This blog describes my journey exploring storytelling - words, images and the sensations they generate. The lot, basically.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

/Shameless Plug/

Are you interested in 3D?

Are you interested in animation?

Are you interested in VFX?

Are you interested in creature/character work?

Are you interested in rigging?


Do you know Simon Payne?

Do yourself a favour. You really should.

Simon Payne is a colleague of mine at Digital Domain London/Reliance MediaWorks. Simon has been around the VFX block more than once. Needless to say he draws on deep, deep experience of most any facet of 3D and VFX. Simon is the kind of brain-on-two-legs kind of guy, you can roll up to ask anything, say "Gee Simon, what can you tell me about matchmoving?" He'll take a deep breath and 20 seconds later it comes streaming out of him coherently and logically about camera control groups and focal lengths, like he'd been preparing the lecture for a good few weeks in advance.

Simon's chosen field of expertise is rigging and character work. I recently learned that he had put together a teaching programme on rigging and creature work. There is a lot of teaching materials out there regarding various aspects of 3D and VFX production. Some of it is worth your while, some of it is not. Even with the worthwhile stuff, you quickly come to the point where you feel, that by rights there would need to be so much more still, for it to truly take you to the levels needed on feature film VFX work.

Simon's rigging and creature programme can best be described as comprehensive. That word just keeps coming back to me. Comprehensive. Comprehensive. He certainly hasn't spared himself putting this together, and it will stand up to the most exacting of standards in feature film level VFX work.

If you have any interest in rigging, creature/character work or VFX in general, you stand to gain massively from Simon generously sharing his knowledge and experience.

Yes, this is a strong plug on my part, and unashamedly so. This deserves it. I just wish there was a similar course in texturing...

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Story Learnings: Plot Turns

The happy and helpful people over at ScreenwritingU posted a lovely overview of the different types of plot turns. I found it well worth my time:

Once I had stuffed myself full of anagnorisis, Chekhov's Gun and noted to my satisfaction the warnings of using Deus Ex Machina in any significant way, I noticed that the list was originally written by a certain T. N. Tobias. A particularly uncommitting fellow, who is struggling to keep up with his reading list (aren't we all?). He has since taken down his list and points to Wikipedia instead.

Wikipedia, who as it turns out, has a far superior list of types of plot turns, even more worth your time:

Who would have known?

Post Scriptum

I shall shortly dismantle this blog and simply redirect to Wikipedia henceforth. All resistance is futile, and I have accepted that this singularity of knowledge is inevitable.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Story Learnings - So Far... Part 2: Practical Application


A friend of mine, from my native Denmark, who probably would like to remain anonymous, pointed out that my recent blog post ( was exhibiting myself as a pretentious ignoramus with an underlined copy of Story by Robert McKee in one hand, a dog-eared printout of the Casablanca script in the other, and somewhere in between (my ears) a little higher up, the notion that I also have a great idea for a movie!

I should point out, that said friend works as a script consultant, has done so for some years, and has an award-winning documentary under his belt to boot. So, not entirely an amateur with an opinion and a Blogspot account, like me.

I believe, I did mention that before, but I shall point it out once more for the record: I am not a professional screenwriter. I do get paid for the occasional piece of writing (very broadly defined), but it would be pretentious of me to pose as a professional screenwriter. This is what a blog of a bona fide working screenwriter looks like. What I am, is a man who loves stories, loves to learn about anything and everything regarding stories - all with the humble hope of improving my own storytelling skills and the stories they will produce over time. I am a wannabe screenwriter. Absolutely. I want to be a screenwriter. I am working hard to become a screenwriter, and when I have sold my first spec script, I will remove the "wannabe" tag. Until then, I have no problem displaying my direction, ambition as well as my current status.

The previous post was literally a page in one of the journals, I carry with me at all times. During a lunch break, I looked at it, and thought 'why don't I write this up?' 

Just as I am passing them on, the ideas therein have all come to me, and I am pretty sure they are not mine. Just as they probably didn't belong to the ones I learned them from. As the wise King Solomon said, "there is nothing new under the sun." Thus, before there were McKee, Fields and Snyder, there was Lajos Egri, before that, there were a whole bunch of other people, all leading back to Aristotle... Before him? See, that's when our records go a bit hazy. But there must have been somebody, because those universal principles of act structure, protagonists and inciting incidents are all found in one of the earliest found stories, The Epic of Gilgamesh

A whistle-stop tour of four millennia of story thinking, all simply to make the point that I am only standing on the shoulders of the giants before me. Is that understood?

Now, that was all the defensive stuff; The caveat, I might not have spelled out clearly in my last post.

On to the meatier part of this discourse: A good suggestion by said friend; These 11 points mean nothing, unless you can apply them practically. So please allow me to expand on my previous post, by showing how these principles help me in my writing and how I practically apply them in putting a story together. 

I think I should preface this with a little information about the script I am working on at the moment. A colleague, now a friend, approached me with an idea for a short film. I liked it, and agreed to start working, what was roughly two sentences, into a fully developed story. The basic premise is the relationship between a young and good but naive girl and an old and mentally very strong, but dying man. I suppose, the dramatic question can be boiled down to 'how do you preserve your life and values, when forced to live with an evil and powerful adversary?' We are telling it as a vampire film, which is not a vampire film.

Key to this was that we would potentially produce it ourselves, so I set myself a number of limitations on number of characters, locations and other things driving the costs up. Also this project is very much a job application of sorts: My friend wants to show, that he has what it takes to handle production design, and I would like to go through the entire process of writing, directing and producing the finished article. This also shapes a project.

So let me go through the 11 points from my previous post 

1. The universal story: Light wins over darkness

I would hate to tell a story, which does not leave the audience satisfied. You know those stories, that you enjoyed in parts, but at the end it was like something was missing? Partly for this reason I am happy to lean on the universal master plots and feel no need to rebel against and try to break the rules governing those. So light must win over darkness, and if there is no happy ending for your protagonist, it would mean that the protagonist was a dark character, who got what he deserved in the end. 

The basic premise for this story reminded me of the 'voyage and return' plot, with the exotic and fascinating new environment in the beginning, the emphasis on a young (of mind) protagonist and the nightmarish lead up to the climax and resolution. So I spent a bit of time reacquainting myself with the typical structure of 'voyage and return' stories and their commonalities in terms of characters and the psychological elements they employ. File under "background research".

