolve at the end with no other explanation or show of character arc to stop Galactus from destroying Earth? I mean, c'mon! We could have done with the Surfer saying how it is, the world will die so that He may live, and then show him understanding how giving and nurturing us humans can be - puke into bucket. Instead the writers opted for their simple switch: he serves Galactus... now he doesn't.

  3. Galactus is the almighty world devourer, who appears as a giant cosmic cloud of burning magma and inferno, with fingery tendrils like hurricanes. Fair-do's. I'd have liked to have seen him personally inside all that, just like in the comics. Might have been a bit cheesy, since his whirling cloud of doom was quite impressive, albeit not being scary in anyway. Couldn't they have shown his face inside it all when the Surfer returns to him?
  4. You do not... DO NOT... simply kill off the world devourer. For crying out loud. For the Surfer to have done that, and then survive himself! It just goes to prove the point that the big baddie, the big time-lock situation they set up, was like a deflating balloon with a hole. Anti-climax.

  5. Just don't get me started on anything else in this turgid bit of poop. Bring on Transformers... aside from the changing face of badguys in it - The Surfer's the badguy, no Doom's the badguy, no Galactus's the badguy. Who do I root against? Give me something not cliched.

James Roose-Evans - Playwright Masterclass

James Roose-Evans and our Head of English shared a quick luncheon before coming to join the masterclass, in what seemed to be an exclusive restaurant. The only patrons at the time they were given a brief but defining example of character. Two waitresses appeared, one suggesting that a few of the tables be re-laid for new customers. The other replied, ‘I’ve never laid a table before’, which, as James said, is very Alan Bennett.

The Head of English suggested he introduced James to start proceedings, to which James replied, ‘Like being at my own memorial service.’ A dry wit, a very interesting man, and something close to what I’d imagined of a double-barrelled name, though far less pretension – a man of his generation, I’d say.

A playwright and director for countless years, James is a legendary figure of theatre. He directed the premier performance of Pinter’s “The Dumb Waiter”, and has a lifetime of truths to impart on the subject of theatre; firstly: that the negative side to being a playwright is that even by sending self-addressed envelopes for return of manuscripts won’t generate responses for the new time writer – there are few opportunities, but many applications. Like writing a novel, it is a lonely exercise, however there is a distinct buzz generated at the point when the playwright starts working with others.

A special relationship exists between the actors and an audience, James says. One actress once told him it was like riding a horse. She’d listen to the audience from the wings, gathering their temperament being galloping on. Then on stage, she’d know whether at the end of a scene she could simply ride off, or whether she needed to dig her heels in a bit longer.

Authors must allow actors to interpret the work and the characters. They must step back and allow this development. In the 1700’s the author used to read all the parts to the cast, giving them a run through of the whole play as intended. One example of such a case was with Shakespeare, when having read one of his plays, an actor threw down his script, lamenting, ‘How am I supposed to do it better than that?’ Now, an author doesn’t have this voice. An author’s presence can inhibit actors from expressing and developing.

John Gallway has stated (as many and various people have over the years): ‘Character is situation.’ James takes up his encounter at the restaurant with the two waitresses – an idea – there is an empty restaurant. A girl enters. Where does she sit? Does she try different places? Does she sit by the window, or in the middle? Then, once she’s settled, a man arrives. Where does he sit? Immediately there is tension, questions. How will they interact if at all? “Choice – dilemma – tension,” says James. Lastly, for this scene, the waitresses arrive, and of course one of them “hasn’t laid a table before”.

Inspiration, suggests James, comes from listening to dialogue. Maureen Lipman’s husband Jack Rosenthal took inspiration for creating London’s Burning back in 1986 when he had building work done on his house by two moonlighting fireman. Every tea break they had he was there quizzing them about their fire fighting lives, developing his idea from the research. “An ear for dialogue,” he says, “is most important.”

Hugh Whitemore wrote a play on a nunnery, wanting to capture the day-to-day life. He and James spent time in a nunnery as they developed ideas for the play, and having an ear for dialogue and being adept at remembering speeches, when the head nun explained the meaning of what it is to be a nun, he was able to take that verbatim and place it pivotally within the play to encapsulate the meaning in a way that neither he nor James could otherwise have done. But, theatre is as much about action as it is about dialogue. Life must be shown.

Over the years, James has seen many actors play these actions to astounding results, namely in the use of movement and silence. Eleanor Dousa, he says, had one scene in which she shows her emotion and her inability to communicate its grandness by the way she rises, walks across the other character, attempts to touch them and can’t do it, before retiring to the far end of the stage to stare out of the window. “Authors must never underestimate what an actor may discover in the silences and the pauses.”

When James saw John Hurt doing Beckett’s Crapp’s Last Tape, Hurt told him: “The thing I’ve discovered about Beckett in my rehearsals is that his work is long silences broken by words.”

The author must know everything there is to know about a character so that when the actor asks: “What am I doing?” there is always an answer. When Hugh Whitemore wrote “Breaking the Code”, about the code-breaker Turin, he learnt a lot about mathematics. Patricia Routledge also stayed at a nunnery for three days, as James and Hugh had done, to develop her character. For the Mother of Calcutta, one actress spent all her time serving in charity work to develop her role as Mother Theresa.

James says that he has gone through plays page-by-page to learn about each character. He will write down everything within the play that tells him about the character, whether it’s their own dialogue, the dialogue of others, or direction – anything that helps to boil down the understanding of the character. He gives A Streetcar Named Desire as an example, believing the 1996 version directed by Peter Hall was a mistake: In the play Blanche Dubois is hounded out of town for seducing a young boy. The key scene is when a newspaper boy calls when DuBois is alone in the house. Hall’s version had a balding newspaper man!

DuBois fears ageing. When James was developing a stage version in South Africa they worked on that scene over and over, never quite getting the mood. They trained all night, and finally the actress broke down in tears, finally she had understood DuBois’s feelings, telling James that she had imagined what the boy would look like in ten years and what she would look like in ten years – the crux of the character.

This takes James to his next point. A playwright needs to know everything about his characters not just from a background point of view but:

  1. Who am I?
  2. Where have I come from? (physically, mentally, long term, medium term, short term)
  3. When is it? (time, date, seasons, traditions, beliefs)
  4. What is the weather like?
  5. What can I see?
  6. What’s next door?
  7. Where am I going? (physically, mentally, long term, medium term, short term)

A playwright must know the life of a character off stage before and after each and every scene.

