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Author Topic: The Writers' Block  (Read 17178 times)

The Legendary Shark

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The Writers' Block
« on: 21 November, 2014, 09:26:25 am »
Writing (much like illustrating and lettering, I suppose) is a lonely job. It is also a frustrating and often confusing job. When artwork or lettering aren't working it's fairly obvious to see why - the foreshortening on that arm isn't right or that lettering needs more kerning - but when your script isn't working the reasons are not always quite so obvious. That's why I thought I'd start this thread so that we can discuss the mechanics of our craft, look under the hood of our stories and know what needs fixing and how to fix it.
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It's not my intention to start a "here's my idea for a story/character/setting, what do you think?" kind of thread but a "I can't figure out how to get my protagonist to situation X without violating condition Y, any ideas?" kind of thread, although I suppose there's room for both if that's what you want.
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Anyway, to kick off I'm going to describe a couple of useful ideas from John Truby's screenwriting course (which I highly recommend) that have helped me in my endeavours.
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Like most writers, at first I fell into the trap of thinking that writing was easy. I retained myriad unnecessarily oblique words in my memory and was capable of constructing unnecessarily lengthy, grammatically reckless yet still ultimately readable, if somewhat convoluted, sentences with relative ease and occasionally, flair and so I set to writing. I got an idea than just started writing - after all, I'd read plenty of comics an I've learned the format, so I'm all set, right? Wrong. I'd get a third of the way in then hit a wall. The story was going nowhere, the characters were going nowhere and the idea was going nowhere. Yet another beautifully written but abandoned script.
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What I hadn't figured out then but know now is that writing may be easy, which it is because virtually everyone can do it, but *storytelling* is hard - possibly the hardest job in the world; as difficult as quantum theory or five dimensional geometry. The storyteller has to take an idea, or a collection of ideas, and present them in one of the recognised story forms and/or genres. Audiences instinctively, and subconsciously, know that stories have different shapes and different beats and if any of those shapes or beats are missing the audience senses it. Your story doesn't work for them but they can't tell you exactly why.
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Story shapes and genres are an important tool for writers to know about because it can give you a useful shorthand, a framework of things you don't have to explain that sets the scene or mood for the audience immediately, allowing you to concentrate more on the story You want to tell within your chosen vehicle. For example, your audience will expect different things from the comedy and tragedy story types and different things again from the gangster genre or the western genre. Part of our job as storytellers is to give the audience what it expects, but in a unique way, and *more*. What's the *more*? I have no idea - if you ever figure out a formula for producing it, please let me know!
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The point is that I didn't plan my stories. As soon as I started doing that I had my first success ("The War of the Worlds" in FutureQuake # 15), although my plans at first amounted to little more than a page breakdown with each page containing vague story beats. Nevertheless, planning meant that I finished every script I started because, if something wasn't working, I caught it in the planning stage instead of hitting it head-on in another soon-to-be-abandoned script.
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My next major success (and I hope you don't mind using my own work as illustrations - it's really the only work I feel entitled to criticise) was "Flesh: Extinction" a 3 book, 4 episodes per book monster of a story which ran in Zarjaz (issues 10, 14 and 17). Some of the initial planning in this story worked quite well - for example the "traitor" exposed in the last episode of Book II is clearly visible doing the deal on page one of episode one of part one. I was proud of this little detail until I realised that I'd just used it as a trick to tie the story together and that it was nothing more than a happy side-effect of planning and nothing to do with my genius as a storyteller at all.
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The rest of that "epic" holds together fairly well, though, but still relied heavily upon instinct at the script writing stage and had a plan that was too shallow. The image in the final panel on the penultimate page of the very last episode was supposed to make a powerful statement about humanity, and I thought it was a very clever panel, but because I put it in on instinct and at the last moment there was no foreshadowing or "ground work" for the image and so it failed - and that's not the artist's fault, it's mine.
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So, to me at least, planning is the most important part of the mechanics of writing - you can't build a suspension bridge without a blueprint and you can't write a story without a plan. But where do you start with a plan?
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In the next post, I'll waffle on a bit about some of the factors that go into my planning - moral need, desire and the ghost.

