As anxious a year as this has been, 2016 has left me downright fearful about what’s waiting around the corner next year. I put together this silly two-page comic (above) not so much for my own amusement (although it’s always fun to take the Mickey out of Newsnight Review) as to articulate the jitters I felt during the run-up to the E.U. referendum. This was a time when the British media was generally encouraging the voting public to base a momentous decision on a fog of hysterical reactions, outright lies and fearmongering, and a terrifying absence of facts.
We joke about how such mania is commonplace within the vacuum of social media, but here it appeared to have spilled out into national discourse. And would do so again elsewhere, of course.
The appeal of social media lies in its powers of reduction, to condense an ocean of information into a manageable stream. But when one views the world primarily through such a lens it can reduce the most nuanced argument to a binary option: yes/no, black/white, good/evil. If you’re not 100 percent on my team, then you’re 100 percent against us.
Social media prioritises impassioned response over rational engagement. It fosters paranoia, the assumption that unless the person standing next to you is announcing their fealty to the cause at every opportunity then they’re probably batting for the Dark Side. It encourages an almost sociopathic lack of compassion. It erodes generosity of spirit, the moral imagination required to consider without endorsing – just for a moment – a view that you may not share, rather than dig a little deeper and ask why does that person think that? It encourages readers to skim information, to ignore anything below an often-inaccurate headline, to share articles out of confirmation bias, to brand ourselves as standing unequivocally in this camp or that, two sides calling each other Hitler, each getting angrier at the others’ inability to see the truth, each feeding off each other, needing each other, creating an almighty yin and yang of idiocy, extremism begetting extremism.
Creativity flourishes not on timid conformity, but on fearlessness and rebellion. Great stories thrive not on comforting notions of good guys and bad guys, but the dramatic conflict generated by moral ambiguity, compromise and paradox. But social media has taught readers to be on high-alert for anything they may deem offensive, i.e. challenging, and to punish any such perpetrators accordingly. Today anything, from making an ignorant remark to proposing new ideas, can cause a backlash that damages a working writer’s reputation and livelihood. So can writers be blamed for being tempted to retreat into orthodoxy? Never did Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, that bitter cautionary fable about the ruinous paranoia of McCarthy-era America, feel so prescient.
I’m reminded of a passage from author H.E. Bates’ critical survey The Modern Short Story, first published in 1941: “The notion that literature, and the novel especially, should teach something, that it should carry a lesson, a moral, or a message, and that its results should not give purely aesthetic, sensuous, and recreative pleasure, is one that dies very hard. This notion almost invariably springs from and is fostered by the public and not by writers, who nevertheless in Victorian times often succumbed to the weight of public demand. It seems ludicrous now to think that in its serial form (to be read by the sacred fireside) the passages in Tess where Angel Clare carried [author's italics] the girls across the stream had to be altered so that these girls were decently wheeled across in a wheelbarrow. --- It seems incredible and ludicrous to us that Tess should have been banned, and Jude burned, when to-day their actions, which once brought the thunder from the pulpits, seem only mistakes of timid triviality. The lesson there is clear for all writers: that they should never, from first to last, pay the least attention to public opinion, or to what is worse – public taste.”
However, today we have never been more aware of what we must oppose. Thanks to camera-phones we can see all manner of loathsome behaviour autoplayed on our social media feeds. It’s no wonder that appalled writers feel the need to pick up their trusty weapon – whether pen, pencil or keyboard – and fight back. But when it comes to the type of stories that I write – good old-fashioned, rip-roaring melodrama full of heroes super and otherwise – no one wants to read a bash-you-over-the-head social justice agitprop full of clunky one-note archetypes defined solely by their gender, race or sexuality, all of whom are likely preaching to a readership already converted. Besides, you don’t change the minds of bigots by screaming at them. There are subtler ways of fighting the good fight (whatever your fight may be). A precise whisper can be deadlier than the shout. How about less ‘social justice warrior’, more ‘social justice ninja’?
Progressive writing is often just a case of writing well, of engaging best practice in terms of modern storytelling. So please don’t expect a pat on the back or a bucket full of brownie points for just doing your damn job!
We avoid the default of ‘straight white middle-class male’ and seek fresh perspectives because we need to find a fresh hook, something that can spin an archetypal story off in a new direction. Consider how the Netflix show Luke Cage (despite going into a tailspin in the last few episodes) put an invigorating spin on the superhero story by telling it through the lens of the African-American experience. I also love the ‘stealth diversity’ of things like Star Wars: Rebels and Big Hero Six, which have multiracial/multigender casts and don’t make any kind of fuss about it.
