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 πŸ™‚

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.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Three Reasons Why Horror Stories Are Set In The Past

Before I begin, I should probably point out that the vast majority of horror novels are set in the time that they were written. The main reason for this is that a “modern” setting gives the story a much greater feeling of realism and immediacy, which makes the scenes of horror feel even scarier (as if they could really happen to you, right now…).

Older and historical settings generally tend to be more common in visual media, like horror films and videogames, where the emphasis is on making locations that look scary. And since old-looking places are a good way to create an atmosphere of decay or to ominously hint at a scary or tragic history, then they show up in visual media a lot more.

Even so, you can still sometimes find horror novels that are intentionally or unintentionally set in the past. But, why? Here are a few of the possible reasons:

1) Accidental ageing: There is usually something of a time gap between when a novel is written and when it is published. This was probably slightly more of a thing in the past than it is today, but it is still something that can result in a “modern” horror story being set further in the past than it was originally intended to be. Since this gap is often just a year or two, it usually isn’t that noticeable. But, sometimes, it can result in some unusually-aged horror fiction.

A great example of this is the novel that I’m reading at the moment – Gary Brandner’s 1980 novel “Death Walkers” (also known as “Walkers”). This was a novel that I originally bought because it was an ’80s horror novel, only to suddenly discover upon reading the opening chapter (which, amongst other things, includes a “Saturday Night Fever”-style disco dancer) that it is very much a ’70s horror novel – even down to the general atmosphere/style of the book and the fact that what I’ve read so far focuses more on traditional-style paranormal/scientific/gothic/macabre horror rather than the ultra-gruesome splatterpunk horror that became synonymous with the 1980s.

So, if there are major social or cultural changes in the gap between writing and publication, then this can result in a horror story unintentionally feeling like it is set in the past.

2) Suspense was better in the olden days: One of the most essential ingredients of any good horror story is suspense, the feeling of creeping dread that something evil lurks nearby or something terrible is going to happen. And, well, suspense was a lot better in the olden days than it is in the modern day.

After all, if a character finds a creepy old cursed amulet these days, they can just search for information about it online or take a photo of it and post it on social media. In the olden days, learning about it would require the characters to do lots of long, suspenseful library research which gradually revealed more and more clues, each one creepier and more menacing than the last.

If there’s an ominous abandoned building, a modern character can probably either find a website about it or some online footage of someone else exploring it. If one main character finds themselves separated from the other main characters, then a quick text message will keep them in touch with each other. If the main character finds themselves lost in the woods, GPS will come to the rescue. If someone glimpses something ominous or bizarre, the smartphone footage of it will probably go viral….

I could go on, but as wonderful as some of this stuff probably is in real life, it is terrible for horror fiction. So, setting your horror story in the past can be a great way to add a lot more suspense to your story.

3) Inspirations, nostalgia and cynicism: This is the most obvious one. In short, most people are inspired to write horror fiction by older horror stories. Whether it is gothic 19th century ghost stories or the many novels from horror fiction’s popular heyday during the 1980s, pretty much everyone who wants to write horror fiction has been inspired by older horror novels. So, this inspiration can sometimes explain historical settings in horror stories.

In addition to this, don’t discount good old fashioned nostalgia. One of the cool things about both reading and writing fiction is that it is one of the closest things to time travel that we all have. Because books are immersive things that can contain lots of detail and require the reader to use their imaginations, they can literally throw us back in time in a way that movies, comics, games etc… can only dream of. So, wanting to revisit the past can be one reason why horror stories (and detective, thriller, romance etc.. stories) can be set in the past.

Of course, this nostalgia can also be paired with a certain level of cynicism, an impish desire to creep the reader out by adding some ominous creepiness or bleak realism to the rose-tinted visions of the past that linger in their imaginations. So, sometimes horror stories are set in the past because there is nothing more fascinating, intriguing and grimly amusing than taking some beloved part of the past and turning it into something a bit more nightmarish.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

Single-Location Comedy – A Ramble

Well, since I was also busy preparing last year’s Christmas short stories at the time I was preparing this article, I thought that I’d talk very briefly about single-location comedy.

This is mostly because the events of the previous two stories I’d written (this one and this one) before writing this article both entirely took place within a single office.

