Using Fake Subcultures To Make Your Comic Or Story More Interesting

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Although this is an article about a really interesting storytelling technique that can help you to make your audience more interested in your comics and/or fiction, I’m going to have to spend pretty much all of this article discussing and dissecting a single TV show because it contains the best example of this one technique that I’ve ever seen.

During the week or two before I originally wrote this article, I’d started rewatching some DVDs of the first few series of a TV show called “Hustle“. If you’ve never heard of this show before, it’s a BBC comedy/drama show that focuses on a group of con artists who live in London.

In every episode of “Hustle”, the main characters pull off some kind of large con, heist and/or scam which usually involves an almost Sherlock Holmes-like level of complex thought, a large number of magic trick-like plot twists and a lot of comedy.

Anyway, the reason why I’m mentioning this show is because of the way that these characters are presented. Whilst the show quickly gets the audience on side by showing that they rigidly follow a rule of “you can’t cheat an honest man” (eg: they only steal large amounts of money from worse criminals, corrupt people, arrogant aristocrats etc..), it also does something much more interesting too.

It presents con artistry as a kind of subculture. The characters all have their own slang (eg: they refer to themselves as “grifters” etc..), there are occasional references to the “traditions” and “superstitions” of being a con artist, they seem to know a network of other “good” criminals who are all fairly similar to them, they have a strong attitude that “it isn’t about the money” and often seem to treat their activities more like a sport than anything else etc..

Of course, even a cursory glance at a newspaper or news site will show you that this is clearly artistic licence. Most real con artists either seem to be located in countries with more lenient internet fraud laws/extradition laws, or they seem to be sneaky and unprincipled opportunists who prey on the vulnerable, or they just seem to be ordinary people who happened to find a dubious way to make some quick cash, or they are members of vicious organised crime gangs, or they are motivated by unglamourous things like poverty rather than by “the sport of it”.

And, yet, if “Hustle” had more ‘realistic’ main characters, it wouldn’t be a very entertaining show. It would be an extremely depressing one. The show works because it creates a fictional subculture surrounding a slightly “mysterious” part of real life.

The show isn’t actually a show about scams, heists and con tricks, it’s actually a show about friendship, teamwork and the power of the intellect. If all of the main characters were stage magicians or private detectives instead of con artists, it would still be just as entertaining to watch.

One of the reasons why obviously fake subcultures work so well in TV shows is because they tap into several basic parts of our minds. For starters, they help us to feel a sense of belonging by showing us an interesting group of people who we’d probably like to join. Since we get to see a lot of their adventures, their conversations and their history, we get to feel a vicarious sense of belonging. In some small way, we temporarily feel like we’re associated with a group of people who have been designed to be likeable.

Likewise, many of these “fake subculture” TV shows (“Supernatural” and “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” spring to mind too) often hint that the main characters are only a small part of a much larger subculture. This is designed to provoke the audience’s imaginations and to make them wonder what the rest of the “world” of the show is like. This is the sort of thing that prompts people to write fan fiction or, even better, to come up with actual original things inspired by the shows in question.

Plus, by hinting at a larger subculture, it also briefly makes the audience what the real world would be like if such a subculture actually existed. After all, subcultures are a thing that actually exists – and the best ones usually aren’t “mainstream”. So, by showing something similar to the real way that subcultures work, it makes the audience wonder if the fictional subculture could actually ever exist in the real world.

Yes, fake subcultures can be unintentionally hilarious/ laughably stupid when they’re done badly. But, when they’re done well, they can be an extremely useful tool for making your audience more interested in the story that you’re telling.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Basic Tips For Making Detective Comedy Comics

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Well, at the time of writing, I was busy making a webcomic mini series that will probably be posted here in late June (in the meantime, you can find links to many others here).

Since this webcomic mini series will be something of a parody of traditional “cosy” detective stories (and it’s also kind of like these other detective comedy comics I’ve made), I thought that I’d talk about how to make detective comedy comics today. But, first, here’s a preview of the first comic update from the upcoming mini series:

The full comic update will be posted here on the 25th June

The full comic update will be posted here on the 25th June

So, how do you make detective comedy comics? here are a few basic tips:

1) Research and inspiration: The best detective comedy comics are usually a parody of various pre-existing things in the detective genre. So, do your research first! I mean, the main thing that inspired the upcoming webcomic that I mentioned earlier was the fact that I’d watched a couple of series of the classic ITV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Poirot” a couple of weeks earlier.

