Working Out What To Show The Audience – A Ramble

Well, the day before I wrote this article, I happened to see something fascinating that made me think about something which anyone who is telling a story, making a piece of art etc… has to grapple with. Namely the decision of what to show the audience.

Anyway, the thing that made me think about this topic were a few videos from a fascinating Youtube series called “Boundary Break” where, using various tools, someone manipulates the “camera” in videogames to show you what you normally wouldn’t see whilst playing the game. And it is fascinating.

This is mostly because, in order to save memory and processing power, videogames will often only display the absolute minimum needed to make everything look convincing. For example, if a game displays a fenced-off road or passageway, the only things behind it will be what the player can actually see through gaps in the fence. After all, the emphasis is on making sure that the game looks convincing, whilst also finding sneaky ways to show the minimum amount of detail possible.

And, well, the same thing is true in almost every other creative medium too.

For example, many studio-based film and television sets will only actually contain what appears on camera (eg: the classic example being a set in a sitcom where one wall is missing in order to allow the cameras to film what is happening). Films can also take this a step further by giving the illusion of a large set through background details whilst only actually showing a few smaller locations.

The classic example of this is the 1982 film “Blade Runner“. This is a sci-fi film set within a giant futuristic mega-city. Yet, if you look closely at the film itself, the only actual locations in it that are shown in any real level of detail are several interior locations and a few streets. But, thanks to things like distant background details (created via things like paintings, scale models etc..) etc.. the audience feels like they’re seeing a much larger setting than they actually are.

Likewise, many pieces of visual art (especially in things like comics) will often focus more heavily on adding detail to more prominent parts of the picture, with the background detail often being left slightly vague or impressionistic. There are several practical reasons for this, such as time reasons and the fact that (unless you’re making a very large piece of art) it can be difficult to cram lots of detail into small background areas.

The same is true for prose fiction too. After all, if you have to describe literally every detail of a story’s setting, character backstories etc… you will end up with a very long, very slow-paced and very boring story. As such, you have to be very selective about only describing the most important, evocative and/or interesting details in each scene of your story.

For example, if you’re writing a “film noir”-style scene set inside a detective’s office, you might describe a few key details like the light filtering through the blinds, a cigarette smouldering in an ashtray and a rusty old filing cabinet. This gives the audience a quick impression of the scene, whilst avoiding the slow-paced boredom that would come from describing literally every detail of the room.

So, yes, working out what not to show is actually quite an important part of making any creative work. And the best way to learn how to do this is simply to see the thing you’re creating from your audience’s perspective. In other words, you need to think about how your audience will see the things you create, what they will find interesting and, most importantly of all, what their attention will be drawn to.

Once you know what grabs your audience’s attention, then focus most of your time, effort, words etc… on that.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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What Books Can Do That Other Entertainment Mediums Can’t – A Ramble

Well, since I seem to have read more within the past month than I did in the entire year before, I thought that I’d offer some random thoughts about books. In particular, I thought that I’d talk about something that suddenly occurred to me whilst I was reading the thriller novel I reviewed yesterday.

Unlike literally any other entertainment medium, books are an intimate and collaborative medium. It is literally just you and the author. They provide a description of their most interesting daydreams, and you have to use your own imagination to turn this into something you’ll enjoy. It’s like spending time with an old friend, or an interesting stranger. No two meetings are exactly alike. Every meeting between an author’s words and a new reader will be very slightly different.

Not only that, both of you control the pace at which the story travels. The author can write in a way that is meant to be read quickly or slowly, but it is the reader who determines how long the story takes to read. Whether a book is read in short instalments or explored in long deep dives up to the reader. Unlike films, books don’t have running times, because it’s up to the author and each individual reader to determine the “running time” themselves.

Unlike every other entertainment medium, a book is a bit like the Vulcan mind meld from “Star Trek”. Unlike watching most films or playing most games, it almost feels like you’re having some kind of a relationship with a book. For a few hours or days, it becomes part of your everyday life and part of your mind. It’s cover art becomes something you see regularly and the story becomes something that follows you around for a while.

