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All opinions on this site are those of Mike Jones and are not intended to represent his employers or associates.

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Monday
Apr212014

Writing across platforms: Sydney Writers Festival

Being a writer in a multiplatform age is both exciting and daunting. Characters, plot, suspense & intrigue are still the heart and soul of storytelling, but to embrace the possibilities of a multiplatform world, writers have to take a broad perspective — one that sees the StoryWorld as the centre of the creative process.

This is the launch point for the Narrative Storyworlds seminar workshop Im presenting at the 2014 Sydney Writers Festival. 

The central principle is that great writing comes from a great writing-process and this session will build on the processes and working frameworks I’ve been using in the development of cross-platform narratives over the past decade. It’s a workshop that has good miles under its wheels having been delivered in Australia and overseas in various forms including the Immersive Writing Lab UK, the South Australian Film Corporation’s Digital360 Lab, the Doha Film Institute Transmedia project, the Metroscreen Storyworld Studio and the Australian Writer’s Guild Platform-X program. 

In the 3-hour session we’ll focus on Storyworld design for narratives that can span across platforms and be an engine for ongoing story engagement. I’ll be looking at a range of examples in the form of book, TV, film and interactive mediums and talk about how the Storyworld process informed recent work with novelist Alan Gold. 

And in the glorious art of self-promotion here’s what some writers who come along for the ride before have had to say:

“Mike turned a daunting mass of possibilities into viable products and gave clear ways and tools for organising writing for a multi platform world”

“gave us tools that we can use to develop our own projects, a specific framework for developing multi-platform ideas.”

“Mike Jones was a privilege to engage with and learn from. His expertise in the area of cross platform story telling is remarkable and his generosity in communicating this knowledge very much appreciated.”

“his sharp insight, market knowledge, creative tool kit and unrestrained zeal is thus far unequalled”

In an interview artivle I did with ScreenHub entitled “Pressurising the storyworld beyond the gatekeeper” I expalained the impetus of storyworld writing:

“…storyworld is by definition more than the plot and characters. It “shifts the onus of the writing, and changes the appreciation of what writers can do,” Mike happily explained. “It is a huge creative opportunity to author a space and environment – it can change your creative process to embrace a world first, then the dramatic space, time, community, sets of processes and rules of operation, all before an individual plotline.”

“From an audience point of view, they sign up when they enter the storyworld to spend time in that space, to hang out… Plotting is not secondary or diminished, but it becomes a broader way of thinking… 
it can reveal the dramatic potential to exist across media, on a huge list of possibilities.”

The session will be held on the Thursday 22nd May at the State Library of NSW and Full details  are available here. 

Tuesday
Apr152014

Reversals, Revelations & Audience Response. Big-Data from a Storytellers POV

The whole media and creative content industry seems to be talking about ‘Big Data’ and the effect masses of information about audiences - both at micro and macro levels - is having on content development and delivery.

But too often it appears the conversation is appropriated by emphasis on marketing and selling content, how to package, distribute and more effectively ram it down peoples throats. Where as, what interests my colleagues at I at Portal Entertainment is how does big data inform, and even enhance, storytelling itself? How can we use big data not just to market a story but to actually tell a story better?

CEO of Portal Entertainment UK, Julian McCrea, presented recently at MIP a perspective on how we’re using facial recognition data to tell better stories and apply core narrative principles to inform and articulate our audience data gathering. 

Monday
Apr142014

Writers born from Players: the Video Game generation grown up.

Like any writer, I had a childhood filled with reading. But as I reflect back, I realise at a profound level that I learned more about storytelling from playing fantasy role-playing-games like Dungeons & Dragons & hours and hours immersed in video games than I ever did from reading books.

If the old adage is true, that we learn best by doing, then I have to recognise that as a Reader I was a consumer of story, but as a Player I was generator, architect, orchestrator, manipulator and director of story experiences. 

This article from online jorunal The Millions entitled Appetite for Risk: At the Intersection of Video Games and Literature points to exactly this influence that a whole generation of writers might be aknowledging. 

The article also points not only to such a generational shift in writers but also of publisher who struggle to redefine what publishing is in the digital age (a topic I previously mused on - ‘Where are the platform agnostic publishers?’)

“The book publishing industry needs to carve out a more interesting, necessary space for itself in the digital world. All too frequently “technology” is considered one big amorphous blob, or worse, treated with indifference. Barely enhanced e-books, predictably executed apps, and promotional Twitter accounts for dead or Luddite authors seem to represent the extent of most publishers’ innovative efforts. Even in terms of pure content, contemporary fiction too often fails to fully evoke 21st-century life and contend with its burgeoning issues. We writers disproportionately focus on the past, or worse, replicate the form and structures of centuries gone without appetite for the risk, resistance, and failure innovation entails.”

