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McKee’s ‘Story’

I’ve recently acquired a small pile of new books on writing, things that had been recommended by friends or caught my eye in articles on the craft. So while I’m glowing in the fake sense of achievement my online shopping has provided, I thought I’d recommend one of my favourite writing books – ‘Story’ by Robert McKee.

McKee is a screenwriter, and the book is designed for script rather than prose writers, with examples taken from film. Despite this, I’ve found it very useful in thinking about story writing. McKee looks at stories in terms of structure and scene. He looks at the way a story is structured overall, different structures to use and the dramatic elements contributing to them. He discusses the emotional charge of each scene, the necessary shifts in this, the sense of conflict and crisis necessary to draw your audience in. He connects both of these themes to characters, and how they drive stories. And he also covers some of the odds and ends, such as different genres and dealing with exposition.

A lot of what McKee says will seem familiar to anyone who’s read around the craft of writing. It only takes a casual flick through a beginner’s book to learn about three act structure and inciting incident. However, McKee provides real focus and coherence in bringing ideas together, and an impeccable grasp on the details. It’s not the be all and end all, but right now it’s my favourite book on writing.

YA – filling a niche

I just finished reading the latest issue of the British Fantasy Society Journal, which was focussed on young adult (YA) literature. YA’s a big thing at the moment, particularly with the prominence of the Twilight and Hunger Games films. The question of YA’s popularity with adults came up several times in the journal’s interviews and articles, and they touched on some interesting causes. But there was one factor that wasn’t mentioned, and it’s the one that most interests me – niche.

Look in the sections of a bookstore aimed at adults and you’ll see a lot of weighty tomes. It they’re not thick with dense, literary prose then they’re physically thick, proper doorstoppers full of action, adventure and/or romance. And there are commercial reasons for this. Both ways, the buyers feel like they’ve got good value for money, whether through challenging art or the sheer volume of pages. The latter tendency has encouraged publishers to turn popular novels into lengthy novels. Particularly in the realm of adventure stories – thrillers, murder mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, and so on – the adult novel has evolved into a bit of a beast. Go back a few decades and you could pick up slim thrillers and sci-fi pulps clocking in around 200 pages. These days they’re likely to be double that.

This change, this slow evolution of the form, has left a niche. Many adults still want something short and accessible, like the old pulp adventure stories. The YA novel neatly fills that gap. It often focusses on adventure and heightened emotion; while not necessarily shallow it is by necessity accessible; and it’s seldom long.

People talk about YA as if it were a recent phenomenon, and as a market in its own right it is. But it seems to me that the role it plays for adult readers is an old one. A gap opened up and YA grew to fill it. If YA hadn’t then something else would have.

Going Underground

I’m fascinated by what lies underground, especially underneath cities. I don’t know whether this comes from my childhood reading of Robin Jarvis’s ‘The Dark Portal‘, later followed by watching Neil Gaiman‘s ‘Neverwhere‘, or whether I found those things appealing because they were in a setting I liked. Perhaps it all comes from exposure at an early age to Roland Rat and his ratcave, in retrospect a screaming example of just how weird children’s television is. Maybe it’s something innate to the human psyche, something reflected in legends of hell and journeys into the abyss.

Either way, I find myself drawn to the underground. Mrs K and I spent the least romantic afternoon of our honeymoon in the Paris sewer museum, enjoying the unique smell of a museum that is what it says on the tin. And I’m equally unable to resist books that look at the city beneath the city. So my heap of bedside reading currently includes ‘Subterranean Cities’, David L Pike’s fascinating exploration of the nature and meaning of life beneath 19th century London and Paris; ‘Secret Underground Cities’ by N J Camley, about the underground factories and storage shelters scattered across Britain during the Second World War; and ‘The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste’ by Rose George, a charity shop impulse buy that half fitted the theme. Given my distractability they’ll probably still all be there in a month, as slowly but surely, a chapter here, a few paragraphs there, the tube trains and sewage pipes take over my brain.