This type of single-location comedy tends to turn up more often in film and television than in other mediums, for the simple reason that it is cheaper to produce. After all, if you only have to build one set (or a small number of sets), then it’s going to cost less. But, of course, it can also work in other mediums too.

The main advantages of setting your comedy story and/or comic within a single location is that it places more emphasis on the dialogue and the characters. More crucially, it is also perfect for shorter things (eg: flash fiction stories, three-panel comics etc..) for the simple reason that you don’t have to spend too much time setting the scene.

In addition to this, the limitation of setting an entire story or comic within a single location also forces you to be more creative too. After all, if you have to make something interesting, funny or dramatic without being able to change the location, then this pushes you to be more inventive.

Likewise, if your single location is distinctive or interesting in any way, then it can also almost become a character in it’s own right. This helps to increase audience immersion in the story, in addition to giving your fans something to focus on too.

However, the main disadvantage of only using one location is that – if the writing isn’t good enough – then it can get very boring, very quickly. This is not just true for your audience, but for you too.

Whilst this isn’t as much of an issue in prose fiction, having to draw the same background over and over again in a comic or webcomic can become tiring or monotonous very quickly (and is one reason why many single-location comics tend to have more minimalist backgrounds).

So, with prose fiction and comics, it’s often better to go for a happy medium. In other words, set most of your story or comic in one location (in order to gain the advantages of using just one location) but don’t be afraid to include the occasional scene set in other locations – when justified by context. Not only will this make these scenes stand out more by comparison but, since you’re writing or drawing rather than making a film, it isn’t like it costs anything extra to include other locations.

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Sorry for such a short, basic and rambling article, but I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Three Basic Tips For Coming Up With Good Settings In The Horror Genre

Well, I thought that I’d talk about storytelling, settings and the horror genre today. This is mostly because I happened to re-watch an absolutely amazing horror movie recently, where a large proportion of the film’s scares come from the location that the film is set in. This reminded me of how important settings and locations can be in the horror genre.

So, I thought that I’d offer some basic tips for coming up with good settings for your horror novel, comic etc….

1) Isolation: I’ll start with the really obvious one. One easy way to make the settings in a horror story even scarier is to ensure that the main characters are cut off from the world, and therefore have to rely on their own wits to survive.

When setting horror stories in the present day, it’s also usually obligatory to point out that the setting in question has no mobile phone reception (in fact, this has been done in horror movies for almost two decades. See the 1999 remake of “House On Haunted Hill” for an older example).

By setting your horror story somewhere isolated, you not only increase the level of danger that the characters face but you also give your story an instant sense of direction and suspense too, since the characters have to find a way to either summon help or escape the location in question.

And, yes, the horror genre is one of the few genres where running away from danger is actually realistically presented as a sensible and heroic thing to do.

2) Symbolism and/or history: The best and most memorable settings in the horror genre are not only eerily mysterious (so that the characters, and audience, don’t know what to expect) but they will often reflect a deeper symbolic and/or historical horror in some way or another.

For example, the classic horror videogame “Silent Hill 2” (major plot SPOILERS ahead!) is set in an abandoned, fog-covered town that is filled with monsters. Every now and then, an air raid siren will sound and then the town will transform itself into a much creepier version of itself – with rusty walls, gloomier lighting and even creepier monsters. These monsters include things like a giant executioner-like character called “Pyramid Head” and creepy undead nurses.

In addition to this, there are lots of other creepy, but meaningful, details scattered throughout the town – such as an abandoned shop that contains creepy graffiti on the inside of the papered-up windows (which changes, depending on when you read it) or a mannequin that is dressed like the main character’s late wife.

All of these details might initially seem like they are just there to scare the audience, but they hold a deeper meaning for the game’s main character – they are all symbolic reflections of his own feelings of guilt about ending the life of his terminally-ill wife. For example, the undead nurses symbolise (amongst other things) hospitals and illness, Pyramid Head’s executioner-like appearance symbolises the main character’s judgment of himself, the evil version of the world represents the main character’s tormented psyche etc…

But, even if the setting of a horror story isn’t a direct reflection of the main characters, it is still important to include some kind of deeper horror too. Going back to the 1999 remake of “House On Haunted Hill”, a lot of the film’s horror comes from the fact that the film takes place in a derelict mental hospital that was run by a cruel doctor during the 1930s.

