Skills Matter More Than Tools – A Ramble

Several days before writing this article, I was looking at online videos about old games consoles and was surprised by the ridiculously low specs of many of them (compared to computers of the time). Yet, as several comments below the videos pointed out, games for older consoles were often specifically designed and optimised for the limited hardware and took full advantage of it to produce graphics that were almost comparable to PC graphics at times.

During one of my photography trips a few days before preparing this article [Edit: In December 2019], I was reminded of the old advice that the best camera you can use is the one you have right now. How, having a low-end camera (like the one I use) with you is infinitely better than having a high-end camera that you’ve left at home. And, even though I’m hardly an expert at photography, it is still possible to produce dramatic-looking photos with a low-end camera if you get lucky with the weather and understand how your camera handles light/shadow:

The lighting effect in this photo I took of the graveyard in Titchfield last November was achieved by almost pointing the camera at the sun. Or, more accurately, standing just behind a tree that was blocking out the sun.

This gothic photo, taken on a road somewhere in the South Downs on a misty day last October has an ominously silhouetted foreground because I stood in a shaded area and pointed the camera towards a more brightly-lit area.

So, why have I mentioned these things?

Well, it’s all to do with how practice and knowledge matter a lot more than tools, money etc… do. I’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth mentioning again.

If you are doing anything creative, then don’t worry too much about the tools that you’ve got. Instead, focus on practicing skills and expanding your knowledge of your chosen medium. Although it might not sound very glamourous, it will be considerably more useful than any kind of trendy, high-end etc… equipment or tools will be. Having low-end tools and the right knowledge will result in much better work than having high-end tools but less knowledge.

To give you an example, if you’re an artist and you’ve got an old version of MS Paint and a standard computer mouse, then you can do some fairly impressive stuff with it if you’ve practiced using MS Paint, if you’ve practiced using a mouse, if you’ve got a bit of extra time, if you’ve got a reference photo (and know how to use MS Paint’s “pick color” feature, in addition to knowing how to copy by sight) and/or if you’ve learnt a few pixel art-style techniques:

“Portsdown Hill – Pavement (MS Paint 5. 1)” By C. A. Brown

“Westbrook – Snowfall 2018 (MS Paint 5.1)” by C. A. Brown

Practice and knowledge matter a lot more than the tools that you are using. For example, whilst there are a plethora of expensive word processing programs that are designed specifically for writers, none of them will make you a better writer unless you practice writing regularly (and read a wide variety of fiction too). Or, to put it another way, a skilled and experienced writer like George R. R. Martin can create something as impressive as the novels that “Game Of Thrones” is based on with an absolutely ancient DOS-based word processing program.

Another example of this sort of thing is probably the computer game “Ion Fury“. This is a low-budget first-person shooter game from 2019 that, out of nostalgia, uses a modified version of a game engine from 1995. Compared to a lot of other modern games, this is very “obselete” technology. But, because the people making the game are experts at game design/level design, skilled at making impressive pixel art and good enough at programming to add some extra stuff to the engine, they’ve produced a game that is considerably more fun to play than many more graphically-intensive games are.

So, in conclusion, the tools that you use to create things with don’t matter as much as you might think. The only things that really matter are practice, skill and/or knowledge.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

In Defence Of Slow Pacing In Novels And Films

Well, I thought that I’d talk about pacing today. In particular, why slow pacing in films and novels can actually be a good thing. Yes, the “right” type of pacing for any given story or movie will depend on a lot of different factors and there are good artistic reasons for using faster pacing sometimes. However, I thought that I’d talk about some of the benefits of slow pacing.

The first one is that it adds extra atmosphere to high-quality works. In novels, a slower pace gives the writer more time to describe interesting settings and characters in interesting ways. In films, a slower pace gives the audience more time to look at carefully-designed, well-lit and/or interesting set designs. By actually giving the audience time to drink in the atmosphere, not only does slower pacing immerse them more in the story but it adds an extra level of visual and/or narrative intrigue too.

However, as you’ve probably guessed from the previous paragraph, this only “works” in high-quality stories and films. For example, there’s a reason why the intricately-designed and highly-detailed set designs in a film like “Blade Runner” or “Only Lovers Left Alive” hold your interest during the slower-paced moments. They are beautiful works of visual art.

Likewise, the detailed and creative descriptions in a novel like Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting Of Hill House” are interesting to read because they add an extra level of atmosphere to the story, which you’ll probably want to take your time to appreciate.

Secondly, slower pacing feels more “natural”. Yes, this is something that you’ll probably only really notice if you’ve read novels before (which are usually slower paced than films) but slower pacing in films gives the audience a much more realistic feeling of time passing. After all, real life is usually fairly “slow paced” when compared to the rushed “highlight reel” editing found in some popular films. Real life is filled with slower moments of waiting, thought etc… and, of course, time itself passes at a rate of one second per second.

So, slower pacing feels a lot more natural for the simple reason that it is a lot closer to “real time”. Not only does this make films and novels “flow” a lot better – with the story events having a much more logical feeling of progression to them, but it automatically adds a feeling of realism too. This is most noticeable in slow-paced films where, without the typical hyper-fast Hollywood editing, everything feels a little bit more “documentary-like”. Seriously, if you want to add a feeling of realism to a film and set it apart from a typical Hollywood movie, then slow pacing is your friend.

Thirdly, slower pacing gives the audience time to think. Whether it is the beautifully quiet moment when you sit back after reading a slow-paced segment of a novel and try to make sense of the complex descriptions and ideas you’ve just experienced or whether it is a quiet moment in a film that gives you time to consider the subtleties and nuances of what is happening on screen, slow pacing actually gives the audience time to think.

