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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
Oct272014

Superstition and Supernatural Stories

Theres a lot of supernatural going around. 

I’ve been blogging and speaking a lot of late about my forthcoming supernatural horror book series, ‘Transgressions’. So with that alone my head has spent a lot of time in the twilight zone. But I’ve also been working on a TV series that is currently shooting, as well as a hybrid interactive production in the US - neither of which my contractual NDA’s permit me to say much about - But what I can say is that all are rooted in very cool, mythological, high-concept, supernatural shit..!

Good times! It’s always a fun to go playing in big supernatural creative sandpits - they make for the kind of rich, fertile, larger-life, metaphorical narratives I love. But when you’re working on multiple projects in different mediums that share a common genre base, you’re inevitably compelled to try and understand what makes those genres work at a core level and what it is that underpins those stories irrespective of medium and platform?

It’s been a bit of drum I’ve been banging for a while now. Amidst all the hype and guru-speak about new media forms over the past decade, I’ve often been concerned that creators spend too much time examining what is different between formats, rather than seeking to understanding more holistically what unites and connects them. The result is an over-emphasis of the ‘new’ rather than engagement with substance.  

So, as I work on 3 simultaneous supernatural story projects, in 3 different mediums (screen, page and interactive) I’ve been thinking a lot about what they have in common rather than what’s different or unique about them. And moreover, what makes supernatural stories work? In fact this very question is one that comes up quite often when I speak to fellow writers. And the answer I give, that many find strange, is ‘Realism and Plausibility…’ 

Ostensibly this would seem an anathema to what we think of as being the key element of Supernatural - that it is unnatural, unrealistic, beyond reason, not plausible or possible, that it is a form of ‘fantasy’. But whilst this might be a valid understanding for an lay audience, it’s actually not very helpful for a writer trying to write a supernatural story because it doesn’t provide a toolkit for development and execution…. 

The starting point worth acknowledging is that Supernatural is not the same as Fantasy. As the name itself suggests, Super-Natural is about being above nature, nature extended, the natural world pushed beyond what we can comprehend or understand as Rational. But, by doing this, Natural order is tested, subverted, challenged and dislodged. So in order to have this ‘super’ quality in our stories we have to have the rational Natural bit as well. And then we break it… 

So, by this,  great Supernatural stories are rooted in the real world as a launching off point where you are asking the audience to take great leaps of logic, yet still feel that there is an immediacy and connection to the ‘real’ - taken from what they know and is familiar, to what they don’t know and is foreign. This is something much more than just simple ‘suspension of disbelief’ at work in supernatural narratives - the audience are undertaking a much more concerted engagement with allowing themselves to entertain uncertainty about their real world, not escape to a fantastical one.

This is not just an arbitrary imposition but speaks directly to the emotional experience and expectation of supernatural stories on the part of audiences - to entertain uncertainty, to evoke mysteries that come from within the world around us, not worlds we have to venture away to. Ghost stories, witchcraft, demons, monsters, super powers, astral travel, time travel, mind-control, telepathy, possession, body swapping, werewolves and vampires and dopplegangers and anything we can’t explain that happens at the shadowed fringes of our homes, towns and villages - these are all supernatural story triggers that effect us most when they begin in our real world. 

H.P. Lovecraft unifies this blend of the weirdly extraordinary in his essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’..

“A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”

The crucial part of what Lovecraft observes as fundamental to this form of storytelling is the desire for audiences to entertain the idea that the natural laws which hold back chaos might not be as stable or consistent or inflexible as we perhaps would like them to be. That the very world around us, the natural real world, contains forces beyond us. And as audiences we choose to entertain those possibilities for a thrill in the short term, and for metaphoric reflection in the long term. 

Now, certainly ‘Supernatural’ is a broad church of narratives, including forms of Horror, Magic Realism, Super Hero stories, Mystery and even certain sub-genres of Science Fiction that delve in to the ‘soft’ end of the hard-soft spectrum of SciFi. But this idea of natural laws subverted is the remarkably consistent component.

By a story extending supernaturally from a familiar rational world where there is an anchored reality to the weirdness and doubt becomes a major element of the drama. Characters doubt what they see, they struggle to rationalise their fear, they must learn the new rules of a defied natural order before being compelled to take action with or against powers they don’t fully understand. These are all dramatic journeys that an audience can actively go on and be aligned with in a supernatural mythos.

