Into a New World: How Different Media Immerse Their Audience

We’ve all heard the word dropped at some point.  “This game is so immersive!”  “The movie does a great job of immersing you in its world.”  “Immerse yourself in a good book!”  Immersion is a very powerful tool and something a lot of people praise.  And different forms of media have to go about it in different ways.

Today we will be looking at three forms of media: books, movies, and video games.

 

Books

Immersing someone in a book is a tricky task.  Unlike movies and video games, books don’t have a visual style to play around with.  But don’t discount the power of words.

Authors have an entire language as their tool in order to describe the world they are creating.  Descriptive language is key in a book, especially since there’s rarely (if ever) pictures to go along with the story.  For example, say an author has a red can they want to draw the reader’s attention to.  They wouldn’t just say “the can is red” or “He gazes at the red can”.  They would talk about how the sunlight gleams off the metal of the can as it streams in through a nearby window.  They would talk about the size of the can.  Maybe they would even talk about the can’s logo, anything in an effort to get their readers to visualize the can.  The author would want them to see the can in their mind, to feel like they could reach out and pick it up themselves.

Word choice is key in novels, and what words an author chooses can often depend on the genre they are writing in.  If it’s a science-fiction novel set on an alien planet, perhaps they’ll use language to show how strange this new world is compared to our own.  If it’s a horror novel, they might spend much of their time describing the lighting or the setting itself (a great example of this is the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining).

“Show, don’t tell” is the motto most authors abide by.  And it’s a good one to live by.

 

Movies

I was originally going to place television on this list as well, but then I realized that television and movies use the same techniques.  And since movies use more of the visual language than a lot of television shows, I figured I would talk about them instead.

Movies aren’t going to use text to get their audiences immersed.  That would be silly.  People go to “watch” a movie, not “read” a movie.  Instead, movies use their cinematography, their visuals as a way to immerse the audience.  Going back to The Shining, in the movie they used a lot of large interior shots to show off how big and empty the hotel was.  This helped to create tension with the audience.  Scenes were often dimly lit to accentuate the isolation and the mood.  Since the story takes place at a hotel in Colorado during a harsh winter, the movie shows this with establishing shots outside the hotel showing the raging snowstorm that takes up most of the film’s climactic act.

The use of visual language isn’t restricted to horror movies either.  Science-fiction movies take advantage of it as well.  Interstellar uses a lot of outer space shots that demonstrate the massive scale of things.  For example, one shot of the spaceship is pulled far back to show how small it is compared to the planet Saturn.  Next to the massive gas giant, the ship is just a tiny white speck, and the movie shows that off.  Plenty of science-fiction movies set in space play with the size perspective, but some of them also play with sound.  Take Gravity for example.  Since in space there’s no sound (no crash bang boom explosions for you) they had to find a way to highlight impacts.  And they did this through the music.  I talked about the soundtrack of Gravity before (as well as Interstellar) but I’ll briefly go over it again.  Basically the soundtrack used the sound of distorted horns to give the audience a sense of movement, and the music was timed so that they would “feel” the impacts of something or someone colliding with another object.  It was a very unique way to deal with the fact that there would be no sound in space, something some movies choose to ignore.

 

Video Games

Movies and books are actually like two sides of the same coin if you think about it.  Books spend their time describing an object in a certain way, and movies will just show that object in that particular way.  If a book describes the light gleaming off a red can, the movie can show the light gleaming off the red can.  But it’s when we get into video games that things change drastically.

The one thing that books and movies have that games don’t is the power of direction.  What I mean by this is that in a book and a movie, the audience is bound by the whims of the writer/director, only able to see what they want them to see.  In a game, that flies out the window.  A lot has been said about the interactive nature of the medium (including some less than savory remarks about the effects of violence on the player), and that’s why they are so different when it comes to immersion.  A player can move around and look at whatever they want to look at, so game developers have to use a different bag of tricks to draw them into the world.