2. The heartbeat of a story

In the beginning we spent a lot of time brainstorming signature images and key scenes that we felt belonged naturally to this story. So you end up with a notebook full of all kinds of moments, which on their own may be brilliant, but still need to fit into a meaningful plot. 

I like to use a whiteboard. On the whiteboard I literally draw a horizontal curve of the story's tension and another one of the pace of the story, detailing how I envision in this abstract way for the story to play out. Horizontally across the white board I then plot in key moments (Reminds me of mapping out key frames on an arc when animating). Remembering the idea of the 'heartbeat of the story', I am careful to add suitable moments of release after moments of tension and vice versa. Also as I naturally want the 'heartbeat of the story' to beat faster and faster leading up to the climax, I look at the mix of the length of the scenes as the pace curve progresses towards the finish.


You know, I can't tell you.

4. The Gap

Remembering 'The Gap' means to me, that I never play nice with my characters. Personally I would like nothing better than to please them and make life easy for them, but instead I force myself to always write them into trouble; Never giving them what they want without letting them work for it first; Surprising them time and time again with a piece of bad news, until they, backs against the wall, have to dig down to their innermost core and pull out astounding things at great cost. It makes me feel like, I am always the jerk, but I believe it makes for more interesting drama.

5. Sub text versus text

I write the subtext first. Sometimes it is only a single sentence. But then you can prod it a bit by asking yourself, 'Why this is sub text and not text? Why would the character hide this? Why would this make the character embarrassed, angry, uncomfortable etc.?' Knowing that, you can then look at , how you would make such and such a situation respectable and civilized. How would the character try to hint at these things, and how explicit would the character dare to make these hints under these circumstances? Drawing on my experience from sales work, you often find that people ask other people exactly the question they would like to be asked themselves. When strong feelings are involved - let's say you are massively embarrassed about the colour white - people will carefully and purposely talk about the exact opposite (the colour black in this case) to hide what is really on their minds. So knowing as much about the subtext and the nature of it, gives you very precise ammunition for how you want to tinge the lines of dialogue and what direction you want to drive them in (away from the thing on everybody's minds or towards it).

6. Character is shown through dilemmas

I turn this one upside down. You should have a pretty good idea of who your character is in the beginning of the story and how you want and need the character to develop over the course of the story. So knowing what values, emotions or traits I need the character to demonstrate, I simply ask myself, which situations would force such a response from this character? Or what situations would test those traits or values to the limit for this character? 

The answers can take a bit time to find; I have yet to devise or learn a method that instantly facilitates brilliant dilemma after dilemma in answer to your question. But I suppose this is where your imagination need to earn its screenwriting chops. 

7. No scene, that doesn't turn

This is a quick and dirty benchmark I use to find what needs to be cut or changed. On my floor, I have all my note cards with scenes arranged according to the plot. I will go through them one by one, analysing the scene in my head. If a scene doesn't change or "turn" the emotional values in it, it either must be cut, or if you absolutely need it, say to build up to the next scene, you must give it some major attention till it both serves its purpose in the overall plot and also offers more than mere treading water in the moment.

8. Show, don't tell

'Show, don't tell' is another snappy benchmark I apply to a lot of things. We want to minimise, or cut altogether scenes and dialogue, which only serves the purpose to fill the audience in on background knowledge, but do not drive the plot forward.  Anything that can be told without words at all, and just images, must be done so. No line of dialogue, which could be cut and the meaning still be read, must be left alone. What doesn't makes the story stronger, will make it weaker. And so I travel through my script with a razor sharp pair of scissors, trying to trim the baby fat as I go along. In reality it is hard work. I hate cutting my own words. I love all of them dearly. So instead, as I write, I try to keep this in mind beforehand and stay economic before I even put the dialogue on page.

9. Storytelling is story delaying

Do you know how little children sometimes ruin a joke by telling you the punch line first? We can be so enamoured with our wonderful imaginary world, so full of fascinating details and complex back story, that we can't wait to show all of it to the audience in the very first scene, if not even before the opening credits. 

But storytelling is story delaying. So as I work my way backwards through my story (see point 11 below), I ask myself what information is crucially needed for the audience to understand the development of the plot. These "must-know" bits of information all have individual places in the plot, where before this point they would be unnecessary and after this point, they would be too late. You may be able to put parts of the same piece of information in different locations. This both helps your story to not be overloaded in the beginning. You don't want the audience to feel like they have to munch through a mountain of broccoli to get to the good stuff. Another thing is that the audience is smarter than you may think. Avoid the groans tearing them out of the suspense of disbelief as one painfully obvious thing after another is pointed out to them. Lastly it helps building suspense. 

In the story I am working right now, I want to build an escalating sense of dread. So the intentions of the old man to essentially trap the young girl, I will reveal spread out as bread crumbs building up to the nightmare feel that I want. Revealing it all in the beginning ("Ha ha, you are trapped!") might create a bit of shock and some mild confusion, but that would evaporate long before we hit the climax. Revealing it all in the very end would only confuse the audience to what is going on. In either case, the suspense would be lost. For other parts of the story -  a subplot involving the girl's recently deceased grandmother - I need to reveal some bits early, while the death of the grandmother is still fresh in the audience's mind, in order to bridge us over to when the resolution comes in that plot line.

I guess, I like to be quite organised about these things; I am scared I will miss out on something important, so I like to lean on a bit of structure. Hence my whiteboard is my friend, where charts and curves all pinpoint the location when the crucial elements must take place. I like having those big tent pole elements placed first, that gives me peace of mind to write more impulsively in between

10. Setup and pay off

This takes me back to my white board. Looking over the key moments of my story, I want to make sure that the preceding scenes fill the audience in on the things they need to know, in order to readily understand the key moment to come. Also I like to increase the impact of these moments, if at all possible, by leading into it with an opposite (a bit like anticipation in animation before a "take"). This takes us back to the 'heartbeat of the story'. On the grander scale, the story's resolution will be preceded by the story climax of tension and conflict. But setting up smaller points, such as a sequence climax, will also benefit the impact.

