Why werewolves don’t take over the world very often, how classical myth got it wrong, and why it’s never a good idea to make fun of an undercover policeman when researching your story (post written in 2010; taken from my old website)
Towards the end of 2009, pop cultural commentators everywhere seemed to have agreed that werewolves were going to be ‘in’ in 2010. According to all those ‘Next Year Preview’ features I was reading at the time, it was something to do with the continued popularity of Twilight and shows like Being Human and True Blood. Apparently, zombies and vampires were going to be sooooo last season. I’d been gathering ideas for an ‘I Am Legend with werewolves’ story for a couple of years, now it seemed as if everyone was about jump into my seat. Since Richard Matheson’s seminal vampire novel I Am Legend and George A. Romero’s equally seminal zombie movie Night Of The Living Dead (directly inspired by Matheson’s book) movies and comics have been full of stories in which the world is overrun by vampires or zombies. But no one had ever told a supernatural apocalypse story with werewolves. It seemed such an obvious choice.
Problems with the ‘wolfpocalypse’
The reason why werewolves don’t take over the world very often in books and movies quickly became apparent once 2000 AD’s editor Matt Smith had green-lit the series for development. To put it bluntly, werewolves are rather too good at killing things. If I unleashed a horde of nigh-indestructible lycanthropes on an unsuspecting human world, my entire cast would most likely be dead within a week if I hoped to maintain any semblance of believability.
I was also after something rather more epic than the usual ‘band-of-doomed-survivors-holding-out-against-the-supernatural-hordes’ scenario. Then there was the small matter of how to maintain a full moon long enough for the werewolves to not only overrun humanity but also be prevented from changing back into human form the next day. Imagine a scene in which thousands of naked people wake up on the streets of London with a hangover and a full stomach.
Age Of The Wolf takes place in London 2016. The moon has been mysteriously glowing for over a week. Scientists are baffled and the world is sliding towards mass hysteria. On the ninth night of this so-called ‘perma-moon’ a third of the population inexplicably turn into monstrous wolves. Caught on the London underground in the middle of the outbreak, a young Anglo-Irish woman named Rowan Morrigan flees to safety.
Visited by the ghost of her dead mother, Rowan learns that an ancestor has written her into an ancient Nordic prophecy that singles her out for sacrifice in order to bring about a new world, one in which mankind’s existence is at an end and wilderness rules. However, unlike the sacrificial maidens of myth and fairy tale, Rowan doesn’t feel much like doing as she’s told. She must now find a way to defy the prophecy and escape the monstrous leader of the werewolf pack.
The roots of folklore
I wanted to tell a story that tapped into forgotten werewolf folklore and dramatised exactly why these supernatural icons remain such a vital part of popular culture. I didn’t want the werewolves to end up being merely hairy cannon fodder for the heroine. Despite having grown up on werewolf movies like An American Werewolf In London and The Company Of Wolves (two films with which I was obsessed as a teenager), I didn’t want Age Of The Wolf to turn into yet another game of ‘spot-the-movie-reference’ (although there were times when I just couldn’t help myself). From what I’d read about lycanthrope lore (namely Sabine Baring-Gould’s useful 1865 study The Book Of Werewolves), the concept of the werewolf was a lot more complex and frightening than most modern stories give it credit for.
When someone says ‘werewolf’ you think of the full moon, the infectious bite, the agonising transformation, and the silver bullets. However, these trappings never really coalesced in the public imagination until Curt Siodmak’s script for the 1941 horror movie The Wolfman, in which Lon Chaney Jr tiptoes through the smoke-carpeted forests of the Universal backlot, looking like a furry pubgoer who missed the last bus home. As fondly remembered as the movie is, it’s no classic. Even as a kid, I thought it was odd that a monster as savage and untamed as the Wolfman would choose to strangle his prey. The full moon gave you fangs and claws, dummy. Use ‘em!
Housetraining the werewolf
Rewind several centuries to medieval Europe and werewolves stood for something infinitely more terrifying. The term ‘wer-wolf’ (the word ‘wer’ being Anglo-Saxon for ‘man’) meant ‘outcast’ or ‘godless man’, and was generally applied to perpetrators of the inhuman: murderers, pederasts, cannibals. The werewolf stood for an evil inherent, not inherited.
Today, the idea of transformation, from man to beast and back again, has become central to the werewolf myth. Indeed, it becomes the centrepiece of movies like American Werewolf and The Howling. As critic Peter Nicholls points out in his book Fantastic Cinema, “In modern horror films these metamorphoses – all popping joints, lengthening bones and writhing muscles – become the subject of the film. The central figure is no longer the human, nor the animal he becomes, but the agonised half-and-half thing who belongs to neither world, like a victim of God’s wrath in the Hell of Hieronymus Bosch.”