As a writer it’s your responsibility to give your exposition a decent burial, to let the reader discover your theme rather than spell it out for them. (Andrew Stanton of the Pixar braintrust calls this “the unifying theory of two-plus-two”, i.e. don’t show the audience ‘four’. Give them ‘two’ then ‘two’ and let them figure out the rest for themselves.) The movie Zootropolis wouldn’t be half as brilliant if it had settled for the simple message of ‘Racism. Is. Bad.’ It assumes the audience of children – of children, dammit! – are smart enough to understand that even those with the best intentions struggle with prejudice of some kind. That’s a dramatic paradox, right there!
It’s the writer’s job to create rounded, nuanced characters, of which gender, ethnicity, sexuality, spirituality and political views are just a few aspects of the myriad that makes that character who they are. Readers want characters with whom they can relate, whose flaws are more interesting than their strengths. (By the way, we want female characters who are ‘strong’ in the sense of ‘vivid’, not ‘strong’ in the sense of how hard they can punch someone.)
Might it be argued then that good writing is inherently progressive? I dunno. But I do know that good writing and progressive writing are at their most effective when they’re drawing the least amount of attention to themselves.
“When the work is done, and one’s name is becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of heaven,” wrote Lao Tzu. Only he was lucky enough to be speaking two and a half thousand years before writers were fighting to wrest their readers’ attention away from Netflix, Twitter, and the Xbox. It’s no longer good enough to be good, today’s writer must be heard as well.
I wish I could conclude this blog with something nice and comforting, along the lines of ‘just do XYZ, readers, and everything will be fine.’ But I’m afraid December 2016 has found me all out of homilies. I’m left to venture into 2017 armed with nothing more than a handful of slogans: progress fearlessly, be better than what makes you angry, and – in the words of the late great stand-up comic Bill Hicks – “Read! Listen! Think! Shut the f*** up!”
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.
Hear a joint-interview with myself and Al Ewing on the 2000 AD Writers Panel (recorded at the Bristol Comics Expo, May 2014). Hosted by Everything Comes Back To 2000 AD. (Contains a few swears.)
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
I recently gave a talk at the Bristol Comic Expo 2014 about how I started writing for 2000 AD by pitching Future Shocks scripts. I’ve written up my notes as the following blog, covering everything from submission tactics to coping with rejection and why there’s really no such thing as ‘breaking in’
This blog positions me as some kind of veteran - albeit of a teeny-tiny patch of comicdom - so I'd better show off a couple of medals before I start dishing out advice. I’ve had two original series published in 2000 AD, that’s Age Of The Wolf and Dandridge. I’ve also written Tales From The Black Museum, Robo-Hunter, and Judge Dredd. So there.
But before I got to write all that, I ‘broke in’ by submitting Tharg’s Future Shocks (read on to find out why I just dropped the inverted-comma bomb). What the heck is a Future Shock? Well, according to the 2000 AD submission guidelines they’re “self-contained, four-page science-fiction short stories with a twist ending”. These things appear several times a year in 2000 AD and there are several genre variants that employ the same format. These include horror stories called Terror Tales, time-travel stories called Time Twisters and alternate-history stories called Past Imperfect. But do bear in mind, if you’re submitting, that Tharg is asking for Future Shocks!
Now, 2000 AD has an open-door submissions policy, which means anyone can take a crack at writing a Future Shock and have a fair shot at getting it published. As such, this is the route through which the majority of new writers come to 2000 AD. This was how Simon Spurrier and Al Ewing arrived, both of whom now write for Marvel. Arthur Wyatt, writer of the bestselling Dredd movie sequel comic Underbelly, also fought his way through the slush pile, as did, most recently, writer and artist David Baillie (whose excellent blog contains a wealth of behind-the-magic info) and novelist T.C. Eglington (author of popular children’s books The Spellbound Hotel and its sequel The Stolen City).
Having gone through this apprenticeship myself, from submitting my first Future Shock to graduating to my first series, I’ve learned a great deal. But before I go into any of that, first let me tell you what I’m not going to tell you.