So why the fascination? I think that it’s about finding a world that’s close to ours, that’s fundamentally connected to it, and yet is full of mystery and darkness, both literal and metaphorical. Like the Victorian planners who feared no-one would use underground trains, I picture a world of secrecy and skulduggery inches beneath our feet. A place for rats on four legs and on two. But I also see a place full of potential. Somewhere for the objects and people that have been cast aside. A world of renewal, as in Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. And that’s where adventure resides – somewhere with danger, somewhere with potential, somewhere with the tension between darkness and light.

I’m not working on an underground story at the moment, but I always have one waiting in the back of my brain. Whether it’s Victorian adventurers hunting Da Vinci’s head through the sewers, Enlightenment scholars exploring the classical underworld, or robbers fleeing through the belly of a moving city, there’s always something there. And after a recent trip to the Manchester Museum my notebook’s filling up again with ideas around sarcophagai and tombs. It won’t be long until I’m going underground again.

The Man Whedon

I don’t think it’ll surprise you to read that I’m a fan of Joss Whedon. If you’re reading this, you probably are too. Over the past couple of decades Whedon has been responsible for some of the funniest, smartest genre television ever.

The past month has seen the UK release of two Whedon films – the long-awaited Cabin in the Woods, and a little thing called the Avengers. And each one, in its own way, does something new and exciting with cinema.

I’ve never been to the cinema on my own before, but Cabin’s release persuaded me that the time had come. Mrs K has many fine features, but a taste for horror isn’t one of them, and most of my cinephile friends live in different cities. So I found myself, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, sitting in a darkened room full of strangers. And man, was it worth it.

I know it’s a cliche to say this by now, but it’s hard to talk about Cabin without giving away too much. Suffice to say that it takes a familiar subgenre, and a not-entirely-novel reorientation of that genre, and turns them both into something far finer. It’s Whedon’s mastery of character and dialogue that makes the film so watchable, but it’s his mastery of genre that makes it fascinating. He melds fantasy and science fiction in ways that make perfect sense, and which create a palpable sense of tension. This might be confusing to the casual viewer, though it will be familiar to fans of Whedon or regular comic book readers. And the interaction of character, genre and plot is finely done. Every character adds something to the film, is interesting in their own right, and moves the plot along in a way which feels perfectly organic. And every one of them gives an insight, usually unspoken, into the nature of fantasy horror and its viewers, without becoming clumsy or detracting from the pleasure to be taken from the film as a genre work. Whedon’s brilliance isn’t just that he combines a celebration and a critique of his genre, but that the two are so closely interwoven that they become one and the same. And through this it celebrates the very nature of genre fiction, and the way that we can enjoy it more, not less, by acknowledging its quirks and flaws.

The Avengers is, on the surface, a different beast. Big budget meets big franchise in a blockbuster of seat-shaking proportions. This time in the director’s chair, Whedon again demonstrates his mastery of the fantastic. He succeeds in something that I didn’t think would work, combining the disparate elements of various sci-fi, fantasy and spy superheroes, residents of separate genres but a shared comic universe, in a way that is accessible without ever becoming unbelievable. He relishes the absurdity, contrasting action and humour in a way that deflates the risk of something over-serious and over-blown. He again brings on the characters, making a remarkably large group of heroes interesting and likeable, while creating compelling conflicts between them. And, like any good superhero story, he uses action to advance both plot and characterisation. Despite the length of the film, I didn’t feel that even a single moment was wasted. And while this was a purer celebration of its genre than Cabin, it also demonstrated the value of a creator who has an understanding of genre and takes a delight in its workings.

It’s often said that character and plot shouldn’t be separate things in fiction, that they should be derived from, and drive, each other. Whedon has shown, twice in one year, how this should be done, while also showing the remarkable things cinema can do. He shows that a critical mind and a sense of wonder aren’t incompatible, even on the biggest screens. The man is a big damn hero.

Some other reading

A friend of mine, who is far more lucid and well read than I am, recently started a blog about stories and her experiences of writing at http://everwalker.wordpress.com/ . Almost every day she posts brief, intelligent snippets about stories and writing, and it’s well worth reading.