And yet this idea of duality makes the werewolf ultimately less frightening. It distances us from the terrifying possibility that just about anyone can harbour bestial desires or commit unconscionable acts. Fatalism is common in modern werewolf movies, as Nicholls again points out. “The hollowness of the werewolf story, perhaps, is its fatalistic view that a good chap, through no fault of his own, can become a beast. There is not much dramatic pith in this arbitrary cosmic injustice. The beast-in-man idea is done far more interestingly in [Jacques Tourneur’s 1942] Cat People where the beast stands for something already implicit in the person.”
The Not So Big Bad Wolf
The humble wolf (canis lupus) was a symbol of terror within medieval society for reasons we can barely comprehend today. To the rural communities who relied for their very survival upon vulnerable livestock, the wolf stood for nothing less than the devil incarnate. The animal’s (entirely imaginary) capacity for greed and ruthless evil was immortalised as the Big Bad Wolf of fairy tale. ‘Wolf’ became a byword for malevolence, signifying all forms of ravenous hostility, from famine to grasping landlords.
Today, in more enlightened times, the wolf is an often sentimentalised symbol of nature’s mystery and dignity, an emblem of conservation. The only animal to inspire the same hysterical degree of awe and dread as the wolf did in the Middle Ages is perhaps the Great White Shark, another victim of mankind’s overactive imagination. While wolves were hunted to extinction in the UK by the Anglo-Saxon kings, Great Whites are now protected in several countries, having for decades been the target of trophy hunters. In both cases, there’s acres of difference between the animals themselves and the monsters we have mythologized.
In Age Of The Wolf I tried to stir in wolf iconography from myth and fairy tale, but I also wanted to challenge those classical sources that have provided the foundation for so much western storytelling. We all know how Star Wars was built upon a mythological Jungian template. (Following the movie’s success, Hollywood attempted to distil the works of the great mythologist Joseph Campbell into a recipe book for blockbuster success.) But how many action-adventure stories stop to question the classical foundations upon which they are built?
Take the archetype of the sacrificial victim. You know the sort. She’s the drop-dead gorgeous maiden who has to give herself up to prevent the dragon from laying waste to the town. In the legend of Perseus, for example, the princess Andromeda is offered to the sea monster that threatens to destroy the city of Philistia. In the story of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty is ‘given’ to the Beast. Given? On who’s say-so? Does Beauty not have anything to say about this? What if the girl refused to go along with what the story wanted? Better still, what if she went out to deal with the monster herself, instead of waiting around for a Perseus or some other princely ponce to come along and do the job for her? And how might she overcome her own preordained destiny? By now, Age Of The Wolf was becoming much less a horror story and much more an earthbound epic fantasy.
Like so it is written…
A siren goes off in my head every time I hear the word ‘destiny’ or ‘prophecy’ in a fantasy story. It usually heralds the sort of narrative iceberg that often sinks fantasy stories. To my mind, the words ‘destiny’ and 'prophecy’ usually amount to dramatic kryptonite. Take the movie The Dark Crystal, in which the hero learns of a prophecy that says he will save
the world, effectively revealing the movie’s climax halfway through the picture!
In trying to avoid pre-empting my own story, I had an idea: what if destiny was something tangible, like words on a page that could be edited, like a story, something you could rewrite or defuse like a bomb? Hence, I worked out the idea of ‘the Wyrd’, infinite patterns within quantum uncertainty that can be picked out and brought into being if you know how. In this case (in keeping with the Norse mythology vibe), by using runes, magical letters that can shape the future if you can learn how to write them and invoke the correct enchantment. I wanted my sacrificial heroine to literally write her own story.
With a terrifyingly short deadline and several other clients suddenly popping up out of the blue and throwing work at me (Where were you guys last month?), I inevitably didn’t have time to read every scrap of research I wanted. Before writing, I managed to get in a research trip to the centre of London, taking photographs to help me visualise the action as I walked the route Rowan takes within the story, from Tottenham Court Road through Soho down Whitehall and along the South Bank to Tower Bridge. I tried to imagine what the place would look like covered in snow and full of hungry werewolves. Given the fact that Londoners practically begin contemplating cannibalism the moment they see so much as a snowflake, the idea of adding werewolves to the mix almost seemed like overkill.
Wandering around Tottenham Court Road underground station (which has changed a bit since they filmed American Werewolf there), snapping away with my camera at 7:30am, it’s perhaps no surprise that I was stopped and questioned by an undercover policeman. I have no idea what to tell people at parties when they ask me what I do for a living, let alone one of Her Majesty’s finest. And it probably wasn’t a very good idea to crack a joke along the lines of “Illegal photography! Thirty years, creep!” Clearly not a fan of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic.