What videogames and Dungeons & Dragons taught me spoke to the very essence of good storytelling. Games - whether table top or video-screen - are intrinsically predicated on Strucural Patterns, Escalation, Characters-in-Action, Obstacles, Progression, Climax and Catharsis. It’s quite possible for inexperienced writers to write a story and never effectively engage with these things and still think they can write. But it is quite literally IMPOSSIBLE to play, enegage or create a game without these things - without them there is no game nor reason to play. 

As I’ve spent a good deal of time in recent years teaching writing to emerging storytellers, I’ve come to realise that if they havn’t played Dungeons and Dragons or video games - if they were shaped as writers purely from Reading and not Playing - they are way behind the eight-ball as storytellers as their fundamental story muscles are simply flaccid.

Read the full article here - 


Monday
Apr072014

Narrative Storyworlds at the Sydney Writers Festival

It’s such an huge honour to be speaking at this years prestigious Sydney’s Writer’s Festival. I’ll be delivering a workshop on Narrative Storyworlds and a process for writers to develop stories that can span platforms both old and new. With my colleague Alan Gold we’ll look at the storyworld basis for our book ‘Bloodline’ and I’ll take particpants through a hands on workshop looking at a broad range of examples from my own digital media work and international case studies across genres and mediums.

The official SWF program blurb is:

“Being a writer in a multiplatform age is both exciting and daunting. Characters, plot, suspense & intrigue are still the heart and soul of storytelling. But to embrace the possibilities of a multiplatform world, writers have to take a broad perspective — one that sees the StoryWorld as the centre of the creative process. This workshop will lead participants through a structured approach to designing narrative worlds as a story engine capable of spanning the written word, screen and digital media.”

The session will be held at the State Library on Thursday 22nd May.

Full Details availible Here.

I’ll be blogging soon with more details of the workshop and the storyworld development process. Stay tuned…

Monday
Mar312014

Horror on TV: The Four modes of Episodic Horror

Horror, story crafted to scare, is the oldest form of storytelling known to humanity. As a genre, Horror is a very broad church of variation and each storytelling media - from the campfire, to the stage, to the book, to the cinema screen - has carved out a space for horror storytelling, building on the canon with a remarkably consistent set of tenets. 

The important exception is Television Horror. There is certainly a history of episodic horror on TV but the history is patchy, varied and fraught with unique narrative challenges that writers and producers too often fail to engage and solve. 

In recent years, after a long drought, there has been a resurgence in Horror TV. There now seems a host of episodic series based on dark, supernatural, slashing, spooking and general creepiness - Hannibal, The Returned, American Horror Story, The Fades, Dead Set, The Walking Dead, True Blood, In The Flesh, Supernatural, Hemlock Grove, The Following and new arrivals Bates Motel and the TV adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby. 

(*note I have deliberately excluded shows like The Vampire Diaries which, despite the presence of Vampires, have very little of Horror about them; rather they, like Twilight, are really just Teen Romance soap-operas with a supernatural twist. Their intention is never to genuinely scare an audience.)

So, for a screenwriter setting out to create an episodic Horror series there are key ‘problems’ that have to be resolved. Horror, by its nature relies on the highest possible stakes. Life and Death is not enough for horror - it has to be the worst possible death, the most feared death or worse… loss of soul, sanity or humanity. Without such stakes you dont have ‘horror’.

Stakes like that are derived directly from the power of the ‘monster’ in the storyworld. Whether that monster is a ghost, serial killer, demon, supernatural force or quite literally a ‘monster’, this unleashed uber-antagonist and their ability to generate uber-stakes is the engine of the story. In feature film or any narrative form based on a ‘single-sitting’ viewing experience, this uber nature of the monster and stakes is able to escalate to bursting point. But episodic storytelling is fundamentally different as it relies on the opening and closing of on-going dramatic questions. Episodic stories rely on the resetting of the stakes after they have escalated; a rise and reset.

This principle creates a dilemma for the Horror TV writer - how do you drive the stakes to ‘greater than life and death’ levels on one hand, and yet at the same time create plausible means to re-set those stakes in satisfying dramatic arcs?

Not answering and solving this problem can result is very bad TV horror. If the stakes go to 11/10 in ep1 where do they go in ep2 without becoming repetitive or absurd? Conversely, if you build the horrific stakes sloverly over the span of a long-form series, you risk simply not being scary for the first 3 or 4 episodes and leaving your audience unsatisfied - denied the fulfilment of the contract they signed up for when they sat down to watch ‘Horrorr’.