Shakespeare, James points out, slips in so much information at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet answering in a very deft way, in that very first scene, all those questions. Derek Jacobi, when he first played Turin in Hugh’s “Breaking the Code”, acted out the first two long scenes – dealing in large with a break in. At the end of the second scene Turin breaks into a monologue demonstrating his mathematical knowledge, his love for numbers. The audience wouldn’t necessarily understand anything that he said, and the director wanted to cut at least some of it. But Derek portrayed Turin with such conviction that the words were meaningless beside what the audience would learn about Turin’s beliefs and desires, and his inner character.

Writing a play, says James, is about the importance of one central character with strong motivation, and a situation that creates blocks and obstacles to thwart them. Arthur Miller always said that a play “explores and resolves a conflict”.

Subtext, says James, is of utmost importance also, backing of course, every other screenwriters point of view when they say, if a scene is about what it’s about the author has failed. There are an infinite number of ways to say “I love you”, which James put into practice by roaring it as if it’s his last chance to make the object of his affections understand him, and then following with a tender, quiet and thoughtful version. Both versions are passionate, and yet they come from different places, different characters with different motivations – different interpretations.

The use of banal statements can be a technique for exiting a character, for example one who can’t deal with a situation or emotion – “I’m off to make some tea.” James notes that often times that character returns with a new vigour to their emotions, a new thing they have to say – having dealt with their weakness.

There is an importance in gesture also. James gives two examples. One in The Doll House, Nora, sits clutching at the arms of her chair, her knuckles white. She calmly gets up and leaves the stage – her emotions so greatly strung that we imagine she’ll offload them off stage. The other from King Lear. One actress, playing Reagan, had developed a gesture of stroking the back of her hair, preening as a cat might, absentmindedly. Then, when she says “Pluck out his eyes” that hand darts out in the same movement before her, but quickly now, venomously – character defining.

When Stanislavsky was playing the role of Uncle Vanya he invested much of his time in studying Chekhov’s text to appreciate the full extent of his character, but when Chekhov arrived he wasn’t quite so sure and asked had they read through all of it? Of course they had, but Chekhov pointed them to one particular line: ‘ Vanya orders his cravats from France.’ At the time a Russian looking to France would be the kind of man who wants to be an artist. The fact that Vanya has this wish changed his persona for Stanislavsky.

The ballet dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, remembers James, had raw bleeding thumbs. He was a man so highly strung and tightly wound that he’d stand and scratch at his thumbs with his index fingers, like a clockwork mechanism, and the blood would run.

JM Barrie, says James, used to shake hands by handing the other person’s hand back to them. So once they clasped hands, rather than actually shaking he would piston their arm back towards their shoulder as if to say: ‘And your hand, sir.’

James places importance upon Anchors also, relating the space on stage to “Blocking”. A character using a door, a chair, a sideboard to give them life, to make them work. Instead of them all looking like “unsuccessful people at a ballroom dance”. For example, in one play a character spent an entire scene knitting. At the point when they put that knitting down to speak the audience knew it would be important. In the nunnery, one actor spent weeks rehearsing wrapping apples in newspaper so that on stage, they could speak their lines without looking down – being in the moment, being the character.

Returning to subtext, James opens the door and discusses Threshold Conflict – the psychology of leaving a room. “I’m going now and I’m not coming back”. He leaves.

Then, he comes back, goes up to a seat and says: “I’m going now.” He turns away, melancholic, patters to the door before turning back. “And,” he says, thoughtfully, somewhat hurt, “I’m not coming back” The key is not to give away the meaning of a line too early.

James suggests writing that synopsis first, no matter how brief. Write it – this map, this skeleton – and paste it to the wall. Keep coming back to it, asking whether the scene serves the purpose. Alan Ayckbourne says “start as late as you can without leaving the audience perplexed”. Learning to edit yourself as a writer or speaker is very important. “Edit, edit, edit,” says James and then recounts a friend who he’s had to tell off for her lengthy babblings – not a pleasant experience, but then everyone’s eyes glaze over whenever she speaks.

Binky Beaumont, James says, would only be present for the first preview of a play – he’d not watch rehearsals. And rather than watch the actors, he’d watch the audience picking up when they lost interest.

It was Virginia Woolf who said: “Observe perpetually, observe the onset of old age.”

Robert Frost would ask: ‘How do you say “oh”?’ Imagine the difference between toothache and someone stepping on your toe.

Rounding off his talk, James mentions the use of giving focus to prepositions and “and, but, because”, etc. To use them for a tumultuous pause – which give the audience something to hang off, wake them up, build suspense.

Some people speak a poem or speech through several times out loud without pause, trying to speak it in different ways. By the last read though, it is believed that the true character of the piece will have been discovered.

Shakespeare: ‘Silence is the perfect’st herald of joy I were little happy if I could say how much.’

F Scott Fitzgerald had this short example to try different ways of expressing the dialogue (the key being that A doesn’t know the contents of the cable):
A: There’s a cable for you.
B: opening cable. It’s my father. He’s dead.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Hoosiers

Saturday night, we're driving home from the Yangtze (best all-you-can-eat Chinese), in Windsor, when on the radio, we heard a fairly catchy tune, though it had the strange lyric of "tippy-toes, my tippy-toes". Laura surmised that there's a big book for musicians where artists get extra credit for working in the odd lyric. Take Just Jack's "casting aspersions" for example.

Anyhoo, the song was darned catchy, but I forgot about it. Then, round my hairdresser's, she tells me, you remember Alan Sharland? Well, erm, of course I do. I went to school with his brother, of course I know Alan. He was in the year below.

Turns out his band finally came of age. The Hoosiers are here with their first single Worried About Ray... and it rocks. Buy their album!

Check them out on You Tube

Ken Follet - Suspense Masterclass

Here on the NAW we get the occasional master of arts to come give a talk on their most reverred subject. Last Tuesday it was Ken Follet's turn - super-successful (well he has monogramed shirts - either that or he'd just had a tattoo done on his left nipple that was bleeding through) thriller writer. Thanks to Bobbie D for doing the write up that follows. It saves me having to do any work. Much appreciated Bobbie.

Tuesday 12 June 2007

I’ve been reading thrillers for longer than I’ve been writing them. Over time, I’ve put my ideas on how thrillers work and why we love to read them into a lecture – The Art of Suspense.

