Monday, 30 December 2019

The shows that rinse and repeat

Who watches the Watchmen? I will, but only if you can assure me that the story is properly wrapped up in one season. I've seen too many TV shows that throw a bunch of plates in the air, keep them spinning for a dozen episodes, adding more until it looks like they'll all come down either in a triumphant flourish or a crash of broken crockery -- only for the season finale to tie up no loose ends whatsoever; merely saying, in effect: "Come back next year for more of the same."

I know why writers do it. Well, yes, there's the lure of another payday, obviously. That's not nothing. But also it's because bringing a story together is hard. The job is so much easier in the early stages where you can throw everything in. The only limit is the writer's imagination. But then, around the midway point, the terrible hectoring inner voice can be heard that speaks up for the craft. Things that have been set up must pay off. Threats must be faced and dealt with. Promises that have been tacitly made with the viewer must be kept. If you're lazy, you tune that out and try to keep the throw-everything-in stage going forever.

Serious offenders include The Fall, whose first series followed a nail-biting cat-&-mouse between the detective heroine and a serial killer. How would she catch him? And what would the personal cost be? As it turned out, she wouldn't catch him. Rather than dream up a new adversary for season two, the writer just had him slip away so that the high jinks could resume next time. Nothing was resolved.

Likewise with Killing Eve, where after a season of queasy death-wish teasing between the antagonists, the psycho we're meant to like slips away with a knife-wound in her side. "Go after her!" I wanted to yell at the heroine (the eponymous Eve; the show's title was another promise never kept) who could even then have brought the story to a satisfying conclusion. "She's literally ten seconds ahead of you and she's bleeding out." But no. Somebody else comes in and says, "It's too late. She's gone." And you can almost hear Eve thinking it will go on and on, this chase, like the plot of The Worm Ouroboros, only in this case not because of an elegant reflection of the story's underlying themes but just to ensure ongoing pay packets for those concerned and an endlessly interrupted coitus of spy-porn wankery.

Oh, and Westworld. Great first season. But by the finale they clearly have nowhere interesting left to go, so it ends with the gnawing sense that new rails will be laid in front of the engine forever. It even looks like it's ending on a cliffhanger. That's the worst crime for any ongoing series, if the cliffhanger comes simply as a break in the ongoing plot rather than being a new threat emerging after old strands have been tied up. The show's writers are saying, in effect, that the whole season you thought was going to have a beginning, middle and end has in fact been just the bringing together of pieces so that the real party could begin in season two. Aristotle would punch 'em in the kisser.

But look. It can be done well. Vinyl built up over ten episodes as multiple narrative trains hurtled towards collision. The finale brought all the immediate threats to a conclusion while setting up the basis for another season. Instead of just breaking at the end of the season as though it were just another episode, there is closure there and in the closure the seeds of a new direction. Unfortunately Vinyl never got a second season while less carefully crafted shows hurtle on and on towards the eventual heat death of the medium.

A conscientious writer (Alan Garner, for example; or arguably J Michael Straczynski) won't start until they have the end of the story planned. As Andrew Stanton explains below, it's "knowing your punchline, making sure that everything... is leading to a singular goal". That's why I'd ask every show creator about their ending in the first pitch meeting. If you have a destination in mind, the journey will be much more enjoyable -- and, if the Fates are kind and it turns out the dollars are there for another trip, you'll have satisfied customers queuing up to go again.

Friday, 20 December 2019

How not to script an action climax

Picture this . You’re at a Hollywood pitch meeting: "And as the LEM descends towards the moon, Armstrong has a crisis of confidence. 'I can't do it, Buzz!' he says. But then he has a dream in which he's standing in the Midwest somewhere with a baseball bat, and Chuck Yeager is there dressed as a giant eagle and he's about to pitch the ball. Neil drops the bat, but Chuck tells him to pick it up, he can do it. And as he reaches for the bat we're back on the LEM and he's reaching for the controls. Determined look from Neil, admiring look from Buzz, swelling music, and then we cut to Houston and after a long tense pause: 'The Eagle has landed.'"