So, the additional horrors inherent in this setting include things like torture, outdated attitudes, psychological suffering etc…. Which are reflected in many of the locations within the hospital (eg: rooms containing scary-looking medical equipment that has been left to rust etc..).

The easiest way to add a deeper horror to the settings in a horror story is simply to give the location in question a creepy history. However, this alone isn’t enough. The design, style and notable features of the location must also be some kind of symbolic reflection (the more subtle, the better) of this horrifying history.

3) Unreliable locations: Another way to come up with terrifying locations for horror stories is simply to make the location itself a creepily unpredictable thing. If the main characters don’t know what to expect, or cannot even trust reality itself – then this will make the audience feel even more nervous.

The classic horror movie example of this is in “A Nightmare On Elm Street“, where almost all of the film’s horrific events take place within the main characters’ dreams. Not only does this setting give the horror a sense of chilling inevitability (since no-one can stay awake forever), but the focus on dream-like settings also means that the audience never quite knows what to expect. After all, literally anything can happen in a dream….

Likewise, a good comics-based example of this is Raven Gregory’s “Return To Wonderland”. This is an extremely disturbing (and grisly) horror comic that is based on ‘Alice In Wonderland’ (and is even creepier than a classic computer game with a vaguely similar premise called “American McGee’s Alice).

Since the main character in “Return To Wonderland” is plonked into an evil version of a familiar fictional location (Wonderland) – this comic’s setting also plays on the reader’s expectations too. Because the readers think that they know what to expect, they soon discover that can’t even trust their own memories of ‘Alice In Wonderland’ when horrific things start happening. So, the story is a lot less predictable, and a lot scarier, as a result.

So, the less predictable a location is, the creepier it will be. If the main characters cannot even trust the world around them, then your story or comic will be a lot scarier.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

One Thing That The Romance Genre Does Differently To Most Other Genres

Although I haven’t really read or watched that many things (relatively speaking) in the romance genre, I was reminded of one of the really interesting features of the genre whilst writing a film review recently. So, I thought that I’d take a slightly deeper look at settings in the romance genre today.

One of the really interesting things about romance fiction and romantic films is that they seem to have much more emphasis on place than stories in other genres usually do. Although science fiction and fantasy often pride themselves on creating interesting fictional “worlds”, the sense of place in the romance genre is often a lot more solid and emphatic.

Whether it’s Rickey & G-Man’s restaurant in Poppy Z. Brite’s excellent “Liquor” series, the two houses (and the space between them) in BrontΓ«’s “Wuthering Heights“, the frequently-shown locations in “Lois & Clark“, or the old house in “Practical Magic” – things in the romance genre often tend to have a surprisingly strong sense of place when compared to other genres.

This is mostly achieved by focusing more heavily on one location (or a smaller number of locations), rather than the wider range of locations found in many other genres. There are quite a few reasons why this tends to happen a lot in the romance genre.

The most obvious reason is that, because the emphasis in the romance genre is on the relationship between two characters, this usually means that these characters have to be in close proximity to each other for a fair amount of the story. As such, both of them will usually spend most of their time in a single town, village, city, house etc…

Since the romance genre focuses on the relationship between two characters, the narrative pacing is also often slightly slower too. Whilst many other genres (such as the thriller and detective genres) rely on more frequent and varied location changes in order to tell a more dynamic and fast-paced story, the romance genre doesn’t really need to do this as much.

In addition to this, the focus on a single location also helps with audience immersion too. Since the emotional components of the romance genre rely heavily on the reader or viewer living vicariously through one of the main characters, the smaller number of locations helps to immerse the audience a lot more firmly.

By focusing most of the descriptions, set design etc.. on a smaller number of more distinctive locations, romantic stories help the audience to imagine that they could actually be living there. The additional descriptions, screen time etc.. devoted to a small number of locations also helps the audience to create a much stronger mental image of these places, which helps them to feel that they could actually live there.

Likewise, since one element of the romance genre is wish fulfilment, escapism and fantasy, there’s also often a need for more interesting settings. The romance genre is a feel-good genre that allows the audience to take a brief “holiday”.

So, even if the settings are still relatively “ordinary”, they will often be interesting or distinctive in some way or another. Whether it’s a distinctive old house, an old castle, a charming rural town, a city in another country or even a tropical paradise of some kind, locations in the romance genre are often the kind of interesting places that readers would want to visit.