I’m not going to tell you how to get your Future Shock submission accepted. Why? Because I don't know. I’m not the editor; I’m the freelancer. I’m the guy on the outside looking in and as such have no idea what the editor does or doesn’t do, what processes he may or may not go through, what he may favour or can't stand. (Here’s a good time for me to add a little disclaimer along the lines of ‘all opinions expressed herein are my own and do not represent those of Rebellion, yadda, yadda, yadda…’)
All I can tell you is what worked for me; and the truth is all anyone can tell you is what worked for them. Telling people how to break into comics (and Craig Mazin of the wonderful Scriptnotes podcast said exactly this of screenwriting in the US) is like telling them how to lose their virginity. I can tell you how I lost mine (and I usually will after six pints of Stella), but that’s it. Everyone’s circumstances are different. It’s therefore pretty much impossible to dish out one-size-fits-all advice.
However, one thing we can all agree on is that Future Shocks are super-hard to write well. And here’s four reasons why:
1.) You’re trying to surprise the reader with a final-page twist that they know is coming the second they see the words ‘Future Shocks’ on the contents page. Regular readers know these things contain twists and will have rounded up a list of possible punchlines by the time they've reached the bottom of the first page. 'I'll bet it was Earth all along, or the main character's really a ghost, or he's the killer he's been searching for all along, or maybe...'
2.) You’ve got only four pages in which to build a sense of character or consequence, so the reader actually cares about what you’re writing.
3.) It’s hard to avoid what’s been done before. Never mind what Future Shocks have been coming up with since they first appeared in 2000 AD in 1977, short-form sting-in-the-tail sci-fi stories have been doing their thing since at least the 1890s, when H.G. Wells was writing War Of The Worlds. Over a century later, even the most seemingly original ideas have likely been done to death already. (It’s interesting how at least two recent Future Shocks reflected this sense of a creative bottleneck by offering very postmodern spins on the Future Shock story: Simon Spurrier and Jon Davis-Hunt’s Hacked (Prog 1754, Oct 2011) and David Baillie and Graeme Neil Reid’s Time Is The Only Enemy (Prog 1837, June 2013). The first was a witty deconstruction of classic Future Shock tropes, while the second featured a Future Shock writer who essentially found himself in the middle of one of his own stories.)
4.) Competition is fierce. I asked Tharg himself, 2000 AD’s almighty alien editor, how many Future Shock submissions does the Nerve Centre receive? I was told approximately two a day. That’s 10 a week, around 40 a month and almost 500 a year. And how many Future Shocks actually got published in 2013? Seven.
What’s your best chance of getting a script accepted amid that scrum? Like I said, I don’t know, but here’s what happened with me. I started submitting in January 2007. At the time I’d had a lot of film journalism published, but had no creative credits. I’d written plenty of short stories and wotnot but had nothing published outside the small press. Once I had decided to target 2000 AD, I submitted relentlessly and got rejected half as much again. So the first thing I learned about writing Future Shocks was…
WRITE PLENTY OF SCRIPTS!
Submitting Future Shocks is a war of attrition in which scripts are your ammunition. We’re talking World War Z tactics here, whereby you get over the wall by clambering up a pile of rejected scripts, each one better than the last. Now here’s the next thing I learned…
REJECTION IS A CERTAINTY!
After getting hit by several of these horrible little form letters, you’re going to feel as though you’re feeding all your hard work into a shredder. I coped by telling myself…
WRITE LIKE YOU’VE ALREADY BEEN REJECTED!
Here’s some good news: All you need to care about is writing your script. You can’t control what happens once you’ve posted it. You can’t control whether it gets accepted or rejected. You can’t control what artist might work on it. You can’t control whether the readers will love it, hate it or dismiss it as ‘filler’. Hell, you can’t even guarantee Royal Mail can get your submission as far as Oxford! So don’t distract yourself by worrying about the possibilities. Focus on the script you’re writing. Don’t worry about failing or succeeding. Keep a clear head. This allows you to bring all your experience and ability to bear, and this will help you write as well as you possibly can.
While attempting to maintain this Zen-state (not always successfully), I knuckled down until I had a stack of scripts on file; around six or seven. So, as soon as that rejection arrived I could fire off a replacement straight away. Of course, if the editor had included any feedback with that rejection (e.g. ‘too many panels per page’, ‘you need to dramatize the story rather than just narrate it’) then I’d review the script I was about to send out, just to make sure I wasn’t making that same mistake twice.
IMPLEMENT ANY EDITORIAL FEEDBACK!