That’s terrible writing. Yet it’s the sort of thing that’s all the rage in superhero movies. We’re at the climax and the hero is on the brink of defeat. They go into a dream sequence, get a pep talk from a (usually dead) mentor, then snap back to the present and "with one bound" they’re free and turn the tables on the baddie. Thor: Ragnarok, Captain Marvel, you name it.

To be clear, I'm not complaining about mentors (though they are overused because every screenwriter swears by Joseph Campbell these days), I’m complaining about the interior vision in which the hero is given a boost of wisdom or courage: ‘Here’s your elixir like Campbell talks about on page 497. Now get back and fight.’ It's lazy writing. The dream sequence approach is no different from fixing all the loose ends in a story by dropping a god out of the machinery.

It’s bad writing because it’s telling, not showing. It kills momentum by building to what ought to be a nail-biting moment and suddenly swerving off into a fantasy scene. In effect, rather than crafting the story, the writer is taking a time out to try and convince us why his or her story should work. Those writers are so used to notes and rewrites that they don’t know that’s not how the finished thing should look; it’s as though you arrived at a building and found the only way to the upper storeys was by way of scaffolding left by the builders.

Good writing would be to have already done the work throughout the story so we are able to see the character’s arc leading inevitably to this point. Examples: Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger. Or, returning to the building analogy: put the bloody stairs in.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Talk to the hand

Each week Prof Bromfield and Dr Clattercut roll up their sleeves and plunge into the mail sacks that have arrived at the Royal Mythological Society's offices. (Dame Sepia wisely stays out of it.)

Dear gents

I’m not one for fancy words so I’ll come right to point. I’m the gamekeeper for the Earl of Derby at his Whitley estate. Few days back, there were a right exodus from the woods up by his coverts. Squirrels and birds and mice and frogs, insects too, all come pouring out. You’d think whole forest were aflame. And dead quiet after. I went on me own to take a look, none of the beaters would stir an inch, and you’ve never heard the like of that silence. Right in the heart of wood all the trees were down like skittles, and in the midst were a great gigantic hand, knuckles like boulders and each nail as big as a coal cellar door. Hairs on it like barbed wire. The old dog would have nowt to do with it, no fool him.

It’s just the hand, like, no blood or bone showing. You’d mark it clay but for the plain fact it’s warm flesh. And it lies there, cupped with the palm down, but not limp like a dead ‘un. More like your own hand if it were resting on the arm of a chair, now and then moving just a bit, a twitch or a scratch.

Well, there’s no shooting to be done while it’s there. No wildlife will come within a mile of it, you see, except for adders. And I can’t think what it’d take to move the thing. Any notions?

Yours, Ben Gummer, Great Heck, Yorkshire

Dr Clattercut replies: This is a curiosity indeed. From the scale of the extremity, I think we can surmise it belongs to a giant, god or titan. It is unfortunate, Mr Gummer, that you omit to say whether it is a right or left hand. The god Tyr, of course, famously had his right hand bitten off by the Fenris wolf, whereby the Old Norse word for the wrist was “wolf-joint”.

Prof BromfieldIt would be a bit chewed up in that case, wouldn’t it? Not to mention that Fenris swallowed the hand, so you’d expect to see industrial quantities of wolf poo around. As Mr Gummer specifically says the wrist is clean of blood, I take it to be more in the nature of a supernatural dismemberment. Didn’t the Egyptian god Set use magic to sunder Osiris’s body into fourteen parts?

Dr ClattercutBut none of those parts, I think, would logically turn up now in a wood in Yorkshire. More likely, I feel, the hand is a fragment of one of the giants Gog and Magog, who were disjected by Brutus of Troy when he founded Britain. This could also explain why snakes, which owe their allegiance to older gods, are comfortable in the hand’s presence.

Prof BromfieldAs to the practicalities: it’s obviously too big to get on a cart, even if Mr Gummer could induce the horses to approach it. So what about tickling it with a feather. It’d take a bit of patience, but that way it should be possible to get the hand to twitch and convulse enough to drag itself out of the woods.

