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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
Jul142014

Hellraiser and there art of Monster Design

Great horror narratives start with great Monster Design. More than just scary imagery, a great ‘monster’ should be a metaphor, a representation of a high concept idea as well as the demon inside the protagonist - a shadow-self, embodying their transgressions and their worst imaginable fears tailor-made for them.

Clive Barker’s Cenobites from HELLRAISER are a superb horror creation and this article breaks down the evolution of Pinhead as a horror concept and character. It includes exploration of the mythology and imagery that went into the design of Pinhead and his fellow Cenobites and the horror writing process of Barker himself.

“One image I remember very strongly from The Forbidden was that Clive had built what he called his ‘nail-board’ which was basically a block of wood which he’d squared off and then he’d banged six-inch nails in at the intersections of the squares. He spent endless hours playing with what happened if a light was swung around in front of it to see the way that the shadows of the nails moved and what happened if it was top lit and so forth. Of course, when I saw the first illustrations for this gentleman, it rang a bell with me that here was actually Clive putting the ideas that he’d been playing around with with the nail-board in The Forbidden, now 10, 15 years later or whatever here he’d now put the image all over a human being’s face. Which is typical of the way that he will work with ideas, you’ll find little bits of ideas that he would play around with that ten, fifteen years later when apparently it’s all forgotten with, that idea is suddenly brought up again and dealt with in a much bigger way.”

http://www.clivebarker.info/pinevolution.html

 

Monday
Jul072014

Podcast Interview discussing Victorian Gothic Horror

Death Becomes her - Metropolitan Museum of Art NY 

Progress continues on my new series of horror novels and, as I set into the second book this month, I continue to interrogate the concepts that underpin the the story ideas I’m executing. 

Having spent a number of years teaching writing my own creative process has become infused with the kind of reflection you have to do as a teacher in interrogating Why you make the narrative choices you do.

To that end, last week I had the opportunity to talk about Victorian Gothic Horror with ABC Radio National’s Antony Funnell and the discussion ranged over the genre’s form and appeal as well as speculating on why we continue to tell these kind of stories, even in a modern digital age. What is it about this particular period in time that makes for such a compelling mix of dramatic forces, ideas and motifs?

The full podcast of the interview is available online here…

“The Victorian age may be long gone but it’s certainly not forgotten. It continues to be a reference point for counter cultural movements like steam punk and of course for fiction.

Just think of all those shelves of vampire stories you find in bookstores these days.

They may not necessarily be set in the Victorian era but they certainly borrow from the look and feel of Victorian Gothic Fiction.”

Tuesday
Jun172014

Screen 2030: imagining the future present

“This is the best time ever to be a writer, creator, producer or director of stories because there’s never been more diverse audiences, there’s never been more active niches and there’s never been more mediums to tell these stories”.

Or so I said in the documentaryScreen 2030: Making my Content Pay which was featured at the Vivid Ideas Festival in June. The doco probed at the wide range of both problems and opportunities the digital world puts in front of creative producers and teased at the issue of how a professional living can be made.

From the blurb:

This year’s VIVID IDEAS event launched the documentary, Screen 2030: Making My Content Pay, to a full house at the MCA. Host Tim Parsons led a panel discussion exploring the future careers of emerging content makers with some of the screen and media industry’s key thinkers including media futurist, Mark Pesce, Senior Manager of Strategy, Research and Communications at Screen Australia, Georgie McClean, Emmy Award winning producer, Marcus Gillezeau,  and all media documentary producer, Ester Harding.

Monday
Jun092014

Audience Positioning and Interactive Narrative

Interactive Narrative is a very broad bucket of possibilities - a story where the audience has some level of agency to influence, effect, steer, control, manipulate, tell or progress the story, has an almost infinitely wide range of possible executions. 3D, open world, first-person video games provide a great deal of agency, where as a tablet-based interactive graphic novel might allow for only very limited or specific agency. Yet both (and anything in between) can be understood as interactive simply by the presence of that agency. Which is not to say that there aren’t unifying elements along that spectrum that can help articulate core mechanics and audience alignments; in particular Action, Motivation and Reward…

The ‘agency’ in an interactive narrative is predicated on a Role for the audience to play and this is best understood as an active-verb - to Fight, Find, Assemble, Help, Escape, Create, and so on. But for that role-play action to be effective, and more than just button pushing, it must be leveraged also with Motivation & Reward. The audience needs to be compelled and motivated to play the defined role (dramatic stakes and dramatic questions are certainly a great motivator) And the audience need to be rewarded for taking action (in a traditional video game this might be points or levelling up, but may also be the progress of the story itself as the reward system for motivated action.) Action, Motivation and Reward are the foundations of any good interactive narrative.

