‘Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty’

There are a handful of luminaries who I happily follow on Twitter with zero chance that they’ll ever follow me back. One of Pixar’s leading directors and screenwriters, Andrew Stanton, is one of those people.

The other day, I saw one of Stanton’s tweets commenting on a TED talk that he conducted back in 2012. The presentation is so incredibly insightful, and contains so many inspirational nuggets of storytelling advice, that I thought it would make a good blog topic. The talk itself is certainly worth a watch in full, though. Here it is.

One phrase in Stanton’s talk stood out to me in particular. It comes courtesy of British playwright William Archer: ‘Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.’ Stanton calls the quote incredibly insightful. Drama is at the heart of all storytelling, alongside love, as Michael Hauge teaches. So let’s break down the quote.

First: anticipation. To create a good story, you must make the audience want to find out what happens next at every point of the tale. As Stanton explains, storytelling isn’t far removed from joke telling: you must know your ending – your punchline – and everything that occurs prior to the ending must feed into this over-arching goal.

Early on, you should make a promise to the audience that your story will be worth their time. As Stanton explains, “a well-told promise is like a pebble being pulled back in a slingshot, [that when released] propels you forward through the story to the end.” To back up the promise, you need to make the audience care. It’s crucial that they’re emotionally, intellectually, or at least aesthetically invested in the story.

Easier said than done, right? Well, Stanton explains how crafting the superb, largely-silent WALL-E confirmed a belief that he’d had for a while: that the audience are satisfied when they’re working out the story and its themes. Importantly, Stanton advocates, they just don’t want to know that they’re doing it. In other words, you shouldn’t spoon-feed the audience the story, but arrange its elements in such a way that grabs attention. They can anticipate what’s going to happen, but they can’t be completely sure, and they’re trying to work out how you’ll get to the end.

As Stanton neatly summarises, “it’s this well-organised absence of information that draws [the audience] in.” He and fellow Pixar writer Bob Peterson rather grandly call this approach the ‘Unifying Theory of 2+2’. Essentially, the premise is that you shouldn’t just give the audience “4”, but should give them “2” and “2” and allow them to put them together themselves. Of course, the audience often won’t be certain if they’re getting it right until you fulfil your promise at the end.

It should go without saying, but story is far more than just plot. It’s a culmination of plot, themes, dialogue, and characters. Stanton focuses on characters as a key proponent of change in stories, itself a fundamental requirement. As he explains, if a story becomes static, it dies, because life is never static.

All good characters have a “spine” – an inner motivation; a dominant, subconscious goal – that drives them. The character’s spine should dictate the decisions that they make. They may not always be the best decisions, but they must be consistent with the character’s personality. Stanton gives the examples of Michael Corleone in The Godfather: his spine was to please his father, even after Vito Corleone’s death.

Finally, Stanton reveals what he thinks is the key ingredient of all great stories, and one that is rarely cited: the ability to evoke wonder. Stanton calls it the “secret sauce”, and I don’t think anyone could argue against that given Pixar’s uncanny ability to produce heart-warming tales time after time. Unfortunately for us mere mortals, it’s not the easiest thing to imbue our creations with wonder!

To conclude, I’ll leave you with this quote from Stanton taken from the TED talk. He refers to characters in a story, but it’s equally applicable to all of us as we seek for meaning in our lives: “A major threshold is passed when you mature enough to acknowledge what drives you, and to take the wheel and steer it.” Whatever we wish to achieve or create in life, it won’t happen until we understand why we want it, and actively go after it. Andrew Stanton has done just that, and become one of the most respected storytellers in the world as a result.

A Writer’s Thoughts – Part 5: It’s Alive!

Being a suburban lad through and through, every time I head down to the supercharged mass that is London I have to tell myself I’m going on a mission or an adventure. That way I mentally prepare for the chaos.

A few weeks back, I headed down to The Big Smoke on a mission of utmost importance: directing the voice over (VO) work for Seven: The Days Long Gone. I met up with my co-directors Jakub and Karolina, the Project Lead and Quest Designer, respectively, and we made our way to the PitStop Productions recording studio near King’s Cross.

Unfortunately for the voice over artists we had chosen to voice Seven’s main characters, I took to my directing role like a dictator to brainwashing. I’m confident that these highly-experienced actors appreciated my relentless input. Not that confident, mind you, but it’s too late for self-doubt now! When I jumped into the booth and had a little go myself, naturally I found that it’s much harder than it looks.

Seven VO

It may be a cliché, but it really was surreal to hear many of the lines I sweated over brought to life by these talented voice actors. When I write, I mutter every word to myself, particularly when it comes to dialogue. It helps me to check the lines feel natural, and that punctuation crops up where natural pauses occur. It’s not very scientific, admittedly, but it works for me.