Find a type of detective story that interests you (eg: hardboiled detective stories, “cosy” mysteries, modern forensic detective shows etc..) and then immerse yourself in them as much as possible. Binge-watch DVDs, read online articles, read novels etc… until you can firmly picture what one of these stories looks like. After all, you can’t parody something if you don’t know much about it…

2) Detective types: As any fan of the detective genre will tell you, detectives come in many types. There’s the classic “Sherlock Holmes”-type detective, who uses logic and reason. There’s the more sophisticated Agatha Christie-type detective who uses an understanding of the human condition to solve mysteries. There’s the hardboiled gumshoe of the film noir genre who isn’t afraid to get tough to get some answers etc…

One of the easiest ways to make a detective comedy comic is to put a detective in a story that is set up for another type of detective. For example, the main detective in my occasional long-running webcomic series is more of a “Sherlock Holmes”-type detective (with maybe a few hints of a classic pulp fiction private eye), so by putting him in a more Agatha Christie-style story, there will be a few differences between audience expectations and the events of the story.

Of course, you can take this a step further by, say, putting a genteel Agatha Christie-style detective in the hardboiled world of, say, 1930s Chicago or something like that.

3) Farce and dark comedy: By it’s very nature, the detective genre is absolutely perfect for old-school farce. After all, it’s a very physical genre – there are bodies lying around, villains lurking behind things and all sorts of unusual items that could be used as murder weapons. It doesn’t take a genius to see how these things can be used for farcical slapstick comedy.

Likewise, because detective stories revolve around murder, evil and treachery they are absolutely perfect for the dark comedy genre too. You can do all sorts of things, like showing that the crime has been committed for a really silly reason or adding some humour to the discovery of the body. Likewise, the detective’s deductions can also be a good source of dark comedy, like in this old comic of mine:

"Diabolical Sigil - Page 5" By C. A. Brown

“Diabolical Sigil – Page 5” By C. A. Brown

4) The detective gets something wrong: This one is really self-explanatory, but people expect detectives to actually solve mysteries.

If your detective gets either all or part of the final conclusion to the mystery wrong, then this can be a brilliant source of comedy. Of course, you can also go one better than this and have your detective realise that they were wrong – only to come up with another wrong answer.

If you want a brilliant example of this comedy technique at it’s best, then check out an episode of a classic BBC sitcom called “Blackadder Goes Forth” called “General Hospital”, where the main character has to find a German spy in a WW1-era field hospital.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Never Underestimate The Value Of Subtle Suspense In The Suspense Genre.

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Well, whilst I was watching the first season of a “this is hilariously silly, but I’ll watch just one more episode…” American TV series called “Nikita” on DVD, I realised something about the suspense genre – subtle suspense is important.

The interesting thing about this show is that the earlier episodes of the first season of “Nikita” focus on two main plot threads involving a rogue government agency who takes prisoners from death row in order to turn then into assassins.

One plot threat is about an escaped assassin called Nikita who has advanced training and is waging war on the rogue agency. Needless to say, she gets involved in a lot of dramatic gunfights, fist fights, car chases etc…

The other plot thread is about a nineteen year old character called Alex who has teamed up with Nikita. By staging a botched robbery, she has been able to gain admission to the agency’s harsh training program in order to spy on the agency for Nikita. Apart from the occasional boxing bout, she doesn’t really do that much fighting – instead, she has to sneak around the base occasionally to spy for Nikita, she has to communicate with Nikita secretly and she has to try to deflect any suspicions from her fellow trainees (and, occasionally, her evil instructors).

On paper the first plot thread sounds like it would be the most suspenseful and dramatic of the two. But, in reality, the second one is mostly likely to have you on the edge of your seat, biting your nails and almost afraid to watch more.

Why? Because, despite the contrived premise of the story, Alex’s storyline still seems marginally more “realistic”. It seems at least a tiny bit closer to the suspenseful situations that we’ve all been in throughout our lives.

Whether it was blagging your way into a horror movie at the cinema when you were underage, whether it was trying to think of an excuse for something or whether it was finding a way out of an awkward social situation, we’ve all had suspenseful moments in our lives. And they don’t involve things like car chases, gun fights etc…

Although melodramatic suspense can be extremely fun to watch or read, it’s often highly unrealistic. Not to mention that the characters involved in it often seem more superhuman than anything else. Ironically, there’s actually less suspense because we know that these characters will always know what to do in any situation and that they will (probably) survive and win.

Subtle, realistic suspense on the other hand may not look as good but it tends to have a lot more dramatic power for the simple reason that it’s easier for the audience to relate to.

Of course, many things in the suspense genre tend to include a blend of both melodramatic suspense and subtle suspense. The presence of one helps to make the other one seem more exciting, dangerous and/or nerve-wracking, and vice versa.

