Category: Writing Page 1 of 23

For A Post On The Subject, This Is Arguably Rather Unstructured…

I’m currently reading Into The Woods by John Yorke, which (as you may know) is about stories and storytelling. Unsurprisingly, it features quite a bit of discussion of structure, which is a subject I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently, and in the spirit of self-indulgent sharing, it’s the springboard for this blogpost.

Cards on the (perfectly square and clean-baized) table: I like structure. And I like it both as a reader and as a writer. As I’ve written before, my tiny mind was happily bent out of shape many years ago when I started reading and watching things that played with form and chronology and the like, and I still delight to this day in works which don’t draw a straight line from “Once upon a time…” to “… happily ever after” (provided it’s in service of the story; if it’s just done for its own sake, I may wonder if there’s some shortcoming in the story which is being disguised by shuffling the chronology or whatever – and I’d go so far as to suggest that might well be the case with my own first published work. But I digress, and this parenthesis is getting unworkably long, so I’ll close it and then put a full stop and we can move onto a new paragraph).

Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I think there’s been a bit of a rise of narratives with unusual structure over the past few years – to give a couple of examples,the success of Gone Girl in both written and filmed form was testimony to audiences’ willingness to watch events play out of sequence, and complex structure was a key aspect of Steven Moffatt’s work on Doctor Who (though he doesn’t need time travel as a plot device to enable this kind of thing, as fans of his earlier work Coupling [and I am one of those fans] will be aware). There are often suggestions that audiences are becoming increasingly sophisticated and aware of how narrative works, and I guess that willingness to accept breaking and bending of the A to B shape of a tale may well be a part of that.

But whether it’s part of a wider phenomenon or not, I’ve long been a fan of structure; as a reader, once I recognise it, I find it reassuring (and in the case of Cloud Atlas, it took me until the midpoint of the book to realise what the author was doing, but when the penny dropped, it did so in a very satisfying way), and as a writer – you knew I’d get to this eventually – I find it very useful.

I’m a plotter, through and through, and like to have a pretty firm grasp on where the story’s going before I set down even the first line; I’m not one of those people who conjure up characters and then set them off into the environment of the story and see what happens – as novelist Sarah Perry says at about 2m38s in this podcast…

… the characters are plot devices; they’re adrift in the sea of the story, and they can no more shape the tides than you or I can.

And from a writing standpoint – and especially working, as I do, in the crime/thriller genre where plot is key – there’s something very useful about having a structure to work to; that might be a simple three or even five act structure, it might simply mean having the story starting and ending at the same place or in a similar way to hint at some idea of symmetry, or whatever, but if you have a structure sorted out ahead of time that lets you know what you should be writing about next, then that’s very useful indeed.

My most recent completed novel, Captives, was very deliberately structured from the outset of the writing process, because I knew that I wanted to have an investigation taking place in the present day, but I also wanted to detail the events which led up to the start of the story, to give a sense of what the stakes were and of the players involved. Rather than do this through infodumps disguised as dialogue or anything like that, I opted to alternate sequences set in the present with flashback chapters which grew progressively closer to the inciting incident which happens a couple of hours before the start of the first chapter; once I’d cracked that approach, it made things a lot easier – though I still regret the fact that as I counted down from ‘Twelve years before’ to ‘one day before’, I couldn’t make the time-jumps involved align with a reversed version of the Fibonacci Sequence… though given how pretentious that sentence looks when typed out, maybe that’s for the best.

So, as you can imagine, I was keen to see if I could take the same approach with the next novel (working title: Refuge). Once I’d had the characters sketched out, and the sequence of events worked out, I wondered if it would be possible to create a structure which would serve the story – as the book’s about a kidnapping, I wondered if I might be able to rotate the narrative point of view so that we’d hear from The Detective, then The Kidnappers, and then The Kidnappee, before rotating back to the Detective again. I’m particularly keen to make sure we spend as much time as possible with the Kidnappee, as it often feels that people in such stories run the risk of being little more than a MacGuffin, or ‘item’ to be retrieved, and I wanted to avoid that.

However – and you’ve probably already spotted this – the problem with this idea is that (non-spoiler alert) the kidnappers and the kidnappee unsurprisingly spend a lot of time in the same locale, so whilst I could convey a fair amount of detail on events by jumping from our detective to the villains, there’s little additional material (save for internal monologue and the like) that would be conveyed by the jumping to the kidnap victim. I’d effectively end up spending 2/3 of the narrative time on the baddies and their environment, which would make it hard to describe what was going on outside of that without the book becoming excessively long.