Even with this process, however, I didn’t always appreciate the intricacies of a line because I didn’t always imagine the character speaking it in context. The voice over recordings were a timely and pertinent reminder that in-game dialogue is far from the end product. That may sound obvious, but it can be hard to keep the bigger picture in mind when writing; imagining the state of the world at that particular time, and everything the character may have gone through. These considerations are further complicated by the fact the player may have acted in a variety of ways up to any given point, so there often has to be an element of neutrality to the line. They may have forced the protagonist to start an impromptu open graveyard, for example.

I enjoy storytelling in many of its guises. In addition to working on Seven, I’m currently writing a long-overdue short story entitled Kellen’s Plan, and working on my first screenplay, called The Henchman. I realise that by dabbling in all of these different forms of media I risk spreading my time too thinly, but I think the potential rewards outweigh the risks. I want to immerse myself in every facet of storytelling, because I’m increasingly finding that core story principles are crucial regardless of the format. The primary goal is always to elicit emotion, stories are always metaphors for life, there always has to be conflict throughout, and the protagonist has to go through a metamorphosis of some description.

Despite the storytelling core running through all of these media forms, there are of course major differences between them. One of the most significant is the way in which the story is enjoyed. In video games, the stories that are created have to serve a greater purpose: they have to feed in to and enhance the world created. The writing is brush strokes of one colour on a vibrant, many-hued canvas. Films and television shows constitute an intrinsically visual medium, so screenwriting must enable the reader of a script to visualise how the words on the page could be brought to life. Writing literature is one of the more closed-ended of the forms, in that the writer tries to convey exactly what they wish the reader to experience. Even this requires interpretation, however; as Stephen King says, description should start in the writer’s imagination, but end in the reader’s.

The whole process of bringing lines to life in the VO recording session reminded me of the importance of keeping in mind where your words are destined to be next in their journey. It never ends with whatever you chuck on to the screen; whether it’s the voice actors who breathe life in to lines for a video game, or the director transforming them into fluid action for a screen show, or the reader taking the seed of your prose and letting it bloom in their imagination. In short, don’t forget that your aim is to write something that shows your imagination whilst appealing to someone else’s.

A Writer’s Thoughts – Part 4: So Much Time and So Little To Do

 

Strike that. Reverse it.

Okay, I admit it. One of the main reasons for writing this blog entry is so that I could use my favourite Willy Wonka quote. If that’s not a good enough reason, then tough. It’s good enough for me.

Recently, I’ve been juggling a hefty workload, and dedicating a great deal of effort to resisting the temptation of play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild all the time. Both have only been partially successful. A combination of engineering work, large volumes of writing for Seven: The Days Long Gone, and gliding around Hyrule, has kept me from working on writing samples and short stories. I have to prioritise, and I don’t like it. This got me thinking about one of my favourite topics: time.

Then I had an existential crisis, so I stopped.

But seriously, don’t you agree time is a concept that is simultaneously fascinating, amazing, and a little scary?

The fascinating part is that time plods along at the same rate for every one of us, yet passes completely differently. How we perceive time is completely subjective. In my old job I would’ve sworn the days were about 64 hours long, but a day of playing Zelda, reading, and writing passes in a few hours. What’s more, we may be exposed to some of the same world events, but how we interpret them, how we react to them, is unique to each of us.

Time can also be amazing, particularly when thought of in terms of the innings we’ve been given thanks to the birds and the bees. At risk of coming across as uncharacteristically saccharine, the very fact we’re here at all is pretty incredible. Yes, we will all experience hardships in our lives. Some have it much tougher than others, which in itself is worth remembering in the darker moments. But time also gives us many opportunities, if we only seek them out and seize them. Take the cherished times spent with loved ones, for example. Or the exhilarating moments of risk-taking that crystallise into life-long memories.

Lastly, as tempting as it is to ignore it sometimes, there’s the fact that time is a little scary. It cannot be stopped. It cannot even be slowed down (unless you manage to cosy up to a black hole, apparently, but such a thing might even top the list of “holes” you don’t want to get too close to). Scariest of all, though, is that not one of us can say with any degree of certainty how much time we’ve got on this rock. So my question is simple: why spend any more time doing things you don’t like than is absolutely necessary?

Now hang on, there, before you throw your hands in the air, yell “You’re right, Tom!” and charge outside starkers. (I mean, you’re more than welcome to do that. I’m just not responsible for the consequences.) I’m not saying we should chuck ourselves face-first into the river of time and see where it takes us. There’s a fine line between taking calculated risks to do the things we really want to do, and just being reckless.