The finished script handed in, amended, signed-off and invoiced, I had nothing left to do but fret about what it might look like once it appeared in the comic. The script was passed into the capable of hands of Jon Davis-Hunt, an incredibly talented young artist fresh from drawing Al Ewing’s Tempest for the Judge Dredd Megazine and well-known for his work on Transformers comics for IDW and Titan. Jon’s precision was perfect for detailing the architecture of Rowan’s world, rooting the fantastical action within a recognisable and realistic setting. He’s also a brilliant conceptual designer with a flair for experimentation not unlike Frank Quitely. That gory splash page in episode eight, which everybody loved? That was Jon’s idea. You can find out more about Jon and his work on his official website: www.jondavis-hunt.com
Jon and I created two more series of Age of the Wolf: She Is Legend and Wolfworld. The entire trilogy was collected in trade in 2014, and you can pick it up from Amazon UK, Amazon US and the 2000 AD webstore.
Interview from 2005 with American critic John Kenneth Muir about my movie book
Empires Of The Imagination.
If you’re interested in storytelling, particularly visual storytelling, you should really listen to the Scriptnotes podcast hosted by screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin. These guys are bona fide Hollywood screenwriters with years of experience and their podcast is a goldmine of rock-solid practical advice on the craft and business of screenwriting – and pretty much everything they talk about in terms of craft applies to writers of comic books. This is why I’ve been evangelizing to other writers about this show since I first tuned in.
Anyways, this week they’ve been talking about a recent blog I wrote on twist endings – and they really like it! I've been listening to and learning from these guys for years, so that really made my day.
Here’s a link to the Scriptnotes podcast and another to my original blog, The Five Types of Twist Ending - and while you’re at it check out John August’s blog for even more info.
Back in May, when I did a talk at the Bristol Comic Expo - namely, My Future Shock Hell: Breaking Into 2000 AD (And What I Learned While Doing It) - I concluded with a promise that I’d post some thoughts on twist endings. Not only those that occur in 2000 AD’s FUTURE SHOCKS, but in pretty much every form of storytelling there is, from short stories to screenplays. So here’s a quick bit of study on what twists are, how they work, and how to identify the five different types
A twist is a moment of revelation within a story that throws into question all that’s gone before. Often appearing at the conclusion of a story, it’s essentially a specific type of action or ‘beat’. Aristotle called it the ‘peripeteia’ (variously translated as ‘reversal’ or ‘sudden change’), referring both to the sudden downturn in the protagonist’s fortunes that occurs in tragedy (such as Oedipus’ realisation that he’s married his mum) and the sudden change for the good in comedy (such as the lovesick Duke Orsino in TWELFTH NIGHT realising that his favourite page-boy is actually a girl in disguise).
Whether for good or ill, the peripeteia means an abrupt reversal in the protagonist's circumstances. Aristotle pointed out that the reversal occurs in conjunction with ‘anagnorisis’ (variously translated as ‘discovery’ or ‘recognition’), the actual moment at which the protagonist uncovers a hitherto unknown piece of information. In other words, it’s that bit in the movie when the main character realises they’ve just murdered their dad, married their mum, or that they were a ghost the whole time. This is also the point at which the character might fall to their knees yelling, ‘Nooooooooo!’ – and it’ll probably be raining.
The peripeteia or reversal – let’s call it the ‘twist’ from now on – can take place at any point within a story – Robert Rodriguez’ vampire caper FROM DUSK ‘TIL DAWN is a great example of a twist that takes place halfway through a story – although these notes focus mainly on those twists that appear at the last minute and towards which the entire narrative has been building.
A twist focuses on an aspect of the story (a character’s identity, motive, perception, location, an achievement or a moment left to chance). The twist will then turn that aspect on its head and reveal some kind of opposite of the most dramatic, comedic, ironic or horrific kind. For example, wife becomes mother (OEDIPUS REX), boy becomes girl (TWELFTH NIGHT), the living become dead (THE SIXTH SENSE), bikers become vampires (FROM DUSK ‘TIL DAWN).
Now here’s where the writer’s skill really comes into play, and if you’re constructing a four-page FUTURE SHOCK for 2000 AD here’s where you really earn your keep…
The run-up to the twist itself must be in plain sight throughout and yet disguised so that the reader never suspects they are being duped!
In order to surprise the reader, a twist must be founded on a basic assumption (on the part of both the reader and the main character) that things are exactly what they appear to be throughout the story. The writer must casually confirm that assumption throughout while leaving enough room to reveal at the climax that that assumption is, in fact, entirely false. This is why the mere knowledge that a story is going to deliver a twist can kill that story before it even starts. This is because the reader or viewer will be alert to the slightest clue from the very beginning. (2000 AD’s FUTURE SHOCKS may as well be re-titled TWIST AHOY! – another reason why they’re so damn hard to write.) The most effective twists feel like they came out of nowhere, but will have been carefully foreshadowed throughout. Re-watch GAME OF THRONES and you’ll slap yourself for not noticing all that skilful foreshadowing as clear as day.