However, given that the story is in itself a ‘ticking clock’ tale with a set ending looming on the horizon and moving closer in stages (akin to most films featuring weddings, for example: the wedding is a fixed point in time and everything we see is drawing us closer to that), it did occur to me that having a race against time which is also viewed through the fragmented narrative of rotating POVs would perhaps be too much to put on top – and given that (again, non-spoiler, given the genre expectations) the paths of the Detective and the Kidnappers will inevitably cross, whose narrative section should I include that in? The Detective closing in, or the Villains realising that things aren’t panning out as planned? I wasn’t sure.

Ultimately, I’ve decided to keep it straightforward, shifting scene as required whilst trying to maintain the sense of a countdown, and to find other ways of including the relevant background information and internal monologue of the Kidnappee. We’ll see how it goes – and given how cathartic and therapeutic it’s been (for me, I mean – I’m sure this has been less so for you) to discuss it here, I’ll see about reporting back on how well (or otherwise) it works out.

Given how writing’s an essentially solitary process, and how every 100,000 words is probably more like 300,000 or so re-written and edited and generally switched around in the writing process, talking about it in this way is very probably just an attempt to provide an almost contemporaneous ‘director’s commentary’ during the process of writing it. Which in itself could be distracting – and is often the reason I cite (with varying degrees of truth) for my infrequent blogging.

Thanks for reading this long sprawling post, and if you have any thoughts, insights or tips on structure, or examples of great structures which amplify or serve the story, please do leave a comment below, I’d like to hear other viewpoints on this.

But enough musing and prevarication: back to the actual writing… 

What Year Is This? Who’s The President Now?

… all of which is to say: has it really been that long since last I blogged? Crikey (though a part of me is oddly relieved to see that it hasn’t been a whole calendar year, because – let’s face it – it wouldn’t be the first time that long a gap had happened between posts).

So, as is so often the case on this blog, I open with apologies to anyone who’s been visiting on a regular basis in the hope of finding updates – thanks for your patience, and sorry the only things that have greeted you have been silence and cobwebs.

I haven’t been writing on the blog, granted, but (by way of long overdue update) I’m glad to report that I’ve made good and hearty progress in the world of long-form prose; my novel Captives has been through multiple drafts and re-drafts, and my test readers have all made very useful suggestions which led to a few bits of re-re-drafting, and now it’s out for consideration by literary agents.

Trying not to let the momentum dissipate, I’ve started on the next novel featuring the same detective protagonist, which currently has the working title of Refuge. I won’t get into the details of it here, but I like to think that the shape of the books is almost akin to that of the films of Dan Brown’s novels – the first one (The Da Vinci Code) is full of flashbacks, but the second is a ticking-clock race against time (Angels and Demons). So I’m working hard on making sure it has that all-important sense of forward motion, which I’m increasingly finding is a good way to stop me from waxing too lyrical, as if the words don’t serve plot or character, then they’re probably not needed… but I’m sure I’ll talk about that more in future blogs.

As is so often the case in my relationship with blogging, this return is intended to be the clearing of the throat before more sustained communication; in these politically and socially divided times I’ll probably steer clear of too much in the way of politics or similar, but I’ll try to compensate for that by sharing thoughts on writing, the odd review (and not necessarily of new items – one of the wonders of the internet is our easy access to things from the past), links to things which amuse or interest, and the like.

Speaking of things which amuse, I’ve recently discovered Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a TV police comedy which is genuinely as good as its fans make out, and I recommend you have a watch of it, if you’re not already a fan. That show has led me to enjoy the musical stylings of cast member Andy Samberg and his cohorts in the group The Lonely Island, which in turn led me to the following video… hip-hop isn’t really my thing, but ludicrous comedy and utterly committed performances are very much my things, so (in the nicest and most praise-filled way possible)  I urge you to look at these idiots:

If I Name This Post ‘Sextuple Mumbo Jumbo’, That’ll Increase Traffic To The Blog, Right?

I think it was the late (and in my estimation rather great) Blake Snyder, author of the screenwriting book Save The Cat who came up with the concept of ‘Double Mumbo Jumbo’, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a bit recently.