Even if you only remember a few random scenes or impressions several years later, each book that you’ve read becomes a part of your life in a way that no other entertainment medium can quite achieve. Because you’ve spent the time with a book and because you and the author have come up with a unique “version” of the story, there’s something personal about remembering a book that you just don’t get with other entertainment mediums that are the same for every viewer or player. Because of this, books linger in the memory like nothing else, often mingling with the memories of the time and place you read them.

Even the corniest horror novel, the most generic of romances or the most textbook of thriller novels will do this. I mean, I still remember random scenes and moods from the only two “Mills & Boon” books that I’ve ever read, even if I can’t remember their titles or character names. I could also tell you where I read each one and the years that I read them (2006 and 2009/10).

Likewise, even though it’s been quite a while since I last read a decent horror novel, I can still vividly remember being too creeped out by Shaun Hutson’s “Shadows” to keep reading. I can also still remember the car journey (of all things) during the holiday when I read Hutson’s “Spawn”. Or parts of the holiday home where I read Hutson’s “Heathen”.

Even though it was about a decade and a half ago, I can still remember reading James Herbert’s “Domain” (a second-hand copy with a shiny cover from an indoor market stall in Bath) in my bedroom with aghast bleakness and morbid fascination whilst I listened to HIM’s “Love Metal” album on my CD player. I could go on for a while, but books linger in the memory in a way that nothing else does.

Then there’s the obscurity. Unless you’re reading something really famous, there’s a good chance that the books you read are ones that the people around you either haven’t heard of or haven’t read. Books usually don’t really have the popularity of major films or “AAA” games. And yet this just adds to the sense of intimacy and humanity that other entertainment mediums can only dream of.

Reading a book, even by a reasonably well-known author, feels like you’ve stepped into another world. Like you’ve stepped into a hidden part of the surrounding culture that is rarely mentioned in newspapers or on TV. That probably isn’t referenced humourously in the way that films are. Like you’ve stepped outside of popular culture and found that there’s a lot more than you expected. That, for every blockbuster franchise in the cinemas, there are literally hundreds of equally spectacular franchises hiding on the shelves of bookshops. It’s like seeing another world.

I could go on for a while, but I’ll leave you with this. All of this stuff comes from an entertainment medium that doesn’t require electricity, that can be left lying on a shelf for literally decades and still “work” perfectly, and which can often only cost a small amount. It’s practically magic!

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Tips For Enjoying “Boring” Films, TV Shows, Games etc..

One of the interesting things that I’ve noticed over the past decade or two is that I’ve gradually become more interested in creative works that I would have considered “boring” when I was younger.

Whether it’s the deliberately slow pacing of modern films/TV shows like “Blade Runner 2049” and the 2017 “Twin Peaks” TV series (which I got on DVD as a Christmas present last year), whether it’s slower-paced games in the “point and click” genre etc… I’ve found that things I’d once have considered “boring” are much more interesting than they might initially seem.

But, how can you learn to enjoy creative works like this? Here are a few tips.

1) Work out why it is “boring”: Simply put, good “boring” creative works are slow-paced or uneventful for a good reason.

This is either because it gives the audience time to think about what is happening or because it gives the audience time to appreciate things like the atmosphere, visual elements, the characters etc..

A “boring” slow pace could also be there for the sake of emotional contrast, suspense or something like that. Kind of like how music sounds more dramatic because it also contains silence as well as noise.

Likewise, boredom can be used to add a sense of realism to a creative work. After all, everyday life is a boring, humdrum thing most of the time.

Artists, writers, directors, game developers etc… will sometimes include some of this boredom in order to show that their story is a more realistic (and immersive) one. Once you see it this way, then “boring” scenes can be a lot more understandable.

But, whatever the reason, there is probably a good reason for why a creative work is “boring”. If you can remember this, then you’ll enjoy these things more.

2) Read more: Although I don’t read nearly as much as I used to [Edit: No prizes for guessing what I rediscovered a week or so after preparing this article. Expect regular book reviews to start later this month], one of the things that changed my attitude towards “boring” creative works was reading a lot when I was a teenager.