From that basis, my current work with Portal Entertainment - working here in LA with a US studio developing interactive projects - has compelled me to think through the archetypal forms of audience positioning and how they relate to storytelling momentum and dramatic questions? And what bubbles to the surface of my thinking is 4 interactive modes as a kind of test board to throw story possibilities at in the writers room. These are by no means the definitive ways to think about constructing interactive stories, but there do provide useful launch points.

PROGRESSIVE: The audience engages the story progressively forward against obstacles with a motivation in the immediate present. i.e Start the experience, X happens, now ‘you’ must do Y. And when you do Y now you must do Z…. etc. this seems obvious but what this mode does is render Backstory outside of the experience - what happened ‘before’ the start of the story doesn’t matter to the audience, only what happens next and what must be done next and what is to come. This kind of story requires constant addition of escalating plot elements that grow in front of the audience and dramatic questions that are speculative and forward-facing. 

REFLECTIVE: The audience is positioned as ‘amnesiac’, not always (but sometimes) literally. That they do not know their own backstory yet are motivated to discover it. The backstory is central to the narrative but is unknown to the audience at the start. Subsequently, actions and choices are motivated by the audience’s desire to answer questions that reveal the backstory. In other words, the audience plays to discover ‘what happened?’ ‘how did i get here?’ ‘who am I?’, ‘how did the world get this way?’ etc. Subsequently the entry point into the story for the audience is in-media-res; in the middle of things. The story plays forward in order to reveal what happened before.

From a narrative writing point of view this in-media-res starting point can often solve key problems. It allows for the audience to begin the story at a very high-stakes moment in the narrative timeline, giving an opening that is energised and has momentum - a dynamic position from which more speculative exploration can then be undertaken. In other words, start at a high-point and the writer subsequently buys themselves freedom to bring exposition and detail out in a way that wont struggle so hard to maintain attention. Importantly it changes the dramatic question for the audience. Rather than ‘Will I/they be able to…?’ it becomes ‘How were I/they able to’. The ‘gameplay’ becomes about playing-to-reveal rather than playing-to-achieve and this can be a very useful device for a range of narrative genres.

PARALLEL: Sometimes the orientation of audience is not to be central to the story but to be positioned at a slight remove, looking in and effecting the story and the experience of the story whilst also being a witness to the events happening to other protagonist characters. In this Parallel mode the Audience plays their actions in a story running parallel to another character and events. Looking in on it, having to make choices about it, but at a remove. In more practical dramatic terms, audience actions reveal what happened to someone else and it’s their backstories and parallel experiences that ‘you’ uncover through actions.

EXTRANEOUS: Not all interactive narratives are about ‘You’, the audience isn’t always playing a projection of ‘self’. An Extraneous mode of interactive story is one not happening ‘to the audience’, but rather one they participate in as an outsider - Helping to tell the story or be a part of the telling, or making choices and actions on behalf of the character in the story. But where they themselves are not actualised. There’s a lot of interesting precedents in this mode - the iPad extension app to Alice Madness Returns for example uses the mode well to make the audience complicit in the maltreatment of a psych patient because they have to perform the experiments to advance the story. 

The point of breaking down these story modes as methods for positioning the audience in relation to the story is not to serve as some kind of rule set, but rather to compel us to ask useful questions that help to solve the very tricky problems of interactive storytelling. So, in my own work, I’m conscious that before plotting we need to think about which of these modes will set the alignment of the audience and then develop from that to shape an audience-centric experience. Also, at a very practical level, this clarity also allows for a pitch that is strong and clear in both narrative and interactive experience. 

Tuesday
Jun032014

How you describe your project is as important as how you make it.