Double Mumbo Jumbo, put simply, is the idea that “as an audience we can only buy one piece of magic per movie” (or, I’d say, book or play or other medium). Where Blake says ‘magic’, I like to think this equally means coincidence – for my money, Spider-Man 3 suffers from Double Mumbo Jumbo in the plotlines relating to the Venom symbiote (to non-comic geeks, that’s the black costume-thing which bonds first with Peter Parker and then with his rival) when it happens to land first near Peter Parker’s moped (if memory serves; I’ve only seen the film once, and don’t plan to watch it again, even if it means verifying details for a blog post) and then it’s roaming ownerless again when Peter Parker’s workplace rival is out and about in the area.

I think the second story in Pulp Fiction suffers from this sort of coincidence problem as well, though I know a lot of people hold that film in much higher regard than I do.

It’s not just a problem which you see in films, either (though the example I’m about to give was, I think, adapted to film): the novel Perfume by Patrick Suskind is very well-respected and was given to me with strong recommendations by a friend, but when I read it I couldn’t get past the fact that the main character had no personal scent (which struck me as being biologically unlikely) and also had an extrememly sensitive ability to detect odours.

This felt like a cheat to me, as if the author realised that someone with a truly super-powered nose would be unable to smell anything beyond the scent of their own sweat and clothing. I didn’t buy it, and as a result the rest of the book felt hard to swallow, built as it was on a foundation that I didn’t find particularly sturdy.

This has been on my mind a bit recently, because in the novel I’m currently writing (due for completion about half an hour before the heat-death of the universe, longtime readers might suspect) I have various ‘secret’ government agencies and bodies, and I don’t want to have too much stuff that looks like a fudge – whilst I’m confident that most readers will accept that there are bodies within government and the military which don’t appear in annual reports and budget publications, I don’t want to make it look as if I’ve made them ‘secret’ just so I haven’t got to do the research on Home Office heirarchies and departmental responsibilities and the like.

In a strange – though hopefully understandable – tangent, thinking about the concept of Double Mumbo Jumbo has partly explained to me why I find the following advert irks me more than it probably should:

The advert doesn’t really make sense to me on any level – and yes, I know it’s meant to be a bit out there and surreal, but consider the things that we’re supposed to accept:

  • He’s so fond of sausage rolls he’s cloned a miniature dog to say what he can’t
  • He carries the miniature dog in a jewellery box in his pocket
  • He had it in his pocket, but initially wasn’t intending to hand it to her (note how he turns away at first)
  • The ‘garage lady’ accepts what appears to be a gift of jewellery from a customer
  • The miniature dog speaks english (with, I think, the voice of Mathew Horne)
  • The dog knows which button to press on its (also miniaturised) keyboard to start the music (which is either drum and bass or garage, I think – I’m not bothered about either of those choices really, though I hope it’s the latter as it would be appropriate given the setting of the advert)

It just feels like the advert-makers have hit the ‘random’ button in an almost cynical way, as if throwing diverse stuff together like that immediately equates to something surreal and/or clever. The main problem I think I have with it is that for someone who’s “just a bloke”, and apparently incapable of expressing himself, he’s gone to a lot of trouble (and a weird kind of trouble) to express his gratitude.

In fact, within this universe where we can create speaking miniature animals to perform tasks we humans can’t, I’m surprised that there are petrol stations at all, as the normal rules don’t seem to apply; surely the pumps dispense some kind of liquid boulders, and the ‘garage lady’ is in fact the reincarnation of Alexander the Great, wearing a human outfit to disguise the fact that he’s come back as an oversized moth (I’m aware that many insects’ tracheas don’t function once they get above a certain size, so this is an inherently unrealistic proposition, but given that the shruken dog apparently suffers no difficulty breathing despite his size and being enclosed in a small box, it seems all bets are off). Actually, it’s strange that this bizarre world they inhabit has sausage rolls and money in it at all really. What are the odds of that?

I can live with the odd quirk or wrinkle to things – and as I understand it, much of the ‘magic realism’ school of writing is based on the world as we know it reacting to strange and unusual things happening – but it needs to be balanced, I think. The Queen in Alice in Wonderland boasts “sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”, but that advert seems, to me, to be a case of Multiple Mumbo Jumbo, and so I can’t swallow it (then again, as a vegetarian, I was probably unlikely to swallow anything related to sausage rolls).