Now, from a writing and creative perspective in having to create such supernatural forces that are entertaining and engaging, the important connection that is helpful is that between Superstition and Supernatural. These two ideas are deeply connected as Supernatural forces are those that Superstition warns and wards against. 

It’s an ancient idea, rooted in the narratives of mythology and folklore, that certain behaviours control, ward against, influence or evoke supernatural forces - don’t walk under a ladder, don’t open an umbrella inside, don’t say Bloody Mary 3 times in a mirror, and indeed the very notion of formal Religion and religious practices which are inherently ’superstitious’. In such supernatural stories there’s obviously no rational logic but there is a compelling and metaphoric internal logic.

The simple term for this is ‘Superstitious Causality’ where there is an imagined cause+effect between otherwise rationally unrelated events, a casualty not based on realty, but on supernatural reality. 

And this is where the behaviour of pigeons is interesting…

“In 1948, behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner published an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, in which he described his pigeons exhibiting what appeared to be superstitious behaviour. One pigeon was making turns in its cage, another would swing its head in a pendulum motion, while others also displayed a variety of other behaviours. Because these behaviours were all done ritualistically in an attempt to receive food from a dispenser, even though the dispenser had already been programmed to release food at set time intervals regardless of the pigeons’ actions, Skinner believed that the pigeons were trying to influence their feeding schedule by performing these actions. He then extended this as a proposition regarding the nature of superstitious behaviour in humans”

So, this is all well and interesting from a sociological point-of-view (and for pigeon fanciers). But for a writer it is also enormously helpful as a guide to constructing a viable and exciting supernatural narrative by simply asking, What is the Superstitious Causality in your storyworld?, What behaviours are naturally illogical in ‘reality’ but have potency and power in the supernatural part of your storyworld? This is the crucial friction point where the drama springs in a supernatural story. 

Such behaviours and casualty needs to have a clear internal logic, must be governed by rules and specificity. Such powers will form the points of discovery and revelations for your characters and for the audience to ride into such worlds on the shoulders of those characters. 

In the projects Im currently working on, most of the collaborative development work has been spent on defining those causalities, those storyworld rules that govern how the supernatural works, what it can and cant do, and what rituals, behaviours and effects must take place to evoke it. Any plotting or even character work is arbitrary and weak until that work is done. The supernatural rules and their relationship to the ‘natural’ need to be clearly defined first.

And in truth, this is where there is so much fun to be had. The dramatic, conceptual, metaphoric problem solving that goes on to wrangle big ideas into a cohesive logic, is a great creative test for even the best writers. High-concept narrative genres provide great creative playgrounds that are rich with archetypes, structures, patterns and dramatic tools - alive with audience engagement, expectation and enthusiasm for those familiar emotional states. But if you are going to make great supernatural stories you have to bring your A game and be prepared to ask the right questions to get you past tropes and allow you to stand on the shoulders of giants.

And importantly these principles of Storyworld design and superstitious causality are as equally true and applicable in an interactive game as they are in a book or TV series. Genre is platform agnostic and what genres have in common as basis for storytelling needs to be engaged well before their differences.

On the topic of Genre and its universality, I’ll be moderating a panel at the Australian Screen Producers conference - ScreenForever - entitled “Is Genre the Universal Language?”

We have a pretty impressive line up of folks on the panel including Greg Mclean, director of Wolf Creek, Chris Brown, producer of Daybreakers, and Roy Lee, producer of such standout creations as The Ring, The Grudge and more recently on TV the superb new take on Psycho, Bates Motel. 

Full details about ScreenFutures here….

Monday
Oct202014

ScreenForever - Australian Screen Producers Conference 2014

ScreenForever the Australian Screen Producers Association conference program is now live. I’ll be there discussing two topics very dear to my heart - Games and Genre. 

I’ll be on the panel, ‘G***E is Not a 4 letter word’ which will approach games from both creative and financing perspectives, focusing on how to adapt linear narrative to interactive platforms using game design. We will focus specifically on story-based games and look at some examples from local and international markets over the last 12 months. The panel will be moderated by all-media producer Ester Harding and include such local luminaries as Morgan Jaffit of Defiant Games and Nathan Anderson of The Project Factory.