Dr ClattercutAnd, always assuming it didn’t flick its tormentor away, unless you would take the trouble to tickle it all the way to the sea that would still only result in a giant hand blocking the road. Personally I’d advise putting a fence around the woods and moving the coverts elsewhere. No doubt it’s a bother, but it’s the lesser of two bothers.

Monday, 10 September 2018

The future back then

I had an odd introduction to Star Trek. Before I even knew the TV show existed, I came across the first ST book by James Blish in the newsagents on Wych Hill in Woking where I used to hang out in the hope of grabbing occasional US imports of Conan and Lin Carter books. The Pokemon Go of its day, that book-hunting. This must have been late '68 or early '69.

OK, so I'd heard of Blish and I figured this was in the same vein as Eric Frank Russell's Men, Martians & Machines. It was only when I got home and read the blurb that I realized the stories were adapted from TV episodes which were not, as it turned out, going to air in Britain until the summer of '69. My mental image of the characters was informed solely by that cover. So I read the stories envisaging Spock as green and Bones looking like an older Jimmy Olsen.

I gave the book to a friend of mine at school who was taken to hospital with rapid-onset diabetes. He and I used to swap Ace Doubles (back-to-back SF books) that you could buy super-cheap in Woolworths back then, so I figured he'd enjoy Star Trek. A few months later the BBC started running the show and all my friends became Trekkers. But I got there first.

With its grown-up storylines and in-built socialist humanism, Star Trek was always going to appeal more to me than the reactionary trend in SF typified by tropes like - well, royalism and mysticism and black-&-white morality and libertarianism. Naming no names. It was another era; an age of reason and hope. We were boldly going together towards a future that never contained the likes of Trump and Brexit.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Wishing makes it so

Another snippet of correspondence from the files of the Royal Mythological Society:

Dear Doctor Clattercut and Professor Bromfield

As it is the season for falling stars, and this summer we may expect a number of green meteors from the tail of Comet Meadowvane, I wonder what will result from the consequent spate of wishes all coming true?

Frank Dyson,

Dr Clattercut replies: It has been my experience that, for every person harbouring a given wish, there is somebody else who wishes the exact opposite. Therefore, although hundreds of wishes will be granted during this year’s meteor showers, the overall effects can be expected to cancel out. You’re very quiet, Bromfield.

Prof Bromfield: I just realized that I’ve blown rather a lot of money at the bookies.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Stories and games

‘Awright, awright. So I killed an old couple for a can of beans. Still tucking in, though, right? Remorse didn’t spoil your appetite.’

My friend’s wife, passing the room, stepped back and looked in with an expression of maternal concern. ‘Everything okay?’

‘Sure, except that we’re now having to give away the last of our medicine to a beggar to stop these whiners from moping. Other than that, everything’s great.’

It was This War of Mine, a game in which you look after a household of refugees in the middle of a war zone. No death-or-glory shoot-‘em-up, this is a game where victory is keeping a tomato plant alive long enough to get a meal off it. Survival means hard choices. Selfishness. Robbery. Even murder.

Videogames, of course, are full of mayhem and murder. Many portray a mean world in which the enemies you blow away are so othered as to be mere objects. But tie the possibility of bloodshed to a life-or-death situation and things become interesting. It’s no longer the violence of the true sociopath or the zombie killer, so dreadfully boring, but the choice of ordinary human beings in extremis.

Injustice is a ripe subject for storytelling, and the most potent weapon to that end in traditional fiction’s arsenal is empathy. It’s hard not to feel a red fury of outrage at Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s full-sail arrogance, or choke with shame at Siegfried Sassoon’s contemptuous treatment of his aged semi-fictional aunt. On the other side of the coin, we can be made complicit in mankind’s least savoury urges and thereby feel a twinge of guilt at having rooted for a bad egg like Vic Mackey or Richard III. Yet it is only the guilt of having been their cheerleader. We don’t personally pull the trigger.