This went on for about three years, in between other writing jobs, including film journalism and subediting, until I got to a stage where Tharg let me pitch ideas instead of having to write the entire script. By now I’d been regularly writing film and comic-related reviews, articles and interviews for the Judge Dredd Megazine. It's perhaps safe to assume that the fact my copy always met the brief, the word count, and the deadline, went some way towards convincing Tharg that I was a safe pair of hands.
Soon after, I ventured an idea for my first series (Age Of The Wolf), which got accepted, after which I was ‘in’, although ‘in’ means whatever you want it to mean. No one gives you a certificate. Tharg doesn’t invite you to the Nerve Centre and say ‘I dub thee a script-droid’ (and if he did he’d probably only anoint you with a clip round the ear and threats of further violence unless you returned to your cubicle straight away).
Having gone through all that (the submitting Future Shocks not the Betelgeusian beatdown), I can probably distil everything I’ve learned about submitting Future Shocks into two broad categories of wisdom…
1.) ASK YOURSELF WHY YOU’RE DOING THIS
2.) GET IN BY GETTING GOOD.
Let me break these two down, starting with the first one.
Having spoken to many writers over the years, I reckon there’s three types of people who submit Future Shocks: fans, aspiring professionals and established professionals. The fans aren’t in it for long haul; they’re just taking a punt on a cool idea, which is still a perfectly valid reason for submitting. These guys and girls are in the game on a casual basis. The aspiring pros, however, are in it to win it. They want to write comics professionally one day. The established professionals
are already making a living out of writing and for them this is just another outlet. These folks may be seasoned journalists, or fiction writers with several novels under their belt.
In terms of who stands the best chance of writing the sort of script most likely to get accepted, the established professionals probably have the edge, if only because they can write well enough to get paid to do it. The aspiring professionals probably have the advantage over the fans because they’re more likely to have studied the techniques that make a good script. Notice my emphasis here not on getting accepted, but on writing a good script. Because the surest route towards acceptance is to…
WRITE A GOOD SCRIPT!
I’m reminded here of an anecdote I once heard about an agent who telephones a publisher and says, ‘My client’s written a 10,000-word novel. Would you be interested in publishing it?’ To which the publisher replies, ‘Depends which words and in which order.’
To write a good script you’ll need to know how to build up an idea, how to tell a story visually, and understand drama, character and plot (and how those last three are all the same thing). So the advice to the underdogs out there has to be…
THINK LIKE A PRO EVEN IF YOU’RE NOT!
Don’t think like an amateur. Think like the writer you want to become. Get good at what you’re doing.
When I first started submitting I guess I was somewhere between aspiring and established (lots of work in niche publications and not much else, but I’d been around the block enough times to know what I was doing). When I started writing comics, I made all the usual rookie mistakes, which Tharg got me to wring out of the accepted scripts before they went to the artists. But once I’d made that first couple of sales and emerged blinking into the wonderful world of professional comics writing, I started to realise that a lot of the terminology I was used to hearing when I was still a Future Shock virgin didn’t really reflect the truth, certainly not as I was experiencing it.
For starters, ‘breaking in’, as I discovered, is really more like ‘seeping in’, like mould. I recall Simon Spurrier saying something to this effect elsewhere, but ‘breaking in’ implies there’s this one barrier, this single door that you have to get through, on the other side of which is this wonderful Wonkaland of comics in which you’ll never be rejected again, in which editors will queue up to give you work, and you’ll get paid to write whatever you want. That dream may come true way, way, waaaay down the line. If you’re super-lucky.
For now, the reality of submitting Future Shocks is this: You will exhaust yourself breaking down that door, getting that first script accepted, and once you’re through, guess what you’ll find on the other side…? Another door. And behind that, another door, and so on and so on. And each of those doors will be as hard to get through as the last. Submitting never gets any easier, even after you’ve scored a few sales, even when you get better at it. It’s like a video game where your character levels up, but the monsters just get stronger, and so the challenge remains the same.
So words like ‘breaking in’ don’t reflect the truth and yet do determine your view of the business you’re trying to get in to. So…
Another term that can be deceptive: ‘comic writer’. If you want to become a professional comics writer you need to know what that means in reality and not what you think it means based on what you’ve read in interviews and other such promotions. I always used to assume, even when I had plenty of professional experience, that if someone was referred to as a ‘comic writer’ then they spent 100% of their time writing comics, when, of course, that’s very often not the case.