But, like with the first point on this list, this only works in high-quality creative works. In other words, the audience actually needs something to think about during the slow moments. Complex characters, subtle details, underlying themes, intriguing ambiguity, detailed worldbuilding, multi-layered plots etc… are all things that are enhanced by actually giving the audience time to think about them. However, if your story or film has the intellectual depth of a sheet of paper, then slow pacing will be off-putting to the audience.

Finally, slow pacing builds a stronger connection between the audience and a creative work. We live in a culture that values bingeing creative works and, yes there are benefits to this – blazing through a thriller novel or an entire season of a TV show in a single weekend is a really intense and exhilarating experience. It’s like a distilled shot of atmosphere and storytelling. But, one of the problems with binge-reading or binge-watching regularly is that everything starts to feel a little bit less significant. Reading a novel in two days is really fun. Reading a novel every two days eventually starts to feel a bit like a chore (and can eventually temporarily put you off of reading).

Slower-paced creative works are a lot more resistant to bingeing. A slow-paced novel will take more “sessions” to read than a fast-paced one, meaning that you’ll be returning to it a lot more times and will build more of a connection with the story. This type of novel will feel more like an old friend than just “the book I’m reading the moment”. Because a slow-paced novel can’t easily be finished in a couple of days, you might even have to take a few notes in order to keep up with the plot. Not only does this mean that you’ll be thinking about the story more, but it also means that you’ll remember it in much more detail too.

Likewise, whilst it is possible to binge-watch slower paced films and TV shows (since they have a fixed running time), there’s less incentive to do so. Because they don’t rely on ultra-fast editing and other such things to forcibly grab your attention and push you forwards, you have more of an option to take your time with them. To enjoy them at a more relaxing pace that actually gives you time to appreciate them and to anticipate your next experience with them. I mean, when TV shows aired weekly and films in a series were released months or years apart from each other, this sort of thing was pretty much standard.

But, like with almost everything on this list, this only “works” with high-quality stories, television and films. Because you can’t use “gripping” fast pacing to hold the audience’s attention, then you have to create something unique, interesting, atmospheric etc… enough that people will want to return to it without being pushed into doing so.

In conclusion, slower pacing is something that makes great creative works even better and bad creative works even worse. With slower pacing, there’s nowhere to “hide” any imperfections. So, when a slow-paced book or film is good, then it is usually really good.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Things Horror Movies Can Teach Us About Writing Gruesome Horror Fiction (That Is Actually Scary)

One of the interesting things I’ve noticed since I got back into watching films again (and rediscovered the joys of horror movies recently) is how differently horror movies can sometimes handle scenes of gruesome and gory horror when compared to horror novels.

Although each medium obviously has it’s own set of techniques that are designed to make the most of the format’s strengths, horror films can still offer a few interesting lessons about how to make your story’s gruesome moments actually scary.

1) Less is more: This one is fairly well-known, but it is worth mentioning nonetheless. One of the classic features of some types of horror fiction – especially horror novels from the 1980s (such as Shaun Huton’s “Erebus” or “Breeding Ground) – is ludicrously “over the top” gruesome descriptions. After all, unlike films, horror novels don’t have to pass a censor before publication. So, they can devote entire pages to lavish descriptions of death, injury, decay etc… However, whilst this technique can be used to create a grim atmosphere and/or to gross out inexperienced horror readers, it isn’t exactly scary.

Horror “works” best when it takes place in the reader’s imagination. So, what you don’t describe can often be more effective than what you do describe. Whilst a detailed gruesome description of a horrific event might briefly shock the reader – a slightly less gruesome scene that implies these horrific events will linger in your reader’s imagination for much longer. And, because your reader’s imagination has to provide the descriptions, then they will instantly be more disturbing than anything you could actually write. Remember, most horror novel readers are already fans of the horror genre.

I recently saw an absolutely great example of this technique in a scary 1990s sci-fi horror film called “Event Horizon“. Whilst the film certainly splashes a lot of stage blood around, the grimmest and most horrifying moments are often left to the viewer’s imagination – and are all the more disturbing for it. It is a film that will show you something really gruesome, whilst also leaving the extremely gruesome elements of what is happening to your imagination through clever editing, camera angles etc…. This instantly makes the special effects much more “realistic” than they would be if the film-makers showed you literally every detail.

So, whilst there is a tradition of extended passages of ultra-gruesome descriptions in horror fiction, don’t be afraid to leave the most horrific details to your reader’s imagination sometimes. This can make the difference between a cartoonishly “over the top” moment and a genuinely scary scene of horror.

2) Plot matters more than descriptions: If you actually want to make your story’s gruesome moments scary, then they need to be something that would still be scary even if they were completely bloodless.

In other words, you need to pay attention to the concept and situation surrounding your story’s gruesome events rather than the results of those events. If the situation is inherently disturbing or has an extremely dark sense of humour and/or a shocking level of cruel inventiveness to it, then it will be frightening even if it doesn’t include that much in the way of gruesome descriptions.

A great cinematic example of this is probably Dario Argento’s “Suspiria“. Despite this film’s fearsome reputation, there’s relatively little stage blood on screen. Most of the film’s gruesome moments also use fairly low-budget and/or unrealistic effects. Yet, not only will these scenes make you grimace in horror but they will probably also haunt you for a while after you’ve finished watching.

Why? Because the horror comes from the events rather than the stage blood. This is a film where characters die in drawn-out, bizarre and often extremely painful ways. These things are what horrifies the viewer. Even without a single drop of stage blood, these scenes would still be incredibly difficult to watch.

Another good example of this technique is the French horror film “Martyrs” (2008) – a film that I have watched once and will probably never watch again. It’s that shocking and horrific! Yet, whilst it certainly includes it’s fair share of gruesome special effects, they aren’t what makes the film so horribly traumatic to watch. It is the film’s brutal, nihilistic, cruel and just generally grim plot that makes it such a gruelling experience. Like with “Suspiria”, it would be just as difficult to watch even without the gruesome special effects.