But, why does reading matter? Simply put, reading gently gets you used to stories being told at a slightly slower pace.

Even the most fast-paced thriller novel still needs to take the time to introduce the characters and the premise. It’ll tell a more complex story than the average movie. It’ll be something that will demand that you spend 4-6 hours reading it. And, you’ll probably enjoy it. So, reading more (even in more fast-paced genres) is a great way to get used to slower-paced films, games etc…

3) Remember, it’s about the journey: One important thing to remember about “boring” creative works is that the most important part often isn’t the story, but everything else. I’m talking about things like the atmosphere, the narrative voice, the visual style, the underlying ideas etc…

In other words, these things are more about the journey than the destination.

A good cinematic example is probably the first “Blade Runner” film. The basic story of this film is just a simple detective thriller story. But that isn’t what makes it a brilliant film.

It’s a brilliant film because of the fact that it takes place in an intriguingly mysterious futuristic world which also looks stunningly beautiful too. It’s a brilliant film because of the fact that you notice something new about it every time you see it. It’s a brilliant film because of all of the thematic/philosophical/moral complexity hiding behind the simple story. I could go on for hours, but it’s a brilliant film because of everything other than the basic story.

In short, if you find a creative work to be “boring”, then try focusing on something other than the story. The story the creative work is telling might not be the main reason why it was made.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Things To Do If You’ve Got Too Many Books, DVDs, Games etc… And Not Enough Time

Well, I thought that I’d take a break from talking about creativity and talk about being part of the audience today. This is mostly because, as awesome as things like second-hand DVDs, sales on game sites, second-hand books etc… are, it’s easily possible to end up in a situation where you have a lot of stuff but not enough time to enjoy it all.

So, what do you do if you find yourself in a situation like this? Here are a few tips:

1) Look at the “jumping in” time and prioritise accordingly: I’ve already written about “jumping in” time before, but it basically just refers to the minimum amount of time you can enjoy a particular thing for.

For example, if you want to watch a TV show, then it has to be consumed in 20-60 minute instalments. Whereas, you can just read a couple of pages of a book at a time. Likewise, a game that has short loading times and allows you to save anywhere has a shorter session length than one that takes ages to load and uses checkpoint saving.

But, how can this help you? Simply put, take a look at everything you plan to read/watch/play and work out roughly what the minimum amount of time you can spend with each thing is. Then, look at the time you have left and see what you can fit into it.

For example, if you’ve only got ten minutes to spare, then read another chapter of that novel. If you’ve got thirty minutes, maybe have another go at that game. If you’ve got a couple of hours free, then this is the time for movies and/or TV show binge-watching.

2) Be optimistic: Although it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by having more things than you can enjoy, unless you’re borrowing them or there’s some kind of deadline, then you should actually see the situation as a good thing.

Simply put, it means that you’ve got a reserve of entertainment. It means that you’ll never be short of something to pass the time with.

In other words, the excess books, DVDs, games etc… won’t disappear if you don’t look at them right now. So, just enjoy the ones that appeal to you most right now. It doesn’t mean that you’ve wasted the other ones. They’re still there. And, who knows, they might come in handy at some point in the future? Thinking about the ones you don’t watch/read/play as a “reserve” can be one way to think about the situation more optimistically.

3) Multi-tasking: This article was prompted by the fact that I’ve found myself in the strange situation of having two computer games on the go at the same time. Generally speaking, you want to avoid situations like this. Or, more accurately, you need to multi-task more intelligently.

In short, if you’re going to multi-task, then make sure that you do it with two different types of things. For example, you could have a novel that you read during free moments during the day and a TV show that you relax with during the evening. Keeping the formats separate means that you’re less likely to get confused between the two things, not to mention that the change between formats can keep each one feeling fresh and interesting too.

But, if this sounds a bit much, then just focus on one thing at a time (and prioritise according to which one interests you the most). The thing to remember here is that reading, watching and/or playing things is meant to be fun. If it feels more like a chore than a way to relax, then you’re doing it wrong. Remember, it’s better to really enjoy fewer things than to slog through lots of stuff just because you feel that you “should”.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Art Changes The Way You See The World – A Ramble

Although I’ve talked about this topic at least twice before, I felt like returning to it again because it is always interesting. I am, of course talking about the way that creative works change the way you see the world – whether you make them or are part of the audience.