Starting with the first real thriller – Erskine Childer’s ‘The Riddle of the Sands,’ and covering the works of John Buchan, Zane Grey, Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming and Thomas Harris (amongst others) I trace how thrillers have developed. The historical events that helped drive the development of thrillers, the effect of the Dreyfus trial, Hamlet as an assassin, the impact of the world wars on how we see ourselves ... this history of the thriller will be of interest to students of literature and would-be writers.

A good idea for a novel is one that will generate between 50 and 100 dramatic scenes. Pride and Prejudice has 61. Some ideas only give you 2 or 3, and are not enough for a novel.

The defining characteristic of a thriller is that the protagonist is in danger. (Detective stories are not thrillers, they arouse curiosity rather than tension.) Sometimes the villain is in danger, or the danger alternates between hero and villain. If the villain has a fair chunk of the action and point of view, he needs to be charming or readers will be turned off.

The Riddle of the Sands (Erskine Childers) 1903, was the first ‘thriller’. It had the pretence of a factual basis, revealing anxiety on the part of the author. Robinson Crusoe, written early 18C. when the novel was a new form, also pretended to be factual. Follett did the same thing himself in 1978 when ‘faction’ was a new form.

A display of expertise (in Childers’ case, of North Sea sandbanks, etc.) helps because this diverts the reader’s attention from the implausibility of the plot. All the best stories are unrealistic (says Follett). To fake the expertise plausibly, you need to research, if possible hands on, e.g. in his most terrifying case, flying lessons.

The tensions (in a thriller or any novel) have to resolve, and this is almost always physical, e.g. a fist fight or sex. Look at Anna Karenina – hundreds of pages of irresolution and dilemma, resolved physically by throwing herself under a train.

The Riddle of the Sands had no women characters at first, but Childers was persuaded to put one in, which he described as ‘a horrible nuisance’.

Childers wrote only the one book before he was shot for treason in 1922. Next came John Buchan (The 39 Steps) acknowledged by Ian Fleming as the creator of the genre.

As well as putting the protagonist in danger, a good thriller also threatens a greater danger (Riddle of the Sands – to England, 39 Steps – to Europe). Why? Because (1) it enlarges the concerns of the novel; (2) it makes the hero more admirable; and (3) it gives more opportunities for suspense because the hero will risk himself for the greater good.

The hero’s social class is usually somewhat elevated – readers like to identify upwards (says Follett), in general fiction too. Clubland heroes began with Buchan. Lower class heroes are acceptable if they are good at cutting their betters down to size, e.g. 1950s novels like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

Buchan set his thrillers outside, and used any excuse to take them to Scotland, whose landscape he described beautifully. But he didn’t do this gratuitously – landscape in a thriller must have a function: to set the mood or further the plot – e.g. establishing that there is nowhere to conceal oneself.

E Phillips Oppenheim (from 1900 to 1939) invented indoor thrillers (The Mysterious Mr Sabin). Weak plots; the vicarious high life is the main attraction.

Many thrillers include ‘the conversation with the Prime Minister scene’ about halfway through. The hero meets a VIP, e.g. the President of the USA, who tells him, ‘Everything depends on you.’ This is an efficient way to add tension and veracity to what’s at stake.

Zane Grey invented the Western genre (again men in danger with a violent resolution). The thriller and the Western are essentially literature for men. Affluence in the 20C enabling publishers to create niche markets.

William le Queux, another bad writer, invented the spy thriller. This grew out of the Dreyfus case and the build up to WWI.

Joseph Conrad (The Secret Agent) invented the psychological thriller, where the issue isn’t who but why. Hamlet is a psychological thriller: it’s what’s in his head that prevents him from killing his uncle, not physical obstacles. Crime and Punishment is a psychological thriller. There are action scenes and dangers in both of these, but their purpose is to increase the tension in the mind of the protagonist, more than to threaten him physically.
  • Bulldog Drummond is crap – ‘snobbery with violence’.
  • Leslie Charteris (The Saint) is okay.
  • Geoffrey Household (Rogue Male) – a classic. Simple but effective.
  • Somerset Maugham (Ashenden), and Graham Greene (The Third Man) – modernist disillusionment. Both these writers had connections with intelligence in war. The moral dilemma has more importance than the chase scenes, which, as in Dostoevsky, are there to heighten the psychological tension.
  • Eric Ambler – Marxist thrillers – invented real violence that actually hurts, which became standard.
  • Edgar Allen Poe – mystery detective stories, heading towards the hybrid detective thriller, exemplified by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Thought of as an American genre, although Arthur Conan Doyle got there first with Sherlock Holmes.
  • Dennis Wheatley – WWII thrillers, the agent behind enemy lines, a situation that yields constant tension.
  • Mickey Spillane – a great writer, hardboiled punchy prose; but his attitudes stink.
  • Hank Jansen – prosecuted for obscenity.
  • Ian Fleming (James Bond) was privately into S&M. The hero becomes promiscuous and romantic, and the action has an edge of sexual sadism. Vivid, immediate prose.
    The heyday of the spy story was the cold war and the nuclear arms race. It was comforting to know that James Bond was out there, keeping us safe.
  • Len Deighton, John Le Carré (The Spy who Came in from the Cold). Lower key.

Post cold war, new arenas have been found – organised crime, science, assassination plots, serial killers (Thomas Harris The Silence of the Lambs is brilliant and is second only to Follett in making the hero a woman), lawyers in danger (Grisham), religion (Dan Brown).

The thriller is arguably the defining literary form of the 20th century. Why? Follett’s theory is that all boys lived with the possibility that they might have to fight and die, and reading thrillers was a vicarious way of facing and dealing with that fear. The advent of women heroes reflects women’s entry into police and army, etc.

Q. Thriller an Anglo-Saxon form?
Waterstone’s manager said, Scandinavian market huge. Also South American and Cuban.

Q. Why do more women than men read fiction?
A. Discussed but not resolved. (Bobbie’s theory: that men tend to be more interested in facts and women in psychological and philosophical issues; and fiction takes liberties with the former to explore the latter.)

Q. Topicality?

A. Over-rated and ephemeral, no substitute for literary merit. It is fine to explore and expose an issue, or use fiction as allegory, but it has to work first and foremost on the level of a good story.

Q. Have you written any books that are not thrillers?
A. Yes – The Pillars of the Earth, about the building of a medieval cathedral, something that interests him personally. Timescale too long to lend itself to the thriller form. About to bring out a sequel – also not a thriller. Over time it has sold better than any of his thrillers.