So, if you want to make your story’s gruesome moments scary, then you need to think carefully about what is happening. If the horror in your story comes from the plot itself, then your story will be frightening. But, if the horror comes from the gruesome descriptions, then your story will be less frightening.

3) Realism and fantasy: Following on from this point, scenes of gruesome horror are generally more frightening and disturbing if the audience thinks that they could theoretically happen in real life. This is why a very gory comedy horror movie like “Cockneys Vs. Zombies” (2012) is hilariously funny to watch, but a much less gruesome movie like “Suspiria” is genuinely shocking and disturbing.

In “Cockneys Vs. Zombies”, the main antagonists are literally zombies. Zombies don’t exist. On the other hand, although “Suspiria” includes some paranormal events, most of the film’s more shocking and grotesque scenes are very much “realistic” examples of human evil and cruelty.

This isn’t to say that you can’t include fantastical elements if you want your story to be scary, but they have to be “realistic” in some way or another. For example, whilst the gruesome events of “Event Horizon” are set in deep space and in the future, the film is still scary because it takes a very understated and “realistic” attitude to how everything is presented. The spaceships are grimy and utilitarian places rather than unrealistically utopian “Star Trek”-like spaceships. The characters all have fairly realistic personalities, flaws and emotions.

Even when horrific stuff starts happening, most of the more “fantastical” elements are deliberately left vague or unreliable in some way. Although the film’s sci-fi setting means that it will take longer before you start to suspend your disbelief and feel fear, it is still able to scare you because it takes a very “realistic” approach to it’s story. So, if you want to make a gruesome story scary, you need to make sure that your reader feels that the events of your story could theoretically happen somewhere or someplace.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Things Horror Writers Can Learn From A Horror Game

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve written about the horror genre and I thought that I’d talk about it today because I ended up re-playing the early parts of a really scary modern survival horror game from 2018 called “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” – which involves sneaking around a mansion and hiding from various bloodthirsty killers.

Although computer games and novels are completely different mediums, I was surprised to notice that this game contained some interesting lessons for writing scary horror fiction.

This article may contain some mild-moderate PLOT SPOILERS for this game though.

1) Use darkness carefully: One of the most well-known elements of the horror genre is darkness and gloom. After all, a fear of the dark is one of the oldest and most common fears. Yet, darkness only really “works” in horror stories when it is used carefully and with an awareness of how it works.

Darkness itself is an entirely neutral and non-scary thing. All it does is to make it more difficult to see things. Although this is commonly used to suggest scary things lurking out of sight and heighten the audience’s feelings of fear, I recently had a reminder that darkness can sometimes actually make situations less scary.

When I started replaying “Remothered: Tormented Fathers”, I messed around with the game’s brightness settings. I’d initially set them fairly high in the hope that it would make the game “less scary”. But, it was only when I ended up lowering them that the game actually became less scary. I was a bit puzzled by this for a few seconds before I realised why the added gloominess lessened the fear. It revealed lots of extra shadows that I could hide in if I needed to. And, although the game’s villains also use sound to find you, the darkness at least gave me the reassuring feeling that my character was harder to see.

Here’s a comparison to show you what I mean. The darker of the two images looks scarier, but actually feels less scary in-game.

In other words, darkness works both ways. So, don’t be afraid to show your characters using it to their advantage in order to hide from scary things. Conversely, if you really want to scare your reader, create a power imbalance by giving the adversary in your story better night vision than your main character (or, like in the game, very sensitive hearing). Without this, darkness just “levels the playing field” between your main character and whatever is scaring them. So, if you’re going to use darkness in a horror story, be aware of the power dynamics of it.

Likewise, scenes of horror that take place in brightly-lit locations can be more frightening than you might think – because it’s harder for your characters to hide and because it gives you an excuse to describe everything in lots more detail too. And, talking of descriptions…

2) Locations matter: One of the most important parts of any horror story is the setting. The more unique and interesting it is, the more memorable, scary and re-readable your story will be. Why? Because a concrete sense of place (created through vivid descriptions of a small number of unique and/or recurring locations) will linger in your reader’s memory longer than anything else will.

Not only that, if the story takes place somewhere interesting, then your reader will probably feel curious enough about it to want to revisit it – even if they are frightened of doing so. This tension between curiosity and fear is one of the best ways to create scary horror.

For example, although the “creepy mansion” setting isn’t exactly uncommon in horror games (it goes back at least as far as 1992’s “Alone In The Dark), “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” does a few interesting and unique things with it. For example, everything in the game (eg: the technology, costume designs, colour palettes, interior design etc..) has a subtle “1970s/80s horror movie” atmosphere to it and the mansion contains lots of random everyday clutter that gives the place a “lived in” feeling.

Here are a couple of examples. The CRT televisions, retro fashions and muted colour palettes instantly make this location a bit more distinctive and unique.

This feeling of place is also improved by the fact that the vast majority of the game takes place within a relatively small number of locations, allowing the player to memorise everywhere and build a mental “map” of the mansion. Likewise, at the beginning of the game, you get a chance to explore part of the mansion without any danger. Not only does this mean that, when new locations are revealed, they feel creepier and more unfamiliar, but it also evokes a tense feeling of claustrophobia (despite the mansion’s long corridors and wide hallways).

But, what does any of this have to do with fiction? Well, although novels aren’t interactive or visual, a focus on a few well-described recurring locations can be used to heighten the reader’s sense of fear in a number of clever ways. They can be used to evoke feelings of claustrophobia. Changes to familiar locations can unsettle the reader. Unusual locations make your story feel unpredictable. Seriously, don’t underestimate the value of good, well-described settings in horror stories.