It’s obviously not impossible to make great horror TV but to do so you have to solve this dilemma between needing the stakes to be uber-high whilst at the same time, be viably reset episodically to rise again. If we look at the history of TV horror we can start to identify patterns of solutions and its worth breaking them down into 4 basic types which all solve the stakes/monster dilemma in different ways - ANTHOLOGY, PRECINCT, SPAWNING & MINI-SERIES.

ANTHOLOGY

The most obvious is the Anthology Horror series. Traditionally this mean self-contained stories unrelated in plot or character but connected in theme, ideas, contexts and of course genre. More importantly the binding element was feeling-state - the emotional expectations of the audience. The Twilight Zone, Tales form the Crypt, The Outer Limits all fit this mode. In very recent terminology ‘Anthology Series’ has taken on a different meaning where by a whole season rather than an episode represents a self-contained story where by a second season starts new story lines. (American Horror Story is an example of this, but I’ll argue AHS better fits the Precinct mode below.) The Anthology horror series solves the inherent problem by simply avoiding it all together. The ‘monster’ is able to be reset because it’s a different monster each episode. The stakes can peak and renew with each new story. The UK online series Bloody Cuts is similarly a superb example of using the Anthology format of self-contained stories, but linked by genre, tone and concept, to their maximum effect. 

PRECINCT

Assuming we need or want to solve the problem more directly with an ongoing series then we have to look to other pattern and structure solutions. The most effective and yet varied is the Precinct Horror. The idea of a precinct-drama is a staple of traditional TV where the location and setting is itself a naturally dramatic ‘precinct’. Police Stations and Hospitals represent the most common ‘precinct dramas’ (NYPD Blue, ER etc) but also many political dramas like The West Wing are also precinct drama. The precinct itself is naturally dramatic, new dramatic stories walk through the door each episode - new crimes, new patients.

Where we see this in Horror is in a series that defines itself and its ‘horror engine’ by the scary monster-generating power of the precinct - Graveyards, Asylums, Prisons, Haunted Houses, Isolated Communities all represent ‘horror precincts’. In this, its not the individual monster that is scary but the variety of ‘monsters’ the precinct itself might generate.

The highly successful series American Horror Story is a great case study to examine because it both fails and succeeds superbly. If we look at the first season of AHS, it was a story predicated on a classic haunted house scenario that drives the newly arrived inhabitants mad. Certainly we might observe that the ‘Haunted House’ serves as Precinct-Horror - a closed environment that by its nature generates ongoing scariness. But the Haunted House as a sustainable horror precinct has a key problem; the family can always just leave…! This was the deep flaw in the first season of AHS that near drove me insane. For all the deft execution and scary ideas I found myself screaming at the TV “Just fucking move out for fuck’s sake you idiots..!” The show attempted to resolve this with various mechanics, most notably financial reasons for the characters to stay early on. But these reasons to stay always seemed artificial - obvious devices to bluntly solve a story plausibility and logic problem. The characters were never truly ‘trapped’ and for horror to work, the trap must be profound and inescapable. 

HOWEVER, the creators of AHS seemed to have quickly learned this lesson and the whole ball game changed with AHS season 2 - Asylum. An Asylum, like a Haunted House, is a natural ‘precinct’ for horror as it generates in an ongoing way perpetual scariness - so monsters can change and the stakes can reset  without ever being turned off. But unlike the haunted house, the Asylum creates a very organic and natural mechanic for why the characters are ‘trapped’ - they simply CANT get out..! The Asylum generates ongoing horrors, is able to not only reset them but generate new variations episode over episode. AHS Asylum was never dull, never repetitive, never lacking plausible logic. moreover it empowered the characters with a clear goal - to get out - a clarity of motivation that the first season never achieved. With the announcement of the next AHS season begin set in a Carnival the potential is huge for a genuinely scary precinct of the ‘freakshow’. But the challenge will be how to entrap characters within it so that ‘just leaving’ is never an option for the characters.

SPAWNING

The third form that can’t be over looked is what I would call Spawning horror. The ‘monster’ in such horror is not a discreet being or force  but an ongoing, ever-spawning horrific threat that cannot be beaten or over come, only at best escaped. Such Horror series are not tied to a discreet precinct or scary place but engage more with the horror spawning in domestic and ordinary places. The obvious example here is Zombies and The Walking Dead. There’s no scary precinct in TWD, the monster is ongoing and continually spawning. This provides a constant source of threat and escalation for the characters but lots of room for variation and modulation giving reset to the episodic narrative pattern episode to episode. Arguably Buffy the Vampire Slayer (whilst a complex mesh of genre forms and parody) uses this same idea as its central horror dramatic device . The Hell Mouth is constantly able to spawn ongoing monster threats to Buffy and her friends. There is no real precinct in the same way as a Graveyard or Asylum is a precinct, rather the Hell Mouth spawns monsters into the winder domestic world that the characters are forced to confront episode after episode.