For many freelance writers, writing comics is just one gig among several. Chances are they’ll be toiling through two or more deeply unsexy writing gigs that they won’t want to mention during that interview with SFX magazine. They may be making the majority of their income proofreading recipe books or writing marketing copy for a high-street bank (I’ve done both). Lucky is the writer who can straight away launch a freelance career based on a creative niche like comics, which is why you need to be aware of the bigger picture at all times.
FUTURE SHOCKS ARE NOT THE BE-ALL AND END-ALL!
If you’re submitting Future Shocks with an eye on becoming a professional comics writer (that is, a freelance writer who works in comics), then submitting Future Shocks should be thought of as one fishing rod among many. Write other things for other outlets and see what bites. Do you know an artist? Have a firm idea about how you can self-publish something that will actually reach an audience? Then go for it.
Over the years, I’ve met a heartbreaking amount of people who’ve become fixated on writing or drawing for 2000 AD above all else, who’ve built the idea up in their head until it means more to them than is healthy.
ASK YOURSELF WHY YOU’RE DOING THIS!
The answer to that question shouldn’t be because you have to, because you’ll be a failure if you don’t, because getting a script accepted will validate who are. Stephen Pressfield’s awesome little book The War Of Art rightly warns of the dangers of staking your self-worth, your identity, your reason-for-being, on the response of others to your work.
Why was I doing it? Because I was a freelance writer who wanted to work for a paying creative outlet. I didn’t let it mean any more to me than that. Of course, emotionally it means way more to me than that. My inner fanboy is constantly bouncing up and down squealing ‘I write for 2000 AD! Woo-Hoo!’ But I keep him locked away when he needs to be and never let him get in the way of the work. Now, lesson two…
GET IN BY GETTING GOOD!
This came from an interview I read with former 2000 AD editor Andy Diggle, from Comic Heroes magazine. He said, "Everyone always asks how to break into the industry, but they never ask how to become a better writer. That's the answer - you break in by getting good at it."
So how do you get good at writing Future Shocks? You start by reading the two compilations Rebellion have published, that’s The Complete Alan Moore Future Shocks and The Best Of Tharg’s Future Shocks. But you also examine the foundations upon which the series is built. Future Shocks are short twist stories, which – never mind those found in Will Eisner’s The Spirit or classic anthology comics like Tales From The Crypt – is a form probably as old as the short story itself. While submitting my Future Shock scripts I read plenty of twist stories by those whom I had decided were the masters of the form, particularly Saki and O Henry. I watched shows like vintage Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
You’re reading and watching these to examine how they work, but you’re also familiarising yourself with the types of stories that have since become cliché. You’re becoming literate in the form.
Now the classic advice about writing, which you’ve no doubt heard a zillion times, is to read as much as possible and write as much as possible. I’d argue these two disciplines alone are actually of limited benefit to a writer. You need to read a lot? Definitely. Write a lot? Certainly. But you also need to take time out and…
Let’s say you want to become a great comic writer, you’ll dutifully work your way through the classics: Eisner, Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns and everything else that finds its way onto every ‘100 best graphic novels list’ ever. But unless you know why you’re reading these books all you’re really doing is ticking titles off a list…
DON’T JUST READ IT, STUDY IT!
What’s so damn important about Watchmen anyway? Why does everyone say I have to read it? Don’t rely on the opinions of others, no matter how unimpeachably expert they may be. Challenge everything you’ve heard about this book. Approach it like you’ve never heard of it. Make up your own mind. Have the courage to disagree.
With a clear head, unclouded by hype and reverence, ask simple questions. What techniques is this story using? What effect does this create? What are the story’s antecedents? What’s the historical context, the circumstances in which this story was produced? What do you know about the person who wrote it?
Take nothing for granted. Develop an aggressive, even arrogant sense of what you think works or doesn’t work. Cultivate a sense of taste. Compile your own canon. Fuck ‘the classics’.
The same goes for writing. You can write a dozen scripts, but if you’re not learning more about what the medium can do, experimenting with new techniques, and being brave enough to fail, then you will never improve and every script you write will suck just as much as the last one.
There’s three strands to learning how to write anything (comics, novels, plays, anything)…
1.) UNDERSTAND LANGUAGE
2.) UNDERSTAND THE MEDIUM
3.) UNDERSTAND DRAMA.
The first is a given. If you want to write professionally, but can’t be bothered to learn how to string a sentence together, or how grammar and syntax work, then you’re the equivalent of a plumber who doesn’t know which way up to hold a monkey-wrench.