I was reminded of this subject when, a couple of hours before I started preparing this article, there were two power cuts. After noticing that I couldn’t turn the downstairs hall light on, the upstairs hall light started flickering ominously. My first thought was “Oh my god, this is like something from a horror movie. Cool!“. Which, in retrospect, was probably better than feeling scared.

Then, when I went upstairs, I happened to notice that the bathroom was bathed in the early evening light. Thanks to my years of daily art practice, I was able to memorise the way that the light looked – so that I could turn it into a stylised painting later. Here’s a preview of said painting:

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here tomorrow.

Whilst I was somewhat puzzled by the power cut, the wails of car and building alarms in the distance suddenly made me think of this absolutely hilarious “SMBC” comic. Remembering this comic lightened my mood considerably and meant that I felt amused, rather than annoyed or frightened, by the power cut.

Finally, after the first power cut had finished, I powered up my computer and the first thing I did was to look online for a music video for Billy Joel’s “Miami 2017“. Why? Because it was a song that I’ve associated with power cuts since I found myself in the middle of one when I was in Aberystwyth about 7-8 years ago. This also brought back lots of wonderful memories and helped me feel nostalgic, rather than angry or annoyed, about the power cut.

This is far from the only time that creative works have lightened the mood. When, last year, the afternoon sky turned an ominous shade of muddy orange due to a combination of a distant storm and sand from the Sahara (or something like that), I was quite surprised to read in online news stories about it that people were joking that it was a sign of the apocalypse. My thoughts at the time hadn’t been “it’s the apocalypse! The end-times are upon us!“, but “Cool! Everywhere looks like part of the intro movie to ‘Silent Hill 3‘. This is awesome!

So, what was the point of mentioning all of this?

Well, it’s yet another example of how important creativity and creative works are. Whilst “the arts” or “culture” are often commonly seen as frivolous or pretentious, they have an incredibly important everyday role in our lives – since they can be one of the things that shapes how we see and think about the world.

And, before anyone says anything, this isn’t a call for censorship. Whilst creative works can shape the way we see the world, they aren’t all-powerful things. In other words, they can slightly influence the way we see the world to an extent, but they can’t control us. We obviously still have brains, personalities etc…

Not to mention that most of the ways that creative works influence how we see the world are positive. They make us look at “ordinary” landscapes in interesting ways, they can provide an emotional boost to us, they can add humour to our lives and they can provoke interesting daydreams.

Plus, of course, if you’re a creative person yourself, then every creative work that you see will probably influence what you create to some extent or another – even if it’s just a “I’m not making something like that!” negative influence.

Not to mention that making art regularly also means that you tend to notice things like realistic colours, the exact outlines of everything, the beauty of everything, background details in TV shows etc… This is kind of hard to describe, but it’s a little bit like gaining an extra sense or something like that.

So yes, creative works are important, valuable things because they can shape the way that we see the world.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Reasons Why Things In The Horror Genre Can Be Scarier Than You Remember

Shortly before I originally wrote this article, I had a rather surprising experience. My second-hand copy of the PC port of “Silent Hill 3” had finally arrived in the post and I was eager to re-live some nostalgic memories of playing the game on my old (and sadly no longer functional) Playstation 2 when I was a teenager.

Plus, when I found and played a demo of the PC version of “Silent Hill 3” a couple of years ago, I’d felt nothing but wonderful nostalgia. So, I was expecting a lot more of this from the full version of the game. But, after I’d finished the introductory segment from the demo…

…The game was about ten times scarier than I remembered! I’d always thought of “Silent Hill 3” as the least scariest of the classic “Silent Hill” games, yet I could feel adrenaline coursing through my veins and an icy shard of fear in my chest. Nervously, I found myself torn between the urge to explore more of the game’s nightmarish world and the urge to just find a monster-free area and hide there because I did not expect to feel actual fear whilst playing “Silent Hill 3”.