MINI-SERIES

The final form that can’t be overlooked is simply the Horror Mini-Series. Here there is a defined and limited dramatic canvas rather than an ongoing one. The monster need only be sustained and escalated for a fixed number of episodes which deuces the need for dramatic ‘reset’. The Mini-series Horror is less common but can be very effective when writers recognise it’s particular strength. If you come at a Mini-series horror as simply a long-feature you will fail to engage with the big structural difference between feature viewing and episodic viewing. A mini-series is not just an extra-long feature cut into bits. Rather the mini-series provides a scope for horror that is particularly good for multiple points-of-view and playing out disparate but colliding horror plot-lines that amp up over episodes.

A good example is Stephen Kings The Stand. Here, what begins as a virus outbreak quickly becomes something more supernatural as two groups of survivors with supernatural forces are pushed into a confrontation. The mini-series episodic structure allows for a story that begins as a horror scenario and escalates into a supernatural  post-apocalyptic story. This extreme escalation in both stakes and scale of the narrative, as told from different points of view and multiple protagonists, is a form that fits neither the ongoing series nor the feature film well, but is very much at home in the 6-8ep mini-series where this a wide but contained scope. The superb UK series DeadSet is also a great example of contained but ever increasing escaltion in discreet series. 

These four modes - Anthology, Precinct, Spawning and Mini-Series are by no means formulas or rules, nor are they discreet or without hybridisation. But they are 4 very useful patterns writers can observe as wrestling with the very specific problems of Episodic-Horror. Worth pointing out as a clear hybrid of these forms is the X-Files. Whilst not always or strictly ‘horror’, X Files certainly set out with clear intent to scare its audience and consistently delivered on the feeling-state in a wide variety of ways.

At an episode by episode level the X-Files is a procedural drama akin to countless cop shows. But at a macro-level across the seasons is the alien-abduction story of Mulder and his missing childhood sister. And within the procedural and the master-narrative, sits a kind of anthology of self-contained ‘monster’ stories - scifi, supernatural and real-world horrors.

By this combination of forms The X Files is able to reset horror stakes with a new ‘monster of the week’ and create plausibility for why the characters have to ‘go into the horror’ rather than put them in a position where they are trapped inside the horror. It’s a downright clever and complex solution to the same problem all TV horror must deal with.

The scope of possibility for episodic TV horror, and the general industry and audience enthusiasm for such stories, should have every horror writer excited. But to tackle the long-form horror beast you have to come prepared to solve the problems inherent in the TV series form as well as exploit the strengths and power of telling stories episodically Your monster must be able to reset, re-spawned or sustained and your character must be able to be utterly and plausibly trapped for many hours and episodes. Anthologies, Precincts, Spawning engines and Mini-series structures are 4 good patterns to point you in the right direction

Monday
Mar242014

Horror Stories for Children

“The point of scary stories is inoculation…” 

Neil Gaiman is undoubtedly one of the greatest writers and creative minds of the modern age. But aside from the vibrance of his narratives and storyworld, he is also (like all great writers) a superbly articulate and deep thinker.

In this video Gaiman explores the idea of the Horror story and why he writes them for Children.

 

Monday
Mar172014

Sublimely afraid: the appeal & substance of Victorian Gothic Horror

‘Victorian Gothic Horror’; a genre of storytelling that generates immediate, distinctive imagery and iconography along with an almost visceral tone. Dark misty moors, old abandoned houses, women in black corsets and long dresses, changeling children with cold-dead stares… and curtains, lots and lots of dark curtains…. As Edgar Allen Poe wrote in The Raven,  “the silken, sad, uncertain rusting of each purple curtain thrilled me, filled me, with fantastic terrors I’d never seen before…”

But more than just a genre form with established conventions, the Victorian Gothic Horror dictates a particular time and historical period. Certainly we associate a host of classic novels to the setting but the popular dominance of ‘Gothic Fiction’ in literature had largely passed by the time of the Victorian age. Yet the hang over of the Gothic form seems indelibly marked on this period of time around the industrial revolution. The weight of literary greats such as Charles Dickens are obviously a big factor, as are the seminal stories such as The Strange case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Elisabeth Gaskell’s The Grey Woman.

But its not just classic writers of the period that write Victorian Gothic, modern writers do as well, such as Susan Hill (the Woman in Black) and John Harwood (The Asylum); borrowing not just the tone and conventions of the Gothic, but very literally the setting and period.

What I worry about (in the way I worry about the fate of other high-concept genres; SciFi, Dystopian, Post-Apocalyptic and Horror) is too many writers leaping to the shallow and simplistic tropes and trappings without a deeper engagement with the underlying chemistry of the genre. Or to put it another way, a focus on the bathroom fixtures rather than the plumbing.