11. Plot turns

This is how a story comes to be in my universe: It all starts with a few garbled up images or words which only really makes sense to me. They become a string of key moments or parts of scenes. Little by little you end up with a growing number of things (characters, story beats, scenes etc.), which just has the right feel for your story. Before that list grows too big, you need to know where you are going; You need to nail your ending down. There is no room to manoeuvre on the ending. It must be good. It must be satisfying. It must be surprising. So before you paint yourself into a corner, by creating too many lovely darling ideas, do yourself the favour of figuring out where this journey is going to end.

Once I have my ending pencilled in, I work backwards from there to the beginning (funny, how the possible beginnings often are among the first feeble scribbles). What I aim to do, is alluding to the ending and how everything is resolved in subtle ways throughout the story. Carefully delaying the full explanation, or at least cutting it up in small bites and placing them as a bread crumb trail throughout. I kinda explain this to myself, as folding a piece of baking paper with an arrow drawn in one direction. You know the semi-transparent stuff you use to line oven trays with? To make it really, really simple, let's say at the ending, the protagonist turns out to be good (as opposed to evil). This is revealed at the climax. Taking a step back, we need to fold the baking paper back over itself, so now the arrow points the other way. Lo and behold, in the sequences before the climax we believe the protagonist was an evil so-and-so. Taking yet another step back, we fold the baking paper again, and now the arrow is once again pointing in the good direction - the protagonist is good as gold. As you keep folding the paper, working your way backwards through the story, each of these folds, or changes of direction, represents a plot turn, where we turn the story on its head. Also as with real baking paper, you should be able to see or make out what is on the layer underneath, although not as clearly as the topmost layer. Obviously, there is an upper limit here, where the more times you turn things upside down, the more ludicrous it gets. Similarly, the more layers of baking paper you got, folded on top of each other, the more opaque the whole stack eventually becomes.

Looking back over my folded stack of baking paper, so to speak, I try to see if I can match up some of the changes of direction in the story, to what I already have in my file of things, that just feels right for the story. If not, I need to start answering the hard questions of, why such and such is not what it seems, why character so-and-so would completely go against his/her character traits in extreme circumstances, or how things (believably) against all odds will turn out like this. This is very much one of the jigsaw puzzle parts of putting a story together. But also enormously satisfying, once it locks elegantly into place.


Right. At the end of the day, this is only meant to make writing good stuff simpler. A good screen play is a good screen play is a good screen play. No amount of theory can make up for that, nor guarantee that. So I better get back to writing what really matters, my next screen plays!

Thursday, July 19, 2012



I get ahead of myself.

The competition will eventually have 50 winners, who will have their contributions made into a feature film for theatrical release on Valentine's day 2013. The organizers received an astounding 1870 submissions. Today the long list consisting of 500 candidates was released.

Back in May, a colleague forwarded me the competition details. "Considering as you seem to have a good hand at writing", she said. She must have been referring to all the silly nonsense emails (a topic for multiple posts in the future, no doubt) I dream up, and bombard my colleagues with on a daily basis. I objected that "there is big difference between spewing silly nonsense with fancy words and telling a good story that tugs the heart strings." And then put a story together in a lunch break. "You miss a 100% of the shots you don't take", said Wayne Gretzky. So why not?

It sure felt good seeing my name on that list today. Who knows what other adventures are waiting out there?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Story Learnings - So Far...

One of the side effects of spending too much time at work, writing company wide emails about made-up nonsense (more about that in another post), is that you become the go-to guy for writing just about anything.

The other day one of our lighters asked me to teach him about storytelling. Massively flattered as I was, I managed to object, that I am only just learning myself. But what I do know, I will happily share. So put on the spot like that, I managed to break into a 10 minute improvised lecture - which in hindsight wasn't half bad. We continued this over our instant messenging client over the days that followed.

As I said, I am just a humble student of storytelling, but I do think others might benefit from what I have learned at the feet of the masters so far. Here goes:

1. The universal story: Light wins over darkness

I have spent a lot of time looking into universal plots and what they tell us about the human psyche and our need for and use of storytelling. In short, there is really only one plot: Light wins over darkness. All other meaningful plots are merely viewing this master plot from different angles.

2. The heartbeat of a story

A story must invariably be told with a certain rhythm: Tension and release; Greater tension and greater release; Greatest tension (climax) and greatest release (resolution). Like a heartbeat, constantly expanding and contracting. If you follow tension with more tension and more tension still, you will lose the effect of the tension. Likewise with release. The audience will grow numb.


I could have sworn there was a 3rd point in there somewhere. Which I seem to have lost. I will leave it unnamed as the unmarked grave for the anonymous soldier. Or maybe I just don't want to reveal my secret sauce? You will never know...

4. The Gap

Hitchock said, "drama is like ordinary life, with the dull bits cut out." Yep. We can't have that. Dull bits. Things that go exactly according to plan. It doesn't make for good stories. So when we write, we look at what our characters are expecting... and never give them that. In that gap between the expectations of the characters and the outcome sits lovely, lovely drama; Conflicts that force your characters outside of their nice-guy behaviour; Conflicts which escalate tension; Conflicts which entertain the audience at the expense of our characters, who now will have to work harder for it.

5. Sub text versus text

Just as in real life, what is said is never the full picture. Dialogue is the text, the sub text is what the characters really are feeling, thinking and reallly trying to say. I remember the great salesman Frank Bettger always said, "The first reason sounds good. The second reason is the real reason." Also in stories, nobody will volunteer what they really mean all the time - unless they are the fool on the hill. It is up to us as storytellers to construct these layers of what is said, and is really meant underneath.

6. Character is shown through dilemmas

Take any serial killer, dress him up nicely, ask his neighbours about him - 'oh, he's such a nice young man'. What is really inside of us, will only be revealed when we are out of our depth; When we have no game plan and we have to improvise. Those are the moments where the slick surface of careful grooming and learned manners crack open to reveal the true person underneath. All the surface stuff doesn't really count. How do we create those cracks? Throw our characters into tough dilemmas, where they have to make tough choices about the lesser of two evils. That is when we will see what they are really made of.

