Sunday, 10 April 2011

Chasing Wonder

Name that thing:
a) Eyelash hairs; b) Human sperm
; c) Knee of a Mexican red-kneed tarantula.
(Answers at bottom of post.)

My son and I were scouting the local toy/hobby shop recently. As a reward for passing his eleven plus, he could choose anything he wanted. I was pleased when he plumped for a telescope.
The telescope came with several detachable lenses, one of which could be used as a microscope. (It's like a small toilet roll tube with a transparent plastic ring at one end to allow light to illuminate the subject.)
We carry the microscope everywhere, and we've had no end of fun pulling it out to examine the fabric on a train seat*, or a dead ladybird, or a leaf. It's not particularly powerful, but more than adequate for transforming my shirt into an alien garden of vivid colours and feral vegetation.

*There was a bald man sat in the seat in front of us. So powerful was my son's sense of wonder that he momentarily forgot his social etiquette and leaned forward to place the microscope onto the man's hairless head. I just caught him. How we laughed.

I reckon I can say with some confidence that this sense of wonder - an attention to detail; a desire to explore and discover, and to share this fascination - is indispensable to the serious writer/designer/artist.

I've had some peculiar experiences lately.
A month or so back, I was in the garden and a plane flew by. It was the shape and size of your standard commercial passenger plane - but it had four wings, each with a jet engine.
Now that wasn't a peculiar experience. I watched it for a bit and thought Cool! and then carried on with whatever I was doing.
The peculiar bit came in stages over the following month as my memories began to dissolve and I began to question what I had seen. Why would my brain do that? What kind of instinct would become fearful of what I had actually seen and then begin to dismiss it or to re-describe it? What is it about the 'unusual' or the 'unexplained' that so fills us with dread, to the point where we deliberately distort the truth? Brains eh! Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em!

Name that thing:
a) Head of a Romanesco cauliflower; b) Butterfly eggs on a raspberry plant; c) Nerve endings.

I began to think back to my university days. On the whole, they were magical days! Barely a week would pass without some new, and potentially life-changing, discovery! Tutors would show me things that I had never noticed before - things that had been there all along and I simply hadn't picked them out. Lecturers would impart fresh, vital knowledge which would provide exciting new contexts for my evolving world.
I also remember that, whilst I was eager to experiment with all this cool new stuff, others around me seemed unmoved; they returned to their work with the same attitudes as before.
This is something I see a lot of and, if I wanted to fix this lens to my eyes, I could distinguish between the open-minded and receptive folks, and the others. Both attitudes are valid; but I'll suggest that the creative mind can only thrive when it is open and receptive.

I've been following Nicole Lazzaro's discoveries for a relatively short while. She has some great ideas! I won't go into her Four Keys to Fun observations here - nor will I begin to dissect the concept of fun - but we should consider her assertion that 'easy fun' is spearheaded by a sense of wonder. She calls this Chasing Wonder.
I'd go a step further and suggest that this is one of several fundamental techniques used for leading the reader through a story, or for plotting, or for drawing the viewer into a painting and then leading her through the narrative, or for suspending the listener within a piece of music.

I've had several debates with our producer about journals. I don't like them - at least, not in their currently accepted incarnations: I personally don't enjoy sifting through pages of text to find any given clue.
Her thinking is that journals are a good place to info dump, and that the player will, whilst chasing wonder, ingest the info - typically exposition - on her way to finding any given clue. Like a doctor holding a lollipop in one hand and a hypodermic needle in the other.

Name that thing:
a) Surface of a strawberry; b) Integrated circuit; c) Flea toilet.

So for those who have found this post wearisome, here's your lollipop. :o)

Name that thing answers:
1) a - eyelash hairs.
2) c - nerve endings.
3) b - integrated circuit.

Check 'em out here, here, and here.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Join the Dots

Quite surprised we haven't touched upon this before.
So you've plotted through to that high emotion denouement, with your act reversals in place, and then you've listed all the stuff that needs to happen in any scene and you've done all your research.
The next step is a biggie, and is, I would contend, at the root of Stephen King's assertion that writers are born and not made.
How do you tie all those scene elements together, neatly, emotively, consicely, without waste or distraction, without resorting to flat exposition or meaningless actions?