In addition to this I’ll also be moderating a session entitled ‘Is Genre the Universal language?’. Genre films are understood universally – and make up the greatest proportion of the top films at the yearly box office. A genre film can dissolve cultural and language barriers at film markets all over the world. They attract audiences and have the most commercial appeal in the international marketplace. However creatively they are often misunderstood. The panelists are an amazing mix of local and international producers including Greg McClean (Wolf Creek), Chris Brown (Daybreakers) and Roy Lee (The Ring, The Grudge)

Very much hope to see you there.


Monday
Oct202014

Storyology 2014

Pleased to announce I’ll be speaking at STORYOLOGY in December here in Sydney where I’ll deliver a presentation on Adaptive Writing in a Multiplatform world, as well as a Masterclass on Storyworld design. The full program is out now.

Monday
Oct062014

Speaking about Writing, Creative Process & the Future

“There’s never been a better time to be a writer. But when the audience are spread out across all manner of mediums, both old and new, you better be flexible if you want to make a living…” 

On the 30th of October I’ll be the guest of ScreenTasmania and the Australian Writers Guild for a special event at the world renowned Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). The official descriptor reads:

Mike Jones, in conversation with CEO of Screen Tasmania, Karena Slaninka, on his experiences both in Australia and overseas, future industry trends and where the big opportunities lie for creators, as well as the grounded toolkit of the professional writer in a multi-platform world.

I’d love to see you there…

WHEN:  Thursday 30 October from 18:30 - 20:00.

WHERE:  Cinemona (the MONA Cinema), 655 Main Road, Berriedale, Hobart.

COST:  FREE event (but bookings recommend)

Full Details here…. http://goo.gl/JEoyLF

 


Monday
Sep292014

PlatformX - Interactive & Multiplatform Development

The Australian Writers Guild and StoryCode Sydney present the next iteration of PlatformX.

Last year we delivered the first version of PlatformX, a dynamic development program for writers working across mediums old and new. We’re continuing PlatformX this year and applications are now open for writers anywhere in Australia.

Here”s the details…

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A select group of 5 writers will be chosen for a place in a one-day intensive story lab to develop their ideas into coherent, focused, effective pitch presentations and short documents to take forward for further development.

At the end of the lab, each participant will have a pitch, a succinct and compelling concept synopsis, a plan for next steps and developed ideas for concept art.

The lab will be run by experienced digital media practitioners Mike Jones, Ester Harding and Troy Bellchambers, joined by illustrator and production designer, Alan Chen.

The lab will be held in Sydney on Thursday 27 November 2014 and will culminate in a special Storycode event where participants will present their projects to a diverse audience of designers, technologists, producers & writers.

The initiative is open nationally and interstate winners are encouraged to apply to their state funding body for travel funding.

What We’re Looking For:

Exciting and dramatically engaging storyworlds that have the potential to manifest across platforms old, new and interactive.

A narrative concept that is a story engine - one that can drive experiences beyond a single plot or a single platform and which encapsulates a clear role for the audience to participate or play.

Creators with a strong sense of audience, engagement and genre and projects that will compel an audience to immerse themselves and become active within a rich experience.

You don’t have to be a technology expert. We are looking for writers with vision and ideas for constructing narratives across media forms.

This intensive lab is about distilling and articulating those ideas into a refined concept that can be presented and pitched with clarity and vision that spans multiple formats.

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For more details, check out the AWG Website. 

Monday
Sep222014

Screen 2030: Extended Interviews - Making my Content Pay

The Screen 2030 documentary event at this years Sydney Vivid Festival explored the professional future of creative producers. Now the extended interviews from that doco project are available online with episode 1 featuring yours truly. Here I rabbit on for 17mins on the future of creative media and why there’s never been a better time to be a writer…

Monday
Sep152014

The Adaptive Writer: process and platforms

The idea of ‘Authorship’ is a complicated one. In one sense it is the state of being the creator of something. But it also implies an idea of being the sole-source, the point of origin, that the Author creates a vision alone and puts it out to the world. 

From this we get the idea of being a ‘Writer’ as predicated on ‘Authorship’. And the image of the lone author toiling away behind a typewriter still pervades, with common expressions describing writing as a ‘lonely profession’. 

And yet the idea of singular authorship in writing is a myth. Nobody creates alone. All writing is collaboration and, moreover, every work of narrative fiction stands on the shoulders of the storytellers who have gone before. 