A twist must therefore be built on certainty not ambiguity. The reader must be led to assume that something is a fact (be it a character’s identity, their motive, their perception of the world, etc), before the twist kicks in and reveals the opposite. You need to establish this assumption/certainty within your story before you can undermine it. You must first carefully lay down your rug and invite the unsuspecting reader onto it before you can whip it out from under them. Rabbit-out-of-a-hat twists with no foreshadowing whatsoever are cheating.
Let the reader assume things they never had any reason to suspect and yet form the perfect solution to the question posed by the story’s premise. For example, in the micro-short story THE RETICENCE OF LADY ANN by Saki, a husband has no idea why his wife has suddenly stopped speaking to him. The question posed by the story becomes: what’s her problem? Is she deaf? What has her husband done to offend her? What is the reason for ‘the reticence of Lady Ann’? It turns out (spoiler!) that Lady Ann is sat in her chair stone dead! The reader never had any reason to question whether or not Lady Ann might be alive. Nevertheless, her being dead concludes the story’s premise both logically and believably. And that’s what you’re after: the unexpected yet perfectly logical.
An element of transgression in a reversal, taboo subjects such as incest, cannibalism or infanticide, can lend an extra level of horror to a twist story.
The five types of twist ending (spoilers, but from nothing later than 2009)
1.) Reversal of Identity
Someone turns out to be someone else (a parent, sibling, son, daughter, a murderer, a mistress) or something else (a ghost, a shapeshifting monster). The twist-character is revealed to be either related to another character (e.g. lover becomes mother - be mindful, though, that this 'I am your father/long-lost brother' stuff can be a bit of a soap opera cliché) or is revealed to have been their own physical opposite all along (e.g. a man is revealed to be a woman).
The character who discovers the reversal usually does so at the same time as the audience in order to achieve maximum shock. In OEDIPUS REX, the woman whom Oedipus assumed was his lover was in fact his mother. In OLD BOY, the woman whom the main character assumed was his lover was in fact his daughter. In THE CRYING GAME, the hero assumes that Jaye Davidson’s character is a woman, when in fact he is a man. In FIGHT CLUB, we assume Brad Pitt’s character exists, when in fact he is entirely imagined. In THE SIXTH SENSE, we assume that Bruce Willis’s character is alive, when in fact he is dead. In THE OTHERS, we assume that Nicole Kidman’s character is alive and haunted by ghosts, when in fact she is a ghost haunted by the living.
2.) Reversal of Motive
Gee, I thought he was after THIS, but he’s really after THAT. Another straightforward twist, this one often found in crime stories, where deceit abounds. A Reversal of Motive occurs when a character’s apparent line of action is finally revealed to be, in fact, a cunning deception; their motivation is the opposite of what was previously assumed. Although similar to a Reversal of Identity, a Reversal of Motive differs in its focus on a psychological rather than physical deception. In EASTERN PROMISES, Viggo Mortensen’s character appears to be a gangster who wants to help fulfil the goals of the Russian mob; he’s really an undercover cop who wants to bring the mob to justice. In SEVEN, a serial killer appears to be helping the police find his last two victims; he really wants to reveal that those victims are the cop’s wife and the killer himself. In LES DIABOLIQUES, a mistress appears to have murdered her lover, when in fact her lover is alive and the two of them are engaged in an elaborate scam.
3.) Reversal of Perception
This is the classic case of the scales falling from a character’s eyes as he or she beholds the world and all its schemes as they truly are. This is a common twist in sci-fi stories where it employs what critic Peter Nicholls calls the ‘conceptual breakthrough’, a perceptual shift that occurs when the hero realises the world is actually bigger/smaller/crazier/more prosaic than was previously thought. “The structure of such stories is often that of a quest in which an intellectual nonconformist questions apparent certainties,” – and discovering either the world’s true identity or that their knowledge of the world is not so much wrong as incomplete. In this way, Nichols argues, all sci-fi is essentially Faustian.
Reversals of Perception are often achieved by the writer pulling back to get the whole picture. The inner workings of the world and its schemes are thus revealed and the enlightened character understands to either their dismay or delight (though usually to their dismay) just how and where they rank in the new order of things.
Reversals of Perception can be identified by location. In PLANET OF THE APES, Charlton Heston realises that he hasn’t crash-landed on an alien planet, but on earth in the far future.
In the stories UNIVERSE by Robert Heinlein, NON-STOP by Brian Aldiss and CAPTIVE UNIVERSE by Harry Harrison, the world turns out to be a generation starship. In OUTSIDE by Aldiss, a suburban house turns out to be an experimental laboratory in which shapeshifting aliens are incarcerated. (These are all Nicolls’ examples.)
In the short story AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE by Ambrose Bierce, a condemned man realises that the world of freedom into which he’s escaped is merely a consolatory fantasy he’s concocted as he chokes to death on the gallows. In the TWILIGHT ZONE episode WHERE IS EVERYBODY? an amnesiac wanders an empty town believing himself to be the last man in earth, before waking to find himself inside an isolation tank as part of a military experiment.