Finally, the emphasis on one location also helps with the atmosphere and emotional tone of romance stories too. By placing the events of the story in just one place, the romance genre is able to create a sense of intimacy and cosiness that complements the relationship between the main character really well.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

Are Futuristic Settings An Essential Part Of The Cyberpunk Genre?

Well, it’s been a while since I last wrote about the cyberpunk genre. So, for today, I thought that I’d look at whether “futuristic” settings (eg: neon-lit mega cities etc..) are an essential part of the genre. If you’ve never seen anything in the cyberpunk genre, here’s a painting of mine that includes a typical cyberpunk-style location:

“Backstreets” By C. A. Brown

This type of location was first popularised by either Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” or William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and it was expanded upon in many subsequent cyberpunk works over the years ( such as “Akira“, Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” and/or the original “Ghost In The Shell” anime films/TV shows ).

This type of setting has been a popular part of the genre for a lot of reasons but, most of all, because it looks cool. Not to mention that the ‘information overload‘ from all of the many artificial light sources, billboards, crowds, rapid-fire narration etc.. is a very good way of quickly showing the audience that the story/film/comic is set in a complex, futuristic world where technology is king.

Yet, I happened to see a few episodes of a TV series from 2015 called “Humans” the day before I wrote this article. In many ways, this is a modern cyberpunk TV series. It revolves around cyberpunk subjects like robots, computer hacking and artificial intelligence. It even includes a “Blade Runner”-style group of sentient robots on the run from the authorities and lots of unsettling “Ghost In The Shell”-style uncanny valley scenes where the hyper-realistic robots don’t act in quite the right way.

But, even with all of this cyberpunk-style stuff, the series doesn’t really look that cyberpunk. Instead of being set in a futuristic mega-city, it is mostly set in a fairly “realistic” version of present-day London, albeit with the occasional futuristic advertisement or robot charging station. The settings in this TV series are about a million miles away from a typical “cyberpunk” setting.

A good example of this is the sheer visual difference between the first time we see the escaped robots (or “synths”) in “Humans” compared to when we see the escaped replicants in “Blade Runner”.

This is a screenshot from “Blade Runner” [1982], showing two of the escaped Replicants hiding in a futuristic film noir cyberpunk version of Los Angeles.

And here are the escaped synths in “Humans” [2015]. Although this is a similar concept to “Blade Runner”, the setting couldn’t be more different if it tried…

Thematically, both “Blade Runner” and what I’ve seen of “Humans” have a lot of similarities. In fact, I’d argue that “Humans” actually goes a lot further when it comes to examining the impact that the existence of humanoid robots would have on society. Possibly even more so than the various “Ghost In The Shell” anime TV shows/films do.

In terms of pure story, “Humans” is proper old-school cyberpunk with a little bit of classic 50s/60s-style “serious” science fiction thrown in for good measure. Yet, even after watching several episodes, I still found myself oddly reluctant to consider “Humans” to be a cyberpunk TV show because of the setting. Even so, there is a precedent when it comes to non-cyberpunk settings in the cyberpunk genre.

David Cronenburg’s “eXistenZ” is a film about virtual reality from the late 1990s and it’s about as cyberpunk as you can get. Yet, most of the futuristic technology in the film is based on organic matter and genetic engineering. Likewise, the locations in the film tend to look a lot more like this:

A screenshot from “eXistenZ” [1999], showing an old rural church hall. Most of the film actually takes place in the countryside, despite the fact that it’s a cyberpunk movie.

So, what’s so different about these two things? Not that much. But, “eXistenZ” seems more cyberpunk for the simple reason that it’s settings are a lot more mysterious and undetailed than the London-based settings in “Humans” are. Although “eXistenZ” doesn’t feature any futuristic mega-cities, it still captures that overwhelming sense of “being lost in the future” by using mysteriously generic rural locations and lots of surreal virtual worlds.

“Humans”, on the other hand, is clearly set in a real place. The scenes set in London are filmed in London and the main setting for quite a few scenes is an upper-middle class house in the suburbs. There isn’t really any mystery at all. Yet, everything else about the story is cyberpunk enough for it to fit into the cyberpunk genre.

