Three Thoughts About Film Theory And Writing Fiction

A couple of days before I wrote this article, I found myself absolutely fascinated by videos about film theory/analysis on Youtube. Surprisingly, these videos made me think about writing fiction – of all things. But, why?

Well, here are a few thoughts on the matter.

1) Thinking about the subtle things: One of the interesting things about watching videos that analyse films by famous directors is that almost every decision seems to be a conscious one. For example, how each shot is laid out, the speed of each cut, the use of different types of lighting etc… In the best films, pretty much everything is there to subtly evoke a mood or a theme or to emphasise something.

But, what does this have to do with writing? A lot, to be precise.

Although prose fiction isn’t a visual medium, a writer has even more control over their story than a film director does. After all, a writer can control things like sentence length, chapter length, the structure of the story, themes/motifs, pacing, the narrative style/perspective, what is and isn’t described, the emotional tone of the story etc…

So, watching videos about film theory can be really interesting if you’re a writer for the simple reason that it shows you lots of subtle ways that filmmakers improve the story they are telling through things that the audience might not even consciously notice. In other words, it makes you think a little bit like a director and pay more attention to the subtle stuff.

2) It reminds you of all of the things writers can do (that director’s can’t): One of the most famous pieces of writing advice is “show, don’t tell” and there are certainly merits to this advice. When followed well, it results in dramatic storytelling that can almost be… cinematic. After all, film directors can quite literally only “show” things.

Yet, a lot of the things that make prose fiction a deeper and more immersive storytelling medium than film go completely against this advice. These are things like descriptions of a character’s thoughts and feelings, intriguing pieces of backstory added to the narrative, the distinctive personality of first-person narration etc… All of these things usually involve “telling” the reader things that cannot be represented visually. And fiction is all the better for it.

It’s also an example of one of the things that film really can’t do that well. And, seeing videos about how directors have to get around these limitations can remind you of all of the advantages that writers have over film-makers (eg: a story has no budget restrictions, time can pass at any speed in a story etc..), which can be a great source of motivation, given how cinema often seems to be a more famous and celebrated creative medium than writing these days.

3) Referencing and community: One of the interesting things about watching videos about film theory is that they sometimes mention ways that directors subtly reference and/or are influenced by the style of other directors. This is the sort of obscure stuff that is often only really noticeable to people who have studied a lot of films and understand the medium. But, from a writing perspective, it’s really interesting to see.

One of the cool things that I noticed when I got back into reading regularly is how often books will reference other books or include segments about the value of books, stories etc.. And I suddenly realised that this is basically the same thing as what I was seeing in the videos. But, why is it important? In addition to the fact that pretty much every writer has been influenced by other writers (it’s an essential part of the learning process), it’s also about creating a sense of community.

Unlike films, which are a mass medium that is experienced in the same way by large audiences, books are a more obscure medium these days. As such, it’s easily possible to find a modern book and then never meet anyone who has even heard of it, let alone read it.

So, references to other authors/books and references to books in general are a way of creating a feeling of community in what is essentially a rather solitary medium (not that this is a bad thing though, seriously, it’s one of the most awesome things about books. Even so, it can be annoying at times).

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Three Basic Tips For Writing Gruesome Horror Fiction

Well, I ended up thinking about the topic of gruesome horror fiction recently after a couple of things. Firstly, one of the short story practice projects (that I probably won’t post here) that I finished the day before writing this article ended up being somewhat different from the more sanitised style of horror fiction that I seem to have drifted towards writing during the past decade. Secondly, I’m also reading another zombie novel (“Plague Town” by Dana Fredsti) at the moment too.

So, I thought that I’d offer a few basic tips for writing gruesome horror fiction.

1) Read it!: I cannot emphasise this enough – to write gruesome horror fiction you need to have read a lot of it.

And, yes, if you’re feeling put off by the idea of this, then this type of horror fiction isn’t for you (and you should probably focus on something like gothic horror or ghost stories or something like that instead). If not, then it is well worth reading several gruesome horror novels before you think about writing this type of fiction.

It’s probably best to start with the splatterpunk classics of the 1970s-90s. The books I’d recommend starting with are “Erebus” by Shaun Hutson, “The Rats” by James Herbert and/or any of “The Books Of Blood” by Clive Barker.