7. No scene, that doesn't turn

A scene that starts with a man being in a good mood and ends with him being in a good mood is a non-event; A waste of precious time. It will not advance the plot, it will not entertain, it will most likely just be there to fill in the audience about background details (exposition). Never should it be found in your stories. By "doesn't turn", I mean the emotional values do not turn: Turn from positive to negative or the other way around. No scene, that doesn't turn! It is storytelling fluff. We can't have it!

8. Show, don't tell

Actions speak louder than words. A nigh on universal truism. Also in stories. What we tell people will not have as much impact as what we see them do. In screenwriting whatever can be said with images should be done so. Only resort to dialogue, if you can not tell the same parts of the story with images. The emotional response from the audience will be far greater.

9. Storytelling is story delaying

Save the best for last, they say. I guess, that is just good showmanship. Likewise, a story is not a story, if you upfront tell your audience all the facts. For starters, suspense goes out of the window as all questions are answered. So don't insult the intelligence of your audience, and don't tell them anything a moment before they absolutely have to know. Tension will build and as a result the exhilleration of the revelation will be so much stronger, when you do tell.

10. Setup and pay off

You know how there are two parts to a joke? The punchline is what people laugh at, but it makes no sense without the setup. Likewise, the really important moments of your story needs careful setting up as well, to make sure they will have the impact on the audience that you intend. 

11. Plot turns

Ah plot turns... Those moments of exhilleration, where a story is completely turned upside down. As you learn that Darth Vader is actually Luke's father, your mind races, in a split-second, back through two entire movies, and all of a sudden there are so many things that make sense at last. Carefully setting up plot-turns with subtle hints and delivering them with impact will leave your audience thrilled and excited as they experience the joy of piecing it all together in their minds. Believable plot turns take quite a bit of imagination and careful planning on the structural stage of a story. But if you can manage to deliver a well-built plot turn, it will stay with your audience for the rest of their life - the above example being ample proof thereof.

I could, and probably will, add another 20 to these 11. But it is a start. Besides, I need to practise some more; Juggling with 11 balls in the air, is plenty hard for me still.

What are the most important parts of storytelling for you?

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Story Learnings: Plot #4 - Voyage and Return

Reaping the rich rewards from Christopher Booker's excellent tome on storytelling The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Stories, we have reached the fourth of the seven master plots (You can find my posts on the first master plot, Overcoming the Monster as well as an introduction to The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Storieshere, the second master plot, Rags to Riches, here, and the third master plot, The Quest, here.):

Voyage and Return

There is a second plot based on a journey, quite different from the Quest. The stories we find using the Voyage and Return plot seemingly have nothing in common, perhaps except that they are some of the most haunting and mysterious tales in the world.

The essence of Voyage and Return is that the hero travels out of their 'normal' world and into another world completely cut off from the first, where everything seems disturbingly abnormal. At this first this strange new world is exhilarating, but gradually a shadow intrudes. The hero feels increasingly threatened, until by way of a 'thrilling escape' the hero is released from the abnormal world and can return to the safety of the 'normal' world where he started. These are the stories we call Voyage and Return and they follow these five stages:

1. Anticipation Stage and 'Fall' into the Other World
We meet our hero as he is in some state, which lays him open to a shattering new experience; His consciousness is often restricted in some way: young, naive, curious, bored, drowsy, reckless or actively craving a diversion. Wittingly or unwittingly, what they have in common is that they are psychologically wide open for some shattering new experience to invade their lives and take them over. So he 'falls' into a strange new world, unlike anything he has ever experienced before. The event which precipitates the hero into the abnormal world is often shocking and violent.

2. Initial Fascination or Dream Stage
At first this new world is exhilarating, mainly because it is so puzzling and unfamiliar. Even so it can never be a place where our hero can feel at home. It is always very clear to the hero that something very queer is happening to them. One way or another the story work every conceivable permutation on their hero's sense of what is normal, even in terms of the most basic assumptions we make about our identity as human beings.

3. Frustration Stage
Gradually the mood changes to frustration, difficulty and oppression. A shadow is looming and increasingly alarmingly so; Being in the alien world becomes less and less pleasant. The hero will experience everything in a kind of dream-like semi-detached way; The other world will never be wholly real to them - even if some of the experience threatens their very survival.

4. Nightmare Stage
The shadow becomes so dominant that it seems to pose a serious threat to the hero's survival.

5. The Thrilling Escape and Return
Just when the threat closing in on the hero, becomes too much to bear, the hero makes his escape from the other world, back to where he started. Has the hero changed, or was it all 'just a dream'? This is the most important question in the Voyage and Return story.

To answer that question, we need to look closer at the hero. Voyage and Return stories never have a princess or a kingdom as a reward, but instead a possible inner switch from darkness to light; ignorance to knowledge. As such Voyage and Return stories fall into two distinct categories: Either the hero will be transformed by the mysterious 'other world' or they will not.

If the hero formed a relationship with someone from the opposite sex, while in the other world, he will have to abandon this person, when he returns and furthermore he will not have learned, or is not transformed, when he returns.

In some instances the hero, like Peter the Rabbit, has simple gotten a terrible shock or is physically exhausted from his folly. In other cases such as Robinson Crusoe, our hero eventually arrives on feelings of profound repentance for his former frivolity.

Summing up
Some of the very earliest stories a child can grasp are simple version of the Voyage and Return plot (long before they can appreciate the complexities of a Rags to Riches story with its 'Princes', 'Princesses' and transformation scenes). Goldilocks and The Tale of Peter Rabbit tells of a young person straying out of the familiar world of home and nearly getting killed for it. But on a more grown-up level the Voyage and Return plot is about the hero being in a state of limited of awareness and this has plunged him into a realm of existence, which leads to a nightmare threatening him with annihilation. But as a result he has learned something of fundamental importance. He has moved from ignorance to knowledge. He has had a chance to reach a much deeper understanding of the world, and this offers him a chance to completely change his attitude to life. 

The heroes starts out by being selfish; not really recognising anything in the world outside themselves. This blind egocentricity is very much the same characteristic we have seen in dark figures in the earlier plots who actually opposed the hero. So the hero is presented here as far from light, and it is precisely this that plunges him into the adventure that threatens to destroy him. The real victory in the Voyage and Return stories is not over the forces of darkness outside the hero, but over the same dark forces within the hero.