In a way, I guess that this is all part of the natural evolution of the genre. It’s also a sign that stuff from the cyberpunk genre is becoming more integrated into “mainstream” science fiction too. Even so, I’d argue that the cyberpunk genre loses something when it moves away from the awe-inspiringly beautiful neon-lit mega-cities of it’s past. It loses a sense of mystery that can spark the audience’s imagination. It also loses the idea of an “artificial world” that consists entirely of man-made buildings, artificial lighting and technology.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

Three Reasons Why The Fictional “Worlds” In Art/Novels/Webcomics etc.. Often Seem To Be Slightly Old

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Quite a while ago, I read a fascinating article on TV Tropes which talks about how and why most films and TV shows are basically set in the 1990s, even though they might look modern on the surface.

Although that article explains why this happens in film and television, I’ve noticed it happening to a lesser extent in my own art, comics and fiction. For example, most of my webcomics tend to be more like something from the late 1990s-early/mid ’00s (or possibly the late ’00s at most) even though they were made in the mid-late 2010s and include some modern things like smartphones.

So, I thought that I’d give a few reasons why this sort of thing happens in art, fiction and/or webcomics.

1) Inspirations: Simply put, everything is inspired by things that were made in the past. This is either because writers, artists etc.. discovered their main inspirations during an earlier time in their life, because they happened to discover some amazingly cool old stuff in the present day or because they were eager to find things that are similar to their earlier inspirations.

For example, the main influence on how I depict “futuristic” settings in my art is probably the classic movie “Blade Runner“. Although I watched it on VHS for the first time when I was about fourteen, I only truly began to appreciate this film when I was about 17. When I seriously got into making art during my early-mid 20s, this film had more and more of an influence on any sci-fi art that I made.

Of course, having just one influence is never a good thing so, during the past couple of years, I looked for as many film/TV/shows/games in the cyberpunk genre as I could in order to help me refine my style (and because I loved the genre and wanted to find more of it). These new influences include things like “Ghost In The Shell (1995)”, “Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex“, “Akira“, “Deus Ex“, Trancers“, “System Shock“, “Technobablyon“, this set of ‘Doom II’ levels, “Robocop 2”, “Total Recall 2070: Machine Dreams” etc…

Many of these things were, of course, either made during the heyday of the cyberpunk genre or were influenced by the classics of the genre. So, even the more modern examples (like “Technobablyon”) are heavily influenced by things from the 1980s and 90s.

When it comes to actually writing science fiction, my main influence was probably William Gibson’s cyberpunk “Sprawl Trilogy” from the 1980s, which I read during my late teens/early twenties. Although I’ve read other types of science fiction, the writing style in this one had a huge influence on me and although I don’t really use too much of a Gibson-like writing style in my more recent cyberpunk fiction, these stories from the 80s certainly played a role in how I write sci-fi.

So, yes, the inspirations and influences that a writer or artist has can be one reason why a lot of stories and art seem to be set in some vaguely modern version of the past.

2) It looks cool: Visually speaking, the past also often seems to have a more distinctive “look” to it than the present day does.

Maybe this is because the present day just seems “ordinary” because we see it every day (and, by comparison, the past looks more unusual)? Maybe this is because mass culture and popular trends used to be a more prominent thing in the pre-internet days? Maybe the benefit of hindsight makes it easier to depict the past in a stylised way? Who knows?

But, regardless, the past can sometimes look cooler than the present day does. Old technology (eg: intriguingly bulky phones, giant CRT monitors etc..) can ironically look more “futuristic” than modern-looking technology does, the fashions of the past can seem more unusual and creative (albeit slightly sillier sometimes), plus things like art deco architecture were more common in the past etc…

3) Scheduling: This probably varies from person to person, but most creative works tend to be prepared and finished some time in advance of publication. For example, I actually wrote this article in late February (and I was also preparing this year’s Christmas comics at the same time). Because of this, it can be hard to include “up to the minute” topical content.