This is a screenshot from “Silent Hill 3” (2003). A game that is scarier than you might remember it being!

This naturally made me wonder about time, nostalgia, memory and the horror genre – since this experience just didn’t make any logical sense. I’d played the whole game before when I was younger. Surely, if I was going to be scared by it, it would have happened back then. Yet, my only memories of the game were nostalgic ones of how cool I thought it was and how it was associated with rose-tinted memories of my youth.

1) Perspective and maturity: One reason things in the horror genre can be scarier when you revisit them at an older age for the simple reason that you’re more likely to actually think about them deeply. You’ll have had more life experience and be at least marginally more mature, and this will influence how you think about horror games, movies, novels etc..

I mean, when I played “Silent Hill 3” at about the age of sixteen, I probably just thought “Cool! It’s a gruesome horror game with monsters. AND it isn’t as utterly terrifying as ‘Silent Hill 2’ 🙂 “.

But, when playing the shopping centre-based parts of the game a while before writing this article, I actually found myself thinking more deeply about the events of the game and wondering what actually being in a situation like that would be like. I started thinking about it less like a “game” and more like a story.

Likewise, I also started to wonder about the parts of the game’s nightmarish “world” that aren’t shown to the player. What lurked behind the myriad locked doors that are everywhere? How did that mysterious bloodstain end up in this room I’m hiding in? Why are there monsters lurking in the shopping centre, and how creepy would it be to go shopping and suddenly find that the shopping centre was abandoned?

So, gaining the capacity to think about things more deeply can be one reason why things in the horror genre can be scarier than you remember.

2) Practice: Another reason why things in the horror genre can be scarier when you are older is because your tastes tend to widen with age. I mean, when I was a teenager, I was absolutely fascinated by the horror genre. I used to love reading splatterpunk novels, watching late night horror movies etc…. It was a genre that was rebellious, emotionally cathartic and considerably more “cool” than anything else.

But, as time has gone on, I’ve found other genres that interest me. And, as a result, I’ve got somewhat “out of practice” with the horror genre.

So, a relative lack of exposure to “serious” things in the horror genre over the past few years can also explain why things in the horror genre can be scarier than you remember.

3) Fan culture: If you haven’t directly experienced a particular work in the horror genre for a long time, then you can sometimes end up remembering the affectionate fan culture that surrounds it than the actual film/game/story etc… itself.

It’s easy to get dazzled by nostalgic references on the internet and adoring odes to games/films/novels etc.. from fans on the internet.

Because fan culture often tends to include a lot of humour and a lot of focus on the more stylised elements of something (eg: Freddy Krueger’s glove, the crackly voice from the “Saw” films, the mask from the “Scream” films etc..) , then it can be easy to mistake this for the actual work in question. Since fan culture exists to celebrate things, then it is going to focus on instantly-recognisable things that provoke feelings of warm affection.

So, fan culture isn’t going to reflect that moment in a horror game when you’re walking down another gloomy corridor and can hear something lurking nearby. Fan culture isn’t going to focus on that really bleak moment in a horror movie when a character realises that all hope is lost etc….

So, yes, confusing fan culture with the actual work in question can be another reason why something in the horror genre might be a lot scarier than you remember.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Ways To Stop Your Readers Feeling “Out Of Their Depth”

Whilst writing a comedic game review yesterday, I ended up remembering my old GCSE Maths lessons and how stressful they were. This then made me think about the subject of being “out of your depth”.

Although I made a bit of a melodramatic joke of it in the review, one of the main reasons why I still despise mathematics to this day is because I was bumped up to the top class just before my GCSE course started… where everyone else in the class had three years’ worth of extra knowledge and it was assumed that I did too. Add to that a rather draconian teacher and frequently-confusing classwork, and I was left feeling somewhat out of my depth. Yes, I did well in the exam – but it put me off of maths for life!

Although a “baptism of fire” approach can sometimes work, it is just as likely to backfire. Nowhere is this more true than in creative works, where the audience is a lot more free to choose what they experience and whether they continue reading, watching, playing etc… But there are valid reasons why creative people love to drop the audience in at the deep end.