Larry David demonstrates this dot joining skill at its best! In any episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm (I'm onto season seven now), Larry effortlessly connects seemingly disparate plot devices to create a powerful climax. Half the fun is trying to second-guess him - trying to figure out how that school production of Grease and the exterminator and the deaf woman and her dog are going to be finally reconciled. Furthermore, the viewer/reader/player shouldn't be able to second-guess the outcome: it should surprise her, whilst retaining every ounce of integrity.

And this is where plots can come undone. I remember vividly sitting with my plot points and research, ready to write up the second act reversal to TCCP, only to discover that my protag would not budge as I required. There's your Is plot character? debate resolved. The two things are symbiotic.

Here's my first pass solution to the act one reversal for M4.
I've largely replaced cut-scenes with cinematics now. To do that, I first had to devise a distinction between the two, as I couldn't get anywhere on the interweb. I've defined a cinematic as a passive scene, probably letterboxed, which retains the first-person pov - a character standing on that bridge in the game world, for example. A cut-scene will leave that first-person game world and utilise cinematographic devices, perhaps moving in and out of pov shots and omniscient shots, cutting/fading between shots, panning or dollying, or zooming into XCUs.
I've given myself (approximately) a one page tolerance for my cut-scenes. (One page in FD equates to one minute of dialogue.)

To keep things tight, I went in very late, removing leading questions and cutting straight to the answers, and then using those answers to lead to the next answer. So Eddie doesn't ask 'Where has everyone gone?'; instead, Keelin and Rudo explain where everyone has gone without prompts.
I had to turn the scene on a pinhead, and end the scene with the player's new goal. And, all the while, I've tried to develop the characters and their relationships, whilst keeping emotions at the front.
Finally, regular readers will spot the prophetic misdirection (of which I am so enamoured): Keelin looks ahead to the time she will leave the town and be reunited with her father.
For those who played the CE act of M3 (which is set after the events of M4), you'll know this never occurs...

There's a couple of 'forced' bits where I haven't joined the dots too well: in particular 'Then come with me...' needs strengthening, and 'Death does odd things...' is possibly unnecessary, but otherwise I'm pretty pretty pretty good with it.

EDDIE and KEELIN sit facing one another on a blanket. Beside KEELIN, RUDO is propped up against the hamper. Bowls and jars and cutlery are spread over the blanket, and plates are dressed with salads and flatbreads, jams and roasted game.

(softly spoken)
I am sorry Edwina: if Tom has found his way to the western peninsula, he will be dead.

There’s a monster see? An ouphe. It came many years ago, searching for a soul. It killed everyone.

But clever old Rudo devised traps and secret doors to keep us safe, before he himself was slain.

Tom isn’t dead, I know it; and I will find him, with or without your help.

It is too dangerous.

Then come with me Keelin. Once we have found Tom, we can leave together.

It’s not a bad scheme Keel - my devices are brilliant and all, but they won’t hold forever. There’s nothing here for us anymore.

Escape is impossible without the eye of Brites.

It’s somewhere in the town... but nobody knows where. Death does odd things to one’s memories.

I will find it, and I will find Tom, and we can leave together.

Can we really go Rudy? Oh, is it possible? Perhaps my father is still alive, waiting for me outside?

Sure! You go pack Keel - quick as you like. Me and Edwina will find that eye.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Handbags at Dawn

I'm not one for tittle-tattle... but I couldn't resist on this occasion.

When self-published author (I saw you rolling your eyes!) Jacqueline Howett received an average review on BigAl's Books and Pals blog, she broke the unwritten rule: she defended her work in public. It's a car crash of epic proportions, and a stark warning to every one of us! (And a fine example of the destructive power of ego! And of mob mentality.)
Give yourself a good excuse and go look...

The Greek Seaman by Jacqueline Howett.