If you want something more modern, then just look for pretty much any zombie novel published within about the past two decades (since this is the closest thing to the splatterpunk genre still around in the present day).

When you read gruesome horror fiction, you’ll start to notice that each author has their own style, vocabulary etc.. for describing scenes of gruesome horror. And, like finding your own narrative “voice”, the best way to learn how to write gruesome horror is simply to read lots of different authors who write this type of fiction.

2) Pacing and frequency: There are two main approaches to this and each have their advantages and disadvantages. So, the best way to handle how often your gruesome scenes appear is probably to aim for something between both of these approaches.

The classic splatterpunk approach to writing gruesome horror fiction is simply to overload the reader with frequent grisly descriptions. This has the advantage of creating a grim, macabre and nihilistic atmosphere, where horrific death is never more than a few pages away.

On the downside, this lessens the shock value and/or horror value of your story’s gruesome moments, since the reader will get used to them fairly quickly. Yes, this makes the reader feel “tough” or “fearless” (since they aren’t feeling shocked or horrified) but it also severely reduces the impact of any individual gruesome scene.

The other approach is to carefully ration your story’s gruesome moments. To only include a small number of them, but to make each one especially horrific or grotesque and to build up to each one using a lot of suspense.

The main advantage of this approach is that these scenes will have a lot more dramatic impact (for a good example, read “In The Miso Soup” by Ryu Murakami). On the downside, this approach to writing gruesome horror fiction is a lot more difficult to get right than the classic splatterpunk approach.

3) Other types of horror: On it’s own, gruesome horror isn’t scary. It can be disgusting, grotesque, repulsive, macabre or grim. But, it isn’t really scary. So, you also need to include other types of horror too. Seriously, don’t just rely on gruesome horror if you’re writing a horror story.

Fortunately, most of the situations where gruesome moments of horror are likely to happen are also situations where other types of horror are to be expected.

For example, if one of your characters is about to be eaten by a monster, then this is the perfect place to add a bit of suspenseful horror. Likewise, if your story is set during a zombie apocalypse, then this is the perfect place to add some tragic horror, bleak horror and/or disease-based horror.

But, the most important thing to remember is that gruesome horror isn’t inherently scary. So, when something gruesome happens in your story, you also need to pair it with other types of horror if you want to make the scene truly shocking or frightening.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Things That Novels Can Learn From Computer Games

Well, although I was originally going to write another opinionated article about how, unlike computer games, books don’t have system requirements and how this means that modern novels are open to a much wider audience than modern games (which often require an expensive modern computer), I thought that I’d turn things round and look at some of the things that novels can learn from computer games.

So, let’s get started:

1) Series: These days, book series seem to be all the rage and there are a lot of reasons for this. Not only does it give readers something to come back to whenever a new book comes out, but it also means that an author doesn’t have to create a totally new set of characters for each book (which means that further books can be quicker to write etc..). Series also allow for deeper storylines, characterisation etc.. too.

However, if you’ve ever played a series of computer games, then you’ll know that you can almost always jump into a game series at any point. After all, games are expensive to make – so, each instalment of a game series has to be made in a way that allows new players to pick it up and enjoy it without having played the previous games. This is awesome 🙂

Whilst some genres of fiction, such as the detective and thriller genres, are pretty good at this – with each new novel in a series usually featuring a self-contained mystery for the main character to solve, this isn’t always the case in every genre.

Seriously, there is nothing worse than discovering a really cool-looking/cool-sounding book that turns out to be the fifth in a series and then deciding not to get it because it might require you to buy four other books first.

So, even if your series is telling a continuous story, you need to be aware that each book might be the first one that a new reader picks up. As such, you need to write it in such a way that people can start with each book. Although most authors do include recaps these days (which is good), you also need to think in terms of story arcs too. In other words, there should be a few points in your series where a new sub-plot or story arc starts and new readers can jump into the series from there.

2) User experience: If there’s one thing to be said for games, they are focused on the audience. A lot of game design revolves around planning and structuring games in such a way that they are fun, intuitive and compelling for the player. Game designers will do things like using subtle visual cues, including clever limitations/rules etc… to ensure that a game is a really enjoyable experience. Likewise, game studios will often rigourously playtest games in order to see how actual players react to them (and modify the game accordingly).