That’s one of many areas where interactivity can prove a useful storytelling tool. Interactivity opens up the possibility of taking and abusing power, the sort of thing that’s guaranteed to bring out the very worst in a person – my example at the head of this piece when playing This War of Mine, for instance. More generally, feelings are sharper at first hand. Literature uses as its paintbrush the human capacity for empathy, whereas interactive stories put your hand on the gun – or on the bandage, or the baby’s bottle. Being a player rather than a reader means no longer having to be content with the role of a Boswell.

In The Talos Principle, the player is an android who awakens to find its task in life is solving a series of logic problems. Too dry to try? You’d rather do your tax returns? Think again: we’re not talking about algebra or which shape fits in which hole. These are challenging environmental puzzles that call for ingenuity, reasoning and lateral thinking. Such things, along with a warm cave, a haunch of mammoth, and a mate, put the biggest grin on the face of our Palaeolithic forebears. And to give it all a narrative drive, we’re continually chivvied along by an entity calling himself Elohim who informs us that he has created this world for us, and these puzzles to test us, for we are his most favoured children who will inherit creation. Just so long as we don’t step outside the boundaries he has prescribed, that is.

In between Elohim’s puzzles, we come across antique computer terminals and graffiti through which we’re able to access messages left by other androids and even human antecedents. This has the nature of what is often called ergodic storytelling (and by the way it’s rare to come across a term that offends both the physicist and classicist in me) in that we are given the fragments and left to fit them together for ourselves.

That’s not what’s special. Twentieth century literature abounds in such narratives. Most game stories come in jigsaw form, too, from Dear Esther to Her Story. The Talos Principle is notable because the central story hook – that pompously nannying Elohim – informs every problem we solve. At the same time as experiencing the drive towards ‘Man’s first disobedience’ we are indulging our pride, trying to impress the creator who is already beginning to royally tick us off. Or maybe he isn’t. My own knee-jerk to moralizing deities is to plan rebellion. Others may be moved to reverence, and that’s interesting too. And so our actions even while playing the most logic- and plot-driven parts of the game are still all about the illumination of character.

You see that what we are talking about here are not those games where the story is all loaded into non-interactive cutscenes in between the running and the shooting. As Chris Crawford, the Captain Cook of the game/story littoral, says, ‘Merely to glue story onto game and then alternate between the two, that’s just a trick.’ For this fusion of media to be interesting, the story needs to arise out of and drive the gameplay. It is easy to force a reader or viewer to interact. The trick is in making them want to interact, and in letting the story unfold hand-in-hand with that. For a guideline from the non-interactive media, notice how narrative and action in Fury Road happen at the same time. The best game stories follow that principle.
“As more and more stories, IPs and universes are expressed through the means of interactivity and by playing, the new mantra for this era of storytelling could become ‘Play, don’t show’.”  -- Thomas Vigild
You may ask what has all this to do with books. The founders of Inkle, whose text engine I used to create my interactive re-envisioning of Frankenstein, have pointed out that when people are interacting they typically have little tolerance for prose. If forced to read, they skim. This is very different from the experience of reading a work of literature, where the mind is tuned to see the landscape and characters via the text as surely as Cypher in The Matrix reads a world of blondes, brunettes, and redheads in the fleeting strings of numbers on his screen. Then we don’t even see the prose. But when we’re invited to sit forward and actively engage, words become a forest through which we must machete our way impatiently to the next significant choice.

For that reason, and in spite of working as both a writer and a game designer with a particular interest in interactive storytelling, I tend to think that grafting game-like interactivity into novels is a dead end. I wrote Frankenstein to explore the possibility creating a fictional two-way relationship with a character (the reader acts as Victor’s confidant and advisor) but believe me I would much rather have used animation or live action video or even just audio if the publisher’s budget had stretched to it. Prose in this context simply has the virtue of being cheap enough for a publisher to afford.

That’s not to say we should be aiming for a future in which novels come with animations and sound effects. Other media already deploy those tools to much better effect, and in any case there is no storytelling medium more immersive than pure prose. Have confidence in your strengths, dear writer, or give it all up now and create apps instead.