Q. Research?
A. It constrains at first. But then it (1) liberates the imagination, (2) generates ideas, and (3) supplies the details that give the books the grain of everyday life and lift them out of ‘comic strip’ unreality of his first ten (unresearched) books. He was lucky to be published with those, but they have sold okay.

Q. Harder to get published now?
A. Not really. New small publishing houses continue to spring up, as ever. Many fail. A few succeed, grow and get swallowed up by conglomerates. More spring up.

Q. Pace of modern thrillers cf. e.g. The Riddle of the Sands?
A. Yes. Stories used to unfold ponderously. Now they must turn in some major or minor, but significant, way every 4 to 6 pages. Much influenced by film and TV. But it’s not completely new. Pride and Prejudice turns every 4 to 6 pages.

Q. What’s it like being filmed?
A. Thrilling (sic) to see actors, even in a bad production, embodying the characters you have created. But tense (sic) and often frustrating because the writer has no say, and the director and screenwriter can mess with and occasionally destroy the story logic.

E Motion

Emotion is my word of the week - I seriously need to grasp it by the horns now and start applying it. Reading Writing for Emotional Impact I've just gone through the section on Humanistic Virtues in which a character who puts others before themselves, despite how they will be affected.

It got me thinking back to The Pursuit of Happyness, which I sat through t'other night (yawning only for the fact that a lot of this stuff we've seen before). Don't get me wrong, the film was well done, the characters believeable. I just didn't like the voiceover - it's an American thing isn't it (what I call the Jerry Springer moment), usually occuring at the end of a tv episode to give the moral story to the undeserving audience who've failed to pay attention. I mean, why do I need to be told that this is "my stupid time" or this bit's entitled "running" when I can clearly see the character doing something dumb, and then running (two separate incidents).

That's not the point, the point is Happyness uses some good ideas to generate audience empathy:

  1. Will Smith's character Chris is locked up for parking tickets the night before his interview to join the internship. He'll be let out at 9:30am, but he's in civvies, no suit and tie, and plastered in paint! Who'll pick up his son and look after him (it's such a blow considering he's just got his son back)? Will he get to the interview? What will they say when he turns up as he is?
  2. Chris has finally had someone pick up the phone and agree to see him, and hear his pitch, he flies out the door only having 20 minutes to get there, and his boss wants him to move his boss's car. The next scene is spent searching for a space to park it. He gets one, doesn't have time to worry about paying the meter, but is too late. He gets back to the car to find it has a parking ticket... and all his time wasted when it could have been spent calling and pitching back at base.
  3. Chris takes his son up to the guy's house to "apologise" for not turning up on time. Good ole Chris doesn't have to do this, but he's making the effort to go out of his way for the sale. They end up at the big game together, and whilst Chris tries his pitch he's shot down - the other guy isn't interested after all. Chris is devastated.
  4. Thrown out on the streets, the IRS having seized his assets, Chris is desperate to sell one more medical unit (his other job) to pay for his son to stay in a hotel, but he gets to the hospital and it refuses to work. Another night to be spent on the streets.
  5. That first night, Chris plays pretend with his son in the subway, pretending that they are hiding in a cave from dinosaurs when in fact it's a toilet. While his son sleeps, Chris holds the door closed, crying as someone beats on the otherside.
  6. Having spent a couple of nights in a hostel Chris is just heading out to collect his son (they have to get there before 5pm to be guaranteed a room) and his big boss borrows a fiver off him for a cab, meaning he can't catch the cab himself... and they don't make it on time.

All of these examples relate around Chris's need to protect his son, provide for him, and give stability. He's holding down the internship (which doesn't pay) with no bank account and trying to sell his medical units (which just won't sell), whilst looking after his son.

The writers (not a hard job since this is based on a true story) focused their scenes upon Chris's continual struggle against his pursuit.

Discovering the Treasure of Charolastra

And so it is uncovered, this gold from deep within the Aztec-ian hills:
It comes down to not so much writing what you know, but writing what makes you feel. You get that emotional connection between subconscious, your real world, and the world inside the pages, and you can construct a story that makes an impact on you.

Both Solvey and Mr. Cox have shouted in my ear for emotional content, and MG's references are only now striking a chord (C Major, I think). There is a time and a place for learning and development. We strike up the mountain of knowledge and end up on a stretching plateau where we believe we're not learning anything. Simply put we must consolidate upon what we have learnt previously before going on. I hope this means I'm about to take my next step up. Maybe I won't get it :)

It goes hand in hand with my new book (well, not my new book): Writing for Emotional Impact, by Karl Iglesias. People want emotional relativity in what they see, read, interact with. Let's see if I can turn that onto my new fiction project.

Friday, June 15, 2007

First Aid

It's not often I get called up for First Aid Duty - I made the foolish mistake of accepting a £20 a month payrise to administer dressings to bloody heads, wave fans in the face of hot grannies, and provide water to the faint. Every time I get the call, my stomach knots. What's it going to be this time? How drastic? Will I be called on to give CPR? Will it turn dangerous? Will everyone look to me to make some vital decision? How stupid am I going to look?

So, when I got the call today I had the same thoughts, chasing the member of staff across the basement asking: "Do I need to bring my medi-pack?"

We get to her desk, where three other members of staff are gathered - doesn't look too bad... except it's none of them:
They send me out to go check up on him, and low-and-behold I'm certain it's the same guy we hustled from the library some weeks back (he'd been asleep in the reference library, at a far hidden corner). What can a nominated first aider do? I asked him if he was okay - no response - got closer and asked again... he was breathing - but no response. I touched his arm surreptitiously and asked again. His eyelids moved and there was a murmur.
We got into a one-sided conversation then. Apparantly he didn't need any help, didn't want an ambulance and was just very tired! I could only advise that he come into the library if he wanted some help - not much else could be done except call the police, and let's face it. The guys specifically chosen the gradient to hide himself from view of the public, so he must either be a narcoleptic or seriously dog-tired.
I came back inside to advise everyone and they were talking about how they'd decided it was best I went out there since they'd all had their personal safety training and had been given all these horror stories about getting close to psychos - thanks everyone, I guess that makes me the red shirt on this mission.
In the hour he's been there we've only had one customer advise us of his prescence.

A Special Place in Hell...

... is reserved for me, I think.

I've just been told off for joking about someone who, this morning, can't see. In my defence all I was told was that my colleague has to go off to another branch because they're low on staff, because this particular member of staff can't see!