Still, if you’re making something in the suspense and/or thriller genre, then never underestimate how important or useful subtle suspense can be.

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Sorry for the short article, but I hope it was useful 🙂

Five Free Sources Of Inspiration For Cyberpunk Artists, Writers etc..

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Well, I’d originally planned to make a “reading list” of books, comics, films, games etc.. in the cyberpunk genre for people who want inspiration for making stuff in this amazing genre, but who don’t know much about it.

But, since many of the things I could think of were commercial products (eg: games like the original “Deus Ex” and films like “Blade Runner”), I was worried that this article would sound like a giant advert. Likewise, not everyone has a large enough budget to instantly buy lots of films, games etc.. just because they saw them on an online list.

So, instead, I thought that I’d challenge myself to create a list of inspirational cyberpunk things that can be legally viewed for free, legally read for free and/or have been released as freeware by their developers. Although all of the things on this list are still copyrighted (the genre isn’t nearly old enough to have any public domain works), their creators have made them freely available to anyone who wants to look.

Before I go any further, if you’re not sure what the difference between taking inspiration from something and copying something is, then check out this article which might enlighten you, and help you to avoid plagiarism.

Oh, and one more thing – I originally wrote this article a couple of weeks before I discovered an amazing free cyberpunk flash game called “The Last Night[Note: The page will start playing music as soon as it loads]. It’s a really short, but astonishingly atmospheric, “Blade Runner”-style game and it’s well worth playing if you like the cyberpunk genre. But, I found it too late to “officially” add it to the list in this article.

Likewise, I also forgot to mention a freeware cyberpunk first-person shooter game called “Hacx: Twitch ‘N Kill” despite writing a review of it last year (you’ll also need a free Doom engine source port – like “ZDoom” – to play this game).

Anyway, here’s the list……

1) “Cyberpunk” By Bruce Bethke: This is the short story that started it all and it can be read for free on the author’s site. Yes, although the genre was only really popularised and defined by films like “Blade Runner” and novels like William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” in the early-mid 1980s, it technically began with this short story that was written in 1980.

The story itself doesn’t contain all of the features that would later come to characterise the genre, but it provides a slightly more comprehensible example of the cyberpunk narrative style/ visual style (which usually includes a lot of information overload and/or sensory overload ) and an early example of the futuristic computer hacker protagonists of cyberpunk fiction.

2) Valenburg’s Art Gallery: All of the awesome cyberpunk art and animations in this amazing online gallery can legally be viewed for free. And, if you’re an artist, then this gallery is well worth checking out if you want to learn some general things about how to make cyberpunk art.

For example, pay close attention to the artist’s use of colours in many of the pictures. There are many possible cyberpunk colour schemes (in fact, any complimentary colour scheme, or combination of complimentary colour schemes, will work), but the blue/purple/pink/black one here gives the art in Valenburg’s gallery a very “modern” look.

Likewise, his artwork also contains many great examples of how lighting should be handled in the cyberpunk genre – namely that it should come from things like computer screens, neon signs, windows etc… and that the lighting should be emphasised by setting cyberpunk art and comics at night.

3) Dreamweb:Dreamweb” is an old cyberpunk computer game from 1994 that was later released as freeware by it’s developers. In order to get it running, you’ll probably have to use another free program called “DOSBox“, which emulates an old MS DOS computer.

It’s been a long time since I’ve played any of this game but, although the game uses a fairly minimalist top-down perspective, it isn’t short on atmosphere. If you want to see an example of a grimy, gritty, dystopian cyberpunk story then this game might be a good place to start.

This game might also give you some inspiration for creating cyberpunk characters, as well as giving you an interactive example of the well-used “high tech low lives” quote that is used to define the cyberpunk genre.

4) “Vurt” Partial Comic Adaptation by Leo Connor: This intense, nightmarish cyberpunk comic by Leo Connor [NSFW] is an adaptation of the early chapters of an old cyberpunk novel called “Vurt” by Jeff Noon, and it can be viewed for free.

Although it is quite far from some of the traditions of the cyberpunk genre, it provides a great example of how the cyberpunk attitude, narrative style and atmosphere can be applied to stories that don’t actually involve computer hacking or high technology. It also provides a good example of how to incorporate elements from the horror genre into the cyberpunk genre too.

The story focuses on a group of stoners who access an alternate dimension, similar to cyberspace, through the use of hallucinogenic feathers. It’s strange, it’s bizarre, it’s disturbing, but it’s still cyberpunk. Somehow.

