The Chrysalis

IDEAS ARE NOT STORIES

Writers are like fucked up magpies. We’re strange people, we ask strangers strange questions and we’re constantly on the look out for interesting shit to think about, then write about. A huge part of this gig is being active and aware. Everyone thinks they have at least one story in them, right? I’d be surprised to find somebody who hasn’t at least thought of one thing that they want to write into a novel or tv show or film.

These ideas are usually high concept. A perfect example; at a recent writer’s meet-up I attended, an old dude was talking about having started writing four years ago. He has an idea, a word he seeded with mystical intonation. Problem is he can’t get past the first chapter. Why? His idea is a conspiracy. The conspiracy began 14,000 years ago. He has too much backstory to wade through, or so he says.

The real problem? He doesn’t have an idea for a story. He’s got a sequence of events in his head that he thinks sound pretty cool. Hey, that’s where it starts for most of us. We think of something that we want to read, and we stick it in the cranial slow cooker for untold time until one day it all makes perfect sense.

Problem is, it never just happens to make perfect sense. When my old beginner-writer colleague sits down to write, he has no idea where to go, because he’s never thought of how the idea translates to a story.

IDEAS ARE THE FIRST DOMINO

So, you’ve been outside for the first time in months. The apartment is beginning to creep you out, it smells like dog and you do not have a dog, the kettle has begun to shout at you and the internet has switched off in the dead of night. You decide to go for a walk, and at some point you begin to people watch. You notice something about what they’re doing, you overhear a conversation and BOOM. Your brain has handed you a little present. That’s a cool idea, brain. I wonder what I can do with it, can it stretch out into 90,000 words of a novel?

No, it can’t. Chances are somebody has already thought of that shit, too. So what should you do? Should you just pack it up and park it in the corner of your memory, to be revisited hazily at moments when you regret your entire life and the unfulfilled potential you once had?

Fuck that. Write your shit down. Doesn’t matter what depth you do it to. Make a note that makes sense to you about the important aspects of your idea. Dwell on that shit. Let it percolate for a day, a week at most. Next, we’re going to turn that idea into something useful.

MIND MAP THAT MOTHERFUCKER

Get yourself an app to make mind maps on your phone. Take that note you made earlier then start bouncing around, extrapolating from it. What’s the history of it? Why are you interested? What are the problems and positives of writing an idea from that premise?

Mind maps are not just for schooldays revision, or wanky meetings at work about synergy and low hanging fruit. No, mind maps are mana from heaven for a writer. They show you how you think. They visualise the process of peeling back the layers of a concept, showing you the web of connections that has convinced your brain that this is something you’d be interested in hearing about.

When mind mapping, there are things you need to think about, and ask yourself.

-What are the themes here? Is it a morality tale?
-Where is this taking place?
-What would happen if I took this in a completely different direction?
-What does it remind me of? Is it Nightmare on Elm Street meets the Tellytubbies? Rambo in space? Smashing familiar concepts together at an early stage can help you solidify a direction to take this thing

Once you’re three layers deep into the mind map, and you’ve covered a half dozen items or so, let it rest. It needs to cool down a little.

THERE ARE NO ORIGINAL IDEAS. ORIGINAL STORIES COME FROM CHARACTERS.

We have a cool idea. It now has a little context. We’ve created a mini universe centred on one concept that our mind can quarry. This is often the stage where people get stuck. How do you take it further?

Don’t start plotting out a sequence of events. This is the time to think of some characters. Give them names, personalities. Make them want something. Make them different enough so that if they’d ever meet, they would be suspicious of each other. Starting from your idea, think about what lives they might lead that would be changed the most by coming into contact with Freddy Tubby or Space Rambo. Now send them to work. Send them to their mom’s at christmas. Send them to church. Send them to a sex party. Now your idea is a chrysalis. It’s changing into something else, energised by the context and the people.

START AN OUTLINE

Now we’re going to take that idea, the context and those people and we’re going to make them do things. We’re going to put them in trouble, of their own making. Then it’s going to get worse. Then they’re going to change too, because of how their wants and needs relate to the idea from the very beginning. They’re going to fight over it, or it’s going to cause them to fall in love, or whatever. This is, at a very basic level, how you take something from an idea and make it into something that other people may want to read.

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The Creeping Dread that Nests in the Young

Horror fiction is dead, they say. Horror writers! You’re wasting your time, boys and girls. Folks are full of Zombies and Vampires, nobody gives a fuck anymore, it has all been done to death, yadayadayada.