So as I myself settle in to developing a new horror novel and multi platform project that is distinctly Victorian Supernatural Gothic Horror (a story of quarantine stations, underground labyrinths, transgressive mothers and a demonic soul-stealing photographic camera), I’ve been working through what it is that makes this period in history so fucking scary, so haunting and so loaded with supernatural potential?

I’ve written a lot about the underlying chemistry and psychology for writing and structuring horror stories:

‘Scary Circumstance vs Scary Idea’ ‘The Mythology of Horror & the stories that won’t go away’ and the importance of the audience asking ‘There but for the Grace of God go I…’

And all these elements are consistent and important to building a supernatural Victorian Gothic Horror story, but what does the unique setting and period of time bring to the writer’s table? As a writer looking to engage the Victorian Gothic at more than a superficial or simplistically way, we have to look to the pattern of thematics and ideas.

The body of Victorian Gothic stories bring up a recurrent collection of themes - madness, morality, criminality, family bonds and the animal or demon ‘within’. These are the common elements that span the genre on both page and screen. What is it about the Victorian period that pushes and fosters these themes? 

To understand any historical period you have to look at what forces at that time are in collision? If you can identify what prevailed before and what prevails after you’ll know the mind-set of people and their stories caught in the moment. Victorian England (and by proxy this period throughout the Empire, Europe and the United States) is historically crucial moment of transformation. The industrial revolution is radically altering a previously agrarian society and with large scale industry comes rapid advancements in science and technology - the understanding of the world itself was re-imagined.

But change doesn’t happen easy, change is hard, change is brutal; and for communities and culture such upheaval slams together belief systems and ideologies in fractious ways. In the Victorian era science is advancing but its very far from being advanced or sophisticated. Likewise the beliefs of people are progressing but haven’t nearly shaken off superstition. At this time there is immense desire to ‘understand’ and yet still so very much that ‘cannot yet be understood’ and much resistance to understanding itself.

This is the sublimely delicious gap that the Victorian Gothic Horror lives and thrives in; a rich vein of story-telling juice that stems from a collision between the Rational and the Superstitious.

Importantly, and unlike other periods of history, at this time both these forces are powerful and both deeply held in a kind of momentary stasis of equal weighting. Rational scientific thinking has proven its power and physically changed the world, but superstition is still highly compelling for a people still attached to their long-held mythology. It’s an age when traditional religion is breaking down under the weight of science and reason and yet people seek to replace their old beliefs with a new mythology. Unable yet to fully substitute the superstitious with the rational, they replace one mythology for another. 

A late 19th century seanceIn case of the Victorian era this was broadly known as Spiritualism; the belief that the souls of the dead could speak to the living through a kind of pseudo-rational set of mechanics - seances, automatic writing, paranormal photographics. Indeed the very idea of a ‘paranormal investigator’ is entirely Victorian in origin, melding a kind of scientific rationale to examine that which is neither scientific nor rational.

It’s no co-incidence either that, as the world reeled from the implications of Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’ and questioned what it meant to be ‘human’, new theories about our behaviour and humanity emerged. Atavism was predicated on the idea of people being biologically and genealogically predetermined to primitive ‘animal’ behaviours, or the idea that we could de-evolve into animalistic states - madness, criminality, immorality - if exposed to certain forces or conditions (both scientific and supernatural).

And it’s these ideas of the ‘primitive’ held barely at bay, regression into madness, and criminality being biological rather than behavioural, that are the guts of gothic horror.  This is the space where ghosts haunt machines, where spirits of the dead test the morality of the living, where phantasms of the past drive people to violence in the present, where isolation leads to insanity and where immorality fractures the mind and body.

So with this in mind, a writer seeking to draw a horror narrative out of the Victorian Gothic space, the crucial questions become:

‘where does the Supernatural collide with Reason in your story?’

‘what forces trap a character between Rational and Irrational?’

‘what keeps a character Rational when they should be Irrational?’

‘how will a character’s attachment to Logic and Reason be tested?’

‘what Transgressions bring about Madness?’

‘what is the Primal Demon within that is only barely held at bay?’

This is the stuff of great gothic horror.

Author and researcher Sarah Perry frames the appeal and feeling-state tensions of the Gothic superbly in an essay entitled A sublime contagion.

I am deliciously uneasy, repulsively thrilled, sublimely afraid. It gives licence to sensations that we feel but cannot admit, and at precisely the same time cloaks those sensations in such strangeness that it is possible to say: ‘It is only an absurd tale of vampires and shadows; it has nothing whatever to do with me.’ The Gothic provides a hiding-place and a place of consecration for those seeking what lies beyond the boundary of society and reason, a sublime contagion to which we are never quite immune.”