For an example, let’s look at the Grand Theft Auto series.  Politicians and activists have said much about the games, citing their violence as an “epidemic”.  And while the games are inherently violent, there’s a level of detail that goes into the world they create that these people tend to ignore.  Each game has a set of radio stations with hours of content, even going so far as to have fake radio talk shows.  But the detail doesn’t stop there.  Before each game, Rockstar (the game development company) goes out and actually researches the real-life city they’re basing the game off of.  So for example, with Grand Theft Auto 5 they went out and took thousands upon thousands of photos of Los Angeles to get the setting looking right.  Of course at some point they have to acknowledge that it’s not going to be 100% accurate (every single city in the series ends up being an island surrounded by water…I’m guessing it’s a simpler way of creating a boundary that just having an invisible wall in the middle of a road).

But what about a game not set in a real-life location (or approximation thereof)?  What does a developer do then?  Well, this is where aesthetics can come into play.  For our example, let’s look at one of the games I talk about way too much on this blog: Myst.

Before I go any further, here’s a screenshot of the first thing you see on the island:

 

 

It doesn’t look like much, but it really drew people in back in the day.  This was probably for several reasons, one of which was the vague nature of the story.  When the game begins you hear a brief monologue from an unknown figure talking about a book that he lost and how he’s afraid about whose hands it might end up in.  You are the one who finds this book, and upon opening it you find yourself transported to a surreal island.  And that’s all you get.  The rest of the story you have to uncover on your own.

But a big reason the game drew people in was just the way it looked.  Even though this game was released back in 1993, it had a lot of vibrant color to it.  The browns and greens really popped, showcasing the beauty of the island.  The game was a feast for the eyes, with some impressive artistic work for its time.  Remember, this is still about three years before the Nintendo 64 and roughly a year before the Playstation, so in a lot of ways three-dimensional games were still in their infancy.  The point and click genre had already been around for a while, but Myst was something different.  It placed an emphasis on isolation and exploration that no game really had done as of yet.  It’s credited with being the reason why the CD-ROM format was adapted as quickly as it was.

As I’ve said before, the game is a big part of the reason I’m such a big fan of adventure games and atmosphere in video games as a whole.  It may not always be the key thing in a game, but atmosphere can enhance the experience in ways that make it truly memorable.

 

Conclusion

I will not say that any of these forms of media are better than the other when it comes to immersing their audience because all that is subjective.  What works for me might not work for you, and vice versa.  What I really wanted to highlight with this post was the different methods each form uses to enhance their immersion.  Whether through visuals, text, or even sound, each form has a specific “language” that it uses to draw the audience in, to create a believable world no matter how fantastical it might be.

After all, escapism is at the root of all entertainment, isn’t it?

 

Well that’s all I have for this time.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

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Paid to Create: The Intersection of Money and Creativity

Here in the United States, we consider ourselves a capitalist society.  And what that means in the long run is that money makes the world go round.  In some ways, this can be a good thing.  It breeds competition, and the beauty of the human spirit is that competition can bring out the best in us.  To put it another way, we often do our best work under pressure.  I know that’s true.  I once wrote a seven-page paper in high school the night before it was due, and I received an A on it.  Not only that, but the teacher wanted to use it as an example for future classes.

Let’s just say I casually left out the part about writing it the night before…

But not everything is gumdrops and rainbows.  When it comes to any system, there are pros and cons.  While competition can inspire creativity, it can also breed a certain sort of staleness in the market.  Look at video games and movies, and you’ll often find trends.  A while back, it seemed like Hollywood was obsessed with making alien invasion movies.  Then it was dark re-imaginings of classic fairy tales.  And now it’s superheroes.  We can’t seem to go more than a couple of months without a new superhero movie hitting the market.  It’s not that superhero movies are a bad thing.  I happen to enjoy a few of them (although I am getting tired of them these days, especially after the disappointing Avengers: Age of Ultron).  But with success comes imitation, and that’s where my problem with the whole thing lies.

With the way our economy is doing right now, and people’s reluctance to spend a lot of money, we tend to see the same types of movies making all the money.  People like to see what they know they will enjoy.  It’s hard for them to justify going to watch a movie that’s outside their normal comfort zone or that they haven’t heard great praise about.  This is part of the reason why I think Hollywood has fallen into a trend of remaking old movies or adapting stories from books or other sources.  If the old movie or book has a big enough audience, then they can bank on people at least going to see it out of curiosity.