5) Beneath A Steel Sky:Beneath A Steel Sky” is another freeware game from the 1990s that you’ll probably have to use DOSBox to run. If you can’t be bothered with setting up DOSBox, then it is also available for free (with a pre-made DOSBox launcher) from an online game shop called GoG, although you’ll have to create an account there in order to download this version.

Although I go into more detail about the game in my review of it, it’s a slightly unusual example of a cyberpunk game. Although it still contains all of the classic features of 1990s cyberpunk (eg: cyberspace, mega-cities etc..) a lot of the artwork in the game is significantly brighter than most things in the cyberpunk genre. Likewise, the tone of the game is slightly more comedic than you might expect from the cyberpunk genre, even if the humour can be slightly dark.

Still, as an example of something that is both within and outside of the traditions of the cyberpunk genre, it’s well worth playing. Although you might need to find an online guide for some of the puzzles though!

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

One Thing I Learnt About Plot Twists From A Horror Movie

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Although I won’t post a full review of it (since I missed five minutes of it due to a scratched/damaged DVD), I recently watched a videogame-inspired horror movie sequel called “Silent Hill: Revelation”. One element of this film made me think about plot twists and how they can be ruined if the writer doesn’t think carefully about the characters.

Needless to say, this article will include some SPOILERS for “Silent Hill: Revelation”, you have been warned.

To summarise the events leading up to the plot twist – the film focuses on an American teenager called Heather Mason who has to keep moving from town to town regularly because she believes that her father is on the run from the police. She has also been suffering strange nightmares about a town called “Silent Hill”, in addition to disturbing hallucinations.

When she starts at a new high school, she ends up reluctantly making friends with another teenager called Vincent who later helps her flee when it turns out that it isn’t the police who are after both her and her father. Instead, it’s a mysterious cult that wants to take Heather to a cursed town called Silent Hill, so that they can use her in a ritual (for reasons that make more sense if you’ve seen the first “Silent Hill” film and/or played the classic “Silent Hill” games).

Of course, it is later revealed that Vincent was born and raised in Silent Hill and has been tasked with luring Heather there (even revealing an occult sigil that had to be carved on his chest in order to allow him to leave the cursed town). This is supposed to be a dramatic plot twist, but it just didn’t quite feel right. It took me a while to work out what was wrong with it, but I learnt an important lesson about plot twists in the process.

The plot twist doesn’t work because Vincent doesn’t seem like he was actually raised in the cursed town of Silent Hill. Even though the film tries to brush over this by having him make a comment along the lines of “oh, this is perfectly normal to me” when both he and Heather encounter monsters and crazed cultists later in the film, it still doesn’t really feel right in dramatic terms.

But, why? Well, Vincent comes across as a perfectly “normal” kind of person earlier in the film. Unlike the psychological torment that Heather clearly goes through at the beginning of the film, Vincent seems fairly laid-back and ordinary. He isn’t shocked and confused by the modern world, and he also seems to display at least a vague understanding of modern technology (despite being raised in a town that is permanently frozen somewhere in the 1930s-50s).

n other words he doesn’t actually seem like he was raised in Silent Hill. Everything about his personality etc… seems to suggest that he was raised somewhere less horrific. So, when it’s revealed that he has lived most of his life in Silent Hill, it just doesn’t make sense!

One of the oldest rules about plot twists is that they have to be foreshadowed. In other words, there have to be some subtle clues that (theoretically) allow the audience to guess the twist before it happens. This is important for dramatic reasons because it shows that the events behind the plot twist have had an effect on other parts of the story. In other words, it shows that the plot twist is actually part of the story – rather than something the writers just pulled out of thin air at the last minute.

The best, and easiest way to foreshadow a plot twist is just to show some of the knock-on effects that it has on the rest of the story, without giving an explanation. To go back to the “Silent Hill: Revelation” example, the fact that Vincent seems more “normal” than Heather completely contradicts the idea that Vincent grew up in a nightmarish monster-filled town run by a bizarre cult.

In other words, his personality should have been used for foreshadowing. Even if the film just showed him jumping when he heard a noise similar to the air-raid sirens from the town, or something like that – then it would clue the audience into the fact that he’d spent some time somewhere dangerous. But, since they wouldn’t have any more information than this, they still wouldn’t guess the plot twist – although it would make considerably more sense in dramatic terms.

So, yes, characters are an important part of any plot twist – and, when writing a character who is involved on a plot twist, you should think about what effect the “hidden” events of the plot twist have had on that particular character.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Top Ten Articles – April 2017

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Well, it’s the end of the month and that means that it’s time for me to create my usual list of links to my ten favourite articles about making webcomics, making art and/or writing fiction that I’ve posted here over the past month. As usual, I’ll also include a couple of honourable mentions too.