We of the Portal Entertainment team have arrived in LA and moved into our new offices in Burbank. Holing up in new office in a new city for new projects. The tragedy being that, much like the first rule of Fight Club is you can’t blog or tweet about Fight Club, there’s not much I can say about the projects we’re working on… (other than they are seriously fucking cool..!) 

Happy writers in their happy new officeWhat I can say is that many of the questions I’ve been wrestling with over the past few years around the challenging central mechanics of constructing interactive narratives are very much at the front of the writer’s-room discussion and the development choices we are making.

A high-level meeting today with studio experts on promotion, marking and audience development for digital, interactive and transmedia projects fuelled that discussion further. And sometimes it’s the asking of very simple, almost perfunctory, questions that prompt the most insightful responses.

‘Where in the app-store do you put your ‘interactive narrative app’ product?’ Without any clear category of its own to encompass such an experience, creators are compelled to put their round peg in a variety of trapezoid shaped category holes. 

Each category in the app-store is predicated on well established forms when the product you are making may not neatly sit within suck buckets. Each app-store category creates expectations about what the experience of the product is and those expectations need to be met or satisfied.

Put it in GAMES and ‘audience’ immediately expects to be a ‘player’ which brings with it a host of expectations around ‘play’ which can be surprisingly restrictive. And in practical terms this often implies problematic expectations around the duration of the experience and the amount of agency handed to the ‘player’. (generally spekaing, ‘players’ expect to have a lot of agency and play for hours and hours).

If you put it in ENTERTAINMENT you free yourself from many expectations of form but you run the risk of being in a category more often filled with apps that are utilities rather than experiences. Social TV interfaces and remote controls, streaming services and so on. 

If you put it under TV you could aim for presenting as a hybrid ‘next-gen’ app-based TV experience with interactive elements… but you’d also be sitting alongside actual ‘TV Shows’ and run the risk of being dwarfed or mis-represented. 

Office kitchen full of snacks including these… I’m 2 down for the day & the casualties could go higher So, are you in fact ‘publishing’ and so should place your interactive narrative production under BOOKS, presenting a hybrid book experience? I’ve written before about Platform-Agnostic publishing and publishers embracing the idea of separating what they do from the medium they have traditionally sold… I wrote…

“Publishing’ is about Development and Delivery of Stories; Development and nurturing of writing talent and the Delivery and distribution of their work to audiences. Where are the publishers who see interactive and screen-based iterations of their writers work as core business rather than add-on.” Or in other words, publishing is about development and delivery NOT selling books. The music industry already made that mistake when they thought they were in the ‘CD Selling’ business, rather than the ‘delivery of music’ business. 

But of course, in the app-store, putting your interactive narrative app under the BOOK category suffers the same potential misconstrued expectations as putting it in TV.

So inevitably what becomes key is clarity of language around how you describe what it is you have made. This prompted the simple realisation for the day; that how you describe and talk about the project is as crucial as what the project is and how you write it. If you can’t communicate it, you can’t find an audience for it. 

Monday
May122014

The writing process of Transgressions: Scripts, Games & Gothic Horror

I first starting thinking of myself as a writer aged sixteen. At eighteen I wrote my first professionally produced stage play (a god-awful, self-indulgent, black comedy about the end of the world that nobody thought was funny) Since then I’ve written for all manner of mediums and forms with the tenacity of someone who has no faith in their talent, yet an ego too big to let a lack of talent get in the way. I figured if I just wrote ‘more’ than anyone else I’d crash through (or just crash).

This week I wrote ‘The End’ on my third full-length novel and the first in a brand new series of supernatural and gothic horror books entitled ‘Transgressions’ which will be published next year by Simon & Schuster. 

Some writers hate writing, but love having written. Others love the writing process but are never happy with the results. I spent much of my career working on ‘other peoples’ projects’ so it was always the process I had to engage and love first and foremost because the outcome was rarely ‘mine’ to love. It’s only now that I realise, and can appreciate, the positive effect this had on my own writing process. It may have been frustrating but spending so many formative years working on ‘other peoples projects’ forces you to appreciate, interrogate and articulate process in a way that many writers never do. 