Which is silly, at least I thought it was, and of course medical conditions occur all the time. Anyhoo, I just laughed at the idea of it (this poor person waking up in the morning and not being able to see) and I said: "I'd like to see you go stack some books! All that time you spent on your Library Degree isn't worth much now is it, bee-yatch!"

Bee-yatch, incidentally reminds me of that snowboarding film that Harrison Ford cameoed in t'other year - "What's up beeee-yaatch!" - Hilarious!

Yes, so I'd completely disregarded any notion that she might be blind for real - how weird, crappy and horrendous would that be?

I was reminded also of the time I was sat at my desk, facing the window and the ringroad as I do, when a small child went past, and suddenly disappeared, as in this kid tripped on the manhole and fell over.

Needless to say that I found this amusing, so much so, that I laughed... out loud... like some donkey on smack. I mean, kids run about and fall over all the time. Though they may cry, they're more shocked than hurt, and I kept replaying that moment when the figure changed direction from horizontal rush to vertical dive. Kids eh?

The problem was that it turned out, pretty much immediately, that it wasn't a child, but a small old lady. I had mistaken this poor old dear for some young tween. Shock horror! The bigger problem was I couldn't stop my hee-hawing. She'd literally tripped over the manhole and fallen in the mud.

She glared in through the window before shuffling off - didn't see me, because I was ducked beneath the desk, still chortling, and saw only my colleague who was sat there in shock that this lady had fallen over, that I was laughing and then that she was getting the evils.

There must be a special place in Hell reserved for me.

Bitchin' Pitchin'

So, there I am with my screenplay all dust-jacketed, the episodes plotted and the analysis jiggled into something that might make sense to others. I've tagged the pitch to the end and sent in that analysis document to my tutor. Thankfully he has this to say:
You’ve gone way beyond the call of duty in actually applying ALL the paradigms and then some on top to your work. It’s really interesting to see how each one added something new to the story, and you discuss them brilliantly.

Well thank Gawd for that! However, my pitch:
When Edward Baker, an IT Consultant with a guilty conscience and an impulse for taking responsibility, starts predicting the future, he agrees to help Hakim Sahir, a dead Islamic Mystic, save an illusive Russian girl with a secret from being kidnapped. But, Hakim isn’t being wholly honest with Edward, and Edward must come to terms with the fact that whilst no one can change the future, in order to save the ones he loves, he must try.

Dark Machine is an 8 episode series that takes the mythologies of shows like X Files, Lost and Heroes and matches them against the mind-bending situation of Life on Mars with a dash of Cronenberg. Like Heroes, Dark Machine establishes an audience-friendly system of regular plot questions and pay offs, whilst the cliff-hanger ending provides sufficient answers and a hook for the second season.

... and breathe! It's a little bit stiff, like a runaway train that takes you on the journey but won't let you stop for photos. My tutor says:
The industry pitch is perhaps a little too dry, which is understandable coming out of an academic essay. For instance you could use simpler language (i.e. rather than say ‘an impulse for taking responsibility’ I’d say ‘an impulse for taking on too much’).

And then he directed me to this absolutely amazing example, which couldn't have come out at a better time. The examples really signify the difference between a good and a bad pitch... Robin Kelly.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Celestine Prophecy

Back before I moved jobs in 2001/02, I joined a society of Spiritualist Churches and Psychic Circles. We practiced everything from pscyhometry to mediumship, tarot cards and clairvoyance. It was in that phase of looking for something more that I came across the Celestine Prophecy, an adventure into spirituality. They tip it as Indy Jones meets Moses. Yeah, right!

Was it a good book? I can't remember beyond it being functional in getting the reader from A to B to develop the next spiritual idea, but an awful lot of people deride it as much as the Da Vinci Code, and yet since its release in 1993 it has sold and sold and sold... personally I blame all the spiritualists. We... they think it helps open up the chakras and shows the way toward true enlightenment. Sure, I believed it, just as I did when I bought other books on mediumship, meditation, communing with spirits, etc, et al.

But honestly, if what they are trying to make us believe is true and possible, then why in 15 years hasn't it made a difference? Believers never question that. It's crazy *SIGH* but then, I didn't question it back then. It was too much fun to believe it.

So, imagine my surprise to see that they released a movie of it last year - straight to DVD of course, but it'll be around a bit longer yet to stoke the fires of mythology (It could happen!)

Spiritual evolution... everyone's talking about it one way or another... but seriously, my arse!

I Was Legend

I was as surprised by Richard Matheson's I Am Legend as I was over John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids and Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451 - these three great moments in SF lore aren't huge opus's, they aren't epic, they don't flourish with golden language. They are well written, tight prosed, introspective stories of potential horror (potential of course if you can suspend disbelief).

Triffids was a discard I picked up from the library, Farenheit, I read because I'd found the film Equilibrium had interesting ideas... and Legend, I read because Will Smith is starring in it at the end of the year.

Let's get the weaknesses out the way: Matheson relies heavily upon simple body movements to show feeling, sickness, worry, anger. And much of that ends up regarding a thinned mouth or the movement of a throat (I wasn't sure if they were feeling sick or just swallowing though). Those tight thin lines that the mouths became reminded me of what my screenwriting tutor had said about making sure I don't put too many physical directions for my characters, lest they all turn into nodding-head dogs! Finally, the word palsied crops up far too often, and I still haven't checked what it really means... says:
any of a variety of atonal muscular conditions characterized by tremors of the body parts, as the hands, arms, or legs, or of the entire body.

Yeah, I thought as much! No, actually I didn't care. One of the other members of my NAW class mentioned that there was a time during the 1990s when the word preternatural had to be used, and it drove him crazy. About as crazy as the drive for, when he was in business, the use of the word paradigm. He was horrified to hear it had come back again.

Anyhoo, says preternatural means:

1. out of the ordinary course of nature; exceptional or abnormal: preternatural powers.
2. outside of nature; supernatural.
These three stories are vastly different and have led in their own way to so many other ideas and story concepts (just as George Lucas has touched everything CGI with the firey brand that begot Star Wars). But in the case of Legend in particular I see how this has related to the likes of Blade, Resident Evil, even the Channel 4 TV series Ultraviolet. The boiling down into science, baccili and germs, which comes across as very well thought out... so much so that I wonder why fewer other Vampire writers took up this mantle.

