Posts Tagged ‘watching’

Just one of many images of the apocalypse.

Postapocalyptic fiction is pretty big at the moment. And by ‘pretty big’ I mean among the best-selling books and movies out there in the form of The Hunger Games. Of course there’s grittier stuff as well, scavengers looking to get by in the devastated future of Mad Max or prepper fiction.

Harry Manners, author of the postapocalyptic Ruin Saga, made a good point about this when he said on Twitter that postapocalyptic fiction is a great arena to discuss the underlying fragility of civilisation. In a world where we have become so detached from the basics of survival, it can be terrifying to consider how easily our comfortable lives could be undermined. Postapocalyptic fiction is a way of addressing that terror, of venting and exploring modern fears. Perhaps it also lets us get a taste of the barbaric, as we increasingly come to understand that the rest of the world isn’t populated by backwards primitives, as everyone from the Romans to the Victorians believed.

I find it fascinating that we can see the same themes – the fragility of civilisation, difficult choices between morals and pragmatism – in stories about the rise of civilisation. Rome and Deadwood both brought this to our TV screens, deliberately exploring how civilisation emerges while showing that as a difficult struggle of faltering steps. In both, the path to safety and security was spattered with blood, and the survival of something that might be called civilised always seemed under threat.

As writers, it gives us two ways to explore these themes – with the birth and the death of civilisations. And as readers it provides something familiar and intriguing in wildly different settings.

What do you think? What’s the appeal of postapocalyptic fiction? Are we really so fascinated by civilisation’s rise and fall?

And if you want to see me grapple some more with what it means to be civilised, you can download my novella Guns and Guano for free from Amazon or Smashwords.

I recently decided to watch more anime, and inspired by an Idea Channel episode, I chose Attack on Titan. It’s a show that probably deserves two reviews, so here we go…

It’s All About Style

Attack on Titan is the weirdest and most fascinating thing I’ve watched in years. Set in a fantasy landscape based on a Japanese perspective of 19th century Europe, it’s a story of survival. For a hundred years humanity has been contained within a vast walled city, threatened from the outside by the Titans, monstrous giants who eat people for fun. When the first of the city’s three rings of walls is breached, a group of young people are propelled into the armed forces fighting for humanity, and a slowly unravelling plot to find out what’s behind the Titans.

I love the imagination of this setting. The towering walls and lumbering giants give it a sense of the epic and the unreal. The soldiers use gas-fired grappling wires to hurtle through the air and attack the vulnerable necks of the Titans. The fundamentals of how this war is fought are like nothing else I’ve seen. Like most fantasy, they look nonsensical if you take a step back, but they’ve been thought through in detail and are so different that I was fascinated. They also allow for some immensely cool and unusual action sequences.

This bonkers style is what I love about Attack on Titan.

No, Wait, It’s All About Substance

Attack on Titan is the deepest, darkest exploration of the horrors of war I’ve ever seen in fantasy. Set in a civilisation on the brink of extinction, it sees a group of young people propelled into the armed forces, struggling to cope with the traumas of that life. They see friends eaten by monsters, civilians crushed beneath falling buildings, superiors turning to cowards or running out of control. They face their own rage, depression and even cowardice in the face of war. Their lives have no neat answers – sometimes friends die in battle without them ever learning why or how. In Attack on Titan, war really is hell.

What’s extraordinary is how compelling this is. The absurdity of the war they’re fighting – swinging on wires as they try to fight monsters – only makes the trauma more stunning and realistic by contrast. It makes the reactions and transformations of the characters into something that left me too stunned.

Dammit, Now I Have to Wait

I watched the whole of the first season of Attack on Titan on Netflix, then discovered that the next series won’t even be on TV until 2016. It’s going to be a long, impatient wait, because bizarre as this is, bewildering as some people will find it, I thought it was an extraordinary show, both in its style and its substance.

I recently introduced Laura to the film Tremors, after making the shocking discovery that she’d never seen it. In doing so, I realised how great an example it is of a key storytelling trick – try fail cycles.

Footloose vs Dune

In case you’ve somehow missed this cinematic classic, Tremors is a 1990 film about a small town under attack by giant burrowing worms. Starring Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as handyman heroes Valentine and Earl, it’s a film that I love not because it’s masterful or innovative, but because it’s so much fun. It uses a horror structure, but lacks the dark atmosphere of horror. It has a humorous tone, but isn’t a comedy. The characters are clichés, but together they’re an interesting mix. The climax features one of the most hilariously in-your-face ropey special effects shots I’ve ever seen.

It’s as if Frank Herbert’s worms from Dune escaped to hunt down that guy from Footloose, and exactly as serious as such a film would be. I love it.