What is also crucial to recognise about Victorian Gothic as both a genre and a period of history is the quite unique blend of Familiar and Foreign it delivers for audiences. The Victorian age is far enough back in time from the present that it feels foreign, otherworldly, full of behaviours and iconography that is very removed from our own world. And yet, at the same time, it is not so far away as to be unfamiliar. The Victorian age is the birth of modernity - we see the period and we see industry and technology, science, reason, electric lights and clocks and a range of devices of the modern world that remind us of our own. This blend of things we recognise in a setting that we don’t fits directly with the Freudian idea of the uncanny. Sarah Perry adds;

“Freud conceived of the uncanny – an approximation of the untranslatable German unheimlich – as a state of indescribable unease and terror, drawn not from encounters with ghouls and beasts but from something horribly familiar. To be heimlich is to be homely, of the domestic sphere, but also concealed, secret, hidden. What is unheimlich is therefore simultaneously unhomely and revelatory: it spells an unwelcome encounter with our primitive desires and social taboos, an encounter all the more horrible because it is with ourselves.”

This idea of the ‘uncanny’ manifests in all sorts of ways. For Freud attics and basements were uncanny spaces as they were both ‘of the house’ an connected to the house,  but at the same time outside of it’s bounds, outside of the home. In animation the term ‘uncanny valley’ describes human faces that intend upon being photo-real yet do not quite make it, they lack a kind of soul and our human instincts cringe at such faces (try watching the animated Polar Express without cringing and you’ll know what I mean’.  

The Victorian gothic as a whole presents a storyworld that is in a great many ways uncanny because of both its position in history (the cusp with superstition and reason) and also because of it’s distance back in time from the present - far enough away to be foreign, close just enough to be familiar. 

Perhaps because if this there is a window of opportunity, that the Victorian Gothic won’t hold its special uncanny place for ever as the modern world continues to advance…

So I better get cracking on my own Victorian Gothic novel before the uncanny specialness runs out…

Monday
Mar102014

Shallow & Vacuous: Conversations about Horror with the Australian Feature Film Industry.

The Australian Feature Film sector is often an easy target for criticism both justified and unjustified, from within and without. Not enough films, not enough good films, not enough commercial films, not enough artistic films, too many comedies that aren’t funny, too many dramas that aren’t dramatic, too much nepotism in funding decisions, too much personal subjectivity in funding decisions, not enough commercial focus in funding decisions… and so on and so on…

However, for me there is a single criticism that is both simpler and bigger than any and all of these; I think most of the Australian Film Industry (referring to high-level producers and funding bodies) don’t live in the same storytelling universe as other narrative art forms… 

How do I come to such a conclusion? Let me explain…

I’m a writer and unlike many writers who are quite platform specific (novelists, playwrights, screenwriters) I write across different forms - books, screen and interactive. As such, I regularly have conversations and pitch projects to different types of ‘powers-that-be’ in different industry sectors. I write novels so I pitch to Publishers. I write interactive experiences and so I pitch to game developers and interactive media producers. And I write movies and so sometimes I pitch to feature film producers and funding agencies.

Now, regular readers will know that much of my work and passion is centred on dark genres of story telling, principally Horror (but also spanning broader veins of Speculative Fiction, Dark Thriller, SciFi and Post-Apocalyptic). As such when im pitching projects to all these different powers-that-be, across Book, Game and Movie industries, the consistent element of my pitching is the genre itself and it’s legacy.

Interactive media is obviously still regarded as ‘new’, whereas, by contrast, Publishing is considered old and a ‘traditional media’. Film sits somewhere in between - not as old as the book, but older than the video game. But if we take the three sets of conversations I have in Australia about Horror genre projects I can observe that one of these three industries seems to be ignorantly disconnected from the worlds that the other two live in. Or to put it another way, Publishing and Interactive seem to have a common understanding that Australian Feature Film does not share. 

In pitching to powers-that-be in publishing and interactive media I’ve NEVER EVER had to convince them of the merits of the horror genre, Ive Never Ever had to validate, prove or justify why telling a Horror story is worthy. I’ve Never Ever had to argue for why a horror story has a dynamic and valid audience….

The same cannot be said for the Australian Feature Film industry. 

To a Publisher or Interactive Producer, when I say “I have a horror story”  they say:

“Great. What’s the concept? Whats the central scary idea?”

“What’s the sub-genre; ghost, gothic, stalker, slasher, supernatural?”

“Who are your influences? What are the antecedents?”