So, if you’re preparing something far in advance and you don’t want it to appear too obviously out of date when it gets published, then it can often be best to make slightly “timeless” things. And, “timeless” can often translate to “basically set in the past in all but name” or “subtly old-fashioned”.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Location Choices In Short Stories And Webcomic Updates – A Ramble

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Well, since I’m busy making a webcomic mini series for next month and also seem to be spending quite a bit of time playing a computer game (called “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines”) at the time of writing, I thought that I’d take a look at another interesting thing that playing games can teach you about making webcomics, writing short fiction etc…

One of the interesting things about many computer games is that, although they might contain quite a few levels or even a large “open world”, there are always limits on where the player can explore. Most of the time, this is done for purely practical reasons (eg: a game company might have the time and/or budget to build a large city for the player to explore, but it might only contain 20-100 buildings that the player can actually enter.)

Whilst some games take the “open world” approach, many other games limit the player to exploring smaller areas in order to provide a much more focused and “deep” experience. For example, although “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” contains quite a few complex buildings that the player can explore, it only contains about four “open” areas, each of which only consists of a few streets. This allows the game designers to focus more on making these smaller outdoor areas interesting, whilst helping to ensure that the player doesn’t get too lost whilst exploring.

This focus on a limited number of locations is something that is worth bearing in mind if you’re making webcomics or writing short fiction.

If you’re writing short fiction or making a 3-8 panel webcomic update, then the main focus needs to be on things like humour, storytelling and characterisation. What this means is that you should probably only include 1-3 different locations in each comic update or short story. Because you don’t have too much room, you need to focus on locations that are actually relevant to the story.

So, with short fiction especially, choosing a location can often be a surprisingly important thing. For example, this short story of mine is about a futuristic city that has experienced a power cut. Although other locations are mentioned in the story, the events of the story take place within a single room. This allows me to focus more on both the characters and the story than if I’d tried to write about lots of different things happening in different places.

Plus, by focusing on a very limited number of locations, you can also spend more time describing those locations in detail. Detailed descriptions of one or two locations will make your story more dramatic and atmospheric than if you try to describe a larger number of locations in much less detail.

Likewise, if you’re making webcomics, then using a more limited number of locations can be a good way to save time (eg: drawing the same simple background multiple times is quicker than having to plan and draw lots of different backgrounds) and also to give your webcomic a lot more “personality” too. After all, familiar recurring locations can often become part of what a webcomic is about.

Of course, the problem with doing this in a webcomic is that using the same backgrounds repeatedly can be visually monotonous. But, there are lots of sneaky ways to get around this.

For example, in dramatic panels, you can use a solid black background – this places emphasis on the character who is talking, it’s quick to draw and it adds some visual variety to the comic update too.

Likewise, if a character is talking at length about something, then you can use a “cutaway” panel – just add the narration to a box at the top of the panel and then add a small illustration of whatever it is that the character is talking about. Here’s an example from the upcoming webcomic mini series that I’m preparing at the time of writing:

 The full comic update will be posted here on the 28th November.

The full comic update will be posted here on the 28th November.

So, yes, looking at explorable areas in computer and video games can teach you the value of only including a small number of relevant locations in your short stories and/or comic updates.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

Three Ways To Use The Backgrounds Of Your Webcomic To Stay Motivated

2017 Artwork Webcomic backgrounds motivation

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about settings in webcomics and how they can be an unusual source of creative motivation.

As regular readers of this site probably know by now, I’ve been busy making a series of three time travel themed webcomic mini series that will appear here this month and early next month (the first one begins tonight πŸ™‚ ).

One of the interesting things about making these comics was how detailed the backgrounds were when compared to many of the previous webcomics that I’ve made. Previously, I’d usually tended towards using minimalist backgrounds as often as possible for time reasons.

The idea of making highly-detailed backgrounds for each panel of my webcomic updates used to seem a bit like a frustrating waste of time to me. After all, the focus was supposed to be on the characters and the dialogue.

But, paradoxically, the detailed backgrounds were one of the many things that really helped to keep me motivated when making these upcoming comics. Even if these comics took slightly more effort to make than usual, I still found myself producing them at a faster rate than I had expected. And I know why!

Here are a few of the reasons. Who knows, they might be useful for your webcomic too:

1) Interesting locations: One of the many reasons that I used minimalist backgrounds for a lot of my webcomics was for the simple reason that the settings weren’t that interesting.

Most of the settings were either inside a flat and/or on the streets of a generic town (that is heavily inspired by Aberystwyth). These settings are mildly “realistic”, but they aren’t interesting. No wonder that I saw adding the backgrounds as a chore that I would try to put the minimum amount of effort into as possible.