But I would take this a step further and suggest that in a digital multi-platform age, the ability to be a group-writer, to be able to build stories with others and extend the stories of others - dispensing with the idea of sole authorship - is the fundamental role of the Writer.

The singular author may not be dead, but they are certainly not very useful for becoming a professional writer.

This was the very topic I spoke on as a keynote at the Brisbane Writers Festival Story+ event earlier this month. The premise was simple - the digital age has added many new delivery mediums to the established ones and audiences are now distributed across all those forms. Traditional hierarchies and medium dominance has broken down. Hence, in such a world of distributed audiences a Writer cannot be defined by a medium. Words such as Novelist, Playwright, TV Writer, Screenwriter are simply not helpful as they are invariably restrictive and reductive with no ability to scale or adapt.

This is not to devalue the specific skills different mediums require, but rather to recognise that to be a professional writer in the 21st century means defining your craft in a platform-agnostic way. 

Of course this is easier said than done, but in my keynote I broke down 6 elements of process and thinking that help to create an ‘Adaptive Writer’, a writer who is not defined by a specific medium,  but by their skill set in building, extending, refining and articulating narratives that can flexibly move and adapt across platforms.

The diversity of narrative platforms certainly creates new opportunities but the mathematics of that diversification are really very simple - audiences are spread thinner. This directly effects the economics and business models of all traditional mediums which need to rethink their scale. Feature Films, for example, will never disappear but their share of the finite amount of audience eyeballs will continue to be reduced. Hence as a writer, if you’ve defined your craft solely by the medium of the feature film, your career is in serious trouble and trapped in a ghetto! But if Feature Films are just one of the story-forms your work and ideas can be adapted to, then you are empowered to be an Adaptive Writer - one who sees the diversity of mediums as part of a greater mix of experiences they are equiped to create.

To work in this way, Writers need to think differently about what their skills are and how they define the way they work. Story doesn’t change, nor do audience’s expectations of it, but creative processes do. And it’s on process that writers should be focused - What is the Process of Writing when the delivery medium can vary and may, in fact, not be pre-determined at all…? 

Below is the deck where I break down 6 Elements of Process across Platforms.

Monday
Sep012014

Interactive Gothic and the Brisbane Writers Festival 

In the digital age, a writer who defines their craft by a specific medium has a serious employment problem. 

It’s a multi-platform world. The old fashioned hierarchies of primary and secondary mediums have faded. Audiences distribute themselves across platforms, rather than conglomerating around one. To be a professional writer in the 21st century means flexibility. The ability to not only work across forms, but to conceive and develop ideas in a way that doesn’t pre-determine the medium. Storyworld before Story. 

This week I’ll be appearing at the prestigious Brisbane Writers Festival to talk about some of these ideas - the strategies and creative processes that allow writers to work with a kind of platform-agnostic flexibility without throwing away the fundamentals of good narrative storytelling.  

And the timing is good, as of late I’ve been putting these ideas into some very direct practice with my current endeavour ‘Transgressions’ - a supernatural gothic horror project with cross-platform execution.

In 2013 I signed a new 3-book deal with my publisher Simon and Schuster to write a series of gothic horror novels, due for release mid next year. Two of these books are complete, The Mothers and The Scrimshaw Marionette are now knee-deep in the editing process, and I will soon begin work on the final book (Amaranth), a collaboration with my creative partner Leonie Jones. 

So, whilst the labour of penning prose fiction ploughs on, I have signed on with eminent multi-platform production company The Project Factory to simultaneously develop the Transgressions series as an interactive production.

Working with producers Guy Gadney and Zoe Brown, along with director Enzo Tedeschi, we’ve been putting together a proof-of-concept for Transgressions as a live-action interactive production for tablet devices - an experience that is creepy, cinematic, sinister and personal. A series of driving narrative ghost stories that build on the long gothic tradition and which wrap the audience up in the fate of the characters, an experience that makes you complicit in their fate, a story that won’t happen without you…

It’s the most fun you can have in the dark with your pants on! Here’s a little taste of the whats to come…

I’ve been writing about the process of writing Transgressions:Transgressions: Imagery and probelm Solving and - Transgressions: Scripts, Games and Gothic Horror. So stay tuned - much more to come…

And if you’re in Brisbane for the Writers festival this weekend you can catch me at a few events over Friday and Saturday.  I’ll be giving a keynote at STORY+ on the future of ‘Authorship’. This will be followed by a panel session on ‘Writing in Collaborative Environments’ where I’ll talk about such things as my process for running writer’s rooms for TV, multi-platform and interactive productions. 