3) Silliness and scariness: The first killer that you have to evade in “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” is an elderly character called “Mr. Felton”. Felton is dressed in nothing but an apron and a pair of wellingtons and will occasionally grumble about random things like mouldy food in the kitchen or sing various nursery rhymes. This character sounds more amusingly silly than frightening.

Yet, although Felton sounds like a “silly” character, these are some of the scariest parts of the game. Why? Because Felton is presented as a genuine threat to the player (Felton cannot be killed, can run surprisingly quickly, carries a sharp sickle and will also shout menacing insults at you). Plus, if you’ve completed the game before and know the backstory, then some of the earlier “silly” details actually make total sense in context and will become considerably more “realistic” and/or chilling as a result.

For example, the nursery rhymes hint at the later reveal that a traumatic event left part of Felton’s personality “frozen” at an early age. Although the game doesn’t tell you that this is why Felton sings nursery rhymes, it is a realistic and practical extension of this character’s tragic backstory that rewards astute players who actually pay attention to the story.

So, what does this have to do with horror fiction? Horror, by it’s very nature, is silly. Monsters, zombies, ghosts, vampires etc… don’t exist. If you actually want to make these “silly” things scary, you not only have to think about them in a more “realistic” and “practical” way, but you also need to present them as a geniune threat to the characters too. Plus, although the monsters themselves might be more silly than scary, the suspense and feeling of danger surrounding them are what scares the audience in well-written horror stories.

For example, the scariest parts of “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” aren’t when Felton charges at you with sickle raised. They’re the moments when you can’t see Felton. When you’re hiding behind something and you can hear footsteps getting closer or a door opening. When you haven’t seen Felton for a while and just know that this won’t last for much longer. A lot of the game’s scariness comes from the suspense surrounding Felton rather than the moments when Felton actually appears.

So, if you want to make something “silly” actually scary, then think about it practically, make it clear that the main characters are in danger and be sure to focus on suspense.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why Worldbuilding Matters More Than Story

Well, I thought that I’d talk about one thing that can sometimes be overlooked when it comes to creating compelling stories (whether in prose, in film etc…). I am, of course, talking about the setting, culture, atmosphere appearance and/or “world” of your story. Strange as it might sound, this is something that can actually matter more than the actual story you are trying to tell.

I ended up thinking about this when re-watching “Star Wars IV: A New Hope” recently. Even though I already knew the story of this film in advance and although it isn’t exactly the most complex or detailed story in the world, the film is still incredibly compelling and awe-inspiring thanks to everything surrounding the story. We get numerous tantalising glimpses of interesting-looking places and other brief hints of a much larger and more complex fictional “world” and it is absolutely fascinating.

Yet, part of what makes this film’s worldbuilding so effective might not be what you expect. The film knows what to leave to the audience’s imagination. In this film, we don’t get hyper-detailed explanations of everything. But, because of the sheer amount of interesting places, briefly-described backstory and unique details, the film lingers in the imagination long after the credits have rolled.

Why? Well, it all has to do with curiosity.

An even better cinematic example of this is the film “Blade Runner”. This is a sci-fi film noir that is set in a complex, visually-detailed futuristic city. There is so much visual detail that it’s perfectly possible to watch the film numerous times and still notice something new in the background every time. It is an absolutely stunning work of visual art. Yet, for all of this complex detail, the film’s “world” lingers in your imagination after the credits roll because of what you don’t see.

In “Blade Runner”, the audience only actually gets to see a couple of streets and a few indoor locations. These hyper-detailed places hint that the rest of the sprawling mega-city the film is set in will have just as much detail to it, but we never actually get to see it. As such, the viewer has to use their own imagination to try to work out what the rest of the “world” looks like. They have to think and daydream and, most crucially actually imagine either being the world itself or being someone exploring it.

By focusing on a few crucial highly-detailed locations, the film is not only able to build an interesting fictional world but also to make the audience want to explore the rest of it. It adds a level of immersion and imagination that feels a lot more “relevant” to the audience than the actual story itself. Instead of the audience just being a passive viewer, the interesting worldbuilding makes them take a more active role by prompting them to daydream about where everything takes place.

And, yes, this focus on a few highly detailed locations is one of the most important parts of good worldbuilding. For example, I recently started reading a hardboiled novel from the 1990s called “Wireless” by Jack O’ Connell (unfortunately, I seem to be losing interest in books at the moment though. So, it’s unlikely I’ll finish and review it). Although this novel contains lots of interesting locations and is set in a fascinating city called Quinsigamond that also turns up in his other novels, this novel reserves it’s best descriptive passages for a single location.

In an early part of the novel, about six and a half pages are devoted to describing a strange diner/nightclub called “Wireless”. These are some of the most compelling pages that I’ve read in a while. Not only do they talk about the history of the place, but they describe it in such vivid (yet economical) detail that it actually feels like a real place. I could read an entire novel consisting of these types of descriptions. The place has so many interesting details and is described in such a smoothly-flowing and vivid way that, when something actually happens in it a little bit later in the chapter, these story events just feel anticlimactic and/or like an annoying distraction from the awesome descriptions.

Another interesting variant on this worldbuilding technique can be found in a modern sci-fi novel called “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers.

One of the many innovative things this novel does is to tell a small-scale story that takes place in an absolutely gigantic, very “realistic” and intriguingly unique distant galaxy. Although we get a lot of details about interesting cultures, places, foods, languages etc… this large amount of setting information “works” because it still feels like we’re only seeing a fraction of something even more interesting (since the novel focuses on just one group of characters travelling through the story’s setting). It’s a novel that is more about worldbuilding (and characters) than story and it works 🙂

So, yes, worldbuilding and locations can often matter even more than the story itself does. Not only do fascinating places linger in the audience’s imaginations for longer than story events do, but any interesting locations will also feel like a blank canvas, a place that the audience can visit again and again in their memories and daydreams to tell their own stories in.