But, what does this have to do with writing? Simply put, it means that you have to keep the reader in mind at all times. Whenever you write something, you have to ask yourself “how will this make the reader feel?”, “how will the reader experience this?” etc…

And, yes, this means that you’ll also have to edit ruthlessly too. For example, whilst a brilliant description, sub-plot, scene or background detail might have been really fun to write and might really impress you – if it interferes with the pacing, readability or flow of your story, then it should probably be shortened, reworked or removed. The thing to remember here is that your story is meant for the people who will be reading it.

3) Length: This is a bit of a cautionary example. In games, length has often been seen as a virtue (in part, due to fact that new games are expensive). And, in some cases, long games are a good thing. But, most of the time, longer games also mean that most players never actually finish the games they buy.

Annoyingly, within the past couple of decades, this “longer is better” attitude seems to have seeped into books, publishing etc.. too. And, most of the time, it is a bad thing.

Not only can a giant tome-size novel put people off (with the thought of “I don’t have time to read all of this!”), but it can also sometimes result in lower-quality writing too. When a book is short, the author has to make sure that every page matters and they have to find ways to cram as much storytelling as possible into a limited number of pages. This results in a more well-written, focused and streamlined novel.

In other words, shorter books will often be more compelling than long ones. Yes, there are obviously exceptions to this, but if you want a satisfying story that remains consistently compelling and can be finished within a reasonable amount of time, then short is good.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Reasons Why Reading Regularly Is Important If You’re A Writer

Although the writing project I was working on at the time of preparing this article seems to have stalled due to the hot weather, I thought that I’d talk about one of the essential parts of being a writer today – reading regularly.

Even though this is a fairly well-known piece of writing advice (I mean, there’s a famous quote about it from Stephen King), I thought that I’d look at a few of the many reasons why reading a lot is important if you’re a writer.

1) Finding your voice: Simply put, one of the best ways to find your own unique narrative “voice” is to read a lot. Being exposed to lots of different narrative voices from different authors will help you to learn what does and doesn’t “work”, in addition to helping you to work out what types of narrative voice (eg: fast-paced, slow-paced, descriptive, informal, formal etc..) really fascinate you.

Plus, immersing yourself in fiction is one of the best ways to pick up a narrative voice- in the same way that being surrounded by people who speak in a different accent can sometimes lead you to “pick up” their accent. However, this is also why it is very important to read lots of different authors.

If you read too many books by the same author within a short period of time, then this will turn your writing style into a second-rate imitation of the author that you’re reading. So, reading lots of different authors means that your style will become a much more unique mixture of different styles.

2) Every book is a writing guide (if you think like a critic): There’s an old saying that critics are just failed writers. Whilst this may or may not be true in some cases, it isn’t a general rule. In fact, thinking like a critic (and maybe even writing a few book reviews) is one of the best ways to improve your writing. If you learn how to think like a critic, then your writing will improve.

Why? Because you’ll start looking at your own writing in the same way you look at books by other authors. Yes, you’ve got to be careful about being too much of a perfectionist (since this can cause writer’s block) but knowing what makes a story good, mediocre or terrible from reading lots of books will help you to see your own fiction in a more objective way, which will result in better fiction.

In other words, when you think like a critic, every book you read is a guide. A book can show you techniques you’ve never thought about using before, it can show you what kind of mistakes to avoid, it can make you think about things like pacing and structure etc… I could go on for quite a while.

3) Immersion: Reading enjoyable books in your favourite genres regularly will make you think of fiction as an “everyday” thing, in the same way as other entertainment mediums like television and videogames might be. However, unlike those things, writing is a lot easier to get into. After all, it just involves using words that you already know. You don’t need lots of expensive equipment or anything like that either.

So, immersing yourself in fiction regularly can make the idea of writing it feel less intimidating. Whether this is because you read a book that is so terrible that you think “I can do better“, or because you read a really cool novel that reminds you why you are a writer, or because you just start to become more familiar with the idea of written words being just as (or, when they are at their best, even more) dramatic/gripping/interesting etc.. as other entertainment mediums.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Two Basic Tips For When A Genre Won’t Work In Your Chosen Medium

Although this is an article about writing fiction, making art and making comics, I’m going to have to start by talking about videogames for a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

A while before I wrote this article, I ended up doing some random online research about survival horror videogames on handheld games consoles during the 1990s. Interestingly, this awesome genre turned out to be very difficult to transfer to older handheld consoles – with one of the best examples actually being a game that wasn’t officially released. Namely the unfinished late 1990s/early 2000s Game Boy Color version of “Resident Evil”.