Try, Try Again

Try fail cycles are an important part of plotting stories. They consist of a character repeatedly trying to achieve a goal, and repeatedly facing setbacks, until they finally get there. Those failures are what make the final success feel rewarding – after all those struggles, the character and their plan have grown, and there’s real tension around whether this attempt will succeed. Given that we know that heroes usually win in the end, it’s an important way of creating doubt about the outcome.

In Tremors, those cycles are really clear, and they show how the pattern can vary.

In the first act, Valentine and Earl make repeated attempts to leave town, for a variety of reasons. Every time they are stopped in their tracks. Their eventual failure is what keeps them in town for the film, and for one final escape attempt in the last act.

In the second half of the film, once the monsters are on display in all their rubber and gunk glory, we see two try fail cycles from the townspeople. One is them trying to get to a place of safety, as one option after another at first works and then fails. There’s the same pattern with their attempts to kill the worms. They try, they succeed, but then something means they can’t follow the same approach. It’s not just a cycle of try then fail. It’s a cycle of try then succeed and then fail, which creates strong emotional peaks and troughs. We celebrate the successes and bemoan the failures along with Valentine, Earl and the rest.

Finally there’s the romantic arc, as Valentine tries to work out how to communicate with geologist Rhonda. It’s much less prominent, and less obviously a repeating cycle, but it’s there. Valentine faces his own awkwardness several times, all under the amused eye of Earl. It’s a reluctant try fail, in which Valentine fails toward realising what he wants romantically and how to make it happen.

Learn from the Worms

Sometimes it takes an unsophisticated story to expose the clever tools writers use, and Tremors is one of those occasions. If you haven’t seen it then go watch it – I’ll still be here when you get back. And maybe share your thoughts on the film or try fail cycles in the comments below.

I watch a lot of YouTube videos, both to relax and to provide writing inspiration. One of my current favourite channels is PBS Space Time, where astrophysicist host Gabe Perez-Giz explores some often crazy questions about space. I love the combination of bizarre topics with real science, which is very fertile ground for science fiction ideas. Here are two of my recent favourites – ‘Could you fart your way to the Moon?’ and ‘Could NASA start the zombie apocalypse?’

One day, maybe we can all fart our way to the moon.

I don’t know if William Shakespeare really is the most influential writer in literary history. As someone who grew up Britain, it feels like it. And within my cultural experience, he’s certainly the writer that others lean on the most, borrowing openly from his work to make connections with an audience.

As both a reader and a writer, I find it interesting to look at two different ways in which creators approach this – by adopting the structure of Shakespeare’s plots, or by dressing up in their trappings.

Hamlet on Motorbikes – Sons of Anarchy

On its surface, the TV show Sons of Anarchy has a very modern plot. Its tale of a biker gang struggling against the unstoppable tide of change, full of drug deals, arms shipments and roaring engines, is as 21st century as you can get. But you don’t have to dig deep to see something older in there.

Especially in its early seasons, Sons of Anarchy was a full-on tribute to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with a bit of Macbeth thrown in for good measure. The protagonist Jax is the son of the deceased John Teller, founding leader of the Sons of Anarchy motorbike gang, a gang who rule their local community in a thoroughly medieval manner. His mother Gemma is married to the current leader of the gang, who was responsible for John’s death, while John’s diaries fill in the role of Hamlet’s father’s ghost. The Macbeth angle comes from Gemma, egging her husband on to ever darker deeds in the name of ambition.

Using these familiar roles and conflicts gives the show a sense of depth and darkness. Hamlet and Macbeth are both classics for a reason – they presented characters who were deeply troubling and yet deeply convincing. They turned familiar relationships, particularly family relationship, on their head. This is unsettling and yet fascinating to watch. How will Hamlet/Jax tackle the contradiction between familial love and a quest for vengeance? Will Lady Macbeth/Gemma ever face the consequences of her own ruinous actions?

Sons of Anarchy borrows its structure from Shakespeare, and makes some open nods to that source, but it doesn’t wear the outward trappings of the bard’s plays. For that, we can look at a very different story.

Macbeth Made Funny – Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

Wyrd Sisters was one of Pratchett’s early Discworld books – not the first few unrefined works, but the ones where he was getting into his stride as a humourist, a humanist and a storyteller. It’s the story of three witches – Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick – as they come into conflict with a king who has, Macbeth-style, murdered his predecessor to take the throne. Where Sons of Anarchy is dark and brooding, Wyrd Sisters is funny and often light-hearted, though with a serious sense of justice at its core.