Then on Friday I’ll be delivering an intensive masterclass workshop on ‘Storyworld Design’, getting into some of the nitty gritty of the ideas mentioned above - that in the digital age, a writer who defines their craft by a specific medium has a serious employment problem.

Monday
Aug112014

Old Dramatic Principles in New Interactive Narratives

First published in ‘Storyline’, Journal of the Australian Writers Guild 2013

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Book, Theatre, Radio, Cinema, Television… Each of these narrative forms entered the world by building and expanding on their predecessors. Each form added complexity or possibility or diversity to what was possible for the telling of stories. Each expanded the canvas for professional writers. Each one evolved and developed new audience expectations. And yet none of these forms ever disappeared because of the arrival of a new form. Book, radio and theatre are still very much alive, reports as to the death of cinema have been greatly exaggerated and TV seems to be among the most popular and vibrant narrative forms on the planet right now. Observing this fact of history tells us some important things about writing in the digital age and the principles that might underpin the vibrant world of Interactive Narrative Writing.

Interactive stories - those where the audience take part, effect, choose, control or play the narrative - are not only part and parcel of mainstream story-consumption but also increasingly, bread and butter professional work for writers. But does working in these forms mean entering a revolutionary new world where the language is foreign? Or is interactive narrative simply part of an ongoing, incremental evolution still grounded in ancient universal ideas?

It’s worth establishing the broad scope of interactive narrative. Very often such experiences are simply called ‘Games’ (prefixed by the words Video or Computer), but ‘Game’ is a problematic name. A Game does not need, nor have to have, a Story. ‘Tetris’ was a massively successful Game and there is no narrative to speak of. On the other hand ‘Bioshock’ is a Game with an extraordinary dystopian, and philosophically compelling, narrative, rich in character and allegory. To call both ‘Tetris’ and ‘Bioshock’ ‘games’ may be technically true but it is decidedly unhelpful if you wish to understand what makes either compelling. Hence the simple descriptive term, Interactive Narrative. A term which can encompass a broad range of experiences where the Audience is asked to play a role, to participate or to engage directly with character and plot through action. An experience that involves game-play but does so in the context and service of telling a story. 

It’s a broad church that, like filmmaking, spans from the mega-budget blockbuster to the indie production - from computers and tablets to mobile phones and real-world events. For writers the demands of these mediums can be both foreign and familiar. Too often the focus has been on the foreign; stressing what is new or different and subsequently ignoring or subverting what is familiar - a proverbial situation commonly conjured with images of babies flowing down sinks with dirty bathwater. Writers in the interactive space, I would argue, are better serviced by first engaging with what is consistent across narrative mediums in order to understand how the medium evolves that thinking. 

One way to consider this is to look at a mainstay idea often regarded as universal to storytelling - Character Transformation - that we are most engaged by a story’s characters when we bear witness to their transformation through struggle. There are numerous perspectives on this of course - inner and outer journeys, shifts from wants to needs, hero’s quests to fulfill destiny, and so on.

However it is expressed, the idea holds of a character changed by their experiences and transformed as a person by their actions (or as is often the case in TV, particularly SitCom, have the potential to change but are reset in an episodic pattern). The result of being an audience to such character arcs is catharsis; from the greek meaning a ‘purification or purging’, a renewal, restoration, and revitalisation. But there are other ways to think of change and transformation in narrative that have particular value in interactive storytelling.

Take a seminal film like Citizen Kane. The character of Charles Foster Kane himself doesn’t really change or transform at all. He’s a bombastic, self-absorbed arrogant man from very early in the film, and he’s much the same at the end. BUT, the audiences’ perspective on his character does transform dramatically over the course of the story’s telling. We grow to empathize with him and connect with him despite his lack of change - from a newsreel about a figure larger than life we, the viewer, are transformed in our perspective by a confounding and intimate portrait of child longing for a lost snow sled. The transformation in a story like Citizen Kane is much more in the audience’s change in understanding of character than it is of the character’s transformation itself; and the effect is none the less profound.