This reminded me that I know quite a few people who write stories. Unsurprisingly, they’re all writers of sci-fi, fantasy and horror. Most of the people I know socially live knee deep in Buffy box sets, ten-sided dice and dog-eared copies of Tolkien, and with that come particular literary tendencies. So, in no particular order, here are a few of them….

The aforementioned everwalker – ridiculously creative – poet, costume maker, crafter of epic fantasy, and the person who kept me sane during my brief, ill-fated career as a teacher.

Charlotte Bond – primarily a horror writer, her recent novella Hunter’s Moon is available from Screaming Dreams. Charlotte’s the one who inspired me to actually get on with writing, rather than just thinking about it.

Carl Barker – writer of dark tales and reviewer of books for the British Fantasy Society.

R. A. Smith – another dweller in the greater Manchester sprawl, I think there’s something about this place that inspires a particular sort of escapism. Has just started a facebook page, and has a blog as well.

Jennifer Kirk – sci-fi novelist and proof of what you can achieve through self publishing.

Zoë Robinson – writer, cartoonist, video blogger. How anyone finds the time for all that I’ll never know. I suspect she doesn’t sleep.

Stan – the perfect story song?

A friend and I were talking the other weekend about narrative songs. He writes and performs as part of the splendid steampunk trio Pocketwatch, whose songs are generally stories. One of the things he apparently finds difficult, and which I sometimes struggle with as a writer, is creating a satisfyingly structured story.

This reminded me of one of my favourite story songs, and to my mind one of the most concise and perfectly formed pieces of narrative of the last couple of decades – Eminem’s Stan. While Eminem has built a career out of playing with persona, Stan is unusual for him in being so story focussed. Over the course of a few rapped verses we see the development of two relationships, one existing almost entirely in someone’s head – the central plot of Stan’s obsession with Eminem and the subplot of his relationship with his girlfriend. There is a first act in which the central relationships, characters, and plot are established. A second act in which things become worse, Stan’s anger growing, his personality unravelling through conflicts which drive the story but are entirely rooted in character. And then, in the final act, comes the climax, subplot resolving before main plot, in the terrible drama of Stan and his girlfriend’s death, followed by the pathetic tragedy of how little he has meant to his idol, and a few kind words of intervention coming too late. There’s a distinct character voice, interesting themes of obsession and identity, and a real sense of change through conflict.

I’ve always found Stan moving. But it’s only now, as learning to write has taught me more about the art of story-telling, that I’ve come to admire how skillfully it’s put together. I don’t write song, but if I could craft something half so eloquent I’d be a happy man.

 

Coming up – Steampunk Revolution

My story Urban Drift has been accepted for the latest in Ann VanderMeer’s series of excellent steampunk anthologies, Steampunk Revolution. Being included in the previous volume, Steampunk Reloaded, was a real highlight for me, and it’s awesome to again be published alongside the likes of Garth Nix, Cherie Priest and Bruce Sterling. If you want to know more there’s a full table of contents here, and the book will be out later in the year.

Out now – The Midnight March

I have a story, The Midnight March, in the April 2012 issue of Bards and Sages Quarterly. It’s a melancholy little piece of flash fiction that scratched the itch of a particular idea in my head.

Humanising monsters isn’t a new theme. From Mary Shelley to Joss Whedon, it’s been used to emphasise our own humanity, or provide contrast with the brutality in man. I’ve used a defining point (maybe the defining point) in all our lives to nudge around that theme, and though I can’t say I’ve covered it too deeply in the space of a thousand words, I’m happy with what I’ve achieved, and I hope you will be too.

About ‘On The Third Day’

I spent a lot of time at university studying the middle ages. Between that and the period’s long tradition as the fantasy baseline, a tradition going back at least to Tolkien, it’s inevitable that I turn to that period a lot when writing. But that’s not where this story comes from.

