One Basic Way To Make Stories About Obscure Topics Accessible To A Wider Audience

Well, once again, I thought that I’d take a break from writing about the webcomic mini series I’m making at the moment and look at what something else can teach us about storytelling. In particular, I’ll be looking at a fairly basic way to make stories about obscure topics more accessible to a wider audience.

This is because I’ve also been going through a bit of a phase of watching a couple of the earlier seasons of a sitcom called “The Big Bang Theory” on DVD. If you’ve never heard of this show, it’s a sitcom about the lives of four highly-intelligent scientists and/or engineers (who work at the California Institute of Technology) and their friends.

It’s filled with nerd culture references, scientific references, mathematical references etc… yet, not only is it a popular TV show that has been running for over ten years but, even if you don’t get literally all of the show’s many cultural references and aren’t an expert on maths or science, it’s still absolutely hilarious nonetheless.

But, how does this show still “work” as a comedy, even though the audience is unlikely to understand literally everything about it? Well, it has to do with the way that the show focuses on characters, events and themes.

In other words, the humour comes from the eccentric ways that the characters react to various events. It also comes from the show’s theme of romantic relationships. It comes from the main characters’ awkward interactions with people who aren’t scientific geniuses. It comes from more traditional things like irony, slapstick comedy etc… In other words, the comedy in this show revolves around the characters, events and themes rather than science or nerd culture references.

At it’s most basic level, it’s an ordinary sitcom… that just happens to have lots of science-related stuff in the background. If the characters were literary critics or professional chess players or had any other specialised skill, then the show would still “work” because most of the humour doesn’t come from the science but from the characters and the story of each episode.

This focus on basic, timeless underlying elements (eg: characters, story, themes etc..) is one of the most effective ways to make any kind of story about obscure or strange topics accessible to a wider audience.

Another good example of this is probably “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. Although this TV show is commonly seen as a ‘nerdy’ show, it’s actually designed for a mass audience. For example, I first watched it when I was a young child and I enjoyed it enough to keep watching it every week. I’m still a fan of it to this day.

Even though the show features lots of futuristic gadgets, complicated technobabble and intellectual discussion – it is still accessible to a very wide audience – purely because this stuff isn’t the sole focus of the show. There’s traditional-style drama, there’s a focus on thrilling puzzle-solving, there are likeable characters, there’s an optimistic utopian view of the future, there’s humour, there’s action, there’s adventure etc… In other words, timeless elements that would still “work” when transposed into another type of story.

So, again, one basic way to make a story about an obscure topic accessible to a wider audience is simply to focus on more timeless and universal elements. Even if the audience doesn’t understand literally everything, then they are still going to be interested because of the characters, the story etc…

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Eccentric Humour And Storytelling Must Still Include Logic- A Ramble

Well, since I’m still preparing this month’s webcomic mini series at the time of writing, I thought that I’d talk briefly about eccentric storytelling and eccentric humour.

This is mostly because the mini series will consist of large single-panel monochrome comic updates (since I was busy with other stuff at the time of making it). This more limited format means that the humour in my comic has become somewhat more eccentric as a result. Here’s a detail from one of the upcoming updates.

The complete comic update will be posted here on the 22nd August.

Whilst eccentric humour or storytelling might seem like a free for all at first, it is important to remember that it still must contain some kind of logic. Yes, the logic can be a little bit strange – but the audience still needs to be able to discern that there’s a reason, system or pattern behind what is happening.

One of the easiest ways to do this is simply to understand your characters. If you know how your characters think, or even just your character’s personality traits, then you can extrapolate from this in order to come up with eccentric humour and plot elements that either have a consistent logic behind them or have a reason that makes sense on a narrative level (even if might seem strange or silly at first glance).

Several good examples of this can be found in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories. Although Sherlock Holmes will often do somewhat strange things, there is almost always some kind of reason for it. Even if it’s just that he’s stressed out because he hasn’t got a case, or that he wants to improve his scientific knowledge (which will help in future cases), Doyle virtually always shows that Holmes’ more strange behaviour happens for a reason.

Likewise, even if a story is thoroughly surreal, then there still has to be some kind of underlying logic, system or reason behind what is happening. In other words, there still has to be an actual story that makes sense on some level.