Of course, these two types of transformation - change of Character and change of Audience Perception of character - are not mutually exclusive; often sitting together or intertwined in complex narratives. However, recognising their differences is particularly useful for considering how such ideas apply to interactive narrative where engagement is most often found in the transformation of the way the player sees other characters, events or the Actions they themselves have performed.  

The successful and evocative game ‘Braid’, which tells the story of man looking for redemption and reconciliation with a lost love, is an excellent example. What is otherwise a clever puzzle-platformer with a rewinding-time game mechanic (think, philosophical Mario Bros in whimsical water-colour), becomes something much more effecting and profound in its cathartic transformation. In the finale the player realises that all the actions they have performed, which they thought were ‘good’ and ‘redemptive’, turn out to have been the opposite of that - the player realises that they were the Monster not the Hero.. The player’s transformation is in being forced to see their actions in a way that is fundamentally different at the end of the narrative than at the start. The character we are playing doesn’t change, but our understanding of both changes radically making for a very satisfying narrative experience.

This technique of generating transformation not directly in the Characters of an interactive narrative, but rather in the way the audience views the choices and actions they have performed, is remarkably consistent. ‘The Walking Dead’ game, that extends from the popular TV series, places a great deal of emphasis on moral dilemma choices the player is forced to make. The character the audience controls transforms little, but as the audience is compelled by the narrative to perform drastic actions without moral clarity, they are transformed in their perspective of the scenario and of themselves.

Such transformations in a narrative context require dramatic Stakes and this prompts us to consider broader possibilities for how such stakes can be enacted within an interactive narrative.

In a typical ‘video game’ like an first-person shooter, the stakes are largely clear and simple - life and death, survival or not. Run, jump, shoot, stay alive. But in the ever increasing diversity of interactive narratives there are infinitely wider possibilities.  A fascinating example is the hilarious ‘Malcolm Tucker’s Missing Phone’ - an interactive app from the storyworld of the British comedy TV series ‘The Thick Of It’.

Malcolm Tucker’s Missing Phone has a simple construct - a character from the show has lost his phone and You have found it. Your phone now acts and presents as that once owned by the character Malcolm Tucker; complete with all the comic farce of the British parliament.  

Within the experience, the audience’s actions are linked to real-world actions - Answering Emails, Reading SMS, Listening to voice mail, and so on. And in doing so the audience is not only witness to the hilarious ramifications of Malcolm Tucker losing his phone in an immediate and epistolary way, but they also have an active role to play; to piece together what happened and how Malcolm lost his phone, to work out what machinations are taking place behind Malcolm’s back and to be a part of the story’s complexity as the ‘possessor’ of the phone that everyone wants so badly - You are the holder of the Stakes.

The stakes in Malcolm Tucker’s Missing Phone are not on the audience as a character but rather on third-party characters who have something to loose and for which the audiences’ continued possession of the ‘phone’ away from its owner, deepens the dilemma and raises the stakes for those characters.

Whilst interactive narrative creates a distinctly immersive quality, we can also recognise that suspension of disbelief only goes so far. As much as audiences may play as an avatar, dramatic stakes imposed solely on them as player rarely contain a tangible emotional kick. The truth is it’s hard for audiences to worry or care about ‘themselves’. In an action game the audience may have self-preservation as key stakes but these kinds of mechanics don’t hold the same emotional weight as those that come from something narratively beyond the sport of player self preservation. 

However, players can be motivated to care deeply about other characters diegetic to the storyworld, compelled to be conscious of their gameplay choices as having ramifications and impact on those characters they have come to care about. 

Many interactive narratives for games often fail to recognise this idea and all the stakes in the world mounted onto the player’s avatar are worth but a fraction of the stakes mounted on characters the player must care about, protect, defend or save. A superb example of this balance is the game ‘Mass Effect’. Ostensibly a space opera with ‘end of the universe stakes’, Mass Effect writer, Mac Walters, understands that ‘End of the Universe’ holds no emotional weight unless it means losing something the player cares about outside of them self and more intimately than the abstract universe. Mass Effect subsequently spends enormous effort on building very complex characters and relationships around the player’s avatar - continually forcing the player into situations where they must make hard moral choices about the fate of these characters - whilst allowing the avatar itself to be effectively a tabula rasa, a blank slate with very little characterisation.  