The Legendary Shark

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Re: The Writers' Block
« Reply #1 on: 21 November, 2014, 10:38:01 am »
Before I start on the moral need, desire line and the ghost, a boring question: What do you want to say? This was a question that I had never really asked myself, for various reasons, because I didn't think it was that important - I've got lots to say (as anyone daft enough to read The Political Thread will know!)  so I'll write lots of stories. But I want to be a professional so that's just not good enough - and so I sat down and actually thought about it.
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In a nutshell, I want to talk about freedom and authority. Now, it might seem rather limiting to base all my stories on that one thing but, looking back over the tales I've already written, that seems to have been my major subconscious theme anyway. Many of those stories would also have benefitted from my being aware of that theme when I wrote them.
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My current project is a multi-episode war story and so one of the initial steps was to decide on a theme for the story that fell inside my "freedom/authority" focus and decided to explore the subject of leadership - when to lead, when not to, how to lead, how not to, why to lead, why not to, who should lead, who should not, etc. This simple exercise immediately suggests characters, scenes and threads and is an important foundation to my story. If I get stuck I can go back to that theme and see how it applies, or not, to my sticking point.
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One of the deepest insights I've got from Truby is that protagonist and plot are the same thing. They must both develop together and be each a reflection of the other. This is why I start my plan at the end of the story. Hold that thought.
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Stories are about people. Good stories are about interesting people. The best stories are about interesting people who *change*. If the audience gets to the end of your story, even it's been a rollercoaster ride of explosions and car-chases, and by the end of it your protagonist is exactly the same person in exactly the same place, your audience, no matter how much they enjoyed the ride, will be disappointed at the destination. To write a good story, I think you must end with a changed protagonist. This is where the concepts of moral need, desire line and the ghost come in.
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The ghost is the event from the past that still haunts your protagonist and is in some way making him/her incomplete. It might be a fatal childhood drowning that manifests as acute fear of water or any one of a million other things. Ideally, the protagonists ghost should spill over, making it a problem for those people closest to him as well - perhaps one of the consequences is that the protagonist's children are never allowed to learn to swim, which might be a problem when the nearby river floods. The protagonist will be acutely aware of the ghost but not aware of all its consequences or how to overcome it. That's where the moral need comes in.
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The moral need is the thing your protagonist needs to become complete - but he/she doesn't know what that is. In the drowning ghost example, it may be learning that the protagonist's actions actually saved many lives but he/she was unaware of that at the time. This knowledge, dissembled at just the right time in your story (usually at your protagonist's lowest ebb, after their apparent defeat or visit with death) might be the kick your protagonist needs to ford that last river and confront the opponent. In order to take your protagonist on a journey of self-discovery, you need a desire line.
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A desire line is the engine of your story and changes all the time. Desire lines consist of two constantly repeating steps - revelation and action. For example, your protagonist receives a 'phone call from a friend who's moved back to town (revelation) and arranges to meet up for a drink (action). The friend doesn't show up (revelation) and so your protagonist decides to go to the friend's flat (action) but the flat is completely empty (revelation) and so on until you get to the end. This might sound simple and obvious but it is important - the revelation/action process are the feet of the story - if you don't keep putting one in front of the other your story will trip or fall - skillful application can make your story slow down, jog, run or even dance. If your story's stopped, check that you haven't lost your footing!
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A skillful storyteller will try and weave the ghost, the moral need and the desire line together as closely as possible, charting the individual lessons the protagonist must learn (or fail to learn), the obstacles to be overcome and the challenges to be faced into a dense and cohesive spine to build your story around.
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So, start at the end. Figure out what your protagonist is going to learn and how that knowledge will change the world and then build up to it. As well as being more satisfying for the audience, this approach is also unmatched in suggesting ideas and characters for your stories - making your story easier to write. In fact, I find myself with the delicious headache of ending up with too much story and having to decide what to cut out.
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So, is any of this even remotely interesting or should I just take my desire line and stick it up my moral need?
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Steven Denton

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Re: The Writers' Block
« Reply #2 on: 21 November, 2014, 08:33:02 pm »
the concept of moral need desire line and ghost boil down to a characters motivation and development. It’s the kind of language that grates a bit with me because it aggrandises and mystifies what is a relatively simple question. ‘why is this person behaving like that and what, if anything, do they learn'

storytelling is in no way the hardest job in the world. (I assume you were being ironic when you said that it possibly was) but there is a tendency to exaggerate writing to a metaphysical level (see Alan Moore and Grant Morrison) in my humble opinion to understand the mechanics of writing you need to first strip away the mystique of creation.

locustsofdeath!