Even if the underlying logic in your story is more like dream logic (eg: based on symbolism etc…), then it still needs to include actual logic. It can’t just be completely random. There has to be some way for the audience to, theoretically at least, understand what is going on. Likewise, if there’s a possibility of the story being confusing, then there needs to be some other element to keep the audience’s attention (eg: humour, mystery, horror etc..)

A good example of this would probably be a Satoshi Kon film called “Paprika“. Even if you don’t understand literally everything about the story of this surreal sci-fi film, it’s still a very fascinating and memorable film because is also filled with lots of visually-complex animation, creepy horror etc..

So, yes, if you are going to use eccentric humour or tell a somewhat surreal story, then there must be some kind of logical reason behind the stranger parts of your story. Or, failing this, there must be something else to keep the audience interested.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Simplification And Storytelling – A Ramble

Although this is an article about simplicity and storytelling, I’m going to have to start by talking about TV shows for quite a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

A while before I wrote this article, I ended up watching an episode of “NCIS: Los Angeles” on TV. Although I’m more of a fan of both the original “NCIS” and the “NCIS:New Orleans” spin-off, seeing yet another version of this long-running American detective series reminded me of one rather interesting storytelling technique that all versions of the show use.

In short, the series deliberately simplifies a lot of things. Each version of “NCIS” usually only has about five or six detectives. There’s a leader, 2-3 computer/science experts and 2-3 “ordinary” detectives. Of course, this is somewhat unrealistic.

Given the sheer number of complex cases that they often find themselves solving, the idea that a small team of detectives could actually do all of this stuff (let alone solve each case within a day or two) is absolutely preposterous. Yet, in dramatic terms, it works.

In fact, a more “realistic” version of the show (featuring a larger team of detectives spending weeks or months on each case) would probably be somewhat boring to watch. By narrowing the focus to just a small group of detectives, the show allows for deeper characterisation. In addition to this, it also allows the detectives to be more like a (hilariously dysfunctional) family – which makes the show more compelling to watch.

Likewise, by simplifying the process of solving crimes (eg: through coincidences, dystopian levels of surveillance, a borderline disregard for proper legal procedures and the use of forensic technology that borders on science fiction), the show is able to make each case a lot more thrillingly dramatic.

After all, showing the characters spending days filling out paperwork, applying for warrants, waiting for lab results etc.. is much less dramatic than lots of thrilling chases, futuristic lab montages and melodramatic interrogations.

In addition to all of this, the show rarely shows the consequences of solving each case. Once the detectives have worked out who is guilty, the episode swiftly ends. There’s no focus on how well their evidence would actually stand up in court, or even what the verdict or sentence is. But, by just focusing on the detection itself, the show is able to be a lot more compelling – even if it presents a somewhat simplified version of what I imagine the job of a detective actually involves.

Plus, in the original “NCIS”, the set-up for virtually every episode is usually the same. Basically, almost every episode starts with a random passer-by discovering a dead body and NCIS being called in to solve the case.

Although this simplified introduction should get boringly repetitive, it never does. Why? Because it merely serves as quick way to give the characters a reason to solve a bewildering case. This simplicity allows the repetitious nature of these scenes to be ignored or overlooked easily, in favour of the rest of the episode’s story.

So, what was the point of all of this?

Simply put, simplicity isn’t always a bad thing when it comes to storytelling. Audiences are willing to overlook a certain level of simplification if it makes the story more interesting, compelling and/or dramatic. In other words, there’s often such a thing as too much realism.

In addition to this, choosing what to simplify can have a huge effect on the tone and style of your story. For example, “NCIS” is a thrilling detective show because it simplifies other elements of the detectives’ jobs in order to focus more on comedic dialogue, likeable characters, thrilling chases, dramatic discoveries and melodramatic interrogations. If it didn’t do this, it would be a very different show.

Likewise, a certain level of simplification can also help new members of the audience too. After all, despite only having watched a few random episodes of “NCIS: Los Angeles” in the past, I was still able to enjoy the one I watched before writing this article because it told a self-contained story featuring a small number of main characters (each of whom had a distinctive personality). If the show was more nuanced, complex or realistic – then it would be a lot harder for a new viewer to just enjoy a random episode.

So, yes, “simple” isn’t always a bad word when it comes to storytelling.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

When Nostalgia Isn’t Defined – A Ramble

Although this is a rambling article about nostalgia, creativity and gaps in popular culture, I’m going to have to spend the next 3-4 paragraphs talking about music. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

A day or two before I wrote this article, I was clearing part of my room when I happened to find a CD that I’d forgotten that I even had. It was a free music CD that had been attached to the March 2006 issue of “Metal Hammer” magazine.