But, again, it is also important to remember that good worldbuilding relies on what you don’t show. If you want to use your story’s “world” to it’s fullest potential, then focus on a smaller part of it and hint at the rest. Worldbuilding is more important than story because it gives the reader’s imagination something to play with. But, if you spell out literally every detail about everything there, then there won’t be any mystery or room for the audience’s imaginations to get to work.

This, by the way, is one of the reasons why the later “Star Wars” prequel trilogy isn’t as good as “Episode IV: A New Hope” – because it takes away a lot of the mystery. It shows too much and spells too much out for the audience – meaning that daydreaming about the fictional “world” of the films becomes more about memory (and trying to remember whether details are “correct”) than about just letting the imagination run wild and freely extrapolating from intriguing hints and details.

A good story might keep the audience wanting to see what happens next – but a good fictional “world” will stay with them long after the story has finished.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Paradoxes Of Creativity

Well, after having a few random moments of inspiration in the days before writing this article, this made me think about creativity itself. In particular, the unusual, ironic, counter-intuitive and downright paradoxical parts of creating anything.

So, here are a few of the paradoxes you might encounter when you try to create something. And, yes, this will be a slightly weirder article than usual.

1) Self-expression and self-censorship: When you feel really inspired – the kind of brilliant inspiration where making stuff feels almost like a spiritual activity of some kind – it is usually because what you are creating feels relevant to you in some way or another. It is a part of yourself, your emotions or your imagination that can only be expressed through the medium of art, fiction, comics, music, poetry etc…

Of course, these types of creative works feel absolutely amazing to make. But, one of the pitfalls of this is that you’ll sometimes look at this wonderful piece of self-expression and suddenly think “Oh my god, this is far too weird, cynical and/or personal to show anyone else“. And you’ll probably end up self-censoring it in some way or not showing it to anyone else.

And, to further compound the irony of all of this, most of the creative works made by other people that will really inspire you to create stuff are the kind of unique, weird, subversive, satirical, rebellious, introspective, irreverent, funny, quirky etc… things that will probably lead to you self-censoring when you try to make your own “equivalent” of them.

2) Improvement and nostalgia: If you’ve been practicing creating stuff regularly, then you’ve probably run into this one at some point or another. Either you get nostalgic about an inspired time you had several months or years ago, or someone says something nice about something you created ages ago. So, you go back… and it looks nowhere near as good as you remember it being!

As bizarre and frustrating as this might be when it happens to you for the first time, it is very much a good thing. It means that you’ve improved as both a person and an artist/writer/musician etc… That old creative work was probably the best thing that you could create at the time. It was something which you poured all of your creative practice, imagination and life experience into. Because it was the best thing you can create, it will look really good to you at the time.

Of course, when you’ve had a few more years practice, life experience etc.. and been exposed to even more creative inspirations, you’ll see it for what it actually is. A snapshot of your imagination several years ago. Something made by a younger, more limited and less practiced/experienced version of who you are today. So, it’ll probably make you cringe.

But, and here’s the pardox, don’t get too smug about the stuff that you’re making today. Because you’ll also experience this exact thing with it at some point in the future. I can pretty much guarantee it.

3) Getting inspired by other stuff (means your stuff has to be different): When you see a truly great creative work, it makes you want to make something like it. This is a perfectly normal part of the creative process and, when handled well, can be a great source of motivation that also helps you to improve and refine your creative works.

However, there is a massive paradox that you have to be aware of here. If you try to create something like the creative works that have inspired you, then it won’t work. At best, you’ll produce an amusing novelty pastiche/parody but, at worst, you’ll produce something crappy or something that makes you feel less enthusiastic about creating things.

Ironically, to actually use these types of moments to your advantage, you need to produce something very different to what inspired you. Why? Because your imagination, personality, worldview, circumstances, experiences and sensibilities will be different to those of the artist, writer, musician etc… that has just inspired you. You will never be able to write exactly like your favourite author, draw exactly like your favourite artist or play exactly like your favourite musician.

And this is a good thing! The reason why these great creative works have inspired you so much is because they are an expression of that person’s unique imagination. They are something that only that one person could make. And, if you want to make things that have this quality, then you need to make stuff that only you can make. Stuff that feels relevant to you, that is a part of your imagination that screams to be expressed.

Yes, you should still carefully study anything that inspires you to see if it can teach you any new technical skills (eg: art techniques, writing techniques etc..) and if there are any general elements that interest you enough to make you want to create your own interpretation of them.

You should also try to have a wide range of inspirations, because this also helps to add originality to your work. But, if you want to make something as great as the thing that inspired you, then you need to look inside yourself at your own unique thoughts, emotions, daydreams, fascinations etc… and use them as the basis for what you are making. Because this is exactly what your favourite artist, musician etc… did when they made the thing that inspired you.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Thoughts About Writing Villain Characters

Well, after seeing a few interesting “villain” characters in some of the creative works I’ve looked at recently, I thought that I’d offer a few thoughts about how to write this type of character.

These points obviously only apply to stories that have a fairly clear “protagonist vs. villain” structure to them and, of course, these aren’t the only types of stories out there.

1) Morality and complexity: I should probably start with the basics. Don’t fall into the tired old trope of making your main character “100% good” and your villain “100% evil”. Not only does this turn your main character into an unrelatable and completely insufferable “goody two-shoes” character, but it also turns your villain into a hilariously silly cartoon character too. Yes, if you’re doing this for comedic effect, then it can work well. But, if you’re trying to write anything other than comedy, then you need to include some level of moral ambiguity in your story.