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Re: The Writers' Block
« Reply #3 on: 21 November, 2014, 08:55:15 pm »
I think the important thing is to first become an Alan Moore or a Grant Morrison before exaggerating writing to a metaphysical level. Horse before the cart, Shark.

Professor Bear

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Re: The Writers' Block
« Reply #4 on: 21 November, 2014, 09:41:07 pm »
I think the important thing is to first become an Alan Moore or a Grant Morrison

Do you mean like kill them and wear their skin?

locustsofdeath!

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Re: The Writers' Block
« Reply #5 on: 21 November, 2014, 09:48:49 pm »
I think the important thing is to first become an Alan Moore or a Grant Morrison

Do you mean like kill them and wear their skin?

Do you mean metaphysically or metaphorically?

TordelBack

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Re: The Writers' Block
« Reply #6 on: 21 November, 2014, 10:27:13 pm »
... there is a tendency to exaggerate writing to a metaphysical level (see Alan Moore and Grant Morrison) in my humble opinion to understand the mechanics of writing you need to first strip away the mystique of creation.

I'm not a writer, but I'm not sure I see much mystique in Sharky's post: beyond the terms themselves the three elements seem like good solid guides for storytelling.  It's not like he's advocating wanking over your fanmail or placing yourself in thrall to a sock pocket.  Errr, you're not, are you Shark? 

DoomBot

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Re: The Writers' Block
« Reply #7 on: 21 November, 2014, 11:19:32 pm »
I only came here for cake... Is there any cake?

I draw stuff. I don't write stuff. But I do draw what other people have writ. Maybe I missed it ( so many words sharky. I read comics because i don't like too many words. My reading nodes are all burnt... I digress). But a top key mega important ingredient for me in a story is that it has to be grounded in some logical reality. Doesn't matter if it's one you made up, but it has to be consistently logical and one I can relate to. When our hero jumps a 30 feet chasm to escape a baddie you've lost me irrespective of whether you have the other elements you mention


M.I.K.

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Re: The Writers' Block
« Reply #8 on: 21 November, 2014, 11:30:51 pm »
Let's see what that bloke from Brass Sun says on the matter.

Professor Bear

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Re: The Writers' Block
« Reply #9 on: 21 November, 2014, 11:53:06 pm »
I think the important thing is to first become an Alan Moore or a Grant Morrison

Do you mean like kill them and wear their skin?

Do you mean metaphysically or metaphorically?

I mean wearing their skin like a suit.