Some genres, such as the cyberpunk genre, rely on “overloading” the audience with visual or narrative information in order to create the sense of a dense, futuristic setting. Fantasy novels tell long, epic complex stories that “require” giant description-heavy and jargon-heavy doorstep-sized novels. JRPG-style videogames often require the player to practice for quite a long time before the game truly becomes enjoyable. I could go on for a while….

But, how can you avoid your readers experiencing the off-putting feeling of being “out of their depth”?

1) Be friendly or interesting: If you’re telling an information-dense story, then there are two options available to you.

You can write in a style that is easy to read and which makes the audience feel like they are hanging out with an old friend (so that they’ll stick around, even if they don’t fully understand what is going on). Or you can add something interestingly dramatic and/or mysterious to the early parts of your story that will make your audience feel curious enough to keep reading, despite feeling confused.

Combining these two things is also a good idea too. The thing to remember is that the audience are more likely to stick around if they feel that they are actually going to enjoy the experience. So, an interesting narrator or a dramatic beginning can reassure audiences that the effort that they’re going to have to put into your story will be worthwhile.

2) Start simple: Most “complex” computer and video games will start with an easy tutorial level of some kind or another. Sometimes, this can be a literal tutorial. But, more often, it is just an easier level that gives the player a chance to learn and practice in a low-pressure environment. Although these levels annoy the hell out of experienced gamers, they are there to help new players. Writers can learn a lot from this!

So, start your story with a more “simple” opening chapter. Yes, you might want to tell a thrillingly futuristic cyberpunk story about how a NeoTokyo hack crew mindjacks the cyborg CEO of GeneTeknotiX Industries using a Mogilev Mole virus to crack the neuro-locks on the mega-corp’s backup datavault and gain admin access to the core BIOS of consciousness itself. But, for heaven’s sake, don’t put all of this stuff in the opening chapter!

Start your story with something a bit more small-scale and understandable… then gradually add the complex stuff later.

For example, William Gibson’s classic cyberpunk novel “Neuromancer” doesn’t start with lots of futuristic computer hacking. It starts with the main character visiting a bar and feeling somewhat down on his luck. Yes, the opening chapter still contains a lot of futuristic jargon but it is kept to a very slightly lower level until the reader can get used to Gibson’s style of narration.

So, make sure that the beginning of your story is something a little bit more small-scale and simple. Another classic example of this is the beginning of G.R.R Martin’s “A Game Of Thrones“.

Yes, the novel itself is filled with complex medieval-style politics and more characters than you can shake a stick at. But, the opening chapter is a self-contained horror story about a group of soldiers being attacked by mysterious monsters. Not only does this intrigue the reader, but it also gives them a chance to get used to Martin’s dense, slow-paced narrative style without being overloaded with character names, politics, background information etc…

Likewise, even Frank Herbert’s amazing sci-fi epic “Dune” begins with a smaller-scale scene (containing some occasional background information about the story’s “world”) where a character undergoes a dangerous test, rather than plunging the reader directly into the novel’s fascinatingly complex fictional world and political system.

3) Length, editing and segmentation: Long things can be off-putting because of the amount of time that new audience members have to invest in them. People are more likely to watch an unknown 90 minute film on impulse or pick up an unknown 200-400 page novel on impulse than they are to watch a 120+ minute film or read a giant 600+ page doorstopper.

So, if possible, keep your story as short and focused as possible. Edit ruthlessly. Or, failing that, find some way to break your story up into more manageable pieces. Whether this involves shorter chapters or perhaps a series of shorter self-contained novels (so that the audience doesn’t feel like they have to buy an entire series), make it manageable!

The detective and thriller genres are excellent examples of this kind of thing. Each story by an author may feature the same fictional character and/or setting, but each novel in a series can often be read on it’s own and/or in any order. This means that it’s a lot easier for the audience to just pick up a book and start reading, instead of worrying about investing time and money in a long, continuous series.

Just don’t fall for the common fantasy genre pitfall of segmenting your story… and then making each segment both off-puttingly gigantic and part of a continuous series (that has to be read in order!).

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