By contrast, since I was making comics about time travel, I had to come up with more “unrealistic” backgrounds. I had to draw gloomy futuristic cities, ominous Victorian factories, something suspiciously similar to 221B Baker Street, a 1980s/90s-style version of cyberspace, menacing medieval castles etc…

Needless to say, these were all settings that required a lot more creativity and imagination. They also gave me a lot more freedom to experiment with things like different types of lighting and/or slightly less realistic colour schemes. Needless to say, the chance to do all of this was considerably motivational than just drawing the inside of the same flat for the hundredth time.

So, set your webcomic somewhere interesting and you’ll find that the idea of making detailed backgrounds will go from being a motivation-sapping chore to being something that you actually want to do.

2) Background jokes: Since all of the upcoming comics in the three mini series that will be appearing here over the next month or so are part of a larger story (although many individual comic updates are still self-contained), this allowed me to include a few references, interesting details and jokes in the backgrounds.

Naturally, this made the backgrounds considerably more fun to make than usual. The idea of hiding something plot-related in the background and knowing that dedicated readers of the comic might spot it upon re-reading the comics added an extra level of motivation. The same is true for some of the movie and game references that I also sneaked into the comics too.

So, adding jokes or references to the backgrounds of your webcomic updates can be another great way to get motivated.

3) Variety: There’s a reason why I’ve made three separate time travel-themed webcomic mini series, rather than just one longer series set in a single time period. That reason is, of course, variety!

If you have to re-draw the same settings (or even the same types of settings) over and over again, it can quickly become a dull and repetitive activity. So, one way to stay motivated is to ensure that there’s a good variety of settings within your webcomic. Yes, you shouldn’t completely change the setting in each panel, but try to introduce new locations as often as you can.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

One Easy Way To Create Plausible Sci-fi Dystopias

2017 Artwork Convincing sci-fi dystopia settings

As regular readers of this blog probably know, I’ve been going through a bit of a cyberpunk phase recently. One of the interesting things about the cyberpunk genre is that it is, by necessity, a sub-genre of the dystopian science fiction genre. After all, most cyberpunk comics, games, stories, movies etc… wouldn’t really work if they were set in a perfect paradise of any kind.

After all, the dystopian settings help to add drama, intrigue and thought-provoking satire to the story. Not only that, the main characters in most things in the cyberpunk genre are traditionally “underdog” computer hackers of some kind, that the audience can use for vicarious rebellion. But, for today, I’ll just be focusing on how to create dystopian settings for comics, novels etc…

The easiest way to think about a fictional dystopia is that, to someone (or some small group of people), it’s actually a utopia. If someone is a dictator, then their country is -to them at least- a utopia.

After all, they have absolute power, massive wealth, constant praise from their supporters and they own an entire country. To a dictator, a dictatorship is heaven on earth. The perfect utopia. However, of course, for everyone else – that country is a dystopia.

So, when thinking of ideas for fictional dystopias, just ask yourself “who benefits the most from this dystopia?“. This sounds like an obvious question but, thinking about it carefully will help you to shape your fictional dystopia into something that feels more dramatically plausible.

For example, a sci-fi dystopia that benefited technology corporations would probably look at least subtly different to a dystopia that benefited pharmaceutical corporations.

The technology company sci-fi dystopia would probably include a lot more surveillance (because the technology makes it possible), a lot more advertising (to sell technology), lower product safety standards and a social hierarchy that benefits high-mid ranking technology corporation.

It would probably also include compulsory social media use (again, for advertising and control), a ban on open-source software (to sell more proprietary software), stricter copyright laws (to protect corporate profits), planned obsolescence for most gadgets (again, to sell more technology repeatedly) etc…

The sci-fi dystopia that benefited pharmaceutical companies would probably include things like biometric surveillance (for targeted advertising of medicines), longer patent terms for medicines (because greed would come ahead of saving lives with cheap generic drugs) etc…

Once you work out who benefits the most from your dystopian sci-fi world, you will be able to extrapolate from that and come up with a much more plausible and detailed setting than you would if you just set out to create a fictional world that was a terrible place for no real reason.

If you remember that a dystopia is a matter of perspective, then you’ll come up with far more chilling and dramatically plausible dystopian sci-fi settings.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