No editor worth writing for is going to accept poorly written English. If your Future Shock synopsis contains more than one typo or grammatical error, then I’m pretty sure that’s all the excuse Tharg needs to reach for another rejection slip. He’s got a filing cabinet full of these submissions, which he needs to get through before lunch.
Having worked for several years as a subeditor, I know how lazy writers can be when they think they can get away with it. But there’s no subeditor at 2000 AD to check your spelling for you or sharpen up your syntax before Tharg takes a look at it.
As I was rightly reminded by a member of the audience during my talk at Bristol, learning difficulties such as dyslexia need not be a barrier to writing professionally (it didn’t stop F. Scott Fitzgerald, Agatha Christie or Quentin Tarantino). Seek information and support from organisations like The British Dyslexia Association or charities like Dyslexia Action.
As for the rest of you, there are plenty of books on grammar and style out there (I’d recommend Constance Hale’s firecracker of a style-guide Sin And Syntax for starters, as well as several of the Chambers and Oxford guides on style and plain English). There’s no excuse, people.
The same goes for strand number two, understand how your medium works. We’re talking comics here, so the bible has to be Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (a must!) and his third book, Making Comics. I’d also recommend Eisner’s venerable but still relevant books Graphic Storytelling And Visual Narrative and Comics And Sequential Art. Sorted.
Now, strand three, understand drama. This is particularly relevant when it comes to writing Future Shocks because you don’t have room to get away with spouting reams of exposition; it has to be this tight little six-pack of a story.
Here’s how drama works: your main character is trying to achieve something, but something or someone is standing in their way, and something awful will happen to that main character unless they achieve their goal.
That right there is the nucleus of storytelling and it goes back to the days of togas and inventing democracy. The key to understanding how it applies is to see how it exists within stories on both a macro level and a micro level, that is, to the overall story and within the smallest component of the story: the scene.
What does Indiana Jones want to achieve in Raiders Of The Lost Ark? The recovery of the Ark of the Covenant. What’s standing in his way? The Nazis. What will happen if Indy doesn’t achieve what he’s set out to do? The Nazis will take over the world.
Now let’s zoom in on that scene when Indy visits Marion at the bar in Nepal. What does Indy want to achieve at the start of this scene? He wants to convince Marion to tell him where to find the headpiece to the Staff of Ra. What’s standing in his way? Marion doesn’t want to tell him because she’s still mad at him about the way he treated her in the past. What will happen if Indy doesn’t find the headpiece? The Nazis will get it, discover the Ark’s resting place and eventually use the artefact to take over the world.
What you’re developing here is the writer’s x-ray vision, which will enable you to see through an overall premise or a single scene and identify what’s driving it. It’s the equivalent of an artist spending countless hours studying anatomy until they know instinctively how to structure a pose.
Let’s come up with a generic Future Shock premise right now. Let’s say there’s a guy in space-prison. What does he want to do? Escape. What’s stopping him? Bars, security guards, perimeter guns. What will happen to this guy if he doesn’t escape? We could settle for saying he’ll spend the rest of his life behind bars, but let’s ramp it up a bit. Your stakes need to be as dramatic as possible. So let’s say he’s offended fellow inmate Big Xertlik, Anvil-Headed Nutter of Worlds, who will Scotch-kiss our hero into oblivion unless he escapes within the next hour. Ooh, a time limit. Now we’re cooking.
Now let’s zero-in on a scene. Let’s say our hero is on work detail, breaking rocks with a laser-hammer, and an alien guard is about to discover the hole he’s digging and through which he was about to escape. Oh crap. The guard is striding towards him right now! What does our hero need to do? Prevent the guard from discovering the tunnel and alerting the other guards. What’s preventing the hero from doing this? This bruiser’s heavily armed and so are his buddies. What’s at stake? Horrible tortures await those who try and escape, so our hero’s going to wish he was staring up at Big Xertlik, Anvil-Headed Nutter of Worlds, if that tunnel gets discovered.
LINE OF ACTION. COUNTER-ACTION. STAKES. THE ONLY FORMULA YOU’LL EVER NEED.
Obviously, you’d need to put a fresh spin on that space-prison premise and ask a whole bunch of other questions, like what’s going to make my space-prison story different from everyone else’s? How can I make the reader care what happens to this guy? What’s the twist at the end? Notice how working up a story is about asking the right questions. Learning about drama will help you understand which questions to ask and how you can give the best answers for the story that you have in mind.