Surprisingly, there were a lot more writing-related articles in this month’s group of articles than normal, mostly because I was preparing last year’s Halloween stories at the same time as I was writing the articles that were scheduled for this month.

Likewise, this blog also celebrated it’s fourth anniversary this month too 🙂

Anyway, let’s get started:

Top Ten Articles – April 2017:

– “Four Things I’ve Learnt From Running A Blog For Four Years
– “Two Very Basic Ways To Give Your Webcomic A Consistent Look (Without Being Boring)
– “Three Ways To Deal With The Downsides Of Getting Better At Making Webcomics
– “Three Causes Of Weak Endings In Comics, Webcomics etc…
– “Four Important Things To Remember Before You Start Your First Webcomic
– “What Does The Expression “Kill Your Darlings” Mean ? (Plus, An Exclusive “Deleted Scene” From One Of My Short Stories!)
– “Four Reasons Why Stories, Comics, Films Etc… Can Have Alternate Endings. (Plus, An Alternate Ending To One Of My Short Stories 🙂 )
– “Four Quick Tips For Writing Fast
– “How To Take Inspiration From Other Things (Whilst Writing Fiction)
– “Four Quick Tips For Writing Very Short Horror Stories

Honourable Mentions:

– “Four Basic Ways To Recycle A Webcomic Story Arc
– “Three Ways To Know When To Finish A Comic Or Story Project

Three Ways To Know When To Finish A Comic Or Story Project

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Learning when to finish a collection of stories or webcomic updates is a skill which can take a bit of practice. Ideally, you want to finish whilst you still have at least a tiny bit of enthusiasm left for the comic or fiction project.

Whilst I now seem to have something of an instinct about when to finish when it comes to my various webcomic mini series (which typically hover around 8-12 updates per mini series these days), I was woefully inexperienced about it when it comes to writing short stories – as evidenced by the low quality of the final story in the group of short stories I wrote for last Halloween during a return to a storytelling medium I’d abandoned quite a bit in recent years.

So, these tips will mostly be based on what I’ve learnt from making webcomics and from the mistakes I made with my short fiction series last Halloween.

1) Always plan: One mistake I made with my Halloween short stories was doing virtually no proper planning before I started writing them. I’d mostly just think of the opening sentence and possibly the premise a while before I started the story, and that was it. I had the idea that I wanted to write ten stories, but that was about it.

Whilst this allowed me to come up with some neat ideas and endings that really surprised me (like in this story or this story), it was just as likely to mean that my stories turned into a confusing mess (like this one).

If you plan your stories and/or comics out before you make them, then you’ll get a general sense of their size and scope. You’ll be able to tell if your project is long enough for you to finish it before you run out of enthusiasm (always plan your projects to be shorter, but with room for expansion if they go well).

You also won’t have to worry so much about writer’s block in the middle of the project, since you’ll already know what you’re supposed to make. This also helps to prevent the wild variations in quality that can happen in unplanned projects.

2) Know your limits: You’ll have to learn this through bitter experience (eg: failed and/or unfinished projects), but many people have a limit to either how long they can focus on a single project or how many projects they can keep going at any one time.

This is why, for example, all of my webcomic mini series are less than 20 comics long. When I’m making a mini series, I’ll usually go all out and make something like 2-3 comics per day (even if I only post one per day). However, I also know that I usually can’t keep this up for more than a few days (usually less than a week). So, I plan the length of my mini series to take account of this fact.

If you know your limits, you can work within them and you’ll be more likely to actually finish the projects that you start. Likewise, you’ll also be able to alter any project ideas you have so that you can stay within your limits, rather than risk running out of enthusiasm halfway through the project.

3) Always leave wanting more: If you find that you miss one of your creative projects after you’ve finished it, then this is usually a good sign. It means that you’ll want to make something else like it in the future.

If, weeks later, you find yourself wishing you could have added a few extra comic updates or stories to your project, then this is also a good sign.

However, exhaustedly slumping over the finish line like you’ve just run a marathon is probably not going to make you want to make more comics or write more fiction for a while at least.

So, make your projects – especially the ones you’re really excited about – a little bit on the shorter side, and you’ll find that you have enthusiasm and energy left over for future projects.

For example, my Halloween fiction series should probably have only been four stories long instead of ten stories long. I was truly, properly, enthusiastic and inspired for about 5-7 of the ten stories, but the other 3-5 were mostly there because I was determined to write ten stories. If I’d just written four stories (but not necessarily the first four in the collection), then I’d have finished whilst I was still in an enthusiastic and inspired mood.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