Watch out for that dreaded Reversal of Perception that concludes ‘It was all a dream!’ If you really must attempt one of these twists – many ‘virtual reality prison’ stories are themselves a tired variation – then at least ensure the ending serves as some kind of thematic punchline, that the protagonist has learned something of their own volition and that the journey to reach that ending was worth taking regardless. Or else you’re essentially throwing the reader’s investment in your story back in their face.
4.) Reversal of Fortune
These occur through no fault of the character’s own and often result from some kind of accident, an honest mistake or misunderstanding, or an ironic turn of luck. Either way, capricious Fate has the final say (sometimes for the better, but usually for the worse). This reversal can be tricky to pull off, as it requires a certain amount of deux ex machina, a sense of the author contriving events in order to make the story work. Therefore, such twists must take especial care to be believable, even to the point of being mundane. We’ve all returned the wrong DVD to the video store (back in the day), mistaken one person for someone else, left something valuable on the bus, etc. If you can’t imagine your reader making the same mistake or having the same amount of bad luck as your character, then it probably won’t work in your story. Pixar story artist Emma Coats offers wise words in this regard: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”
In a Reversal of Fortune, the twist is located within the events of the plot itself rather than embodied by a person or place or dramatized by a motive. Instead of resolving a character’s objective in the third act, a Reversal of Fortune typically returns the character to the unhappy state of flux in which they set out in act one. The twist is the kicker that either prevents the hero from achieving their objective or else gives them an unexpected helping hand.
This twist is common in horror stories where it’s conducive to the Big Scary Idea that Fate is out to get you. Like poor Burgess Meredith in the TWILIGHT ZONE episode TIME ENOUGH AT LAST, characters on the receiving end of a Reversal of Fortune will often feel like whimpering, “That’s not fair… That’s not fair at all.” In DRAG ME TO HELL, the heroine unwittingly mistakes a useless coin for the magic button she needs to negate a deadly curse. In LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, the hero defiantly saves the life of a man ‘fated’ to die, only to be forced to have him executed later on. In TIME ENOUGH AT LAST, an unhappy bookworm survives a nuclear apocalypse and finally has all the books he ever wanted – then accidentally breaks his reading glasses.
5.) Reversal of Fulfilment
What one character achieves another character takes away at the very last minute! One character will finally get what they’ve been after throughout the story, only to have it snatched away by an opposing character (often their opposite – husband/wife, father/son, poor/rich). Unlike a Reversal of Fortune, in which Fate steps in to either impede or aid a character in achieving their objective, a Reversal of Fulfilment occurs as a result of BOTH characters fulfilling their opposite objectives relatively unhindered.
The twist cannot come about without one of the characters having previously achieved their objective. For example, Roald Dahl wrote a story about a greenhouse (I can’t find the title) in which a loving wife and an abusive husband both fulfil their opposing goals. The husband succeeds in murdering his wife and burying her body under the greenhouse. But the faithful wife has proved her love by previously arranging for his beloved garden to be renovated, thus uncovering his crime. One fulfilment is cancelled out by another.
Fulfilment-thwarted characters don't realise the depth of the other character’s cunning, stupidity, love, enmity, etc. In the short story MAMMON AND THE ARCHER by O Henry, a son wagers his father that love will always triumph over money. The son proves his point by winning the hand of the girl he loves, but it turns out the father used his wealth in order to contrive the circumstances of the engagement in the first place. In Henry’s THE GIFTS OF THE MAGI, two penniless lovers sell their own most valuable possession in order to buy each other a Christmas present. The girl sells her beautiful hair; the boy sells his pocket watch. The lovers open their presents on Christmas Day only to find he has bought her a comb and she has bought him a watch fob. In the TWILIGHT ZONE episode MR DENTON ON DOOMSDAY, a failed gunslinger takes a potion that will allow him to be the quickest on the draw, only to find that his opponent has bought the same potion.
What DIDN’T you know the whole time?
When identifying a twist, consider the vessel of the twist itself. What is the thing that is reversed?
· A character’s BODY? (‘I thought you were a woman, but really you’re a man!’)
· A character’s OBJECTIVE? (‘I thought you loved me, but really you’re out to kill me!’)
· A character’s LOCATION? (‘I thought this was Heaven, but really it’s Hell!’)
· A glitch in a sequence of EVENTS? (‘Back off. I’ve had a gun in my pocket this whole time. Oh no, it’s really the banana I forgot to eat for lunch!’)
· The OBJECTIVES OF TWO OPPOSING CHARACTERS. (‘And so I’ve proved that age will always triumph over youth.’ ‘That’s what you think, gramps!’)
In stories containing the first three reversals (Identity, Motive and Perception) the main character (and the reader) is ignorant of the fact that their knowledge is incomplete, that a deception is taking place or that an event has already occurred. Bruce Willis was a ghost ALL ALONG; Viggo Mortensen was working for the cops ALL ALONG; Charlton Heston was on Earth ALL ALONG. Here, the twist occurs in the form of a psychological revelation; the truth is finally revealed. This might require a little backstory in order to explain how it came about, so beware: backstory is exposition and always requires a decent burial.