The problem is that this mode of thinking stifles creativity, in that we hardly ever see original plots in movies (by which I mean that we see a plot written exclusively to be a movie, not adapted form another source).  Sure, you could consider Star Wars: The Force Awakens to be an original movie.  But there are two problems with that assertion.  One, The Force Awakens is already part of a large, established franchise that has been around for decades.  And two (possible minor spoilers follow), the movie is steeped in nostalgia.  It hits a lot of the same story beats as A New Hope, meaning that while it features a new story and new characters, a lot of the plot points feel readily familiar.

You can observe the same phenomena in the video game world, although in a different form.  Video games don’t tend to adapt stories from other sources.  Instead, they can suffer from an overflow of sequels.  A good example of this is the Call of Duty franchise, which has been around for a long time and has spawned over two dozen different games.  The general complaint around the series is that most of the games feel the same.  But at the same time, there must be an incentive for them to be so similar.  At the end of the day, they want to turn a profit.  So many franchises get caught in this delicate balance between changing enough of the game to justify a sequel in the mind of gamers, but also leaving enough of its core intact so that people feel at home with it.  This is something franchises like Grand Theft Auto have gotten so good at.  They change with the times, getting more and more advanced in look and feel, but they are loaded with nostalgia, giving the hardcore fans little hints and nods at the older games in the series.

You see this in movie sequels as well.  They have to up the ante with each successive movie, making things bigger (like the explosions…always bigger explosions), but also keeping the core feel of their fictional universe intact.  This line of thinking can end up creating a feedback loop where the same few stories get told over and over again.

But sometimes this drive of competition and money can lead to good ideas in the long run.  Let’s again look to the video game world, specifically at Bethesda Game Studios.  Bethesda, most known for their Elder Scrolls series of video games, isn’t just a game development company.  They are a publisher as well, and one of the better ones to work for from what I’ve heard.  The developers of the game Dishonored were basically told by Bethesda to take all the time they needed to make the game as good as they desired.  Bethesda wasn’t on a time crunch.  They didn’t need money immediately.  The Elder Scrolls games sell like crazy every time they come out.  They’re one of the most trusted game developers in the market, so they can allow themselves to take chances on nontraditional ideas or unproven intellectual properties.

The same thing is true of books.  Unlike movies and games, books aren’t constantly driven by this idea of success and money, although it still plays a role.  Take Stephen King for example.  He may be known for his horror stories, but King has also written a fantasy series known as the Dark Tower series, which is a blend of different genres including western, dark fantasy, science fantasy, and horror (of course).  When you have a stable reputation and income, you can feel free to experiment and try new things.  But this experimental mindset is still tempered by the idea of competition, in that you want to make your creation as good as possible so that people will enjoy it.

In the long run, money might be more of a detriment to creativity than anything, but like all things in the world it isn’t a simple black and white situation.  People won’t be inclined to try making something new when they can make something they know works.  But at the same time, trying new things can lead to unexpected success.

After all, trends have to start somewhere.

 

Well that’s all I have for this time.  Tune in next Wednesday for a new post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

This blog just hit one hundred posts!  It’s an incredible milestone for me, one that I wish I had prepared for a little better.  I honestly didn’t realize I had hit it until I started writing this post.  It amazes me that I’ve come this far.  And I haven’t missed a single week since I began this blog.  Every week, on Wednesday, I have made a post.  They might not have all been good (I am particularly disappointed with my story analysis posts…I never did manage to shape those into something I was satisfied with), but consistency is one of the greatest habits you can get into.  You will only get better at something as long as you keep doing it.

So thank you all for following me this far and for reading my weekly ramblings.

Once again, have a wonderful week!  See you next Wednesday.

Movie vs. Book: The Unending Battle of Which is Better

Very recently I finished reading The Shining by Stephen King.  I remember I had seen the movie a long time ago, but I had never read the book itself.  And finishing the book, I was a little surprised at how different it is.  Those two creepy little girls from the movie (you know, “come play with us Danny…”)?  They aren’t in the book.  The elevator full of blood?  Nope.  The ending of the book is very different from the movie, and the book places a lot more emphasis on the hotel being an evil entity than the movie did (as far as I can remember).