The Legendary Shark

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Re: The Writers' Block
« Reply #10 on: 22 November, 2014, 06:41:07 am »
In my view, my first two posts here were intended to begin stripping away the mystique of creation. The problem - or *my* problem - is that as soon as I start to try and analyse and explain my methods I make them sound complicated and aloof, which they really aren't. I'm reminded of that old Barry Cryer quote, "analysing comedy is like dissecting a frog - nobody laughs and the frog dies."
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Yes, the desire line, moral need and ghost are all covered by "why is this person behaving like that and what, if anything, do they learn?" but they aren't meant to replace that question. Rather, they are the tools this writer uses to help answer it.
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I was only half-joking when I said that writing, or more specifically storytelling, is the hardest job in the world. This is simply because you have to take one of the basic stories, which everyone is familiar with, and present it in a new way.
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As an example, take Beowulf - a community near the shore is being terrorised by the monster Grendel, who attacks the community at will and with impunity, carrying victims off and eating them. Nothing the people of Heorot do has any effect and the community becomes paralysed by fear. Then a hero comes from across the sea, Beowulf, who hunts Grendel down in his own environment. There is a huge battle, Grendel (and his mother) are destroyed by the hero, the curse is lifted and the community of Heorot is saved.
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Okay, so we all know and understand that story so let's compare it with another story we all know from thousands of years later.
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For this example, take Jaws - a community near the shore is being terrorised by the monster shark, who attacks the community at will and with impunity, carrying victims off and eating them. Nothing the people of Amity do has any effect and the community becomes paralysed by fear. Then a hero comes from across the sea, Police Chief Brodie, who hunts the shark down in its own environment. There is a huge battle, the shark (this time alone) is destroyed by the hero, the curse is lifted and the community of Amity is saved.
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They are basically the same story but told in vastly different ways. That's what I meant by saying that storytelling is hard - one wrong move by Benchley or Spielberg and Jaws could easily have been dismissed by audiences as "Beowulf with the serial numbers filed off." And that's just the *shape* of the story, just one element before all the desire lines, moral needs, ghosts and whatnot are installed.
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So, it was not my intention to elevate storytelling or aggrandise it but to deconstruct it - take it apart to see how it works and then try to explain the components in the ways that I see them and try to use them. Alan Moore and Grant Morrison may have their own methods and perspectives but they're still basically playing about with the same few story types as everyone else. I don't want to be Alan Moore or Grant Morrison anyway - I want to be, and am, Mark Howard.
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I kinda' think that Locust might have it backwards - it's not trying to understand the mechanics of storytelling before sitting down to write but sitting down to write before understanding the mechanics of storytelling that puts the cart before the horse.
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I should also make it clear that I'm explaining how I write - the approaches and methods that help me. Some of the things I do might prove useful to others and (if this thread goes the way I hope it will)  other writers might explain some of their methods which might be useful to me.
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There are, I think, as many different approaches to storytelling as there are storytellers and we must each find our own best methods and practices - which will inevitably evolve as our understanding and experience of the craft (hopefully) expands.
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Originally, I wanted to kick-off this thread with a discussion about planning - which I think is the most important stage of the whole writing process - because it doesn't matter how good my ideas are or how groovy my characters are if the vehicle they're riding in, the story itself, doesn't work. The moral need, ghost and desire line are just a few of the elements I use to help me create my plan and fix certain problems I may encounter along the way, long before I get to the writing stage.
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I think Tordels correctly guessed my intentions - although I won't say on which subject ;-)
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Sorry, DoomBot, but there's no cake :-(  What you say is correct, though, each story must have its own internal logic (it's perfectly acceptable to have your protagonist jump a 30ft chasm to escape - if your protagonist is John Probe or a spasming Slaine but not if it's Judge Dredd or Tyranny Rex) and the planning stage is an enormous help with this. It seems to me that the most likely reason for an internal logic failure is that the storyteller has written themselves into a corner and the only way out is to break the rules and hope nobody notices. Planning should prevent this and also bolster and deepen a story's internal logic.
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Planning, see? It's all about the planning! So - what goes into your plans?

The Legendary Shark

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Re: The Writers' Block
« Reply #11 on: 22 November, 2014, 01:27:24 pm »
I apologise to Locustofdeath without reservation. My comment was in no way a personal attack or comment on our respective talents.

locustsofdeath!

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Re: The Writers' Block
« Reply #12 on: 22 November, 2014, 01:47:11 pm »
No need to apologize to me! Carry on.

The Legendary Shark

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Re: The Writers' Block
« Reply #13 on: 22 November, 2014, 02:05:55 pm »
Heh, I think there's been enough pretentious piffle from me for the time being. I was kinda' hoping to read about and learn from the processes of fellow writers for a while.

TordelBack

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Re: The Writers' Block
« Reply #14 on: 22 November, 2014, 02:42:29 pm »
For this example, take Jaws - a community near the shore is being terrorised by the monster shark, who attacks the community at will and with impunity, carrying victims off and eating them. Nothing the people of Amity do has any effect and the community becomes paralysed by fear. Then a hero comes from across the sea, Police Chief Brodie, who hunts the shark down in its own environment. There is a huge battle, the shark (this time alone) is destroyed by the hero, the curse is lifted and the community of Amity is saved.

Fascinating analogy there (especially if you see Quint as Unferth, first doubting Brodie and then giving him the weapon he thinks he needs (Orca/Hrunting), but which in the end proves ineffective leaving the hero to depend on his own abilities) all the more so because as you say, that's just the outline - for me what makes Jaws such a compelling and, let's face it, perfect film are all the other things that the structure doesn't even hint at: Hooper (unless you see him as the hero from across the sea!); the clockwork beauty of of the world of Amity itself; Harry's hat.  All the good stuff.