In short, your villain has to be more evil than (or less good than) the main character. It is a relative thing. If you want your audience to relate to your main “good” character, then they need to have flaws and at least a small amount of moral ambiguity that shows the audience that they are only human. Yes, they still need to do more good things than evil things and to display qualities like empathy, compassion etc… But if your novel feels like it is preaching at the reader or your “good” character is the type of puritanical person who would probably sneer at or lecture the reader in real life, then it is going to be off-putting.

So, in a compelling and realistic story, morality should be relative. Your villain should have some “good” qualities too – but should still be more evil than good. Your readers are intelligent people who have their own consciences and are more than capable of weighing good and bad and coming to nuanced conclusions. So, don’t patronise them!

Every story has a moral landscape and/or message of some kind. However, if you want this to be interesting or useful to the reader, then you shouldn’t patronise them by making this element of the story too simplistic. People read fiction in order to ponder complex moral questions (eg: “How would I react in that situation?”, “Were that character’s actions justified?” etc..) and to gain a more nuanced understanding of humanity (eg: “Why do people do evil things?” etc…). So, don’t patronise them!

2) Sympathy and seriousness: In general, the most compelling villain characters tend to be complex characters who the audience is just as likely to feel sorry for as they are to despise. Not only does this add an extra level of depth to their character, but it also adds a bit of realism and nuance to the story too. After all, villain characters are still characters.

The traditional way of doing this is to show elements of the villain’s tragic backstory that led them to become the villain and/or by showing the downsides of a life of villainy. But, if you want something a little less old-fashioned, then one of the best ways to write these types of villains is simply to make them the main characters of their own stories (which happen to be different to the main character’s story).

In other words, if your story was told from the villain’s perspective – would it still “work” as a story?

For example, the main character’s unfaithful boyfriend – Gerry- in the film “Sliding Doors” is both racked by inner tumult over the affair and presented in a vaguely “Macbeth”-like way, where he is in over his head and stuck in his other relationship (despite his attempts at breaking it off). Although he’s clearly presented as an unsympathetic character, there are enough moments of angst and nervous suspense for the audience to be able to pity him too. If the film was presented from Gerry’s perspective, it could easily be a suspense thriller, a cautionary tale or even a mild psychological horror movie.

To give another example – although Sarah Tyrell is presented as an antagonist to the main character in K. W. Jeter’s novel “Blade Runner 3: Replicant Night“, she is probably the most complex and well-written character in the novel. Because she gets her own story arc and the reader also gets to see her thoughts, backstory and motivations – she becomes more than just a “villain” and becomes much more of a tragic character. The segments of the novel that focus on her often read more like something from the horror, dark comedy or conspiracy thriller genre and could easily work as a stand-alone story.

If you don’t do this sort of thing in your story, then your villain character will be a lot more like Dr. Jadus Heskel – the cackling “evil for the sake of evil” villain in the computer game “Ion Fury“. Because the game has strong comedy elements, this type of cheesy “cartoonishly evil” villain works absolutely perfectly here and really helps to add a bit of melodramatic amusement to parts of the game. However, and this is the important thing to remember, these types of two-dimensional moustache-twirling villains only really work in the comedy genre. They’re too silly for the audience to take seriously.

3) Villain names:
In short, if you’re trying to write a serious story with moral complexity, then you want to give your villain a fairly “ordinary” name. This not only hints to the reader that this is just another character who will be treated with the same dramatic weight and complexity as the main character, but it also adds some subtle suspense to your story by showing an evil character who appears perfectly ordinary at first.

Still, there’s something to be said for a good villain name. For example, in the tome-sized 1980s sci-fi novel I’m reading at the moment (“The Snow Queen” by Joan D. Vinge), the main antagonist is a ruthless monarch called Arienrhod. If you say her name out loud or break it down into two parts, then it has fairly clear connotations of fascism and harshness. Yet, you’ll probably read her name a couple of times before you work this out. It’s a really clever villain name that slightly unsettles the reader and makes this character seem evil before the reader even knows why.

However, if your villain has too much of an obvious “villain name”, then you’re stepping into the realm of cartoonishness and comedy (I mean, there’s a reason why Cruella DeVille – literally “cruel devil” – is in a children’s cartoon, rather than a serious drama film) and your audience won’t be able to take the character quite as seriously as they would do if they have a more subtle villain name or just have a fairly “ordinary” name.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Should You Focus On Internal Or External Conflict In Your Novel?

Well, whilst reading the next novel I plan to review (“Blade Runner 3: Replicant Night” by K. W. Jeter), I noticed something rather interesting about it. Although it has some elements from the thriller genre, there is a lot more focus on introspective internal conflict than I’d expected. This, of course, made me think about these two types of dramatic conflict.

After all, although a good novel should include both internal conflict (eg: decisions, conflicted emotions, angst, introspection etc…) and external conflict (eg: arguments, chase sequences, combat, debates, mysteries etc..), deciding which type of conflict to focus on can have a large effect on your novel. But, again, you should ideally try to include both.

So, let’s talk about the two types of conflict.

1) Internal conflict: There are a few advantages to focusing on internal conflict. The main one is that it instantly adds more depth and realism to both your characters and your story. After all, pretty much everyone has experienced some type of inner conflict or introspection during their life. It is a very essential – and relatable – part of life. So, focusing on this automatically gives your story a bit more of a “realistic” atmosphere, in addition to improving the characterisation in your story too.

In addition to this, novels are pretty much the ideal medium for stories about internal conflict. After all, not only does time flow at a more variable rate in written stories (eg: you can devote several pages to a few seconds of thought etc…), but the written word allows you to directly show your characters’ thoughts in a much more seamless and natural way than most other mediums can achieve. This is even more true if you use first-person narration in your novel too.