Well, smarty pants business human majority, I put it to you that you’re full of shit. I’ve looked into my bowl full of quail bones and I’ve seen the future. I’ve read the twitters, I’ve scanned the bloggeral, and I’ve done the sums on the amazons.

HORROR IS FOR THE YOUNG

Why is that so many of us cut our teeth writing spooky stories? Why does nothing scratch an itch like a good horror flick? Why do I look for Candyman in my toilet even though he comes out of a mirror?

My extensive, thorough, double blind anecdotal research has led to an interesting conclusion. I put it to you that new writers of fiction LOVE writing horror. I argue from atop this pedestal that Horror is the perennial genre fiction flavor, that it’s about to undergo a huge resurgence and that the backlash against nicey nice mainstream fiction is already bubbling under.

The reason? Young people, duh. You remember being a kid? What exactly is it about being a kid that you remember so vividly. Is it the ice creams? Sure, you remember it being fun and all but you’ll be fucked if you go for detail. Is it the cuddles, the parties? Vague snapshot flashes blurred through years of binge drinking and over sleeping.

No, the things you remember with the most precision, the most clarity, are the things that terrified you. The time that dog growled at you for no good reason. Being left alone on your first day of school. A bigger kid starting rumours that he was going to beat the shit out of you. Nightmares that you’re still not sure were not real events, the UFOs you thought you saw. These things, real and imagined, are burned into your visual memory and neural networks, canals and valleys cut through flabby grey matter like the remains of lava flow.

WE WRITE TO EVOKE TERROR BECAUSE TERROR WAS EVOKED WITHIN US

I’ve just described some standard things that almost everybody can relate to, but the reason that some of us are pushed so far as to write horror is that the memories are only a part of it. Being a kid is all about not understanding stuff-and to go further-not believing stuff. When you’re all growed up into a big person, the stuff you don’t believe becomes the nonsensical, the fantastical. When you’re a kid the stuff you don’t believe is the stuff that’s right there in front of you. Why do you think toddlers ask why all the time? Why do you think I’m asking that? Why am I stuck in a loop of Whys? Because horror writing is the essence of that feeling, distilled.

The need to disbelieve is stoked by tales of the speculative and supernatural. Scary stories cut out that bullshit and speak to something deep within us, the all perceiving animal brain that operates on a binary basis of ‘FUCK THAT’ and ‘COOL SHIT, YO’. It’s already fully developed when we drop out of the womb, and friends and relatives and their creepy tales make it go ‘Mmm, yum yum. More Jungian tasty reactions for me, please’.

Kids like being scared. They want to think there is a monster under the bed, a big fucked up clown in the closet waiting to eat them. We spend most of our younger days being treated like fucking idiots, mainly because we are, but also because nobody wants anything to hurt us. They tell us scary stories as morality tales, with an incredibly simple moral- Be careful, otherwise things such as these may happen to you.

Our kid brain imaginations are the safe place to exercise this stuff, and it animates in irrational fears of stabby things and toothy bat folk.

When I was 9 or 10, I didn’t want to read young adult or kid’s books. Fuck no. I had this uncle, he was amazing. He’d sit me down, turn off the TV and tell me about the ghosts he’d seen. Straight up, serious, finger pointing stories about things that had followed him, things that had woken him up. He had fucking witnesses. I think I must have heard the same three or four stories thousands of times, but I loved it. I loved the sincerity in his voice. I loved the lingering fear in his eyes, the fact that his experiences of being a decade or so older than me had stayed with him to that day. Even as youngster I thought about how thrilling it would be to do the same thing with my kids, further down the line, and hoped to god I’d see a ghost or something to inspire the stories. If not I’d steal his, which is exactly what I have done for much of my better fiction. When I think of my childhood, this is what comes to mind immediately.

HORROR IS SUPERFOOD FOR DEVELOPING BRAINS

When it came to fiction, I picked up the stuff I wasn’t supposed to. I read Salem’s Lot at about the same time. It spoke to me, man. It knew me. It knew the town I grew up in, even though it was an Atlantic ocean and two decades in distance. It knew the adults in my life, it knew other people’s parents. It had me in the future, walking me in the present through a deadly and dangerous situation fraught with religion, betrayal, adultery and evil. It showed me the world of adults in the way that adults wouldn’t want me to see, and I fucking loved it. I finished that book on a boat, in the middle of the Carribean sea, moored up outside an old creepy whaling island that had a huge whale jaw bone erected at the port. I was terrified and enthralled. It was a mystical experience.