The opposite is true of Reversals of Fortune and Fulfilment. Here, the main character’s knowledge is complete; no deception is taking place and no event has yet occurred. When the twist does occur, it takes the form of a physical (not psychological) event. Of course, such events require foreshadowing, some suggestion that this sort of accident or mistake is actually possible within the story and therefore believable. The twist at the end of DRAG ME TO HELL avoids pulling a rabbit out of a hat by having the heroine’s boyfriend collect coins; an early scene involves talk of a particular rarity that she will end up mistaking for her magic button. In LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, the hero’s arrogant assertion that ‘nothing is written’ is seemingly refuted later on by Fate itself.
Short stories are a natural fit for twists as the build-up doesn’t have to be sustained for too long. Go read Saki, O Henry or Roald Dahl and you’ll find plenty of examples of exquisite narrative mousetraps in which the twist is usually delivered swiftly, understatedly and at the last possible moment.
These findings are based on what I’ve read, what I’ve studied and what I’ve written. They’ve certainly helped me, but they may not help you. The point is, I’m not selling a formula for writing twist stories here. As with any theory about writing, if it doesn’t work for you, that’s fine. Go make it something that does.
I believe there are two sides of us at work when we’re writing: Writer-you and Editor-you. Writer-you is great at seizing cool ideas and blazing through drafts. Editor-you is the intellectual who coolly regards what Writer-you has created and imposes order upon the chaos so the material can actually function as a story. The balancing act of writing is knowing when to let one take over from the other. It’s kinda like a dance or a Tai Chi routine. Instinct and thought, chaos and order, writer and editor. You’re constantly switching between the two; sometimes for a stretch, sometimes for a second.
The theory on twists I’m suggesting here is for Editor-you only. Writer-you is a simple beast that shouldn’t be distracted when in the throes of creating a first draft or coming up with wild ideas. However, Editor-you can sometimes use a little help in identifying what they’re trying to do and how they might do it better. So, if Writer-you has lost their way mid-draft and can’t see the woods for all those stupid trees, let Editor-you take the wheel for a while. Let them check their map, suggest a new direction, and get Writer-you back on the road as soon as possible. The two can’t steer at once, in the same way you can’t drive with a roadmap pasted to the windshield.
Artwork by Ben Willsher
Been thinking about this today while working on a pitch for a fantasy project and going over my accumulated work notes…
Some thoughts, along with some stuff I’ve found, on how theme works in stories: what it is, where you can find it, why no story can do without it (except those that can), how writers can overthink theme, and why it’s never a good idea to write ‘art’
Theme is what a story is really about. Theme articulates how the author feels about their story. Theme (along with character) is what makes a story unique, rather than just another story about a guy robbing a bank, hunting monsters or falling in love with the wrong girl. Theme is about what the plot actually means, to the writer at least. If I'm having trouble driving a story or if the characters feel a bit directionless, it's often because my theme isn't quite there yet and needs focusing into something stronger, simpler or more coherent.
Sometimes I know what the theme is before I've even written the pitch. In such cases, I'll be thinking something like, 'Gee, I really want to tell a story about what it's like to sacrifice something you love. Now what kind of characters would best embody that? What kind of situation would best dramatise that? Where do the ninjas come in?' Other times the theme doesn't emerge until I'm one or two drafts down the line.
When writing comics, I find it's good to know the theme by the time you're writing the breakdown*, because, as Pixar screenwriter Andrew Stanton says, "Theme dictates every decision." I say "it's good to know the theme by the time you're writing the breakdown". It would probably be more accurate to say, "it's good to take a stab at what you think the theme could be". Like everything else in the story at this stage, the theme will change several times before you finally nail it.
What’s in it for you?
Theme is really about finding something in the story to which you can relate. As storyboard artist Emma Coats recently tweeted, “Why must you tell this story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.” Comic writer Mark Waid wrote a great blog on the same topic. In it he explains why it's vital for writers to find something in common with their characters, even if that character is an immortal god of thunder whose day job involves punching people through buildings.
I think the need to relate to your characters is why varied experiences can be so important to a writer; greater experience gives you greater sympathetic range. And by ‘greater experience’ I don’t mean giving up your day-job to go Eat Pray Love in Cambodia. It’s about being alive to what any experience has to offer, no matter how mundane. It’s about living in the moment. Another veteran comic writer John Ostrander wrote a profound article on theme in issue 12 of the (sadly no longer published) comic-writing magazine Write Now!, in which he said that it’s "not a matter of how much experience we have had but what we have learned from it."