Needless to say, all of this made me think about the annoying situation where your favourite genre only really works in another medium. Whether you’re a writer who loves heavy metal music, a comic-maker who loves FPS videogames etc.. it can be more than a little bit annoying.

So, I thought that I’d offer two basic tips about what to do if you find yourself in this incredibly annoying situation.

1) Look at what makes the genre “work”: If you can’t directly use an awesome genre in your chosen medium, then one way to get around this is simply to look at what underlying qualities, features and techniques make the genre in question “work”. Once you’ve made a list of these things, then it’s considerably easier to apply them to other mediums.

For example, the key features of classic heavy metal music include things like: fast pacing, melodramatic horror/fantasy imagery, an emphasis on courage, a lot of theatrical flair, gloomy high-contrast lighting (in concerts, music videos etc..), a slightly rebellious attitude, hedonism, cool-looking machinery (eg: motorbikes, scary robots etc..) etc…

As you can see, these are all qualities that could easily translate well into either prose fiction or art/comics without too much difficulty. So, even if you can’t include any actual heavy metal music in these things, you can still use all of the underlying features and techniques of the genre.

So, looking for underlying qualities/techniques is one of the best ways to use an awesome genre in another medium when you can’t do so directly.

2) Visual media: Simply put, it’s really easy to translate one visual medium to another. This is mostly because all visual media are, well, visual. So, learning how to study and analyse images (and having a bit of knowlege of artistic theory) means that there’s a lot easier to, say, make art that is inspired by things like films and videogames.

For example, many classic survival horror games and old 2D “point and click” adventure games will often use fixed ‘camera angles’ that are designed to look suspenseful. This will often be done by either placing dramatic-looking things in the close foreground and/or using camera angles that look like they are “lurking” somewhere or perching ominously above the player. As such, it’s easy to include elements of survival horror etc.. in artwork:

“Cyberpunk Ruins” By C. A. Brown

So, if you’re working in a visual medium, then learning how to study images (eg: how to look for things like perspective, colour schemes, lighting etc..) is an incredibly valuable thing if you want to translate some of your favourite genres into your medium of choice.

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Anway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Basic Tips For Making “Silly” Stories Compelling

Well, I thought that I’d talk about “silly” stories today. This is mostly because, due to hot weather at the time of writing, I’ve found myself gravitating more towards these types of things – whether it is novels like Dan Brown’s “Inferno“, Natasha Rhodes’ “Final Destination: Dead Reckoning” or the “Star Trek: Voyager” spin-off novel I’m reading at the moment, most of my recent reading material seems to be highly stylised, contrived and/or fantastical in some way or another.

I’ve also noticed the same trend with what few TV shows and computer games I’ve been enjoying recently. Whether it is watching occasional episodes of a gloriously silly, highly contrived and heavily stylised late 1990s/early 2000s adventure thriller TV show called “Relic Hunter” or re-playing a few levels of a gloriously mindless sci-fi action game called “Alien Shooter“.

As such, I thought that I’d look at three basic ways to make “silly” stories compelling:

1) Continuity and reliability: In essence, the “silly” elements of your story have to follow some kind of rules that the audience can easily learn and rely upon. This helps to add a bit more certainty and reliability to the story, which helps to immerse the audience and make them suspend their disbelief slightly.

A good example of this is the TV show “Relic Hunter”. It is set in a stylised version of the real world, where “Relic Hunters” will go out and search for ancient artefacts. Most of them do it for profit but, of course, the main character does it for more benevolent reasons. Even so, the concept of “Relic Hunters” is as well-known and unremarkable within the show as, say, professional photographers are in the real world. As such, this gives the show a level of reliability (eg: the main character is going to look for a relic in every episode, and will often have to compete with other relic hunters) which helps to immerse the viewer into the somewhat “silly” premise of the series.

All of the various versions of “Star Trek” are the classic example of this sort of thing. On the surface, this is a TV series filled with characters in silly uniforms, lots of meaningless technical jargon etc…. Yet, if you watch the show for a while, you’ll start to learn a lot of the underlying “rules” behind all of this. As such, it becomes easier to suspend your disbelief and immerse yourself into the show.