Again, the two main Shakespearean influences on display are Hamlet and Macbeth. We get the royal usurpers, one of whom can’t get the blood from his hands; the victim’s ghost seeking justice, as in both plays; the witches of Macbeth‘s most-quoted scene; the use of a play to bring out the truth as in Hamlet; and many more little references. But the underlying plot twists and inverts Shakespeare rather than following his beats. The references are there to provide humour rather than depth, and to let Pratchett make a point about who we see as heroes.

Different Approaches, Different Uses

These different ways of borrowing from Shakespeare clearly have different uses. The Sons of Anarchy approach works whether or not your audience know the plays. In fact not knowing them may help – a friend of mine was put off by the show’s knowing winks toward its sources. While Wyrd Sisters works as a story whether or not you know your Shakespeare, the references to the bard have no value if you don’t. They are jokes about Shakespeare, rather than a drama told using his tools.

So if you’re thinking of using Shakespeare in your writing, which approach will work best? That depends on what effect you’re after.

Borrowing the trappings Pratchett-style lets you share jokes with readers who know Shakespeare – which is probably most readers, to some extent at least. It creates a bond between you and those readers, lets them feel smart for being in on the jokes, but can disruptive immersion in the story by reminding you that it is a story in a long line of stories. It works best for humour.

Borrowing the plot Sons of Anarchy-style lets you borrow the darkness that oozes from Shakespeare’s dramatic works. It can help to create something thoroughly immersive, though it creates a risk that the audience will realise the connection partway through, again disrupting the experience.

Borrowing from any source has its uses and its risks. But when the source is as good as Shakespeare, his popularity adds to the potential for triumph or disaster.

Do you have any opinions on who has borrowed well or badly from Shakespeare, or from other sources? Have you tried it in your own writing? Share your thoughts in the comments.

I love it when I get a chance to learn writing tricks from other media. Something like dance, music or painting can often provide different approaches to art that take me in new and fascinating directions as a writer.

My most recent discovery is Every Frame a Painting, a YouTube series by Tony Zhou. This series on the art of film is fantastic in its own right, helping me understand the importance of editing in a way I never did before, as well as countless other visual elements. It’s also reminded me of a couple of great lessons on story structure, and refined how I view them:

  • Points in a plot should be connected by implied ‘therefore’ or ‘but’, not just ‘and then’. This creates cause and effect, not just events that could happen in any order.
  • It’s often worth having two stories going in parallel, and switching out of each as it reaches its peak of interest, rather than leaving it for an emotional slump.

Rather than writing any more here, I’ll recommend that you go check out Every Frame A Painting, starting with this five minute piece on Orson Welles’s F for Fake, from which I drew the lessons above.

Boy, I'm glad that's not ominous.

Boy, I’m glad that’s not ominous.

There are a lot of different ways you can use randomisation to inspire writing. Phillip K Dick famously used the I Ching to guide him in writing The Man in the High Castle. I’ve dabbled with story dice and flicking through books to pick a word or picture. And this week podcast Writing Excuses used the I Ching both to generate questions and to create a writing prompt.

The Exercise

Randomly generated using the I Ching, this week’s writing prompt is:

Competing fiercely to become Spring’s queen, the garden flowers blossomed to their full beauty. Who will win the golden crown of glory? Among them all, only the peony stands out.

For me, creativity requires structure as well as chaos. To give this prompt a bit more structure, I decided not to use it to generate something from scratch, but to build on a story idea I’m already working on for this week’s flash Friday piece.

My starting place for the story was inspired by my friend Marios, who was talking about people having to present their academic theses on human skin – more specifically their own skin. It’s an intriguingly grizzly idea, and one that puts limits on what the characters write too. But beyond that high concept, I’ve got nothing for the story. Lets see what this prompt gives me.

Flowers and Competition

The obvious thing is the flowers. My character’s academic field is going to be botany. That opens up potential to look at strange, fantastical plants and their uses.

Conflict is also clearly present in that I Ching passage. The flowers are competing for the one place of high status. I’m going to transfer that dynamic onto the academics of my story. We have two botanists competing for a top prize, job or bursary. Only one can win through the glory of their work. Who will it be?

So, with two minutes’ thought, this random prompt has given me my conflict and some information about both my characters – I doubt I’ll have space for more than two in this flash story. That’s pretty good going.

The Joy of Chaos

I think that these random idea generators work so well at times because they give us rough edges to generate ideas off. The ideas we dream up can sometimes be neat but without the complex or contradictory details that bring stories to life. Randomness adds that.

Do any of you have favourite random idea generators? What are they, and how helpful are they?

And of course you can come back on Friday to see how this story pans out.

Picture by Payton Chung via Flickr creative commons.