The obvious answer is that Legend doesn't hold any romantic notion of the Vampiric state. There's no Brad Pitt's Louis evading Tom Cruise's Lestat or some Godly references to the Queen of the Damned. Surely that offers too much hope.

Anyhoo. Short of giving away the ending, the about turn of the novel, the realisation and denoument give the book the edge that often the midway through ramblings of Robert Neville's loner loses. It's not an out and out fight to the blood and guts end, it's the inner fight of a man dealing with the fact he's the last man on Earth... and he's not alone.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

LOST - Season 3 Spoilers

Well, a bit late compared to everyone else but I've just finished watching the 2 hour season ending, and what an ending it was - phew!

So, Laura and I have become split over this. Lost lost it there throughout the beginning of Season 3, with the writers choosing to draw out the plot elements with more and more inane moments and dissections into more and more characters' histories. What did we really learn from them? Not a lot when you consider the "relentless narrative" (Osci would appreciate me bringing that in) of Season's 1 and 2. Because of that it lost viewers and good faith. Laura's fallen into that camp... she's now one of the Others, and therefore... I can't trust her any more.

She made the season finale difficult to enjoy, because she kept going 'Uh, I don't really care!' Either I'm easily pleased or I just love investing myself in story - which, incidentally is quite the opposite to the discussion we had with a head guy from Waterstones and Ken Follett t'other day in a back room of Birmingham's New Street store of Waterstones: 80% of book buyers are women apparantly. Why is that?

Well, discussing with my wife (we're talking again, just for this bit), she reads books for the following reasons:

  1. To escape her life
  2. To read a "happy" book and know that there will be a happy ending, and all will end as it should (something that takes me back to Adele Parks. She said she sells very well in Slovakia and the Balkan States simply because they've suffered enough and want happy (or as I'd term "flaky") books to read. They've had enough death, and can't stomach any more) - there must be some good in the world.
  3. To find someone who shares her concerns or worries, ie: a protagonist who has to deal with parents splitting up, etc. She wants to know how to feel in a given situation, or to just identify with someone and know that she's not crazy... to share in those emotions.
Number 3 incidentally, incidentally takes me back to Ken Follet again (it's okay, I'll be doing a write up on his masterclass soon). Ken Follet's masterclass regarded the creation and development of the suspense novel, now known as the thriller. Cutting to the chase he pointed out that his parents' generation were the first where all the males in Britain would have no choice about whether they'd be conscripted into active military service. This, obviously created great anxiety - it wasn't just a career. Ken said that the suspense novel, especially war related ones rose in sales along with war - because the boys and men wanted to know what they could end up going to. They had concerns about who they'd be on the battlefield. Would they stand and fight or would they cower in fear for their lives? Books provide a purpose to the zeitgeist, which, I guess backs up the ability for a topic to rise to the fore at any given time. The Da Vinci Code did just that. Suddenly everyone was "worried" about what the church had really down to Christ's heritage... well, at least in a "pseudo-we-care" sort of way.

Anyhoo, I've digressed far beyond the pail... Back to Lost.

One of Laura's biggest gripes was the cutscenes of Jack, bearded, returns from a flight home and tries to commit suicide. He's drinking and on drugs, a real nadir of his life, and we quite rightly assumed that this was part of his past, something from which he has run. This grated for Laura because we've had far too much backstory on Jack for them now to twist who he is into some failed doctor. Now, we're led towards thoughts that before heading out to Australia to bring home his father's body, he's going to lose his medical license. How would that look on his character arc? The failed hero?

I bought it for the simple fact that Jack's been through hell and I think he deserves that serious breakdown. Laura doesn't. He's had his chance and he's picked himself up every time. So, what do the screenwriters do?

The cutscenes aren't the past. They're the future. Jack calls Kate - and they never knew each other before the plane crash - he wants to get back on the island. They made a terrible mistake by choosing to escape. His life is meaningless!

Holy crikey! Everything occurring on the island is leading to their rescue and it's not the right choice?

This leaves even me in a quandary over whether I want to continue... knowing the future means that we can see the end, and it's all up the swanny. Regardless of the journey to be made, how can we relate to a protagonist (Jack) who is ultimately going to make the wrong choice? It's tragedy, but does that work if you can see the ending coming?

Potentially not. We knew that in Heroes there was going to be a huge explosion. We knew, because of the repeated statement to that effect that the season showdown would end there. It then becomes a chore to get there. Get a move on buddy! Perhaps that's why Tim Kring (Heroes creator) has opted now for a Chapter schema. Season 2 of Heroes will include Chapters 2 and 3 of the story. Therefore a big climax midseason.

Laura says that in Greek Tragedy, even in Shakespeare, the audience know the outcome. They know Ajax will die, that Oedipus will kill his father, Hamlet will have to resolve to kill his Uncle and die himself, etc, etc. But, the point of Greek and Shakespearian Tragedy IS in the journey, the wonderful prose, the characterisations. The outcome is just there to wrap up what everybody already knows.

So, how does this relate to Lost?

Jack is the elected leader. A doctor in the real world, he's been stripped of his wife, his father, his life is pretty crap, and yet he faces the island, as they all do, and takes the mantle of protector, leader - and most of the other characters hand that to him - they need him to lead.

Echeat has this to say:

For a tragedy to occur there are five conditions. The protagonist, Othello in this case, must experience a death or a total loss of ranking in society. The audience must also be captured by the actors and feel some sort of connection to them. This is known as catharsis. In Shakespearean tragedies the protagonist always has a character defect or a tragic flaw. This tragic flaw along with pride will cause the protagonist to make an error in judgement leading him to his downfall and eventual death. These two elements are called hubris and hamartia. The unities of time, space, and action must also be followed. This means that the play must take place in a very short period of time, occur in one general area, and follow one main character throughout the play. Shakespeare orates for us a tragic occurrence in the life of a man who once had it all, throws it all away in a fit of jealous rage .

The downfall of the central character is the main concept of the tragedy. Without the main character’s downfall there is no reason for the reader to feel pity, therefore, no tragedy. The downfall of the protagonist in Shakespearean tragedies always originates from their tragic flaw.
Jack has hubris certainly. On the island, he is relied upon to save lives day-by-day. This gives him grandstanding, and pride in who he is. For Jack that all comes to a crashing end as soon as they're off the island. He has no one to rely upon him - admitting that he literally just flies, hoping that the plane will crash. Despite having been forced into the position of leader on the island, the detrimental effect on to his psyche is that what he is fighting for - the idea of escape - is based upon a life he already lost. Jack is our Hamlet, but as Aristotle says: "Tragedy must cover a short time period". We're not going to get that in Lost... we've got 3 more years. So, can we invest our time in 3 years of Jack consistently making the wrong decision?