What, then, can novelists learn from games? Perhaps more from the way games are consumed than from the content itself. Consider how the narrative structure of the popular novel was shaped by magazine publication through the 19th and early 20th century. Games often take the form of a parallel reality into which the player can drop at any time. The story, as in life, is not necessarily on hold when you’re not there. Naturally, as with any other narrative technique, there are good and bad ways to tell a persistent story. Tamagotchi is much less irritating – or at any rate, its irritant value contrasts more interestingly with its emotional engagement – than something like the hectoring Majestic, a dead-end experiment in persistent narrative from the turn of the millennium that the games industry keeps reinventing like a lab rat that’s too dumb to learn from an electric shock. Give it a year or two, you’ll see what I mean.

Think instead of reality soaps, or theatre sports like TV wrestling, or even the drama of politics. The story runs alongside your daily life. You have the option when to drop in and how committed to be. The difference in gaming is that the community can feed back directly and immediately into the narrative that everybody else experiences. Might there be a takeaway here for novelists? Perhaps. Only bear in mind, I beg you: first do no harm. But with that caveat feel free to indulge in fleeting opportunity and perilous experiment, for the long evolution of literature is surely not over yet.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Too much magic!

Dear Professor Bromfield and Dr Clattercut

It has come to a pretty pass, I have to tell you. From when I was a small boy I had my nose in old maps, tracing the routes taken by the great pioneers. Lewis and Clark traversing the Rockies. Parry mapping the Hudson Bay pack ice. Livingstone in his canoe getting his first sight (indeed, sound) of Victoria Falls. In my imagination I accompanied them all, and my dream from those early days was to become an explorer.

Not to blow my own trumpet, but I achieved the Royal Geographical Society’s Gold Medal when I was yet nineteen, for my expedition in the northern Sahara. I was getting things together to go up the Indus. But then it happened. What, you may ask? Your green comet, gentlemen!

The first inkling was during a trip to Pompeii. I was there a couple of months ago and the ground just cracked open one day—fissures down thirty feet to the houses and shops of Roman times. Being covered in pumice didn’t stop the citizens from getting up a thriving trade with the locals. Net result: archaeologists and historians might as well pack up and go home.

Next thing: scouting trip to the Hindu Kush. Safe enough, you may think, from fantastical influences if not from jezail bullets. But you can’t move now for yeti selling trinkets. And as for ancient lost kingdoms — there’s a queue to get in!

This is no good for a man like me. I need a challenge, a mystery to solve, an uncharted region to dent the bounds of. So off I set to the Antarctic, quite alone. Surely here I could escape the flood of goblins, gods and who-knows-what that has become the curse of the modern world?

On the third day out I came across a giant staircase cut into the ice. I began to descend, only for the ground to give way below my feet, plunging me — no, not into freezing snow, but a subterranean realm of dripping jungle lit by the fires of inner Earth. Long story short: I evaded the carnivorous dinosaurs infesting this land by covering myself in their ordure. But when I finally reached a savannah that was free of them and stopped to wash, no sooner was I clean again than a giant bird swooped down and carried me off to a mountaintop palace inhabited by men who I take to be descendents of the ancient Toltecs. They insisted on keeping me with them and now I learn that they intend to crown me as their god-king.

This is no good. I desire a bit of solitude and a place where man has to make an effort to uncover the unknown — not where it comes knocking at his front door and demanding entry with all the grace and mystique of a cockney shoe salesman. Too much magic, gentlemen!

Yours sincerely,
Sir Iain MacTavish,
the Earth’s Core

Prof Bromfield replies: I’m getting a bit fed up of people blaming us for all the magical to-do. Shooting the messenger, and all that. Might as well shout at your bookie if the horse you backed comes in last. Though, on reflection, they often are the culprits there… You’re a bit quiet, Clattercut.

Dr Clattercut: I’m a tad concerned that Toltec custom was to sacrifice their god-kings after a year on the throne. If this reply reaches you, Sir Iain, then I suggest you set off back to Britain as soon as possible. It may not be exciting, but it’s home.