It is also ideally suited to quite a few genres too, since it can be used to add suspense in horror fiction, worldbuilding in science fiction, passion in romance fiction etc… in a way that only novels can really do. This lends your story a level of intensity that can really catch the reader by surprise.

On the downside, internal conflict results in much slower pacing. Even if you use a fairly “matter of fact” writing style, then your story will still have much less of a feeling of movement to it if you focus mainly on internal conflict. Likewise, it’s also difficult to write well too – requiring a good understanding of your characters, a good understanding of yourself and knowing how much inner conflict is “too much”. After all, if you focus too much on internal conflict, then it can come across as laughably melodramatic.

2) External conflict: There are a few advantages to focusing on external conflict too. The main one is that it’s a lot more exciting to read about and results in a faster-paced and more “dramatic” story. After all, the main characters have less control over external forces than they do over their own minds. Likewise, external conflict can include things like spectacular car chases, frenetic gunfights, tense debates and all sorts of other stuff that adds some extra thrills to your story.

Likewise, because most people aren’t likely to experience that much in the way of external conflict, this can also add both a “larger than life” feel to your story and also provide a reassuring level of emotional distance (allowing for more “feel good”, “exciting” etc… stories). Since this type of conflict is also much more easily-represented in films, videogames etc… your audience is also going to be a lot more familiar with it too, making it easier for them to jump into your story and enjoy it.

In addition to this, because lots of stuff is happening to your characters (rather than within them), focusing on external conflict also results in a much faster-paced and less predictable story than you might get if you focus more on internal conflict.

On the downside, external conflict is also difficult to write well (and, yes, “low brow” action-thriller fiction is often more technically sophisticated than you might think) and requires a really good understanding of pacing, plot structure, literary techniques etc… to write well, even if it might look “easy to write” at first glance.

Likewise, because this type of conflict is a lot more easily-represented in other mediums, your novel will have a lot more competition and won’t stand out from the crowd as much. Although, on the plus side, if your novel becomes popular, it’ll probably be easier to adapt into a film.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Differences Between 1980s And 1990s Horror Fiction

Well, whilst reading the late 1990s horror novel that I plan to review next (“Warhol’s Prophecy” by Shaun Hutson), I started to notice some differences in tone and style to Hutson’s 1980s horror novels. This, of course, made me think about some of the more general differences between 1980s and 1990s horror fiction.

After all, whilst horror fiction temporarily declined in popularity during the 1990s (with publishers turning away from it and many horror authors writing non-horror fiction), there is still horror fiction from the 1990s out there and – surprisingly – it is very different from 1980s horror fiction.

So, here are a few of the general differences.

1) Psychology, realism and suspense: Whilst 1980s horror fiction certainly included psychological horror and suspense, those novels often tended to have a supernatural element to them. On the other hand, 1990s horror fiction not only focused more on realism (with characters, society and/or situations providing the scares) but also on both psychological horror and suspense, as opposed to the gory horror and monsters that 1980s horror novels often favoured.

In part, this seems to have been a little bit of a marketing gimmick. Because publishers in the 1990s decided that horror fiction wasn’t fashionable and, with other genres like crime and thriller fiction also becoming more popular, horror novels from this time were often labelled as “psychological thrillers” in order to reach a larger audience. And, in order to keep up this pretence, they often had to ditch the creatures, ghosts etc… that used to be a mainstay of the genre.

Of course, being the “edgy” 1990s, these psychological thrillers often tend to have a slightly grittier edge to them than the more traditional-style atmosphere and suspense favoured in modern mainstream horror fiction. For example, Shaun Hutson’s 1999 novel “Warhol’s Prophecy” stars a bickering couple and is also punctuated by chilling descriptions of historical serial killings too. So, whilst 1990s horror fiction was moving more towards the more “respectable” status horror fiction has today, it still retained some of the cynical punk attitude of the 1980s too 🙂

2) Urban fantasy and monsters: Although traditional monster-based horror fiction fell out of favour amongst publishers in the 1990s, readers still enjoyed reading about monsters and other traditional parts of the genre during the 1990s.

However, these monsters were often found in the horror genre’s close relative, the urban fantasy genre. Although some hints of this genre existed during the late 1980s with novels like Nancy A. Collins’ “Sunglasses After Dark“, it only really started to become a major genre thanks to early-mid 1990s novels like Laurell K. Hamilton’s 1993 novel “Guilty Pleasures” and 1990s TV shows like “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”.

Although the urban fantasy genre includes elements of horror and a plethora of familiar monsters (eg: vampires, werewolves etc…), it generally tends to have more thriller-like pacing, narration and storylines than horror fiction does. These novels also often – but not always – tend to have a slightly lighter or more comedic emotional tone than traditional horror fiction too.

Likewise, although nuanced monster characters can also be found in 1980s novels like Clive Barker’s “Cabal” (and probably go all the way back to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” too), the “monsters” in urban fantasy fiction are more likely to be sympathetic characters than a source of horror.

This focus on presenting monsters as sympathetic characters also played into a general trend during the 1990s to “innovate” or to “reinvent” things. Postmodernism and cynicism were major trends in the 1990s too, with people eager to rebel against tradition in a vaguely punk-style way. So, this shift from monster horror towards genre-savvy urban fantasy makes total sense in this context.

3) Intelligence, genre and extremity: Although horror fiction still wasn’t a “respectable” mainstream genre in the 1990s, it was a more intellectual genre than it was in the 1980s and it also used shock value in a slightly different – and arguably more effective – way too.