So, yes, having a reliable set of “rules” that the audience can learn is one of the best ways to make a “silly” story seem a bit more compelling and immersive. It also gives the audience something to rely on too, which also makes these types of stories quite reassuring to read too (since the audience partially know what to expect).

2) Mechanics and focus: This is more of a videogame-based thing than a writing-based thing, but it is worth mentioning nonetheless. One of the main reasons why “silly” or “mindless” games are so compelling is because they will often focus on just one or two things. For example, the “Alien Shooter” game that I mentioned earlier mostly just involves fighting hordes of dinosaur-like monsters:

This is a screenshot from “Alien Shooter” (2003)

This limited focus allows the player to devote more attention to the game, since they only have to focus on one or two types of task. As such, these games become relaxing and compelling despite any “silly” elements (eg: dinosaur monsters from outer space!) that they might contain. But, how does this translate into fiction?

Well, a good example of this can be found in Dan Brown’s “Robert Langdon” novels. These are extremely contrived thriller novels with some very silly storylines. Yet, they’re incredibly gripping because of the fact that they focus on just one or two things. Most of the time, the main character will be solving a series of puzzles within a time limit. That’s it.

Yet, it is this limited focus (eg: solving puzzles) that makes these novels so gripping. Because they only focus on one thing, this grabs the audience’s attention and makes it easier for them to ignore any “silly” elements surrounding this one core thing.

3) Personality: This is a really obvious one, but the best way to make a “silly” story really compelling is to give your story a bit of a personality. In other words, it should have a unique atmosphere, distinctive settings, an interesting cast of characters, a distinctive narrative voice, maybe a bit of humour and stuff like that.

The thing to remember here is that, when your audience first discovers your story, they might be confused or amused by the “silly” elements of your story. And, if you want to keep them reading, your story needs personality. Your readers need to feel that they’re hanging out with someone interesting, exploring somewhere fascinating etc…

A great example of this is Jodi Taylor’s awesome “Chronicles Of St. Mary’s” novels. These are an extremely eccentric series of sci-fi thrillers about a secret department in a university who have the ability to travel through time. Despite the gloriously silly premise, these novels are incredibly fun, compelling and just generally enjoyable because they have a lot of personality. The narrator has a unique narrative voice, there are lots of intriguingly quirky plot elements and the series has a wonderfully cynical and eccentric sense of humour too.

So, if you give your story a bit of personality, then the audience will gleefully ignore any of the more “silly” elements of your story.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Top Ten Articles – May 2019

Well, it’s the end of the month and this means that it’s time for me to do my usual thing of collecting a list of links to the ten best articles about writing fiction, reading books, making art etc… that I’ve posted here over the past month. As usual, I’ll include a couple of honourable mentions too.

In terms of articles, most of this month’s articles were writing-based ones and the quality was somewhat variable (mostly due to things like hot weather at the time of writing, which tended to drain my enthusiasm a bit).

This hot weather also had a slight impact on the number of book reviews I posted this month (with only twelve of them appearing). On the plus side, thanks to the fact that the weather sometimes made me gravitate towards quicker/easier novels, I had time to post the first game review I’ve posted here this year (plus, two “Doom II” level reviews too 🙂 ).

Anyway, out of the novels I read this month, the best ones were probably “Dead Of Night” by Jonathan Maberry, “Sacrilege” by S. J. Parris, “More Tales Of The City” by Armistead Maupin, “Bloodlist” by P. N. Elrod and “Dying Words” by Shaun Hutson.

Anyway, here are the lists 🙂 Enjoy 🙂

Top Ten Articles – May 2019:

– “Storytelling In Books vs Storytelling On TV – A Ramble
– “Three Tips For Making Your Zombie Story Stand Out From The Crowd
– “Writing: Creativity Via Limitations – A Ramble
– “Three Tips For Finding A Short Story Idea
– “Four Reasons Why Novels Are More Punk Than You Might Think
– “Three Ways That Writers Make Stories Faster Or Slower To Read
– “Two Ways To Spruce Up A Familiar Story
– “Three Reasons Why Books Don’t Get Remakes
– “Working Out What To Show The Audience – A Ramble
– “Obscurity And The Written Word – A Ramble

Honourable Mentions:

– “Three Thoughts About Writing Fiction Set In The Mid-2000s
– “Three Tips For Coming Up With Realistic Fictional Videogames For Your Story