Although I was initially pleasantly surprised to discover that it contained “Cyanide” by Deathstars (a song that really reminds me a lot of 2008/9), I listened to a few of the other tracks out of curiosity and, although I didn’t know or remember any of them, one of them stood out in particular.

It was a song called “The Last Sunrise” by Aiden and it was the absolute epitome of mid-2000s heavy metal. With a mixture of clean vocals, emo-style vocals (that almost have a whiny early 2000s-style pop-punk quality to them) and shouty vocals, it couldn’t have come from any other era in history.

Even the intense, but sharp, guitar parts of the song sound very much like something from this part of history. Likewise, the emotional angst-filled lyrics are also very mid-2000s. I suddenly found myself feeling incredibly nostalgic about the mid-2000s (of all times) just by listening to a song I didn’t remember.

But, as you can probably tell from the convoluted description in the previous paragraph, the vocabulary for describing and defining mid-2000s nostalgia doesn’t really exist yet.

I mean, if I was to talk about – say- 1990s Hollywood movies, then I could talk at length about the chiaroscuro lighting that was popular back then. Or I could talk about how being made between the end of the cold war and before 9/11 gave these films an optimistic emotional tone that can’t be replicated today.

I could probably talk about how the fact that the internet was less widely-used back then affected the stories films told. I could probably talk about how the larger number of mid-budget films back then was beneficial to popular culture (and how smaller-scale stories can often be more dramatic than larger-scale ones). I could probably go on for a while.

But, when talking about something as simple as a song from 2006, I’m forced to use convoluted descriptions that may or may not make sense. Yes, I know what sets heavy metal music from the mid-2000s apart from heavy metal from other parts of history. But, finding a way to express that knowledge is somewhat more challenging because popular nostalgia hasn’t really caught up to this time period yet (eg: there’s usually at least a 20 year gap when it comes to nostalgia becoming popular).

So, what is the best thing to do if you’re a creative person who wants to express a type of nostalgia that hasn’t really been explored in popular culture?

Well, the first thing to do is to try to work out which qualities make something from a non-nostalgic period of the past so distinctive. Use your memories, do some online research, look at examples of things from that time etc.. and try to work out what they have in common. Or, failing that, find some creative works from the time period in question and take inspiration from them.

Even if you can’t concisely express what makes things from a particular time period unique, gaining a greater knowledge of it (through research and thought) will help you to find less direct ways to express this particular quality (eg: the way you describe locations, your characters’ personalities etc..).

If you’re an artist, then you have an advantage here, since you can try to replicate the “look” of a particular period of history, even if you can’t quite find the words to articulate what makes it do distinctive. For example, here are two paintings of mine that are based on a stylised version of the early-mid 2000s:

“Future 2004” By C. A. Brown

“Like 2005” By C. A. Brown

Finding ways to turn nostalgia that isn’t widely shared into art, fiction etc.. can be a bit of a challenge. And, you probably aren’t going to get it right the first time. Still, it’s certainly worth trying nonetheless.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Building Backups Into Your Creative Process – A Ramble

Well, today, I thought that I’d talk about the subject of art and backup copies. I’m not sure if I’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth repeating if I have.

If you use any kind of digital component in your art, then backup copies are an essential thing to have. The usual advice is, of course, to have both multiple backups and off-site backups too.

This might sound rather time-consuming at first, but a lot of this can be easily integrated into your everyday routine, even if you (like me) prefer to use fairly old technology.

This is something that I learnt the hard way in 2010 when, after a major computer crash, I almost lost a lot of the digital copies of art and fiction that I’d made during the preceding year or two. Luckily, I had printouts of most of the fiction. Likewise, I had the physical originals for all of my art (and I’d also posted most of it to DeviantART, so I could just download it from there).

Even so, since then, I tried to back up my creative works on a USB stick every day or two. But, after the original USB stick I used for this failed, I then moved to backing everything up on two USB sticks. In addition to this, I also try to make a DVD backup every three to four months too. So, yes, multiple backups are always useful!

Still, making art using both traditional and digital tools will automatically give you at least a partial backup copy of your artwork for the simple reason that you’ll actually have a physical original in addition to your scans and/or digital photographs of your art.