Come to think of it, no wonder the chap in the advert accepts the strange world he lives in: it’s clearly the early hours, and maybe he needs to believe the six impossible things I list above before he can have the sausage roll – that is, his breakfast.

Short Film: ‘Revealing Diary’ By The Guerrier Brothers

Videos on Thursday appear to be turning into a habit round here, don’t they?

Anyway, this is a cracking short film made by writer Simon Guerrier and his director brother Thomas, and I think it is very classsy – good and unsettling, with a very strong ending.

I heartily recommend you invent the 5mins or so in watching it – seriously, check this out:

Told you it was good. Simon’s posted an interesting write-up on the production process here, which provides insight into how it all came together.

Impressive stuff, and very good work, I feel.

Video: An Invocation for Beginnings

Doesn’t matter if you apply it to writing or to anything else, I think this video has something to say to all of us who hesitate to begin a project, or procrastinate on continuing, or in any other fashion getting on with it:

Persona Season 3 Starts This Week (And I’ve Written For It)

The third season of smartphone drama Persona launches this week (the first episode was yesterday, but don’t worry, you can catch up), and I’m the writer on one of the stories in it – specifically, this one:

It looks like the cast and crew have done a great job, so I’ll be watching eagerly – can I ask you to do the same? Persona is absolutely free of charge for iPhone/iPad and Android users, and you get a new episode every day for no charge too.

Interested? Good-o, here are the relevant links:

On iTunes you can download it here

On Android, you can get it here

Please do give it a look, and let me know what you think. Thanks!

It Doesn’t Last That Long, But It Made Me Happy

I’m pleased to be able to report that I’ve had another joke included in Newsjack, the topical radio comedy on Radio 4 Extra (formerly BBC7). I’m included in the credits which you can see here, and if you’d like to hear the jape itself, the show can be listened to or downloaded as a podcast here, and it’s probably available via iTunes too (must admit I haven’t checked yet).

It’s the gag in the opening monologue, at 0’56” to be precise, about the passing of the NHS Bill. I think the show’ll be there to listen to or download for another week or so, which is probably about right as the joke itself’ll probably make less sense as time passes.

Anyway, this blog post is a shameless brag really, as I’m pretty chuffed to have a second BBC broadcast credit, even if it has been a couple of years since the first. I shall see if I can narrow down the intervening period between the second and third…

This Looks Classy

Writer and all-round decent chap Jason Arnopp done wrote a film called Stormhouse, and here be the trailer:

Looks good ‘n’ spooksome, yes?

Do tell your friends about it.

In fact, tell your enemies. Especially if they’re ‘fraidy cats.

Persona Launches Tomorrow!

I’m very excited to be able to announce that Persona goes live tomorrow.

As you may well remember from my recent posts, Persona is the world’s first continuing drama created exclusively for smartphones, giving the viewer a daily 2-3 minute drama series, with new episodes every day of the week.

You can buy the Persona App in the iTunes store (search for ‘Persona App Media UK’) for £1.19, or you can text PERSONA to 87474, which costs £1.50. A year’s worth of episodes for less than a Starbucks coffee.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m one of the writers for the first season (starting tomorrow, and running for a month), so if you’re interested to see what kind of writing I do when I’m not blogging (and it’s part of the reason why my blog entries have been so sporadic recently), I’d really appreciate your support – and of course, I’d be interested to hear what you think of the series (and the work I did on Jane’s storyline).

By way of a taster, here’s the trailer for Persona, which I hope will intrigue you enough to make you want to see more:

Any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in contact (unless you’re asking about what happens in the storylines; I’m either sworn to secrecy about the stuff I’ve been involved in, or appropriately ignorant about the other storylines). Thanks!

A Delay, Not A Denial

Just to update you on Persona : there’s been a slight delay in the app being approved by Apple (this sentence may hold the blog record for the most uses of the letters ‘app’), so the revised start date is currently 15 January 2011.

I will, of course, keep you fully informed.

In the meantime, though, more pictures from Persona – some from Jane’s story – are available to view here.

This is likely to be the final post of 2010, so have yourself a cracking start to 2011, and may the year bring you everything you could hope for, and a few surprises (pleasant ones, of course).

If you’re out tonight, here’s hoping your evening doesn’t lead to you looking or feeling like Lucy, the Persona character pictured here.

See you in 2011.

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