To a publisher or interactive producer the long (and indeed, ancient) history of the horror story is clear and apparent, its broad audience appeal is well established, its mechanics, mythology and modes are a long-standing part of the form (be it book or game). As a result the subsequent conversation is rich and fertile; feedback and questions have substance and merit and depth and rigour….

‘I think horror and fantasy are arenas in which we can discuss anxieties, philosophical questions, and bring it almost to the level where abstraction becomes flesh… you can, very much in the tradition of the Greeks manifest big ideas, big themes and make them reality.’

- Guillermo Del Toro

Importantly the difference is not about whether the ‘pitchee’ is a ‘fan’ of horror. A traditional book publisher whose usual fair is ‘Literary Fiction’, ‘Popular Crime’ or even ‘Romance’ will still be able to come back to you with a discussion of Mary Shelley, Louis-Stevenson, Poe, Hawthorne, Oscar Wilde, Richard Matheson, Henry James, Charlotte Bronte, HP Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, and Charles Dickens, not mention Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, Dean Koontz and Steven King. The long history of horror as a staple of literature both at popular and artistic level is clear and present to anyone in the publishing industry, irrespective of their genre preference.

And despite the newness of the medium it’s the same for interactive media. Pitch a horror based game to an interactive producer whose usual fair is platformers or action RPG’s and the conversation will still be informed by long history of ‘scary games’ going back to the golden age in the 80’s and 90’s. The core mechanics of the horror-game are intrinsic to understanding the appeal of narrative game experiences as a whole. No interactive producer worth their salt would be ignorant of the legacy, appeal and impact of Horror in gaming. 

In both these very different industry spheres what is absolutely apparent is that, as a writer, you Never, Ever have to validate why you are pitching a Horror story. You Never Ever have to convince of the merits of a horror audience or justify why horror stories are worth telling… Thats all a given. All that matters to them as a starting point; “Is It Scary? and How well executed is the Scariness?”

So….. then you go to the Australian Feature Film industry powers-that-be with the same idea, perhaps the same story, in the same genre form, and the conversation more often than not is decidedly different…  

How do I describe the experience of talking to the Australian Film Industry about Horror stories? Imagine trying to discuss the mechanical workings of an internal combustion engine to an infant child who was just given a Matchbox car toy….

MIKE: “I think there’s merit in a rotary engine over a straight 4 cylinder in terms of torque and efficiency…”

AUSTRALIAN FILM INDUSTRY “Broom Broom, Beep Beep. Red goes faster…”

A conversation with an Australian Film Industry about Horror is rarely anything more than insipidly shallow - questions and feedback rarely above the infantile, the substance and interrogation of the Horror idea, vacuous. And, worse still, opinions on the merits of the work are delivered emphatically by those who do not make, watch, read or even like Horror - and who are also seemingly unaware of the long history, influence and diversity of horror narratives on cinema. 

Where as it is impossible to be a Publisher or an Interactive Producer and NOT be fully aware of the long legacy of Horror as a narrative form central to the art itself; I am consistently staggered that the Australian Feature Film industry is so entirely disconnected from this most seminal and mythological of narrative forms. It’s as if they exist in a story vacuum disconnected from the canon that defines all other storytelling industries; unable to conceive of Horror as anything more than mindless, disposable slasher-flicks for teenage boys. 

Should I point out that at least 7 of the 100 greatest books of all time in the Western Canon are based in the Horror genre….  Or shall we start to compile a list of commercial, critical and artistically successful horror films that ARE NOT mindless Slasher flicks for Teenagers…. Here’s 23 just off the top of my head without even going to Google….

Rosmary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Ring, The Devils Backbone, Don’t Look Now, The Orphanage, The Wickerman, Angleheart, The Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense, Wake in Fright, The Shining, Cronos, Psycho ,Carrie, The Fog, The Night of the Hunter, The Others, The Devils, In the mouth of madness, The Birds, Alien, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

I had the experience of pitching the same horror story to both an Australian Publisher and a Australian Film Funding body. The Publisher responded to the idea by citing Henry James, the dark undercurrents of Charlotte Bronte and recognising that the story was effectively a re-telling of seminal 19th century play ‘Faust’, where a Doctor sells his soul to make a deal with the Devil.

By contrast the Aus Film Industry exec responded with “we don’t think the premise is any good”. 

Yep, the Premise of Faust - revered as the greatest work of German literature - “isn’t any good”.

With the publisher I had a rich and informative and ultimately Helpful discussion about cylinders, pistons, torque and miles per litre…” With the Australian Film Industry folks we never got past “Broom, Broom. Beep Beep, We don’t like red cars….”

By coincidence, veteran Australian film producer Tony I. Ginnane this week laments the missed opportunity of the Australian Film sector to build a genuine ‘industry’ with an article entitled FILM: WHERE TO THE AUSSIE INDUSTRY? 