Whenever people ask me why I don’t try and write nice things, why I don’t like to focus replicating the reality of the world I grew up in, I point to that moment and the stories of my uncle. It’s who I was, and who I was is the primary reason behind who I am now. That, my friends, is the lingering presence of horror on the brain. It’s good for you.

STORIES ARE ABOUT CHARACTERS THAT CONNECT, CHARACTERS CONNECT THROUGH PITY AND FEAR

Go read a writing advice blog. Look for the character posts.They will invite you to create believable characters who make an emotional connection with the reader. Often they’ll tell you do to this by having the character make bad decisions. They’ll say a character’s arc is about escalation of tension, and that a story won’t work unless you’re invested in the outcome of that character’s decisions.

Why is this? I refer you to the god of writing, James Joyce. Joyce once wrote that the only genuine reactions you can invoke in a reader are pity and fear. Loving characters? Bullshit. You pity their circumstances and fear for them in times of peril. Guess what genre gives you free reign to do whatever the fuck you like? Horror, that’s what genre.
HORROR IS THE ZOMBIE THAT REFUSES TO DIE, BECAUSE HORROR IS THE TRUTH

Why am I so certain that Horror is due a resurgence? There are a few reasons.
First, people like me. Kids who grew up in the aftermath of the horror boom of the 70’s and 80’s, who picked up dusty books on their parent’s shelves and read in secret. Who stumbled upon their cousins playing Atmosphere and freaking out at the cloaked dude on the VHS. People who have lived through the fifth or sixth extinction of popular supernatural fiction, and have grown to be adults in a world that has changed so rapidly and unexpectedly. A world where there are no more towns like Salem’s Lot, where nothing can be forgotten because everything is permanent and immutable and traceable.

It is oft’ claimed that you can’t do anything new in horror, and that is why it is dead. I say No! Wrongess! Horror is truth. There will always be new truths. Truths that lurk behind the things we’re not supposed to talk about with decent folk in public. The smoke behind the fire, the spark behind the rumours. New technology, new relationships, new taboos. New truths in all of them, about who we are, what we are for and what is to be done about it.

There is too much new in the world. People are changing, man. We’re becoming isolated and connected all at once. We know so much more about other people than we ever have done, what with the facebooking and the smartphones and the tinder. You know what? All that knowledge just raises more questions about each other. The validity, the quality of the truth. That’s just going to make people like me disbelieve all the more.

What do we do to express that disbelief? We invent spooky stories to freak the fuck out of the next generation, passing our brain scars down the line.

The Story and the Plot: Why people like stuff that sucks

Spoiler alert: Some things suck. Objectively suck.

Wait! You shout. That’s just like, your opinion, man.

Well a smidgeon of yes, and a lot of no.

In any piece of fiction, there are some murky, ephemeral rules that define whether something is actually worth applause. I’m not going to get dragged into a slanging match about whether I’m right or wrong here, so please don’t take this personally. Creating good fiction is hard. It stumps otherwise excellent writers of anything else, be it journalism, blog content or recipes. Just as with food, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a bit of junk food, but once you know how it’s made the meal can become either more appetizing or a little disgusting.

Ask somebody why they enjoy Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, whatever her names’ 50 Shades of Grey or something as dumb as Guardians of the Galaxy and they’ll often tell you that they are good stories. To other people, that is sacrilege. Nobody pisses on the altar of greatness! You can’t have that shit up there with Star Wars, Blade Runner, the Count of Monte Cristo or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

I’m gonna translate the theory behind this weird phenomenon, which I am going to dub ‘Why people like stuff that sucks’.

STORIES ARE NOT PLOT

Point numero uno is that a story is not a plot. Why do you like Da Vinci Code, Grandma bumkins?
‘Well I like the story, he goes to france and unravels a plot, and there’s a painting and a big albino willy and-‘

Shut up Grandma, you don’t know what you’re talking about. That’s not the story, that’s the plot.

See, the plot is a skeleton. It’s a series of events, moments in a piece of fiction that tie back from end to front like a little breadcrumb trail of ridiculous moments. It’s the set pieces. Luke meets Obi Wan, leaves Tatooine, finds Leia. People can often fool themselves into thinking it’s this sequence that draws their attention, that it’s this that makes them continue.

As is often the case with people, they’re wrong. That’s not what it is even if they don’t realise it. No, the thing that keeps people pulling forward through fiction is the story. If the plot is a skeleton, the story is the weird ghosty that animates it. It’s the virus inside the zombie, the blood in the vampire, the booze in the hobo’s paper bag.