I'm not sure we can.

But, looking to the future we can surmise the following spoilers:
  1. Jack, Kate and Sawyer (at least) survive and escape the island.
  2. Jack thinks the decision to communicate with off-islanders was wrong (just like Ben and Locke told him)
  3. It isn't Penny's ship - yet Naomi had Desmond's book and a piccy of Penny (Penny's father is too big a character to let go. He has to have some hand in the Other Other's)
  4. Season 4 will develop these Other Other's, the ones Ben didn't want to find the island, hence how it's possible for the show to continue for 3 more seasons.
  5. Who's in the coffin in the future? It's either Juliet or Ben. Laura thinks Ben because no one went to the funeral and it links in with how upset and wrong Jack was over leaving the island... I think it's Juliet. Who else would Jack get so upset about, with Kate being with Sawyer (note: the screenwriters were clever enough not to refer to any off screen characters by name. Essentially they've left themselves an open envelope to make it up depending on their whim - pah! Though this relates to crime writers, who just write, without a clue (often) as to who the murderer really is.
  6. Jack references his father in the hospital. So, either the island brings him back to life, or this is actually an alternate reality.
  7. Locke is probably going to just wander in and out killing people at whim - a shame, his character arc has lost the audience's empathy for him.
We still don't know why the stewardess from Oceanic appeared in the past, looking no younger (along with Richard's character).

Lots to mull over... I've got until Feb next year! Aw hell!

Sunday, June 10, 2007


This week's Doctor Who sure was scary, and actually, really, bloody good! I was surprised by that. I love Doctor Who because it's sci-fi, quirky, people die, the Doctor is an interesting character and often they come up with good ideas for the show (sometimes not, but that's life), and most importantly, the Doctor Who theme rocks.

Anyhoo, this weeks episode Blink was truly a speciality, funny, scary, well written, convoluted plot that really makes use of the time-travel mythos, and puts the Doctor into a minor role, kind of as mentor.

Usually the narrative for Doctor Who is straight forward, the tension meek and the dramatics overly, er... dramatic, but not here, not this one. And no wonder, writer Steve Moffat has done some great writing in the past. You're only as good as your script. And with that in mind, I'm back off to look at how I can bolster mine.

Check out some of the plot for Blink.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Structural Discussion

I was invited back to my old writers' group on Friday to talk to them about what I've been doing at NAW. As part of my screenplay module I've been developing a 10 page document for the analysis and commentary of the plot and structure, so I duplicated the first 8 pages (the last two relate to Dramatica's Deep Theory, and only a few people won't lose their minds when confronted with such horrific chaos) and took them along to help the discussion.

It went quite well, considering there were only 6 out of a possible 12, 3 were from the poets group, 1 was a librarian, 1 left early (as he always does), and 1 failed to even feign contempt that I deigned to talk at them about my wonderful new toys - pah!

I will be uploading the analysis document onto my website (check the links on the right) as soon as everything's done and handed in at UCE (it will include the two pages on Dramatica too).

Anyhoo, yes, it went well, and after 40 minutes I'd managed to loosely cover Field's 3 Act Structure, Hauge's Motivation and Conflicts Chart, Vogler's Hero's Journey and Archetypes as well as unifying themes.

The only learning point for future discussions is to consolidate on existing examples, not just my own (though of course they already exist here). Whilst I could come up with a few, I did stumble when put on the spot.

The handouts were well received and I was complimented on using diagrams and tables and having broken everything down into constituent parts for easy reading.

Thursday, June 07, 2007


If there's one thing Solvey is consistently trying to drill into my head it's to concentrate upon drawing emotion from my reader. Aristotle has this to say:

So far as possible, they should act out what they are writing, even down to the characters' movements and gestures. If two writers are of equal natural ability, the more convincing will be the one who [also] shares the actual emotions, blustering like a blusterer, ranting like someone furious. Writers need to have sympathetic natures or be slightly mad. The first kind easily understand the emotions [of the characters], the second kind feel those emotions in person.

- Aristotle's Poetics

The Alienation Effect

I'm sat here at my desk, having completed my 40 page Screenplay and my 2 page season/episode guide - I've decided to stick to 8 episodes in total and match that against the 3 Act Structure, just as I did with my screenplay itself as a way of matching the rise and fall of plot points, action and tension - and now's the time to look at the essay I've got to write on the analysis of dramatic structure in relation to the paradigms I've looked at on the module.

Dramatic Structure led me to Freytag (who coined the 5 Act structure), but we'd not covered him on the course, and he's fairly obsolete:

So, I looked again, coming up with this article on Bertolt Brecht. Which, in itself, isn't really what I'm looking for, but then, it gave me pause to think. In the article I came across Brecht's Alienation-Effect:

"The achievement of the A-effect constitutes something utterly ordinary, recurrent; it is just a widely practised way of drawing one's own or someone else's attention to a thing . . . . The A-effect consists in turning the object of which it is to be made aware, to which one's attention is to be drawn, from something ordinary, familiar, immediately accessible, into something peculiar, striking and unexpected""A common use of the A-effect is when someone says:
'Have you ever looked really closely at your watch?'"

- Brecht "Short Description of a New Technique of Acting"

If we head over to Wikipedia, we get:

... a theatrical and cinematic device "which prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character created by the actor, and which consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer."

Along with:

The Alienation-effect is achieved by the way the "artist never acts as if there were a fourth wall besides the three surrounding him [...] The audience can no longer have the illusion of being the unseen spectator at an event which is really taking place." The use of direct audience-address disrupts stage illusion and generates the A-effect. In performance the performer "observes himself"; his object "to appear strange and even surprising to the audience. He achieves this by looking strangely at himself and his work." Musical and pantomimic effects also are used as barriers to empathy.

Which in turn led me to Defamiliarization:

To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child’s sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which every day for perhaps forty years had rendered familiar [. . .] this is the character and privilege of genius."

What this is all about is the making something the audience/reader takes for granted and taking it out of the ordinary. Good writers do this with strong metaphors or similies - Crace used strong decriptions for his dream highways in The Pesthouse. These were really just motorways, but could not simply be called as such for his character had no knowledge of their prior use.