What I do advocate, however, is not being content with the everyday grind. If it feels like you’re getting nowhere in life, and your job doesn’t give you an ounce of satisfaction, you’re probably right. There’s only one person who can do anything about that. Time is precious not because we have little of it, per se. No, time is precious because we don’t know how much we have mapped out before us. It’s so easy to stand still and just let life march past us.

Making the best use of time isn’t about packing as much in as possible. It’s far too easy to worry about wasting time. Every so often, we all need those TV series binges to detach ourselves from reality. In my opinion, making the best use of time involves doing those things you’ve always thought about trying, but just never made the time for.

For example, if you’ve always wanted to write a song but never tried, then just give it a go. If you’ve always wanted to do that one wacky activity but let apathy hold you back, then just book it. If you’ve had a story idea burning away in your head but never acted on it, then free up some time and share it with the world.

Alright, all of these things are easier said than done, but what do you have to lose? If they work out, you may have just discovered a life-long hobby. It may even turn into a job. If they don’t work out, then at least you tried, and you’ve put to bed the nagging feeling that only repressed ambitions breeds.

And what if the thing you want to try is a little off-the-wall? Well, in that case, I’d refer you to my second favourite Willy Wonka quote: ‘A little nonsense now and then, is cherished by the wisest men.’ Roald Dahl knew his shit.

Yes, It’s Another E3 Games Roundup

You’ve got to love E3. For those who don’t know, E3 is the Electronic Entertainment Expo. It’s an annual event held in Los Angeles, where video game developers and publishers show off upcoming games and unleash cringe-worthy marketing stunts. For every gamer, the big publisher conferences are must-see events. So I thought I’d take a break from my writing-themed blog posts, and do what every other gamer does at this time of the year: give my thoughts on the games shown.

Prior to E3, there’s always a slew of speculative articles and blog entries, written by every gamer from the excitable individual through to the monolithic journalistic websites.

During E3, social media lights up with reactions to the announced news, and memes.

After E3, the same gamers and news outlets sit down and analyse what they’ve just seen. More often than not, the excitement mellows into mild disappointment. The internet collectively shakes off that unfamiliar cap of excitement and optimism, and dons the soothing hat of cynicism.

This year, however, I really enjoyed the conferences and presentations. There was less bafflingly ill-conceived, desperately hip fluff than usual. The less said about EA in that regard, the better.

We even had trailers that featured actual gameplay footage! See, I knew the Dead Island trailer would become a cautionary tale… Sorry, I digress. In short, it seems that there’s plenty to look forward to this year and in 2018, and, in the case of Metroid Prime 4 and the untitled Pokémon RPG, when the ice caps have melted and artificial intelligence has analysed Trump and decided that humanity can no longer be trusted with its own survival. I jest, of course. Sort of.

There were a few particular highlights for me.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus looks to have retained the dry humour, over-the-top action, and diligent world-building of its predecessor. In my opinion, Wolfenstein: The New Order should be hailed as the golden standard of how reboots should be done. It kept the spirit of the old Wolfenstein games, and the violence, but demonstrated that these facets don’t preclude a surprisingly engrossing story.

wolfenstein

Microsoft had a decent showing in my book, but didn’t show any games that demand to be raved about. That in itself is telling. I’ll keep on happily playing my PS4 until the next generation comes along, then I’ll decide all over again which console has the best offering.

A few previously-revealed games surprised me. Days Gone looked like frantic, braindead nonsense in its first reveal trailer. In the latest one, however, it showed impressive stealth chops and great potential for environmental interaction.

God of War continues to look better and better, particularly with the sensible decision to explore Kratos’s humanity (or lack thereof) through his son. I adored the original God of War on the PS2, but by the third game it had simply lost its way.

Heck, even Ubisoft managed to pull off a decent conference. I’m sure they’re breathing a big sigh of relief right now; their plan to wait a year and hope everybody’s enthusiasm for the Assassin’s Creed series rekindles itself seems to have worked.

I want to give a special shout-out to a little indie game called The Last Night. It takes a lot for indie games to get prime spots in E3 conferences, and I have a feeling we should be very excited for this upcoming beauty. The Last Night’s gorgeous pixel art lends itself perfectly to the dystopian cyberpunk aesthetic. It looks simultaneously bleak and thought-provoking.  There’s a lot of rain, a lot of neon, and a lot of resignation. Basically, it could be Blade Runner: The Game. Need I say more?