But then I started wondering to myself, do these omissions make the movie better or worse than the book.  For most people, it seems that the general thought is that movie adaptations are never as good as the book, mostly because the movie has to leave things out for the sake of time (hardly anyone is going to watch a movie that’s like six hours long after all).  I used to think that way, that the book was always better than the movie.  But the thing is, there is so much more that goes into a movie than just adapting the source material.  It seems to be that judging a movie solely on how it matches the book is doing the movie a disservice.

Think about it this way.  A book sometimes takes a page or two to describe a place and how it feels right?  A movie can do that with their establishing shots, which usually last no more than like ten to fifteen seconds.  The way a movie functions is so different from a book that it seems silly to me to judge one based on how it adapts the other.

In my mind, a movie should be judged on how it does as a movie, not as an adaptation.  I mean, if they take the source material and make it about something entirely different that’s one matter (like if they made the Harry Potter movies all about Hagrid), but a lot of people don’t seem to understand that a movie can’t always fully adapt a book, not only due to length issues, but because of the way each medium functions.  A book uses written description to show you a character’s state of mind, whereas a movie can’t do that.  Instead, they have to focus on a visual representation of the character.  In the case of The Shining, it involved having Jack Nicholson slowly looking more deranged throughout the movie, before he finally starts chasing his wife and son throughout the hotel with an axe (interestingly enough, in the book it’s a mallet used for roque, a variation of croquet).

It’s hard to escape this adaptation mindset, considering Hollywood loves to adapt books into movies (like the Harry Potter books and The Hunger Games).  I don’t think it’s a bad thing necessarily, but we have to start taking the movie for what it is: a movie.  We have to stop judging the movie using the book as some sort of infallible source material.  I bet a lot of people would find The Shining incredibly dull (it’s over six hundred pages after all).  It moves slowly, and builds tension forever before things finally break down in the last couple hundred pages.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I know that a lot of people might not.  That’s where movies can come in.  A lot of people don’t have the patience to read a six hundred page book, so a two to three-hour movie would be much more their forte.

The point is that movies are their own thing.  They use a different language to convey the same ideas.  They show the atmosphere of a location rather than describing it.  It’s because of this fundamental difference that I can’t understand why people insist on holding the movie accountable to the book.  I mean, there are certain things that you can compare, like plot points and such, but in the end the movie should be judged as a movie.  And there are times when a movie can be stronger than a book.  Take Stephen King’s The Mist for example.  King himself praised the movie for its ending, which he felt was stronger than the book’s.

Another good example of this would be The Godfather.  In many ways, I feel that the movie is actually superior to the book.  It’s more focused for one.  The book takes a strange detour into the past of one of the characters after a pivotal moment in the present-time storyline.  This past segment actually becomes the plot for the second Godfather movie, if I remember correctly.  The first movie focuses solely on the present-day of the book, which keeps it focused and grounded, rather than having it suddenly jump into a new arc that serves very little purpose in the long run.  The Godfather is one of those instances where it is widely accepted that the movie is better than the book.

But in the end, I must stress again that a movie and a book are two very different formats.  They should each be judged by their own standards, rather than being pitted against each other in some kind of duel for supremacy.  Of course, we all have our own personal opinions on which version is better, but I feel that most people don’t give the movie version a fair shot because they’re constantly comparing it to the book.  If the movie falters as a movie, then it isn’t a good movie.  But it shouldn’t be considered a failure just because it didn’t adapt the source material in the particular way the viewer wanted.  Rather, it should be judged on how well it uses what it has to tell a story and what kind of story it tells.

A movie is a movie, and a book is a book.  I can’t put it any simpler than that.

 

Well that’s all I have for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a great week.

Underused Story Settings

Going off of my last post about originality in writing, I figured I’d do another list of things.  So with that being said, here is my list of settings slash places that are underused, or that I wish were used more often

 

1. Lighthouse

Lighthouses aren’t necessarily underused in fiction, but rather are primarily utilized as symbols.  They usually function as a symbol of hope, or a beacon of safety.  The giant swinging beam of light that spirals out around the spire of the lighthouse becomes a powerful image.  Let’s take a look at an example of its use.  The outset of the video game Alan Wake features out titular protagonist experiencing a nightmare where darkness is consuming the entire world.  The only sanctuary this nightmare is a lighthouse on a cliff, cutting through the dark gloom with its beam of light.  This lighthouse becomes the protagonist’s objective during this nightmare, who tries his best to reach it before he is swallowed by the darkness.