Likewise, before about late 2008 or so, I always used to handwrite any fiction before I’d type it. Although I abandoned this for time reasons, it did at least mean that I had an extra physical backup copy of any fiction I wrote.

Talking of extra copies, when I write these daily articles, I usually type the text of each article in a somewhat old and basic word processing program (rather than directly onto this site). This gives me an actual file that I can back up, albeit with the time cost of having to manually copy each article onto here after I’ve written it.

In addition to this, I save the text of each article in a file format that is efficient and (mostly) compatible with any computer or word processor. Personally, I use the “.rtf” format. The ridiculously small file sizes (eg: about 5-6 kilobytes per 1000 words) are useful when backing up lots of articles and, since I only save the text of each article in this format (and embed images into these articles separately using the tools on this site), it shouldn’t cause compatibility problems with other word processing programs or operating systems.

So, if I ever have to switch programs or use another computer or something, then I’m not trapped by the limits of a program-specific file format (eg: “.docx”, “.sxw”, “.odt” etc..). After all, text-only files that use the “.rtf” file type should work on old computers, new computers, Windows, Linux, MacOS, open-source word processors, commerical word processors etc..

This is also why I use the “.jpg” format for almost all of my art. Yes, the image quality isn’t technically as good as some other image formats. But, for file size (especially if you use older image editing software with more aggressive JPEG compression algorithms) and compatibility purposes, it can’t be beaten!

In addition to all of this, if you’ve posted something online, then this can also serve as an off-site backup too. The same can be true for things like the “draft” and “schedule” features on sites like WordPress too. Still, whilst this is an easy and convenient way to back up things that you will be publishing online (eg: don’t use it for private data!) you shouldn’t treat it as your only backup. Remember, USB, DVD etc.. backups don’t require an internet connection.

Yes, integrating backups into your creative process can take up a little bit of time. But, this often only adds up to a few extra minutes every day (and it becomes second-nature after a while). And, although it costs a little bit of time, the practical benefits – even just peace of mind – more than make up for this.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

When A Short Story Turns Out Badly- A Ramble

Well, once again, I thought that I’d talk about last year’s “retro sci-fi” Halloween short stories. In particular, I’ll be talking about the eighth story and what to do when a short story doesn’t turn out that well.

In short, I had writer’s block before I wrote the eighth story… and I was in a bit of a rush when I wrote the first draft too. As such, it ended up being a somewhat badly-written “film noir”-style detective story (with a 1950s horror comic-style twist) that contained barely any sci-fi elements. In addition to this, the story didn’t really fit in that well with the fictional “world” that I’d been trying to set all of the stories in. It was a failed story.

So, my first thought was to edit it a bit. Basically, I removed some of the more superfluous descriptions (that made the story sound so amateurish).

For example, I changed the opening sentence from “By the time the neptune blue neon sign opposite the window flickered and sputtered into life, I’d decided to call it a day” to just “By the time the neon sign opposite the window flickered and sputtered into life, I’d decided to call it a day“.

By removing some of the extraneous descriptions, I was at least able to make the story sound a little bit more focused. However, this also caused a few continuity problems that I didn’t spot until a while later (eg: I’d removed a description of a character having brown hair, only for the narrator to refer to her as “the brunette” later in the story). So, I had to think about the story in more logical terms and rewrite a few sentences that referred to parts of the story that no longer existed.

Surprisingly, I didn’t embellish or change the dialogue too much whilst editing. Although the dialogue sounded a little bit formal and generic in many parts of the story, it was at least functional.

In short, the most important part of writing dialogue is to convey story information. So, even if it’s a bit generic, then “functional” dialogue can still work. Plus, since it was meant to be a “film noir” story, this minimalist approach to the dialogue hopefully wouldn’t stand out that much.

Luckily, one thing that mitigated all of the story’s problems slightly was the ending. Since I’d added a melodramatic plot twist and some dark comedy to the last few paragraphs, there was at least some “payoff” for any reader who slogged through the rest of the story. So, at least the story didn’t feel like a complete and utter failure. So, a good ending (or, even better, a good beginning too) can be a way to mitigate the problem of a failed story.

In addition to all of this, I also put a bit more effort into the story’s title illustration. Since this was the first thing that the reader would see, I wanted it to look spectacularly dramatic. In part, to distract from the slightly lower quality of the writing and in part to make up for the slightly lower quality of the writing. It was probably the coolest thing about the story, but at least it was something cool:

This is the title graphic for the failed film noir story.