The Voyage and Return stories are an incredibly eclectic bunch: 

Alice in Wonderland, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, H. G. Wells' The Time Machine (as well as a lot of other science fiction), Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit, Brideshead Revisited, Orpheus Journey to the Underworld, Gone with the Wind, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Robinson Crusoe, The Lord of the Flies, Gulliver's Travels, The Lost World, Lost Horizon, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Golden Ass and many others.

The next of the seven basic plots contains some of the most complex stories ever told. We'll look at Comedy next.

Questions and comments are welcome.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Story Learnings: Plot #3 - The Quest

Continuing my way through Christopher Booker's excellent tome on storytelling The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Stories, we have reached the third of the seven master plots (You can find my post on the first master plot, Overcoming the Monster as well as an introduction to The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Storieshere, and the second master plot, Rags to Riches, here.):

The Quest

Far away there is some priceless treasure, worth any effort to achieve. When the hero learns about this, the need to set out on the long and hazardous journey to reach this, becomes the most important thing in his life. Whatever perils and trials are in the hero's way, he must go on until this objective has been triumphantly secured. These are the stories we call The Quest and they follow these five stages:

1. The 'Call'
We meet our hero as he finds that life in some way has become intolerable. The mood is one of urgent compulsion. Something has gone terrifyingly wrong. In the midst of all this comes the 'Call'. The hero realises that he can only rectify matters by making a long and difficult journey. Even though the hero and his friends feel under intense compulsion to depart, they often have to face every kind of discouragement and opposition before they can set out.

2. The Journey
The hero and his companions set out. Their journey follows the classical storytelling rhythm of constriction and expansion; tension and release. They go through a succession of terrible, and often near-fatal ordeals, interspersed with periods of respite where they can regain their strength.

The opposition comes in two main flavours. Actually, that should be three, because in stories of The Quest variation, the acutely hostile terrain is almost an obstacle in itself; It will be wild, alien and unfriendly. The other two, more specific obstacles are: Monsters and temptations. 

The monsters follows the archetypical description of monsters from the Overcoming the Monster plot. The Temptation, on the other hand, is usually centred around a promise of some physical gratification, which stands in stark contrast to the hard nature of the task the hero has been set. Underneath the surface, the Temptation have much in common with the Monsters, except that the latter uses direct confrontation and the former uses guile and seduction to lure the hero to his doom. If the temptations are mastered or overruled in some way, they may completely change nature and their relationship with the hero, and become useful allies.

Each encounter ends with a thrilling escape. Ordeals alternate with periods of respite. Along the way the hero and his companions will receive hospitality, help and advice from 'wise old men' or 'beautiful young women'. The hero may have to make part of the journey through the underworld, where spirits from the past will give him guidance.

3. Arrival and Frustration
The hero is now within sight of the goal. However, now on the edge of the goal, a new and terrible series of obstacles surface and must be overcome.

4. The Final Ordeals
Despite the lengthy and perilous journey the hero and his companions have already travelled, they are usually only halfway through the story, when they arrive within sight of the goal. The hero has to undergo a last series of tests (often 3) to prove that he is worthy of the prize. The story culminates in a last great battle or ordeal, which may be the most threatening of all the many ordeals the hero has been through so far.

5. The Goal
After a last 'thrilling escape from death', the life transforming treasure is finally won: A final coming together of man and woman, or the establishing of a kingdom; The hero now has an assurance of renewed life stretching indefinitely into the future - or 'he lived happily ever after'.

The companions of the hero is a distinctive mark of The Quest. They come in four different varieties:

  1. Simply a large number of unnamed people. For example the main body of Jews accompanying Moses in the exodus from Egypt.
  2. An alter-ego with no particular distinguishing marks except loyalty and fidelity. Frodo in Lord of the Rings has the loyal Samwise Gamgee.
  3. An alter-ego with opposite qualities of the hero. Think of King Lear and the Fool, or Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
  4. A group of people, each with distinct qualities which together forms a 'whole'. In King Solomon's Mines the leader and hero Allan Quartermain is accompanied by the strong Sir Henry Curtis, the rational Captain Good and the intuitive and mysterious Umbopa.

The Helpers
In addition to the companions and all the negative figures the hero meets on his journey, he also encounter some very different figures - helpers. The helpers will offer him positive assistance such as periods of respite or perhaps crucial guidance. Among the helpers two very important figures predominate: The benevolent wise old man and the beautiful young (or mysteriously ageless) woman. In the story of The Quest, their roles are not so much to intervene, but to act as guides, drawing on unusual knowledge and wisdom. In Lord of the Rings we have for example the omniscient old wizard Gandalf and his ally the beautiful, ethereal queen Galadriel.

Some of the most celebrated stories in the world are quests: Just think of Homer's Odyssey, Dante's Divine Comedy, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Steven Spielberg's Raiders of The Lost Ark.

Of the other well-known examples we find: Treasure Island, King Solomon's Mines, Watership Down, Around the World in 80 Days, King Arthur's Quest for the Holy Grail, Jason and the Golden Fleece, The Firebird from Slav folk stories, Virgil's Aeneid and many others.

Further variations
From time to time we also see The Quest plot crossed with the Overcoming the Monster the monster plot. Particularly in stories inspired by the Second World War: The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, The Heroes of Telemark, The Wooden Horse, The Colditz Story and others.

A dark version of The Quest is Heman Melville's Moby Dick. Here the central figure, Captain Ahab, sets out in an obsessive quest across the oceans to find the almost supernatural white whale. Ahab looks on Moby Dick as a prize of infinite value, worth any sacrifice to seek out. The whale is clearly a symbol for the essence of life. But there is nothing life-enhancing about the way Ahab seeks it. He is only out to destroy it at all costs. Of course such a story can only end in disaster.

The next of the seven basic plots is also based on a journey, although quite different from The Quest. It has inspired some of the most haunting and mysterious tales ever told. We'll look at Voyage and Return next.