In general, 1990s novels like “American Psycho” by Brett Easton Ellis, “Exquisite Corpse” by Poppy Z. Brite and some parts of “Word Made Flesh” by Jack O’Connell seem a lot more “extreme” than 1980s horror fiction thanks to their increased focus on more “realistic” sources of horror (such as serial killers), their focus on evil characters and a greater emphasis on disturbing and cruel situations/events presented in a more “understated” way that adds to the chilling feeling of realism. Sometimes in these novels, the concept of what is happening is actually more disturbing than how it is described.

In addition to this, these novels are also a bit more “high brow” than you might expect. Yes, 1980s horror fiction certainly included things like satire too, but 1990s horror novels will often try to have a little bit more intellectual depth or make a wider range of satirical criticisms. Likewise, there was a bit more flexibility in the genre too – with two of the novels I mentioned in the previous paragraph (“American Psycho” and “Word Made Flesh”) not even technically being “horror novels”, despite containing some very extreme horror elements.

So, 1990s horror fiction tended to be more “intellectual” than 1980s horror fiction was, with its shocking moments also feeling more “edgy” and “extreme” (despite containing less gory descriptions) thanks to things like their more understated presentation, scary protagonists and/or heavier focus on the concept of various horrifying events. Likewise, horror fiction in the 1990s wasn’t afraid to include elements from other genres too.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Reasons To Mix Genres

Well, I thought that I’d talk about some of the reasons why combining genres is a good idea today. This is mostly because, in addition to the fact that I read a sci-fi horror thriller novel recently and am currently reading a sci-fi comedy historical thriller novel (“Hope For The Best” by Jodi Taylor), I also rediscovered a band called Sum 41 during a moment of 2000s nostalgia a day or two before writing this article.

If you haven’t heard of Sum 41 before, they became known as a pop-punk band during the early 2000s but, even from their earliest days, have been incorporating elements of heavy metal into their music 🙂 Although these genres are traditionally seen as opposites, they have a surprising number of similarities which make a combination of these two awesome genres really interesting to listen to.

So, here are three good reasons for mixing genres:

1) Originality and creativity: In short, if you want to create something distinctive and original, you need to have a wide range of influences. You need to combine things in a unique way that hasn’t really been seen before. This is why, for example, horror writers are often advised to read non-horror fiction too. Seeing a wide range of different creative works opens you up to new ideas and also gives you lots of “wouldn’t it be cool if…” moments of inspiration too.

It also allows you to find your own distinctive “style” too. To use a musical example, although Sum 41’s early experiments with adding heavy metal to their punk music initially just consisted of things like the occasional guitar solo, an affectionate 1980s-style heavy metal parody song (called “Pain For Pleasure”) and a few references/T-shirts in their early music videos, it quickly led to them developing a much more unique musical style than most other bands in the genre.

Whilst their music is still recognisably punk and keeps much of the pessimistic social commentary found in the punk genre, the metal elements really add something unique 🙂 Whether it is the slightly heavier guitar segments (which lend their songs a slightly gloomier and more intense atmosphere), a more “serious” style of singing, an increased level of musical complexity or the fact that it allows them to incorporate more horror imagery in their album covers etc… this heavy metal influence has turned them into something much more unique and instantly-recognisable.

So, mixing genres is essential for originality, creative inspiration and finding your own unique “style”.

2) A larger audience: One of the cool things about genre mixing is that, when it is done well, it can appeal to a much wider audience than you would get if you just stuck to one genre. Not only that, it also widens your audience’s tastes too. After all, if something in their favourite genre also includes elements from another genre, then they might feel curious about this genre and end up discovering lots of cool stuff that they might not have otherwise found.

For example, thanks to the political drama elements in sci-fi TV shows like “Star Trek”, “Bablyon 5” etc.. I became interested enough in the genre to watch “The West Wing” during the mid-2010s and found that I actually enjoyed it (despite the fact that, even a couple of years earlier, I’d have considered a TV show about US politics to be “boring”).

In addition to this, mixing genres also makes it easier to gain a strong fandom too. After all, most audience members aren’t fans of just one genre. Although most people will have a “favourite” genre, they probably enjoy other genres too. So, if your audience happen to be fans of more than one of the genres you’re mixing, then they are likely to really love your work.

3) Intelligent creative works: Blending genres results in much more intelligent creative works for several reasons. The main one is that you actually need to find a way to seamlessly mix “different” genres together. The typical way of doing this is to look for things that these genres have in common with each other and to focus on these things.

To go back to my earlier example, heavy metal and punk music have a surprising amount in common with each other. They were originally “rebellious” genres of music, they rely on fast-paced electric guitars, they have a strong focus on emotional catharsis, they play with optimism and pessimism (eg: some types of punk music sound cheerful but have pessimistic lyrics, metal often sounds gloomy but is also often emotionally uplifting), they focus on personal expression (cover songs aside, metal and punk bands actually write their own lyrics 🙂 ) etc…

And, of course, the same points can often apply to rap music too. For example, the Within Temptation song “And We Run” is a symphonic metal song that also includes several rap segments by Xzibit. And this combination of genres works really well 🙂 In addition to the interesting contrast between vocal styles, the fact that both genres focus on emotional catharsis, personal expression, an empowering/uplifting emotional tone etc.. results in a really powerful and impressive song.

Looking for what “different” genres have in common with each other also results in much more intelligent creative works for all sorts of other reasons too. Not only does it make them a lot less predictable, but it also allows for an extra level of thematic exploration and depth (which is a by-product of having to “dissect” and compare two or more different genres) too.

It also results in more open-minded creative works too. Not only is this because blending genres pushes you away from the traditions of your “favourite” genre, but it is also because all of your research into different genres will also expose you to different perspectives on the world, different ways of thinking about things etc… So, works that blend multiple genres will often tend to have a more open-minded kind of atmosphere too.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