But, most of all, I actually posted the story on here. Although you shouldn’t do this if you’re publishing stories commercially – if you’re writing non-commercial fiction, then actually putting something out there, however crappy, can at least be a way to keep up momentum.

If you’re worried about what your audience might think, then just remember that a finished story – regardless of quality – that actually appears online is still better than posting nothing.

If you are writing a series of stories, or you post short fiction online regularly, then your audience is more likely to forgive a badly-written story. Why? Because it shows that you are still sticking to your writing schedule.

In other words, although your audience might not be that impressed by the story you posted today, they will at least feel reassured that a better story might appear tomorrow, or in a couple of days’ time or whenever. So, posting a bad or mediocre story is better than posting nothing (when your audience expects you to post something).

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

The Joy Of…. B-Movie Fiction

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about both a rather cool genre of fiction and the creative process behind one of the short stories in last year’s Halloween collection. Although the collection started out as a more “serious” collection of vintage sci-fi style horror stories, it also ended up including a silly story about gangsters and pirates… and I had a lot of fun with that story.

Yes, it wasn’t the most elegantly-written story in the world. Yes, it probably wasn’t that scary. Yes, old horror comics from 1950s America probably had more logical storylines. But, well, it was a lot of fun to write.

Everything from the melodramatic scene with the tommygun (and, yes, I actually listened to an audio recording of a tommygun on Youtube to get the “sound effects” vaguely right), to the movie-like flying car segment, to the giant pirate skull and the vaguely comedic dialogue was just a joy to write. Although this short story series had been plagued by writer’s block, this was one of the few stories that just “flowed” really well when I was actually writing it.

It also reminded me of what I like to call “B-movie” fiction. Although this could be confused with genre fiction, I feel that it’s important to make a distinction between the two things. Unless you are the most snooty and pompous of literary critics, there’s no denying that “genre fiction” can include things like serious intelligent stories and expert authors who quite rightly deserve their bestseller status (eg: J.K.Rowling, Lee Child, G.R.R Martin, William Gibson etc..).

“B-Movie” fiction is something slightly different, and it is also absolutely awesome. These are stories that know that they’re “unrealistic” or “silly” and they revel in this fact. Like their cinematic namesake, these are stories that are explicitly designed to entertain, amuse, thrill, shock, provide escapism and/or appeal to fans of a particular genre.

In a way, I’d argue that this type of fiction is one of the best types of fiction out there – mostly because of the way that it places emphasis on the story itself.

First of all, this type of story is often very readable. Since it is designed to entertain, it is written in a way that grips the reader and encourages them to binge-read. This also reminds both readers and other writers of the value of a compelling and readable story. For example, ‘Seven Ancient Wonders’ by Matthew Reilly is – on a purely technical level – a somewhat “badly-written” novel. But, just try putting it down after you’ve read the first hundred pages or so….

You can write the most profound, elegantly-written and “literary” novel in the world but, if it isn’t written in a way that makes the reader want to see what happens next, then the chance of all or most of your audience actually finishing the book probably isn’t that high.

Secondly, many stories in this genre aren’t written by famous authors, but this doesn’t matter – because the premise is the thing that gets potential readers interested. Once again, this reminds both readers and other writers of the value of a compelling story.

For example, I have only read one novel by Toby Venables. I hadn’t heard of him before I found this novel (during an online search for zombie novels) and I haven’t heard of any of his other works. But, the idea of “Vikings vs. zombies” was intriguing enough for me to order a book and read the whole thing.

So, as well as being a reminder of the importance of an interesting premise, it is also proof that fame isn’t everything. At the end of the day, most authors won’t become world-famous. So, seeing examples of fascinating stories by people you’ve never heard of before can be a good way to dispel the “bestseller or nothing” myth. Plus, there’s just something meritocratic about a story being read because of an interesting premise rather than because of how famous or trendy the author is.

Finally, these types of stories celebrate creativity and imagination. By not rigidly sticking to “realistic” or “serious” stories, “B-movie” novels remind readers of how much fun it is to daydream about all sorts of weird and wonderful things.

This feeling of “wouldn’t it be cool if..” is pretty much the core of almost every form of creative inspiration. So, if you are a creative person, then these types of stories are good for your imagination because they help to remind you of what it feels like to be inspired.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