Therefore, what we're doing as writers, to keep our readership awake and turning those pages is taking the familiar and spicing it up through the opticles of new eyes.

Further to this, some writers provide narrator asides to the text, be it as the narrator or as the point of view character - either affording the reader extra information they wouldn't otherwise know, or simply an observation of a situation or person ie: the moment Crace's narrator in The Pesthouse advised the reader that Mags would never see the Boses again. These break the reader from their passive subjectivity and puts them into an objective position, just as Brecht suggested his Alienation Effect would remove the fourth wall from theatre, and involve the character directly with the audience.

One last (and slightly separate point) from Barry Mauer:

I think that discovering intentionality is the key to any drama, conventional or interactive. If I were directing a project, I would focus on how to discover/interpret/invent intentions first, and all other considerations should be considered less important.

Though Mauer is discussing the direction of theatre, I believe this can be turned to authorship also. In this sense we are looking at the narrative and the decision over what is important to narrate to the reader. Referring back to my previous post on how I haven't given my character choices, I believe the above statement now goes hand-in-hand with that: important and interesting narrative focuses as much on discovery/interpretation/invention of a character's intentions as it does on showing action and the movement of plot, for is not character plot?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Audience Awareness

We've seen it time and again - book/film/theatre - one character (and the reader/audience) are away of some fact/information/knowledge/truth and the character is attempting to explain it to another character, only, that other character doesn't believe it, quite often takes offence at (their perception) being made a fool of, or come to make the realisation far too late.

So, I'm sitting here reading Aristotle's Poetics - pretension aside, it's a nice short translation that's just a bit of fun... nothing ground breaking seeing as we all know it all already, but it's very interesting to consider that in this day and age we're not really doing anything different. Little has changed in over 2000 years. How's that for formula?

Anyhoo, Aristotle was just talking about the choices a writer makes during the writing of a tragedy and led into:

Slightly better is the situation where someone does the deed without knowing the full circumstances until afterwards [as when Agave in Bacchae kills Pentheus]: there is nothing meretricious in this, and the discovery is effective. Best of all, however, is the third alternative: as for example in Kresphontes [by Euripides; now lost] when Merope recognises her son at the very moment she is about to kill him, or the similar situation in [Euripided'] Iphigeneia in Tauris [where Iphigeneia discovers the true identity of her brother Orestes as she is about to kill him], or when the son in Helle [a play about which nothing is known] recognises his mother just as he is about to hand her to her enemy.

It got me thinking about the purpose of this thread and back to last night where, before watching The Princess Bride, I watched Night At The Museum - yes, quite a funny film. Ben Stiller's character Larry is telling Carla Gugino's Rebecca about what "really" happens at night. We, the audience, know the truth, and although we've witnessed the scene over and over in all forms of fiction, we never tire when we see it again - different characters and a different situation sure - why is that?

In fact, I grinned all the way through the scene, because I could see how Rebecca's character was going to take it, was taking it, had taken it. Haw haw haw! The audience has a vested interest in wanting the info to be known, for the protagonist to be understood.

My name is Inigo Montoya...

... You killed my father, prepare to die.

When I first saw The Princess Bride I fell immediately in love with it. It never takes itself seriously, unwittingly draws back from the most tense scenes to share a moment between grandfather and grandson, and has the greatest tongue-in-cheek fight scene that just gets me every time.


Written by novelist and screenwriter William Goldman, this low-budget, small-feeling fantasy adventure is sweet at heart and so very amusing that I recommend you all go back to yesterday and watch it on Five US, right now.

Litopia Podcast 4

So, my interview with Salley Vickers made it into Litopia's 4th Podcast - Willow. She was a nice lady, and I'm very gracious to her for allowing me to interview her over her sarnies only minutes between arriving and having to give her full talk, which is available either on My Website, or at Bracknell Forest's Website... you decide.

Anyhoo, you can access the Podcast (all 4 of them thus far - and you don't have to be a member of Litopia) by navigating to here.

Next time though, I must make sure we don't sit in the kitchen. Moto thinks it sounds like a Chinese kitchen! As whiney as the background voices are, they're only Librarians - surely much more dangerous with a cleaver than any Chinese Chef!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Pertinent Descriptions

... at least that's the point I've been ignoring all this time. In Barker's short story In The Hills, The Cities, we have a great example of this. Prior to this excerpt we've had no description of the characters bar their psyche, arguments, and pov:

'I asked you a question,' Judd said again.

Mick looked round. Judd was standing the far side of the car, his brows a knitted line of burgeoning anger. But handsome; oh yes; a face that made women weep with frustration that he was gay. A heavy black moustache (perfectly trimmed) and eyes you could watch forever, and never see the same light in them twice. Why in God's name, thought Mick, does a man as fine as that have to be such an insensitive little shit?
So, opening the paragraph we have where Judd is standing and a brief description of what part of his body is showing us his anger. Next, we have Mick's pov description that Judd is handsome (this begins as a tell - but is qualified). Then we have a straight forward description, but again it's brought back to Mick's pov. We learn what Mick sees in Judd's features. And then we have Mick's thoughts, his weighing up of the situation, of Judd. Which brings us back to character, giving the reader some concrete emotion to link in with, with Mick

Monday, June 04, 2007

Giving your Characters Choices

I've recently discovered that one of my big problems with character narrative is that my characters are mostly reactionary - reacting to their environment or what is happening to or around them. Occasionally they will think of what they are doing, or where they intend to head... possibly a memory will crop up, but never have I provided my characters with a dilemma. Not once has one of my characters considered their options, fought between morals, or chosen the lesser of two evils. They've never contemplated taking control of a situation - often, instead, just diving right in as if there never was an alternative.

This, from Barker's Midnight Meat Train is an example of the kind of narrative I've never attempted before, to be right inside the character's head:
... There was laughter now.

Kaufman calculated the risks of his situation: the mathematics of panic. If he remained where he was, sooner or later the Butcher would glance down at him, and he'd be mincemeat. On the other hand, if he were to move from his hiding place he would risk being seen and pursued. Which was worse: stasis, and meeting his death trapped in a hole; or making a break for it and confronting his Maker in the middle of the car?

Kaufman surprised himself with his mettle...

You see also that Barker sticks to showing his character's nature whilst also giving us links to the character's world in carefully chosen prose: Kaufman is in accounts (hence use of mathematics and calculated), with reference to the Butcher, Kaufman will become "mincemeat".