In more recent years I’ve found greater traction on my own projects and penning the first book of the ‘Transgressions’ series - entitled ‘The Mothers’ - felt like a key milestone. The book was a true joy to write with the action of writing feeling like the culmination of everything I had learned and refined as a process from 20 years of crash and burn mistakes. 

Before setting into the manuscript I had spent time building up a scene by scene detailed outline that mapped the plot into the specific dramatic patterns I wanted to exploit. My influences as a writer are broad - not just in genre and stye but in the very literal sense of format. With much of my work being in cross-platform and interactive media as well as film and TV, it was inevitable that even when working in the very traditional mode of novelist, my writing process and end result would be heavily influenced by these non-traditional mediums. 

So in writing ‘The Mothers’ I brought a very Feature Film centric idea of highly detailed outlining to a pre-defined ending. I could not begin to write the manuscript until I knew exactly how the story would end. Only when you know the ending can you write each scene with all its arrows pointing in that inevitable direction. The tiny canvas of the 2hr feature film demands this kind of efficiency in a way that few other story mediums do. Minimal waffle. Constant progression. 

Similarly, from the sensibilities of TV and Multiplatform writing I brought to ‘The Mothers’ a very specific attention to episodic structures. Each chapter was built so that it answered a specific dramatic question and then, in the answering, posed a new - extended - higher stakes dramatic question to instigate the next chapter. More than just a simplistic notion of ‘cliff-hangers’, I was looking to ensure that each chapter encapsulated a clear playable action for the character that resulted in satisfying rhythmic pattern for the audience that felt like it was always moving. If a chapter did not have such an action built from a clearly identifiable dramatic question (Will X, be able to Y or else Z?), then it was jettisoned.

Finally, from a life well wasted in front of video game consoles and computers, I could not help but bring a game-mechanic sensibility to the book’s story. This meant that in creating the story’s antagonistic forces and, more particularly, their specific modus operandi of delivering obstacles, I was very conscious of those obstacles being ‘playable’. I wanted to write a book with a natural game mechanic infused in the narrative and motivating the character as a player might be motivated to play. In ‘The Mothers’ this is predicated on two things the protagonist is constantly forced to deal with - a Labyrinth - a puzzle mechanic, and Light (or the lack thereof) - a resource mechanic. The hero of the story, a wayward and desperate woman seeking to escape from a haunted quarantine station, has to navigate a maze whilst trying to find, maintain, stay in, or stay away from, sources of Light. These two elements give me a very happy triumvirate of:

a) providing near endless sources of dramatic tension, suspense and obstacles for the character as they try to “escape the maze in the dark”.

b) clearly tapping into the long-standing iconography and conventions of the Gothic Horror genre and its metaphoric ideas of inner-demons, guilt and descending madness through mazes, mirrors and shadows.

c) ensuring that the protagonist always has an Active Goal to pursue in each and every chapter, that the story Never becomes one based on ‘stuff happening’, but rather always about ‘characters doing stuff’.

Interactive game mechanics naturally drive this thinking. I would argue writers have potentially more to learn directly about storytelling from playing games than they do just from reading books. I played a lot of games growing up and what Dungeons & Dragons taught me spoke to the very essence of good storytelling. Games - whether table top or video-screen - are intrinsically predicated on Structural 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 any of these things and still think they can write. But it is quite literally IMPOSSIBLE to play or create a game without these things as without them there is No game nor any reason to play.

Observing the influence interactive and multiplatform writing had on the way I approached penning ’The Mothers’ as a rather traditional novel, speaks to the way Ive come to see some of the industrial parameters around what it is to be a professional writer in the 21st century. Where once there were unified audiences and a hierarchy that privileged certain story mediums over others, the world is quite considerably shifting (and indeed I would argue, has already shifted).

The world for storytelling is now a multiplatform, non-hierarchical one full of segmented and diversified audiences. Subsequently, in such a non-hierarchical multi-platform world any Writer who defines their craft by a specific medium is limiting themselves to a narrow ghetto. Platform flexibility is the only way to be a professionally viable writer in such a world and terms like ‘Novelist’, ‘TV-writer’ and ‘Playwright’ are increasingly irrelevant descriptors. The platform should not define your skills, no one medium should limit how you apply your skills. This means not only being flexible about how to execute your craft but also flexibility allowing the skills and knowledge from those other mediums to bleed into the medium you are currently working in. 