Critics obsess over theme because it’s the gateway into the writer’s soul. It’s the writer’s contribution to our collective understanding of the universe. However, as Ostrander points out in his article, your truth it is not the truth. There is no one universal answer; there is only our answer. A story's theme is unique to the storyteller, but it must also mean something to others. Andrew Stanton calls this need to connect with other people, “probably the greatest story commandment, which is ‘make me care’. Please - emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care.”
Theme vs. moral
Don't mistake a theme for a moral. Morals are the currency of fable, not great drama, although dramatic themes often explore a moral or a single idea. When I wrote the second series of Age Of The Wolf, I didn’t figure out the theme until I was halfway through writing the scripts, which, as it turned out, was way too late, caused a lot of problems and ate up a lot of hours in fixing it. But anyway, the subtitle of this series was ‘She Is Legend’, but the theme, I realised, was really ‘is she legend’? Does the heroine always do the right thing? Make the right choices? Is she always noble, virtuous and unselfish? No. Because the people we revere as 'legends' are really just ordinary people; weird, scared, selfish ordinary people. On the other hand, does she get the job done, beat the bad guys and save the people? Yes. I didn’t come to any kind of conclusion about all this. I just let the story steer itself along these lines and left the rest to the gods.
Again, as Ostrander points out (man, you should really go buy this issue), morals differ from theme because they state a truth that allows no further questions. The greatest works of drama convey ambiguity. And ambiguity can enable a story to transcend the coarse mechanics of narrative. One way in which it can do this is by evoking the open-endedness of real life and inflicting a wound that the story cannot heal. This occurs in Jaws when poor Mrs Kintner confronts Chief Brody on the dock, slaps him in the kisser and sobs that heart-stopping line, “But still my boy is dead now and there’s nothing you can do about it.” As film critic Antonia Quirke writes in her razor-sharp BFI monograph on this movie, “an element is introduced into the film that cannot be resolved, or absolved by catharsis. This is the extra leap that art makes. To introduce a trouble which cannot be cured by the resolution of the story.” At this point, it no longer matters if the shark is killed – and the story’s line of action resolved – a mother has lost her child, nothing can bring him back and she will feel the pain of that loss for the rest of her life.
And yet some stories seem to get by just fine without theme. Movie critic and novelist Stephen Hunter is spot-on when he wrote this about Die Hard in his book of collected reviews Violent Screen: “[The movie] illustrates a key principle in the realm of melodrama: if it’s fast and gaudy enough, and if it beats you to oatmeal efficiently enough, you’re willing to throw out all your doubts, sit back and suck up the excitement.”
Snatch is another great example of a movie that gets by pretty much on plot alone. Its characters are ciphers who all sound the same, but the film is so fast and the plot so deftly, so gleefully constructed that you're missing out on a great ride if you don't give in and enjoy it. Hell, it's all art as far as I'm concerned (I stand firmly in the Scott McCloud 'art-is-a-raspberry' camp**).
I guess an absence of theme is a form of ambiguity in itself, and as such opens theme-less melodrama up to interpretation just as much as a masterful novel like The Great Gatsby. Film studies professors these days are as likely to read a student thesis on Steven Seagal movies as they are on the work of auteurs like Hawks or Hitchcock.
Too much theme?
Every story is worth something, even if it's only worth a rant about how much it sucks. And, of course, these days everyone has a platform on which to express what they feel a story is worth. No wonder writers get nervous. It’s a demanding crowd out there, and bad reviews - professional or otherwise - all amount to bad publicity, which many writers fear can sour their chances of scoring their next gig. Such a volatile atmosphere can perhaps intimidate a writer into fussing about theme, spending more time worrying about how that theme will be interpreted and less time actually telling the story.
To take a couple of recent cinematic examples, movies like Prometheus and Man Of Steel feel to me like they're overcompensating. Why overcomplicate what are essentially pulp stories, whose vigour and meaning reside in their very simplicity? Why strive to answer the sort of questions asked by people who are more interested in trivia than in surrendering themselves to a great story? And don't get me started on the whole prequel thing, a trend that often feels dedicated to destroying whatever mystery made the earlier stories so enticing in the first place. I'm also reading a lot of comics these days that feel like they're labouring to create a worthy contribution to a time-honoured canon, straining to satisfy the dreary demands of continuity.
Dammit, just lighten up and tell me a story!
We all know that (zap, pow) comics are no longer just for children, while pioneering critics and theorists like Kim Newman and Scott McCloud have helped vindicate the 'low' genres and mediums (and thus influenced these fields creatively way more than I think many people realise - but that's another pet theory of mine). It's great that the value of melodrama and comics has been recognised, but what happens when writers take that recognition too seriously and become preoccupied with what it all means? In his gripping film history Blockbuster: How The Jaws And Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood Into A Boom-Town, film critic Tom Shone explains how the Alien franchise fell foul of overthinking. “The more fascinated Alien films grew with the richness of their own thematic texture, the more they neglected their humble duty to terrify, and by the time of Alien Resurrection [or indeed Prometheus - Alec], the series had unspooled into mere marginalia, of archival interest to those who wished to know what happens when you give an Alien movie to a Frenchman to direct.”