TheLastNight_03_cropped.0

Before I finish off with my favourite games shown at this year’s E3, there were a few letdowns. Marvel’s Spider-Man looks slick, but was so heavily-scripted it’s hard to get an idea of what the gameplay will be like outside the huge set pieces. Even so, the prevalence of QTEs is worrying; I want to feel in control of Spidey, not being given permission to witness his exploits by pressing the right buttons. Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is another game on my radar. The first Ni No Kuni was a delight, and shouldn’t be overlooked by any RPG fans. Its sequel, however, has ditched the collectible sprites called familiars, which tapped in to the collector instincts in every RPG fan. Instead, there are unremarkable critters called Higgledies which can be commanded in battle. That said, the story is supposedly more mature, so we’ll have to wait and see.

Enough of that doom and gloom, however. Have a picture of a dinosaur with a Mario cap on.

super mario odyssey t rex

You’re welcome. Although we already knew Super Mario Odyssey was coming, we didn’t know just how wonderfully insane it will be. Nintendo’s short and sweet Direct presentation showed us more of the plucky plumber’s latest outing, with lots of gameplay footage shown afterwards. I could write a whole article about Super Mario’s Odyssey’s unbridled creativity, luscious environments, and intriguing mechanics. I won’t. Instead, just look at that dinosaur again. You can possess all sorts of things in Odyssey, including a T-Rex. I need to start saving for the Switch now.

Nintendo also perused social media a couple of hours before filming the Nintendo Direct presentation, and identified the games that people most wanted to see announced.

“Metroid Prime 4 and a Pokémon RPG? Okay, we can do that. Only got time to make up one logo, though. Take your pick, Mr. Artist.”

metroid-prime-4-e1497381058373

That’s how I imagine it went down, anyway. Still, the announcements sent the gaming community into a meltdown, aptly demonstrating that we’re still desperate for Nintendo to fully utilise their IPs once more. It’s anybody’s guess how long we’ll have to wait for these two behemoths, but at least Nintendo have shown some sort of awareness of what the community wants from them. That’s an improvement over the last eight years or so, anyway.

And there you have it. Those were the games that really piqued my interest from the E3 2017 presentations. There are plenty more I didn’t touch on – Anthem, Star Wars Battlefront II, Far Cry 5, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, The Last Guardian remake, and so on. What caught your eye?

A Writer’s Thoughts – Part 3: The Comfort Zone

I’m always on the lookout for morsels of advice to inspire me to write. One such nugget that I keep coming across is to ‘write what you know’. I understand the philosophy behind this guidance. In essence, it says that a writer shouldn’t attempt to write in a genre or on a topic that they’re not familiar with. Their impetus will either fade due to a lack of interest, or they’ll produce something that doesn’t sound authentic.

The advice can be applied to real life. As a writer, I wouldn’t attempt to rewire my house; I’d leave it to a professional electrician, otherwise risk blowing myself up. Similarly, I would never stroll into a garden centre and start telling the staff how to look after their plants. Horticulture interests me so little that I have trouble keeping artificial plants from wilting.

So ‘write what you know’ makes sense, right? I would agree to a certain extent, but at the same time I find the guidance restrictive and unambitious.  Let me explain why.

In my opinion, our society is chock full of “experts”. To become an expert, one must stay doing the same job for years on end, often within a large corporation that encourages and expects that inertia. I spoke more about this in my blog entry entitled ‘A New Chapter’, so I won’t get carried away here.

Suffice to say, so-called experts become so familiar with whatever their field of expertise is, that often complacency creeps in. Many of us need fresh challenges to stretch ourselves, to push ourselves to develop. If we stay within our respective comfort zones, if we only ever “write” what we’re absolutely sure that we know, then how can we develop?

The renowned playwright David Mamet says “You gotta stand being bad […], cos if you don’t, you’re never gonna write anything good.” That sounds so simple, but for me is one of the hardest things to grapple with. It’s far easier to never venture out of your comfort zone, and therefore minimise the risk of being “bad”.

‘Write what you know’ is certainly a snappy buzz phrase. I believe, however, that it should be laden with caveats. If something in life lies outside your comfort zone but you approach it half-heartedly, chances are you’ll fail. You’re unfamiliar with it, and therefore you’ll struggle. With enough discipline and enthusiasm, however, I believe there’s nothing wrong with trying your hand at something different.

Calling someone a jack-of-all-trades is often seen as an insult. The implication is that that person doesn’t specialise in anything, and therefore is not particularly good at any one thing. In short, they’re not an expert in any field. Personally, I believe it’s more advantageous to have a broad range of knowledge and some experience in many fields, than know all there is to know on one niche topic. In a writing context, a breadth of understanding of topics and genres can result in more sincere, layered writing.

In my opinion, it’s important to venture out of one’s comfort zone. That is where mistakes are lurking, and therefore where lessons can be learned. The important thing is not to tiptoe out, but to stride out with purpose and enthusiasm.