This might seem an anathema to traditional writers whereby, in effect, the protagonist is a nondescript character with the least amount of defined characterisation, whilst the minor characters are richly detailed. But it comes from a central understanding of interactivity that allows space for the audience to inscribe their own character on the blank slate of the protagonist (which is fundamental to game play) whilst using deeply developed supporting characters to bring emotional weight and transformation (which is fundamental to storytelling).

There’s a lot of complexity in the idea of agency and the role of the audience as an active agent in a story, what they are made to care about and what compels them to interact. But recognising the potential vibrancy and diversity of what’s possible for interactive actions demands we consider the narrative implications for what makes the audience care and how they will be transformed by their experience of actively caring. 

Writing interactive narratives that embody the audience in role-play and active choices is no easy task but it’s also not a foreign land where nothing is the same. Interactive narrative is evolution not revolution and the fundamental tenets of good writing - Transformation and Stakes hold a profound universality across all narrative mediums, interactive or otherwise. 

Monday
Aug042014

Writing Process of 'Transgressions': Imagery and Problem-Solving

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into an abyss, the abyss looks back at you.” - Fredrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil 

When I was in the 5th grade I wrote a story for my school class about a Knight who goes into a dark Forrest to fight a demon. He narrates the story in the first person but at the end of the story he dies and it is revealed to the reader that the Knight was dead all along and that he is trapped in a nightmare watching himself fail to defeat the monster, and destined to repeat that failure over and over. 

My teacher made me re-write it. She said it was ‘wrong’… When I asked how a story I made up could be ‘wrong’ she replied - “how can someone who is dead tell their own story?

It was only in later life that I found myself bewildered at how a teacher, of all people, could be so detached from classical metaphoric mythology, or so ill-read in the classics of gothic literature..? Good thing my 10 year old ego was too big to let the first ignorant critic deter me.

Yet the truth was that I was very much afraid of the demons I felt compelled to write about. The monsters of Greek myth, fused with a healthy dose of western-Catholic guilt,  had formed themselves into very personal spectres that gave me shivers when I wrote them… And it was exactly that sensation that I lusted after every time I put pen to paper. Every writer should be afraid of their creations… 

Later, when a good, broad school education introduced me to history, philosophy and big narrative concepts, it felt much like I was matching substance up to the ideas I was already probing…. Redemption, transgression, metaphor and revelation.

Now, more than 25 years later I’m well into a writing project that feels very much like it began there in that 5th grade class.

TRANSGRESSIONS is 3-book series of supernatural horror. Each book is a self contained novel but the collection is linked tightly together by concept, imagery and shared themes of madness, mystery and redemption. People running from their sins, their personal demons and from themselves. Broken figures who must confront haunting spectres, monsters and manifestations of a dark past that compel them toward restoration. Characters caught in labyrinths of memory, shadow and regret manifesting as minotaurs to hunt them in the dark.

The above quote from Nietzsche really sets out the heart of all three stories - and perhaps for me as a writer. I’ve printed it and stuck it to the wall of my office as a creative linchpin. The monsters come from within…  the scariest demon is that which is personally tailored to You, that drives your own transgressions in hideous form and from which you cannot escape. Yet, like Pandora’s box, once all the chaos and evils are released Hope still remains at the bottom of the box. This is horror but it is not nihilism.

The first book, The Mothers, is complete and I am now neck deep in the second of the series The Scrimshaw Marionette…

After the death of his wife by his own failing, William flees the hardship of depression-era Sydney with his young daughter, Rosa. Battling his addictions and his sanity, William travels far south and finds work on a remote island Whaling station. But when Rosa finds a small scrimshaw marionette doll under the wharf, a restless spirit awakens to puppeteer the living and drag them into the sea. Grappling with his sanity and reason, William must confront the truth of the past and put the restless marionette ghost to rest to save his daughter and himself.

This distilled pitch-synopsis and the book that hopefully executes on the promise of that idea, began with a photograph of a doll.

For me as a writer imagery is almost always the key origin point. I can’t write a story until I know how it ends and knowing how it ends means knowing what the last image is - what is the final thing the audience ‘sees’ (be it literally in cinematic form, or conceptually in literary form).

The process of developing the story, breaking down its plot and characters into beat-sheets and outlines is a process for me of finding all the key images that build the story like keyframe storyboard cells.