For the better part of a decade there has been a lot of buzzword-bingo talk about multi platform storytelling from a host of self-described ‘Transmedia Gurus’. But where I fear the fundamental disconnect has been is in the arse-backwards thinking that privileged the ‘new’. Multi-platform writers should look first to what is consistent across forms, rather than what is different - core principles before unique qualities - else the narrative baby can go out with the bathwater. When a writer is able to see what is consistent between story mediums (rather than being dazzled and distracted by what is unique) they put themselves in a much better position to both satisfy audience expectations as well as fully exploit, adapt and apply those unique properties. 

So, at the end of all this, I sit back and I look at the book I have just written. It’s a story that openly and honestly wears its influences on it’s sleeve. It draws from a long history of the horror story and the thematics and imagery of the gothic tradition. At the same time it’s a book whose process of development and structure of narrative have been directly shaped more by television and multiplatform experiences than by other novels. Similarly the characters and dramatic actions are directly predicated on ideas drawn from game mechanics and interactive role-play. 

When it finally came time to write the manuscript, the process of putting words on the screen was as fluid and immersive an experience as any writer could have wished for. The entire manuscript was written top to bottom in just eleven writing days. It felt very much as if I was ‘writing through’ the story. The structural cause and effect, escalation and reversal patterns had all be broken down, the ending predetermined in the structure. So the writing of the text was like colouring between the lines

Creative process is a unique and infinitely varied creature. Certainly every writer works their own way and what works for one does not necessarily work for another. However, that difference that separates out the Professional Writer is the ability to sustain and maintain creative output and to flexibly apply craft discipline. Doing that requires an interrogation, articulation and examination of process - even more so in a multiplatform, non-hierarchical, audience segmented world. It’s been 20 years since I wrote that first stage play at 18, and I think it’s taken me all that time just to begin to get a handle on a clear writing process that allows me to be professionally disciplined, focused and flexible. 

No one said this writing schtick was easy.

Monday
May052014

Executing on big ideas with limited resources: Wastelander Panda

The new six-part series of Wastelander Panda is now in production for ABCTV and Madman films. Out in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of South Australia there is some crazy arse shit going on and the team from Epic Films - the production company behind the pandaemonium - have been busying tweeting, blogging and facebooking the experience. 

Wastelander Panda is a series with a lot of scale in ideas, locations and characters - the wasteland is a big bad world. And there’s a lot of ambition in building that kind of world with limited capital and resources. The writers room was conscious of these competing forces and a lot of time was spent thinking of clever ways to execute on big ideas whilst not writing ourselves into impossible budgets. 

Not only are the images emerging from the wasteland pretty amazing, equally so is the creative efficiency aiming to deliver on the promise of the wasteland. The Epic Films team are doing an amazing job of getting a Lot of production value out of lean resources. 

Follow the journey on Facebook, Tumblr & Twitter @wastelandrpanda

Set Build Time-Lapse


Thursday
May012014

Transgressions and a new publishing venture

Today I signed a new 3-book deal with my fabulous publisher Simon and Schuster!

The project, collectively entitled ‘Transgressions’, is a series of supernatural gothic horror novels that reach into the darkness of shadowed memories, forgotten ghosts and the demons within - stories of redemption and madness played out against Quarantine stations and Whaling ports and tumble-down Cemeteries. 

The 3 books in the series are currently to be titled:

- The Mothers
- The Scrimshaw Marionette
- Amaranth 

All of them feature some scary, haunting and darkly manifested shit!

It is such a great pleasure and privilege to have the support of such a fantastic editorial and publishing team at S&S who truly care about stories and writers with a genuine and sincere passion. I’ll be blogging, tweeting and generally hollering about these stories as I write them this year toward their 2015 release. Stay tuned…

 

Monday
Apr282014

Interactive Narrative lecture from the creator of Bioshock

From the mastermind of Bioshock comes a lesson in narrative construction. At GDC 2014 Ken Levine gave a first class lecture on what he called ‘narrative lego’ and the releationship between pro-active game-play and authorial storytelling. It’s a must watch for storytellers in any medium, let alone game writers.

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.