Like I said, lighthouses may not be underused in fiction, but they almost never progress beyond their use as symbols.  Sure, you do reach the lighthouse in Alan Wake, but it only serves as an end point to the dream, when the light abruptly shuts off.  But very rarely to we get to see the inside of this fascinating buildings.  A lighthouse is a perfect emblem of the old melding with the new.  Here in Duluth, if you travel down to the Canal Park waterfront, you can see two small lighthouses sitting at the end of the pier.  But I would like to see them function as more than symbols.  They deserve to be explored, to have their old mysteries and inhabitants brought to life.

Besides, lighthouses are just cool.

Lighthouses. LIGHTHOUSES MAN!

For example, the game Dark Fall 2: Lights Out is set inside of a lighthouse for the majority of the game.  The story moves back and forth through time, as you explore the lighthouse first in 1912 and then in the modern era, experiencing it as it once was and then as the tourist attraction it becomes.  It’s an interesting meld of old versus new, a theme I don’t see often explored anymore.  And besides, a haunted lighthouse is much more intriguing than a haunted mansion or a haunted forest, wouldn’t you say?

I want to see lighthouse progress beyond being pure symbols and become actual fixtures of the setting they are in.  There’s nothing quite like the view of the water from the top of a lighthouse.  Or at least, I assume there isn’t.  I’ve never actually been inside a real lighthouse myself, as far as I can remember.  One of those things I plan on doing sometime.

But I can see it now, standing in the light room as the fog rolls in.  A foghorn sounds in the distance as the giant bulb cuts a swath through the fog, illuminating the way for hapless sailors lost in the thick foggy night.  The rain patters down on the windows, pinging off the glass.  Atmosphere, it’s all about atmosphere.

The lighthouse in Dark Fall 2.

The lighthouse in Dark Fall 2.

 

2. Small Coastal Town

We’ve all seen San Francisco and Los Angeles done to death in movies and television, so why not give somewhere smaller and off the beaten path a shot?  This past year I played through a game called The Lost Crown, which featured a small little harbor town known as Saxton for its setting.  More than anything, I enjoyed the constant presence of the water.  Almost everywhere you looked during the outside portions of the game, you would see the water.  Even the cottage that the main character takes up residence in has a small docking area below the foundation that was once used for shipping.  Again, that melding of old and new.

Small towns on the coast usually feature some non-standard architecture due to the demands of building next to a lake or an ocean.  Duluth I know has some curiosities in it, remnants of an earlier time.  Many people know of the concrete ruins that sit in the water along the lakefront, still standing the test of time.  Little details like that can really make a setting pop and stand out in your mind.  Of course, I may be biased because I live in Duluth (number one outdoor city in the country, wouldn’t you know), but I feel like stories tend to gravitate towards these larger places because they’re so much more iconic and recognizable to an audience.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.

 

These places would be great for a mystery/adventure story because of the sense of discovery.  Many of these places tend to lie on the outskirts, far away from the hustle and bustle of modern city life.  They are nestled in nature, surrounded by wildlife, trees, and the water.  Because of that, there is this feeling of mystery that surrounds places like these, legends that tend to live on.  The Lost Crown for example, deals with the mystery of an ancient king’s crown.  The boundary between the normal and the supernatural blurs in this game, as much of the puzzles involve using ghost hunting equipment to uncover clues.  It creates an omnipresent sense of mystery and unease that few games or movies reach, and all without using obvious tropes or jump scares.

I’ve always thought these smaller places were much more interesting to look at than the skyscrapers of any modern metropolis.  They tend to have a much more vibrant and intriguing history.  I mean hey, Stephen King wrote plenty of stories taking place in small towns along the coast, so they’ve got to have something to them.

 

3. Boats/Ships

Seems like water is becoming a pretty prevalent theme in this post.  It’s a personal thing, I will admit.  I’ve always been fascinated with the ocean, and in particular, what is below it.  I was really big into the idea of shipwrecks when I was younger, reading up on ships like the Titanic and the Lusitania.

Ships at sea used to be a big story setting some time ago, but it has since faded away, replaced by the glamour of big cities and the like.  It’s sad now that one of the only modern analogues I can think of is the movie Battleship, which is based on the board game, but of course involves an alien invasion.  Because why not?