Questions and comments are welcome.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Story Learnings: Plot #2 - Rags to Riches

Continuing my way through Christopher Booker's excellent tome on storytelling The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Stories, we have reached the second of the seven master plots (You can find my post on the first master plot, Overcoming the Monster, and an introduction to The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Stories, here.):

Rags to Riches

This is clearly a type of story, which appeals immensely to the human psyche. Think of the massive inclination to root for underdogs and the wishful feelings people have, wanting to trade places with celebrities. As the title indicates this is a plot where the hero starts out ordinary, insignificant and unappreciated, but then suddenly steps to the centre of the stage, and is revealed to be someone quite exceptional. The Rags to Riches plot usually follows these 5 stages:

1. Initial Wretchedness at Home and the 'Call'
We are introduced to our hero, or heroine, in a lowly and unhappy state at home. The hero is usually young in age, or has not yet ventured out in the world. Obviously this is a plot, which is concerned with the process of growing up. The hero starts the journey of a human being from unformed childhood and needs to reach the state of complete personal maturity.

To start with, the hero is overshadowed by malevolent dark figures, which come in two distinct varieties: Adults acting in the place of a parent or figures closers to the hero's age and status (evil stepsisters, for example). Something happens to either call or send the hero out into the world.

2. Out into the World with Initial Success
The hero is now out in the world away from the original home, or starting point. New ordeals await, but these are also rewarded with the first limited success, which is also a prevision of the eventual glory, which the hero will find. The hero is thus lifted out of his original state of misery. However at this point the hero is not ready yet for the complete fulfilment.

3. The Central Crisis
Everything suddenly goes wrong. The shadows of dark figures return. The hero is separated from his greatest treasure/friend/love. The hero is overwhelmed with despair at this. Because of the earlier lift in the hero's fortunes and because the hero is so powerless, this is the absolute low point of the story, where it all seems lost again.

4. Independence and the Final Ordeal
The hero gradually emerges from the crisis and is shown in a new light. The hero discovers in himself a new independent strength. This new strength is put to the final test, against a dark and powerful figure, which stands between the hero and his final goal. This dark figure is characterised by egocentricity and incapacity for true, selfless love. Basically the same characteristics as the monster from the Overcoming the Monster plot

5. Final Union, Completion and Fulfilment
The hero is rewarded with a complete, loving union. The hero succeeds to a "kingdom"; a domain over which they will rule wisely and well. By the end of the story no one ever doubts that the originally derided and humble little hero should be worthy of their final glorious destiny, however improbable it looked at the beginning, since they have along the way revealed such admirable qualities which show their true inner worth. And thus the hero has deserved that mysterious central goal in storytelling, where everything at last is perfect and complete.

The Dark Version
The Rags to Riches plot can also be told in a 'dark' variation. The hero will attempt to do the same climb from rags to riches, but in some ways fails to reach the fully rewarding conclusion. The heroes in these stories are not the selfless and goodhearted ones we are used to. In fact they react to any kind of opposition with egotism. Instead of being the victim, it is their surroundings who fall victim to the hero's actions. Although the ultimate symbolic goal of the hero is remarkably similar to the original Rags to Riches plot, the hero in the dark version really is a monster. His ambition is only a means to egotistical gratification and a desire to dominate others. Of course the attempts to reach such a goal will always be frustrated, and surely it brings about his complete destruction.

This plot is very richly represented in stories through the ages and continues to be very popular. Just think of the Hollywood cliché moment where the ever handsome hero removes the spectacles from the plain girl, lets down her hair and gazes at her in awe, "... but you are beautiful!" 

Of the more well-known examples we find: My Fair Lady, Superman (and similar heroes, who go from weedy bespectacled kids to all-powerful superhero), the biblical story of Joseph, Cinderella, Aladdin, Puss in Boots, David Copperfield, The Ugly Duckling, Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush, Jane Eyre, Moll Flanders, Great Expectations and many, many more.

The next of the seven basic plots is instantly recognizable, and even more so than any of the other six plots. We'll look at The Quest next.

Questions and comments are welcome.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Story Learnings: Plot #1 - Overcoming the Monster

I am trawling my way through Chris Booker's excellent tome on storytelling The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Stories. Booker has basically over a life-time gone through the massive mountain of storytelling from the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh to present day James Bond movies, comparing and cross referencing as he went along, until he managed to successfully distil the sum total of man's prolific storytelling through the ages into no more than 7 basic, but distinct plots. Obviously there are very interesting psychological reasons why these essentially same stories have occurred since the beginning of man's history. It is also very interesting and worthwhile to storytellers to note what happens, when you try to bend or disregard the rules governing storytelling, as you end up with a product sadly lacking in impact and satisfaction.

The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Stories weighs in at a hefty 700+ pages. Even so I am amazed at how there is absolutely no fluff or empty space in this gigantic work. As I am working my way through this huge treasure trove of storytelling insights, I will summarize my findings, or rather Christopher Booker's findings as told to me.

Without further ado, let me introduce you to the first plot of the seven master plots:

Overcoming the Monster

This is a type of story, which the human imagination is particularly fond of forming. As the title indicates this is a story in which a hero is called to face and overcome a terrible and deadly personification of evil. The story is usually presented as a long build-up to the final confrontation between the monster and the hero, and it will usually follow these 5 stages:

1. Anticipation Stage and 'Call'
At first we see the monster, or become aware of it, from a great distance. We gradually learn of its fearsome power and reputation, and how it is casting a threatening shadow over the community. The hero then experiences a 'Call' to confront it.

2. Dream Stage
The hero is now making preparations for battle. For a while things seem to be going reasonably well. The audience still feel comfortably remote from and immune to the danger presented by the monster.

3. Frustration Stage
We finally find ourselves face to face with the monster in all its awesome power. The hero now feels small and alone. He is slipping into the monster's power, and there seems to be only one possible outcome - the death of the hero.

4. Nightmare Stage
The final battle between the monster and the hero, where the odds are massively stacked in favour of the monster. And just at the climax, when all seems lost, comes the reversal.

5. The Thrilling Escape from Death, and Death of the Monster
In the nick of time, the monster is miraculously dealt a fatal blow. This is a moment of fundamental significance to storytelling. In fact, 'the thrilling escape from death' is one of the most consistent motifs in storytelling. The community is then liberated and our hero emerges to enjoy the prize: Usually some kind of treasure, a princess or a kingdom.

The Monster
The monster is characterised by being heartless, egocentric (as opposed to the hero, who is selfless in his deed of risking his life for greater good or the community) and seemingly omnipotent. However the monster usually has a blind spot (often tied to its egocentricity), which renders it vulnerable. 