The image that triggered The Scrimshaw Marionette was one shown to me by curator Penny Edwell of the Australian National Maritime Museum. I have been working with the ANMM on a immersive narrative exhibition experience - a naval thriller set in very real war ships anchored at the harbour side museum (which you can read about here).

image curtesy - Aus National maritime MuseumThe image Penny showed me was of a hand-made doll carved of whale bone ivory and made by whaling sailor more than a century ago. The doll was simply made but presented such emotional weight, a hand-made gift carved at sea by a sailor for his child. It was beautiful yet haunting. It’s darkly uncanny face and rough features made it tortured in some strange way, the pain of the whale being slaughtered somehow imbued into the dolls limbs. And most of all it was the physicality if it - delicate and brittle and yet carved from the bones of an ocean leviathan, a creature so massive is dwarfed the ships that hunted it. 

A doll must have an owner and such an owner would be a child… But a child who is a changeling - a child who knows more than they should know and who can sense and see more than they should see. A child who has been broken and wronged. The emotional weight of the whale bone somehow empowering the spirit of the little girl who treasures it as her only comfort in the darkness.

And from this comes the idea of a Marionette. It’s not just a type of puppet, it’s a wonderfully delicate and antiquated word and yet one that is loaded as metaphor for control and manipulation.

And finally there comes the idea of Scrimshaw - an ancient craft of carving designs, patterns and images into ivory. Most Scrimshaw from ocean whalers depicted images of whaling itself, of the hunt and the sea, the ships they sailed and the whales they fought.

All this imagery of carved whale bone marionette dolls intertwined with the spirit of a changeling child gives rise to a vision that scared me and gave me that shiver I was looking to evoke - a doll possessed by a broken child that puppeteers the living by invisible strings in their nightmares and drags them into the sea…

So, we now have a demon monster but this doesn’t make for a story until there is someone to struggle against the monster. Such a demon could haunt anyone, but randomness is the least effective horror story technique. The big question to ask is “who should be the most afraid of the scrimshaw marionette…?” Who deserves to be haunted? Who has transgressed in such a way that the Marionette appears to be a personally tailored demon?

This is how I found my protagonist - William. Guilt-ridden, depressed, addicted. A broken man, but not one out of reach of redemption… He’s just going to have to learn his lessons the hard way if he wants a chance to make up for them… ;-) 

The other key story development component for me is the physical space of the story - the environment, the location, the topography, climate and architecture. And of course When? What timeframe provides the right collision of forces for the story?

For The Scrimshaw Marionette the object itself dictated the place as much as the concept of the monster.  Hence the story is set on a remote southern whaling station, a craggy rock in the Tasman sea where the whalers hunt the migrating southern right whales from shore in longboats.

The decidedly cinematic imagery of such places - the scale of the ocean beasts hauled to slaughter and the brutal weather breeding hard men - was self evident.  But for the full effect of that sense of haunted remoteness to impact on an audience they need to experience it as an outsider, a new arrival, a stranger in a strange land who is cast upon a place they do not, and cannot, fully comprehend.

So it is that our protagonist of William needed to be an outsider - a man who knows nothing of whaling and from whom such a place is an anathema to everything they do know. Of course this presents a narrative problem-solving challenge with questions that need answering - What could compel a man to go to such a place? And Who is the opposite of a remote island whaler?

Clearly a man born and bread in the crowded confines of a city is the antithesis to one living on cold remote island as a whaler. So, What would compel such a man to leave the city and go to a haunted remote place where he is so much a fish out of water? One answer, and the answer that gives me great narrative momentum, is the Great Depression.

As economic collapse grinds the city to a pulp of poverty and despair, William is compelled to leave and find work wherever he can… A remote island whaling station where few wish to go provides the only answer for Will and, perhaps his only chance of redemption.

Storytelling is, in many ways, problem solving. The cause and effect chain is crucial and it’s assembly is a construction of creative logic. The story of The Scrimshaw Marionette was built from a photo go a doll, to the creation of a demon, to a character forced to go to the end of the earth where a collision with that demon is inevitable.

And as William gets lost in the siring nightmares of the labyrinthine whaling station, caught between past and present he should beware that Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into an abyss, the abyss looks back at you.”

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Transgressions will be released early 2015 by Simon and Schuster. Stay tuned or follow my tweets on the writing process @mikejonestv #transgressions