A few years ago I saw a painting in the National Gallery in London, taking the theme of judgement day, a common feature of medieval painting, and giving it a modern context. Here were the dead rising from the tomb in a quiet, twentieth century English village, ready to be judged. It drew my attention to the contrast between modern and medieval takes on the rising dead. To our ancestors, this would happen when God came calling them to him. It was a time of judgement, but it was a good thing, a godly. For us, it’s usually the zombie apocalypse, a story of horror and desperation. Similar image, very different meaning.

That’s where ‘On The Third Day’ came from. From taking the contrast I felt looking at that painting and flipping it around. Because if you’re comforted by the thought of the walking dead, then you’re really not ready for the zombies.

As a small aside, Mulbarton is a real village in Norfolk, near where I grew up. I have no desire to see it consumed by the walking dead, it’s just a name that for me conjures up the image of a country village. To the best of my knowledge, it’s never been attacked by zombies. Yet.

On The Third Day

On the third day following his untimely death, Father Oswald rose from his resting place in Mulbarton’s small cemetery. Hugh, son of Edric the carpenter, was the first to spot him. Abandoning the family pigs in alarm, he rushed back to the village.

‘What?’ Edric demanded, as the flustered youth appeared in the doorway.

‘Tis judgement day!’ Hugh exclaimed, tugging fearfully at the edge of his tunic. ‘Father Oswald’s risen.’

‘What are you jabbering about, lad?’ Edric flung aside his lathe. ‘And where in hell are the pigs?’

He stormed to the door, then stopped in his tracks as he saw the priest approaching sedately across the common land, oblivious to the swine scattering before him and the grave dirt clinging to his face.

‘By our lady! Tis a miracle!’ Edric strode to the next hut. ‘Widow Aetheling, come see this.’

A woman in her forties, wrinkled and greying, peered out through the gap that passed for a doorway.

‘What is it now? Another turnip in the shape of… Oh my!’

She sank to her knees in the mud, hands held aloft in supplication.

‘Dear lord, have mercy on this poor sinner, and let me enter the gates of heaven with your worthy messenger Oswald.’

‘And the rest of them,’ said Hugh.

‘The rest of what?’

‘Them.’

Hugh pointed past pale Oswald at a dozen more figures approaching slowly from the direction of the church. Crows circled overhead, harbingers of revelation.

‘It’s just like them carvings on the church,’ Hugh said. ‘Look at them reaching out to welcome us.’

By now all the villagers were in the street, cares of hearth and field forgotten as they stared at the miracle that shuffled haltingly towards them. Some looked up into the sky, disappointed by the lack of blinding light and roaring trumpets. Others wept with joy to see loved ones again.

‘There’s my Gert,’ the widow Aetheling exclaimed, tears streaming down her face. ‘As perfect as the day the pox took her.’

Hugh gazed at Gert. He’d been closer to her than the widow would have liked, and was pleased as only a young man could be to see her walking again. But even so, something seemed wrong. Her step lacked that enticing bounce, and her face had slipped out of its previously irrepressible smile.

‘I’m not sure…’ he began, but no-one was paying him any attention. They were rushing to meet lost friends and family, now risen to join them on the day of salvation, apparently oblivious to the smell of rot that hung low and nauseating on the breeze.

He turned towards his father, but Edric had stepped forward, reaching out his hand to shake Father Oswald’s.

‘Father!’ the carpenter beamed, then looked down in bemusement at the fleshless fingers that had come away in his firm grasp. ‘Father?’

Oswald groaned and lunged, sinking his teeth deep into Edric’s neck. There were screams as the returning villagers leapt upon their former neighbours, all of them too bewildered to fight back. Blood flowed as the old corpses set to devouring the new.

Hugh looked longingly at Gert, now chewing on her mother’s arm. He thought of running his fingers across her flesh one last time, then thought better of it. Biting aside, who knew which bits of flesh still remained? He turned on his heel and fled, past the wattle huts, down the dirt track and into the forest, heading for the hills and a different kind of salvation.

 

First published in Alienskin, February 2010