In all seriousness, ships are one of the more fascinating things to explore.  They were commonly used as settings for like ghost stories, with many of them involving a hapless crew coming upon a ship dead in the water with no sign of any visible crew.  The creepy ambiance of the area is commonly amplified by the fact that everything else seems to be in working order.  There’s just no one there…

The metal creaks as you walk through the dimly lit corridors.  The boat pitches back and forth as the deep blue waves lap at its bottom.  A clanking generator sounds in the distant, churning away at the gasoline that powers it.  The faint aroma of uneaten food enters your nostrils.  Everything is as it should be, but nothing is right.

This is one of my all time favorite settings for a story, just because of that sense of isolation.  Those that have followed my blog for a while now know that I am a big horror aficionado.  I also probably come off as a slight hipster, bemoaning the fact that so many modern horror movies and games depend on loud, in your face scary moments than developing any real sort of atmosphere.  You brace yourselves for these not because you’re scared, but because you don’t want something screaming in your ear, which is why we flinch at loud noises.

But I digress.  These vessels are also a perfect emblem of the changes in technology.  Just looking at the history of naval ships can show you just how far and fast humanity has come.  From clunky wooden rafts to massive wooden war machines all the way up to gigantic metal beasts, boats have evolved and changed in ways people probably never expected.  This makes them great for a story setting, because the large number of variations means there’s a lot of leeway for creating new and interesting places to experience.

 

 

4. Underwater

In space, no one can hear you scream.  But underwater, your screams sound like “blrrrrrrrblrrrrrrblrrr blub blub blub”.

Was that last bit pointless?  Oh yes.  Do I care?  Not really.

I remember watching movies like The Abyss when I was younger and thinking about how cool and terrifying being deep underwater would be.  It’s a setting ripe with isolation and danger, not to mention mystery.  It’s been said that we know as little as ten percent of the creatures that live in the ocean.  This is because the underwater environment is just so dangerous for us.  Going beyond a certain point means subjecting yourself to immense amounts of pressure, so much so that it could crush an improperly shielded craft (just ask the bad guy from The Abyss).  But we humans are nothing if not curious and foolish in equal measure.

I imagine that, at least for a movie, making underwater scenes and getting them to look right must be a daunting task.  The potential for atmosphere is great, but it is incredibly tricky to pull off.  The Abyss was one of the more difficult movies for James Cameron to pull off because they had to shoot a lot of the scenes inside a giant tank of water.  There’s even a bit where they use this breathable liquid later on in the movie, and the actor actually had to have a helmet full of real liquid.  It made shooting that part of the movie dangerous and problematic, but the result was probably my favorite James Cameron movie.

Video games tend to have an easier time with this, because they don’t have to subject actors to things like that.  They do, however, have to focus a lot of graphical power on the water, which is why the water in the game Bioshock looks so gorgeous.  It had to, being a game set in an underwater city.  Ever since playing games like Myst, I’ve had a great fondness for atmosphere because it immerses me in a game like nothing else ever could.

An underwater setting brings new elements of danger and mystery to the table that not many others can.  It’s a singularly unique and unknown area, and we can often just look out the window and see the surface of it.  What lies beneath the surface?  What sits at the bottom depths of the sea?  Our natural curiosity drives us forward.

 

Closing Thoughts

Well it turns out that settings involving water became the primary theme of this post.  Being that we live on a planet that is three-quarters water, it’s not really that surprising.  It’s especially not surprising to me that my mind would trend in this direction, because I have been fascinated by the ocean for a long time.  As I said before, when I was young I was really into the idea of shipwrecks.  I read plenty of books about them and was especially into the Titanic story.  I even had a little model of the Titanic (probably still do) that sat on my bedroom bookshelf.

Other themes that I noticed popping up when I wrote this list were history and old versus new.  The first three settings in particular demonstrate that.  I’ve found that I love old things like lighthouses and ships, finding their stories to be intriguing.  But more than that, I love old, unsolved mysteries.  The disappearance of some ships on the water, never to be seen again, is a fascinating subject.  It’s always interesting to speculate as to what might have happened to them or where they ended up, because they might never be found again.

I went a little overboard with the water theme in this post.  So with that in mind, here's a picture of some water.