The monster will have three distinct roles playing through the progression of the story: First an active role as a predator looking for victims; Secondly a passive role as holdfast, where it will sit in its lair jealously guarding its "treasure"; Thirdly the monster takes the role of avenger, lashing out viciously, when its guardianship is challenged.

Constriction and Release
As with all stories, the overcoming the monster plot, follows the general rhythm of tension and release in successively greater amounts leading up to the climax and final resolution; In a story well-constructed, these phases of tension and release alternate, in a rhythm like the heart beat of a story, which provides one of the greatest pleasures we get from stories.

At the climax of the story, we feel the final surge of liberation; and as it fades, we are left with the warming knowledge that the hero has now won a much deeper hold on life, which will last indefinitely into the future - or as the saying goes 'live happily ever after'...

Needless to say, this very straightforward plot has been used countless times in genres of all kinds: 

Melodrama (Nicholas Nickleby); war stories (The Battle of Britain, The Sinking of the Bismarck, The Longest Day, The Battle of the Bulge, The Guns of Navarone etc.); the Hollywood western (The Magnificent Seven - and its inspiration The Seven Samurai, High Noon etc.); thrillers (King Kong, The Three Musketeers, The Final Problem, The Thirty Nine Steps, all James Bond stories etc.); science fiction (War of the Worlds, The Day of the Triffids, Star Wars); disaster movies (The Towering Inferno, Airport etc.); Gothic horror (Dracula, Canon Alberic's Scrap Book, Frankenstein, The Castle of Otranto etc.); myth (St. George and the Dragon, David and Goliath, Perseus and Andromeda, Beowulf, Theseus and the Minotaur, Oedipus and the Sphinx, Jack and the Beanstalk, Epic of Gilgamesh etc.) and many, many others.

The next of the seven basic plots also appeals massively to the human psyche; We'll look at Rags to Riches next.

Questions and comments are welcome.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Tutorial: How to Paint Textures the World of Warcraft Way

During the course of the thesis project of my bachelor study at University of Teesside, I experimented with putting together a World of Warcraft style outdoors environment.

Over the course of this project I developed a particular methodology for painting my textures. This ensured both a fairly consistent output, but also helped as a paint-by-numbers backbone when I was stuck on a particular task, or uncertain about how to begin it. Once all these guidelines had been checked off, I would have a product, which was so near completion that it would be easy to make out which parts were still missing. Or as Rembrandt so wisely said, "start with what is known to you, and what is unknown will be revealed."

Though this is all the way back from 2004, perhaps it might help a few people out there.

So here we are in Photoshop looking at how to organise our layers and progress them logically till we have the desired look:

My first layer in Photoshop is a sketch layer. 

1.1 The sketch layer (left) for a grass texture, along with the final texture (right)
With quick and simple brush strokes I lay down a rough design for the texture. The sketch layer will not be seen in the final texture at all, so precision is not paramount. It is more about trying to lock down the composition and placement of the different elements. Also it is a subconscious warm-up for the artist, where you can doodle your way into the world of the material you are about to create. Depending on the type of texture and the projection and UVW coordinates, it is a good idea to save often, and then load up the object in 3D space with the unfinished texture mapped on. This gives the artist a chance to make sure the different parts of the texture is placed correctly before too much work would have to be redone or edited. 

For textures where a solid template has been extracted from the geometry, you often don’t need a sketch layer, if the UV template is self-explanatory. Here the template layer serves as its replacement to offer the proportions and shapes of the final texture. 
1.2 Templates laid out on the canvas
After the sketch layer, it is time to lay down the major colour values. For that I will create a base colour layer for each of the separate objects or fields featured in the texture. In turn each object or section will be organised in separate layer sets, appropriately named for ease of navigation as well as organisation of screen real estate. On the base colour layer a fairly accurate estimate of the materials average surface colour will be painted in with a decent amount of precision. 

Following on from the base colours, the details will be painted in, in a similar fashion, on a layer above the base colour layer. The main objective here is to lock down their shape and general colour. 
1.3 Base colours blocked out
Once we have these, the most prominent colour values painted into the texture, it is time to think about the texture of the surface of the object we are creating a material for. What would it feel like, if we were to run our fingertips over it? Rough or smooth? Is there a particular pattern to the texture of its surface? 

Take polished wood from a tabletop for example. There you will have a very smooth surface marked with tiny grooves, which all run more or less parallel, and furthermore form a pattern of elongated rings. Once a suitable texture has been found as a reference photo or painted from scratch, I will usually set this layer’s blend mode as either multiply or hard light with around two thirds worth of opacity and fill. This will allow the texture layer to mesh nicely with the colours of the base and detail layers, as it increases the contrast between brightness and darkness of the colours below in the pattern of the surface texture.
1.4 Patterns added to the texture
The next layers I work into the stack are some I personally refer to as my curvature or dimensionality layers. What I want to add to the image now, is the illusions of depth. 

try to illustrate the curvature of the surface by creating a light and a dark curvature layer. The first one is the “curvature dark” layer where I, with a loose hand, will paint broad and slightly transparent lines of dark and desaturated purple. Usually the brush settings are not more than 20% opacity, to make sure that I can build up the effect I want in an organic way, by painting over and over till the desired colour depth is established. The idea is to make the parts of the surface that are the farthest away from the viewer the darkest, and vice versa. I do the same with “curvature light” layer, which I place on top of the “curvature dark” layer. Here I use the light yellow to illustrate where the surface of the material protrudes out towards the viewer. 

These two layers will then be taken through the Gaussian blur filter in Photoshop to smooth them out, and make sure the painting is not too conspicuous. Furthermore I lower the opacity to no more than 50% and might even take off a bit of the fill rate too. For the dark layer I usually use the multiply blend mode, and for the light layer, I use the lighten or soft light blend modes. 
1.5 Dimensionality layers in effect
Already now, after these few crude operations we have a decent texture quickly emerging. It has an illusion of dimension and depth. It has an illusion of a surface texture native to the material we are trying to describe visually. It has a good estimate of the correct surface colour. There are still a lot more that can and needs to be done, but after these few fundamental manoeuvres we are well on our way. 