STORIES ARE THE CONSEQUENCE OF CHARACTERS DOING THINGS

To put it bluntly, a story is the accumulated consequences of Characters saying things, doing things and thinking things. Then another character has something to say about those things, and he then does something in response. Before you know it, some big shit goes down and BOOM, people change. You ever had a friend who was cool, then he got a girlfriend, and you never see him anymore, and now he doesn’t play videogames anymore and just posts pictures of his cats on facebook and listens to ABBA and…Whatever, that guy is a dick.

Point being that your bumhole of a friend has undergone a change. He started out at A, and for reasons he doesn’t fully understand the things he wants in life have led him to B, and that’s just who he is now. In fiction, a story is that happening, several times with a half dozen or more characters.

50 Shades of Grey is not just about thumbs up the bum. That’s a big part of the popularity, sure. Twilight isn’t just about Vampires. In fact it’s barely about Vampires, and that isn’t the reason people like it. In both of these examples, you have an accessible and immediate window into how someone like you undergoes a change. They start out as prissy poppet pants nobodies. Because of events external to them, they start to do stuff. They talk about it some. Then they think about it. And more stuff happens. Then they change. They change in such a way that it makes the reader feel something, even if that character is a total ballbag. This emotional investment/payoff is called Catharsis, and it’s something that fiction has been built around invoking since we were clubbing each other with rocks and thighbones.

Oh! An important point which should never be neglected. Characters have WANTS and NEEDS.
These wants and needs tie deeply into what the story will end up becoming, because they are the driving forces behind what they say and do. This is true of villains and antagonists, too. A good hero/villain story only works if the wants and needs of a hero and villain mirror each other, like ying and yang. They have to complement each other’s flaws and virtues, their wants and needs tugging at the opposite spectrum.

Iron Man: WANTS to save the world. NEEDS to be seen as an all-round genius and savior.
Vader: WANTS to destroy the rebellion. NEEDS to bring Luke to the Dark Side.
Hamlet: WANTS to avenge his father’s death. NEEDS to avoid spiritual damnation.
Woody:  WANTS Andy’s affection. NEEDS to keep his animated nature a secret.

MULTIPLE, BALANCED STORIES CREATE A PLOT THAT WORKS

Ever seen a film where for seemingly no reason there’s a love story tacked on?
Do you think that’s because some studio exec said ‘The audience demands titillation!’

In some cases yes, in a lot of cases no. The most incomprehensible, baffling love stories in otherwise decent films or books exist because characters need not one story, but multiple stories. The assumption that people sit down and work forwards in a straight line is bogus. Anybody who has ever attempted to write a story will tell you that the hardest part is hitting a point where you think ‘Man, I have no idea what the fuck to do next’. They started with a cool idea- Vampires fisting personal assistants to start a race war, for example- then they hit the brakes, because that in and of itself doesn’t make things happen. It can’t move people from A to B, from place to place, without it looking artificial. So what do writers do? They give characters multiple stories. Because stories emerge from the interactions between characters, making two of them fall in love unexpectedly can create new scenarios for the writer to move the plot forwards. I’m not excusing this bullshit, I’m telling you how it works.

THE DOING AND THE SAYING SHOULD EMERGE FROM DECISIONS

So we’ve got the doing and the saying and the thinking covered. This is where we converge Plot and story somewhat. The big turning points-the ‘Pivots’-should emerge from a character making a big fucking decision. Does Luke go to Cloud City to save his chums? Does Clarice Starling take Lecter’s advice? Does Simba take the easy road and stay the fuck out of Scar’s way?

Congratulations. You’ve just made a STORY and a PLOT move forwards in one fell fucking swoop.

CAUTION: PLOTS ARE NOT ALWAYS STRONGER WHEN EMERGING FROM STORY

The final caveat? People who know how to tell stories well can fuck all of this off from the get go. James Joyce? His books were about people realizing they’re heroic geniuses in a mythic, eternal kind of way. The plot? Man goes for walk around town. Man goes to University and realizes he hates his family.

Shakespeare was another. His plays were taken from older sources, nearly beat for beat. What made them different? That’s right, the fucking story! THE ACCUMULATED EFFECT OF CHARACTERS DOING, THINKING AND SAYING, AND OTHER CHARACTERS RESPONDING IN KIND. It’s just how we are wired. Blame the lizard brain.

Now go. Watch and read your bullshit, and analyze why you like it, then come back and tell me I’m wrong if you very fucking dare.