I went a little overboard with the water theme in this post. So here’s more water.

But more than anything, I like the little details in settings, those non-essential tiny things that just make a world stick out.  A little sign on the wall of a building.  The sound of a foghorn.  The creaking of a door as it opens to an old house.  These little details are often overlooked.  Never underestimate the power they have.  They can add so much to your setting, even if they don’t seem important.  It helps it stand out from all the other similar settings.  It’s all about the specifics.

And that’s all I have for this week.  Next week’s post will be shrouded in the fog of night.  Until then, have a great week everyone.

Originality, Inspiration, and the Writer

It has been said that there are no original stories anymore, that everything borrows from something.  For the most part, this is a true statement.  If you look at the state of modern television and movies especially, you see the same tropes popping up over and over again.  Alien invasions, reality shows, crime procedural shows, and so on seem to typify the market these days.  I’m sure a lot of people would agree with the sentiment that seeing these shows over and over again gets tiring.

First off, I feel that I should say that I have no problem with repeated ideas.  It happens, and it is bound to happen time and time again.  But there is something to say about seeing the same alien invasion story and the same demonic possession story done so many different times.  Humans need variety.  While there is nothing wrong with these story lines, it gets repetitive after a certain amount of time.

While we may roll our eyes and groan at the mention of another one of these stories, there is something to be said for the struggle of creativity.  As many writers (myself included) can attest, crafting something truly unique or special is no easy undertaking.  And even if the mind latches on to a truly different idea, that’s no guarantee of success.  Ideas alone are not enough.  Writers have to spend so much time fine tuning their work to make sure that it flows well and it looks good.

And where do our ideas come from in the first place?  We writers don’t just sit around waiting for an idea to pop into our heads from somewhere in the ether.  We seek it out.  We look for inspiration in the mundane and the fantastic.  We look for ideas in places old and new.  And oftentimes, it’s difficult.

Inspiration is a fickle thing.  It comes and goes in spurts.  I’ve had days where I can sit down and write out ten pages of something on the spot.  Other days, I find it hard to even get down a single paragraph.  Some days I enter a sort of trance when I’m writing, completely losing myself in my work as my fingers flow effortlessly over the keyboard.  Other days, I just stare at that blinking “I” cursor on the screen, trying to will my brain into coming up with something, anything.

And often, inspiration comes when we’re not thinking about it.  It can come when we’re watching a television show.  It can come when we’re reading a book.  It can come when we’re at work, doing things that demand our attention.  It’s not hard science.  It’s the nature of artistry.

So when you think about it, our ideas generally come from things that have been done before, from story lines that have already existed for some time.  Even the attempt to create something unique often takes the form of doing something in the opposite manner of an already existing work.  A lot of indie movies seem to rely on that basic premise, with many independent romance flicks featuring a not so happy ending for the sole sake of being different.  But the idea for their difference came from something that was already there.  There had to be an established trope for there to be something different.

Humans may have only been around for a small portion of the Earth’s lifespan, but in that time we have told stories to people young and old.  These stories are passed down from generation to generation, and become an essential part of a culture.  These myths and legends help shape us, even if their impact is lessened through time.  Many of the movies or the games we make today feature stories informed by thoughts, beliefs, and fears older than their creators.  In a way, originality is overrated, because we have to find inspiration somewhere.  But there is still the creative spin, the twist on those things we’ve already seen.  A lot of the time, a story will get attention based solely on the fact that it’s a new and interesting twist on an old plot device or character archetype.

People who are good at the art of storytelling will twist and turn something familiar to make it their own.  They will borrow ideas from other works, but incorporate them in a way that seems new.  All great writers do this to some extent, some of them even borrowing from their own older works.  Take Stephen King for example.  He’s written so many different novels that he was bound to start treading on familiar territory at some point.

Originality isn’t some lofty, impossible idea that we hold above ourselves to keep reminding us that we’re never good enough.  Originality is an art, a tapestry spun by the mind.  It is an intangible concept, defined by a person’s perception of the word.  There is no objective test for originality.  There is no concrete measure of what is creative.  Creativity, is in many things, is in the eye of the beholder.

And that’s all for this week.  Check back next Wednesday for another post.  Until then, have a great week everyone.