A good technique is to make sure your edges are marked out. Corners which points away from the viewer and other crevasses in the texture, I line with a dark colour, typically dark purple, on a low opacity layer with multiply blend mode. Corners which points to the viewer or edges where the material portrayed ends, I line with a light colour, like light yellow, on a similar low opacity layer with a fitting blend mode. That can be anything from colour dodge to overlay, depending on the situation. The illusion that we are trying to create here is, that at the very least, tiny amounts of dirt will gather in grooves and corners, which will obscure and darken the colour underneath substantially. Likewise protruding edges have a tendency to reflect light in a different fashion than the flat surfaces adjacent to them. This we are trying to illustrate with the lightening effect. Both layers will need to be slightly blurred with the Gaussian blur filter. 

Apart from illustrating changes in local colour from additional wear on edges protruding out and collection of dirt and dust in corners and crevasses, this step is also a bit of cheap and dirty ambient occlusion, where we are painting a touch of lighting information into the texture.
1.6 Edges and corners painted in
If the texture we are painting is for an object that resides outdoors, it needs to show the effects of weathering, or if it is placed by windows where sunlight will regularly bleach the surface, it will need a similar effect. For that we need to desaturate the colours where sun, wind and rain have washed them out. For this we paint with a light grey where we want the desaturated effect. Again the brush needs to be very transparent, around 20% or so, and I find that broad strokes work well for this effect. Generally in texture work, textures will need to be far more desaturated than you think at first, in order to achieve a realistic look. But since this is the highly stylized look of World of Warcraft, we don't need to go to those lengths.

When I am happy with the areas covered I change the blend mode to colour dodge and lower the opacity to around 70% to brighten up the area. Then I copy the layer and change the blend mode of the new layer (sitting on top of the old) to saturation. And the weather-worn effect is finished. 

Another effect of being left outside could be long-term exposure to moisture, which will leave green algae or lichen on the material. Such effects I usually conjure up with a noise filter, and then setting my blend mode to soft light and reducing the opacity with a good 20 percent. 
1.7 Residue of green algae added to the bottom of the bucket
Most any material, which has not just left the factory line, will have scratches, cuts and wear of different kind. So we analyse the material we are portraying, and make out where scratches and tears would gather with normal use. These I usually paint with a dark thin brush. I will then add the layer style outer glow to them, and use the default light yellow glow in overlay blend mode. To use a lighter outer glow, gives the lines a subtle addition of contrast, so they will stand out more. Furthermore the light edges on them will simulate the same effect we did when adding light edges to the corners that are protruding. Then I select the contents of the layer with the surface texture and delete that selection from the scratches layer. This lets the scratches be embedded into the surface, by following the closely the texture of the surface. 

1.8 Leather shield without scratches (left) and with scratches (right)
If the texture has areas with paint, enamel or other materials covering the surface, you need to make sure that the scratches will be etched into the paint. So I select the outline of the scratches and the wear and tear and delete that selection of the paint layer. After that, it can, in many cases, be beneficial to add a bevel and emboss layer style to the paint layer. Just a few pixel thick it will give the illusion of dimension in the paint layer; that the paint is actually added on top of the base surface, instead of it being assimilated completely into the material underneath.

1.9 Painted leather shield with scratches etched into the paint
Where the material has overlapping objects or other things that will cast a shadow on the surface beneath it, we paint lines of dark purple with a soft edged brush. It is a good practise to build up the wanted result layer by layer, by setting the opacity of the brush as low as 20-30%, and then keep painting over and over and over again, until the desired result is there. This allows for a free and painterly style of working, where you leave room for “happy mistakes.” Then the layer is blurred with the Gaussian blur filter, and finally the blend mode changed to multiply and the layer’s opacity lowered to around 30-40%.

1.10 Shadow cast by the rope is added
One of the last things left to do now, is to paint highlights with a light shade of colour, usually a light yellow in this colour scheme. The highlights go where light will bounce off the material; where the material is shiny and smooth; and where the materials protrude out towards the viewer. This is done with a brush of a fairly low opacity, around 20-35%, and then blurred with the Gaussian blur filter afterwards. I set the blend mode to screen and lower the opacity and fill rates to around 60%. 

As the texture is almost finished, I like to go back to my base colour layers and pick out two or three shades of colour analogue to the base colour underneath. These I paint on separate layers in a quick and semi-random fashion with a soft edged brush with no more than 15% opacity. The blend mode stays as normal. This is used to give the colours underneath a more crisp and lively feel. The last thing you want is a flat and completely uniform field of colour, even if that is what you are aiming for. This sounds contradicting, but even if a face of colour is perceived as being uniform, there will always be subtle variations, without which it would not be perceived as real or normal looking. Furthermore with an understanding for colour theory, the base colours can be enhanced immeasurably this way. Take a green for instance, put a light yellow on one side of it, and a purple on the other, and it will spring to life and appear much more crisp and sparkling. 

1.11 On the left the wall is without analogue colour differences, on the right it has the differences painted in

Lastly I want to make sure that no surface, detail or anything else is too uniformly coloured. So my topmost layer consists of very subtle colour noise. This is made by using the filter render clouds on an empty layer with the default setting of white and black for foreground and background colours. Then I switch to the channels palette where I will repeat the same filter in each of the red, green and blue channels. This secures a random distribution of red, green and blue, which will show as a harlequin kind of pattern on that layer. I change the blend mode to soft light and decrease opacity and fill down to at least 40. In some instances you need to go as low as ten. This makes sure that a random pattern of the RGB colour hues is softly changing the underlying colours to break up overtly monotone fields of colour. 

1.12 A colour noise pattern
Notice that one of the absolutely crucial effects needed to conjure forth a realistic texture, dirt, is seldom needed in a cartoony texture. Normally you would use a dirt layer messing up the hitherto so tidy material, typically with a multiply blend mode. But that effectively ruins most stylised looks. 

At this point I have a decent texture, which oftentimes only needs minor tweaking. In the worst cases the details or changes needed, will be apparent at this stage. If the texture includes ornamentation or other decorative details, they can easily be added now, on top of a very believable surface, which will constantly remind you of its make and condition. 

1.13 The finished texture

1.14 The finished texture applied to geometry and rendered out