No writer wants to come across as an amateur, but it's never EVER a good idea to write 'art'. That applies whether you're Barbara Cartland or Vladimir Nabokov. When in the midst of writing, say ‘balls to art’. It's a raspberry. Concentrate on the task in hand. Think theme, not art. Look for the simplest piece of emotional truth at the heart of the story and communicate that. Don’t think,
feeeeeewl! Speak your mind, but remember Denny O'Neil's cardinal rule of theme (apparently passed on to a young John Ostrander, whose Write Now! article you should really, really read): “You can say anything you want but first you must tell a story.”
* When you're writing a comics series, or branded fiction (like, say, a Warhammer tie-in book for Games Workshop), the commissioning editor - if they like your initial pitch - will usually ask for a 'breakdown' of what happens in each chapter of your proposed story. Before you can actually write the story you're proposing to write, you have to explain how that story starts and ends, how it moves from A to B, and how the main character does this, that, the other and why. The process of figuring all this stuff out is what screenwriters call ‘outlining’ or ‘breaking the story’. Most writers agree it’s a nightmare process that usually feels like the story is trying to break you!
** Go read chapter seven of McCloud's Understanding Comics...
If you want to find out more about what I think when it comes to writing comics and stuff, check out Comic script formatting: here’s what I do... Or if you’d rather read what better-qualified folks have to say about this sort of thing, go read Pixar’s Andrew Stanton on great storytelling, Emma Coats’ 22 rules of storytelling and go buy some back issues of Write Now! while you’re at it.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a special effects guy. This was after it had finally sunk in that being an archaeologist did not mean I’d get to watch a Tyrannosaurus fight a Triceratops. So, ‘special effects guy’ it would be. And if I couldn’t be Ray Harryhausen, then I’d settle for being one of those guys with a beard and sneakers tinkering with cool stuff in a cavernous workshop out in the suburbs. I’d seen them at it on those behind-the-scenes documentaries they used to air on bank holiday weekends and always seemed to open with some dashing American voiceover that intoned, ‘WE TAKE YOU BEHIND THE MAGIC…’ But alas, it turned out special effects guys needed to know loads of boring practical stuff like carpentry, electronics, mathematics and wotnot. (I’m pretty sure that my perception of a career in special effects before then was that it might involve test-driving an X-Wing or running around dressed as Predator.) But special effects continue to fascinate me, especially how certain creations seem to generate an eerie post-movie life of their own.
Years ago, I had my heart quietly broken during a visit to a Ray Harryhausen exhibition at the now-defunct Museum of the Moving Image. I got to see the stop-motion models that had played some of my favourite movie monsters, the grinning skeleton warriors from Jason And The Argonauts, and six-armed Kali– the animated statue from Golden Voyage Of Sinbad. But it turned out even monsters of legend suffer the pangs of mortality. Their joints were cracked, their limbs crumbled, patches of latex flesh had decayed entirely revealing the metal armatures beneath. I recall the gorilla model Harryhausen used for 1949’s Mighty Joe Young had crumbled into an unrecognisable green stump. It was like watching faerie gold turn to rocks upon contact with the real world.
Now here’s where life as a retired special effect gets a little ‘Toy Story’. If you’re lucky, someone may devote time and money to restoring you. Check out the kind of four-star facelift received by the Skeksis – the vulture-like villains of Jim Henson’s soulful epic fantasy The Dark Crystal…
Or maybe some nostalgic old buff will put you on display in his basement museum. Just look at where ‘Oscar’ – the eponymous lycanthrope from An American Werewolf In London – ended up…
But the fate of such creations is usually far more ignominious. Once the movie’s in the can most special effects can expect to be either cannibalised for spare parts or ruthlessly tossed into a skip. Then again, they may end up decorating a California junkyard, like ‘Bruce’, the famously obstinate mechanical shark from Jaws…
“Jaws terrified me so much as a kid that one important fact didn't immediately occur to me: The shark was fake.
In Hunting Bruce, or, on the trail of the Jaws shark, an article for radio syndicate NPR, journalist Cory Turner describes how his lifelong fascination with the movie’s special effects star led him to the heartbreaking discovery that the three Bruces used in the picture had been left
to rot in the Universal backlot. Or had they…
This article illuminates that weird intersection between screen fantasy and special effects reality much better than this rambling blog post, so check it out.
Weirdly, my discovery of this article and my current nostalgic funk for special effects coincides with the depressing news that major VFX house Rhythm & Hues filed for bankruptcy a week before it won an Oscar for its dazzling work on Life Of Pi. Prompted by Rhythm & Hues going bust, many VFX artists protested outside the Oscars venue, trying to draw attention to the fact that their industry currently labours under a unfavourable business model.
Here’s a news piece by Variety that highlights some of the key issues.