Ideas such as “If we had built an industrial film industry complementary to our cultural industry we would have established sustainability and increased success.” seem to resonate with my experience of a Film Industry disengaged and in a self-imposed exile from a broader narrative-culture. 

Or perhaps Joss Whedon expresses it best when he says:

“So you’d like me to write something realistic?  Like the Odyssey?  Or Hamlet?  Or A Christmas Carol?  For genre to be ghettoized in the minds of the big thinkers means that they’re not thinking big enough.”

- Joss Whedon

My ego is too big to give up on writing a great Australian myth-based supernatural Horror film (certainly the recent success of uber-talented Jennifer Kent’s Babbadook gives me cause for hope)

But I’m much more inclined to focus on Books and Games just so I don’t have to feel my fucking brain leaking out my ear every time I have to have another inane conversation with the Australian Film Industry about Horror…

 

Tuesday
Mar042014

Periodic Table of Storytelling

A few years back I assembled a kind of periodic table as a brianstorming story development tool and posted it under the title The Chemistry of Dramatic Storytelling

The idea was to be able to have a framework for seeing and articulating the core elements and how they connect; to move past specific formulas and instead focus on the underlying chemical ingredients - events, actions, dilemmas, inversions, thresholds, stakes, risks, secrets, lies, archetypes, flaws, wounds, premises, myths, concepts, themes, inciting incidents…. the base chemicals of narrative.

It seems now that James Harris has gone a step further to create a complete Period Table of Storytelling.

Tne table is certainly funny and clever but the more you look, the more you start to see that it’s remarkably useful to the working writer, to remind themselves of the complexity of narrative.

Monday
Mar032014

Note to Writers: the world does Not owe you a living.

Article from The Guardian today: “From bestseller to bust: is this the end of an author’s life?” 

I find the perspective of this article rather infuriating - an indulgent, self-entitled, factually dodgey, argument predicated on the idea that the world owes the writer a living. 

I don’t know which is more silly; the idea that I’m supposed to feel sorry for the author who has to get rid of his central London office and work from home, Or the hyperbole that ‘authorship itself is now at stake’ as a result. To then leverage this pretentious position as an argument against copyright reform in the digital age is bordering on farcical.

Carl Spitzweg - The Poor Poet

Much of the traditional publishing industry business model is broken - it over-inflated, peaked and is now evolving into something more diverse and distributed. But literature is not nearly so fragile and never has been. Being an artist is hard. And so it should be. No great art ever came from easy-living.

Now, dont get me wrong, this is NOT to say that writers shouldn’t be paid and that skills and creative endeavour cant be sold and traded. But the idea that a novelist should be able to be a ‘full-time’ novelist for the rest of their life as some kind of moral right, is just daft. The issue of decling advances for authors should more logically be seen as the natural evolution and diversification of audiences and consumption, not the fall of western civilisation brought on by the internet. 

Last week the Australian Society of Authors lobbied the government to reject fair-use changes to copyright law. I would argue this approach is simply Not doing the cause of 21st century writers any good. The position is a desperate attempt to defend an unsustainable business model out of kilter with the digital age. It’s a finger-in-the-dyke when the genie is out of the bottle (to mix metaphors)… Argue defence of the ‘old way’ all you like but the dam Will Burst and the genie cannot be put back in the bottle… So best you work out what you can do with a lot of water and a genie… (ok now ive pushed the mixed metaphor too far, but you see where im going…)

Sadly the ASA’s article was little more than factually vacuous, fear-mongering based on a very simplitsic and absolutist ‘moral’ position (the dyke must be held and the genie must be forced into back into the bottle). Fair-Use clauses and a more fleixble application of copyright law to the digital age is not the enemy of writing, authors or art and we need to stop framing the discussion in such terms if we want a good outcome of the debate. 

In the digital age, if a writer cannot be flexible, cannot work across forms, cannot apply their story craft in mediums old and knew, cannot engage directly with their audiences and exploit the myriad of New opportunities (rather than just lamenting the lack of ones previous generations had) if their art is so fragile that it cannot be interupted by a part-time job on the side, then they should write for love, write for art, But should have No expectations of a right to make a living. 

As author Joanna Kavenna stats in the article, “being a writer stopped being the way it had been for ages – the way I expected it to be – and became something different.”

Yes. It did. Adapt or dont. But don’t complain about the change as if you are somehow a poor victim robbed of an inheritance.

There has Never, Ever been a better time to be a writer, because there have Never, Ever been so many forms to write for, or more diverse audiences to engage, or more direct means to access those audiences, or more possibilities for revenue from your work. To fail to see this is to be trapped in an antiquated notion of what the writer is, or worse, what they are supposedly ‘entitled’ to.