Writers, being writers, like to romanticise, especially about writing. But don’t be fooled. The hard work involved in writing a story isn’t magic; it’s mechanics. It’s craft. It’s learnable. Yes, there’s instinct involved, but instinct is built upon knowledge and experience. As the French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix once said, “First learn to be a craftsman; it won’t keep you from being a genius.” (By the way, I found that quote in John Yorke’s Into The Woods, a comprehensive breakdown of the mysteries and function of drama, and another must-read).
And it’s the same with ideas. You shouldn’t worry about being unable to generate enough ideas to keep writing scripts. Learning about drama can help you build a Future Shock idea out of anything. Check out New Scientist, Wired, or a Sunday magazine. Find an article that tickles your interest and ask how can I turn this into a Future Shock? Who might be the main character? What might they want? Have fun…
MAKE A GAME OF IT!
Remember that freedom you felt as a kid when you were writing or drawing? Back before it all came to mean something? That lack of self-consciousness is what you’re trying to get back to, because that’s how you’ll stand the best chance of doing your best work. If you’ve received a dozen rejections, then clearly you may have to ask yourself whether your best is ever going to be good enough for this publication. But the only way to find out for sure is to give it your best shot.
And that's all I had to say on the subject of Future Shocks. I was going to include a section on twists, different types, how they work and so on, but I didn’t have room to include it. Plus, it’s a bit advanced, so I’ll probably end up doing this as another blog at some point…
In the meantime, have a listen to this podcast recording of a 2000 AD writers panel I also did at Bristol with the mighty Al Ewing (Judge Dredd, Loki: Agent Of Asgard), hosted by the good folks at Everything Comes Back To 2000 AD...
Check out this podcast recording of the 2000 AD writers panel featuring Al Ewing (Judge Dredd, Zombo, Loki: Agent Of Asgard) and my good self. This took place at the awesome Bristol Comic Expo 2014 and was recorded by Iz McAuliffe and Stacey Whittle on behalf of the good folks at Everything Comes Back To 2000 AD. You can also download the episode via iTunes or the ECBT2000AD Libsyn webpage. (Contains a few swears.)
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.
I recently changed the way I lay out my comic scripts for 2000 AD. Wanna see…?
Here’s how I used to do them…
And here’s how I do them now…
Why the change? What’s the difference? Well here’s why and what, and prepare for some subatomic levels of pernicketiness…
I’m a real process nerd. I’m forever making notes on exactly how I came up with a pitch, put together an episode breakdown, wrote a script, or edited the finished piece. It often feels like I’m spending as much time writing notes as I am writing the scripts themselves, but it helps me figure out how to refine the entire process and avoid making the same time-consuming mistakes twice. I used to think I was wasting precious work-hours, but I’ve since learned it saves bags of time in the long run. So this change in formatting came about as part of an ongoing overhaul, a result of not only putting in place what works best for me, but also what works best for the artists and letterers, or so they tell me.
A comic script is ultimately a very hands-off way of writing a story – certainly when you’re writing ‘full script’ as you do for 2000 AD. I don’t get to tinker with the dialogue or sound effects down the line. Once the script is written, I invoice the thing and start writing something else. By the time the script sees print as the finished comic, I’m usually so immersed in another story that I’ve forgotten how the one that’s just been published actually ends!
Writing a comic in this way is a bit like directing a movie without ever being on set. Instead, you write a detailed memo to guide the cinematographer, actors and editor in your absence. For obvious reasons, I like to smooth the transition from person-to-person as much as possible, making sure everyone has everything they need from me in order to do a great job.
How I learned to stop worrying and despise writers
Taking care with formatting also stems from me not wanting artists and letterers to hate my guts. Maybe this has something to do with personal insecurity or maybe the fact that I’ve worked for a long time as a subeditor. Having subbed various publications for various clients over the years, I know what it’s like to be last in line, racing against an insane deadline while struggling to make sense of copy that appears to have been written by someone suffering a concussion.
Seriously, kids, if you want to become a professional writer, you could do a lot worse than find a freelance gig as a subeditor for a magazine or newspaper. It helps sharpen your grammar and syntax, and your ability to condense (a vital skill when it comes to writing comics). It also erodes any fears you may have about committing words to the page. “500-word news piece by lunchtime? No worries, chief.”
Most importantly, working as a subeditor will trample out of you every ridiculous romantic notion you ever had about writing. After several weeks of wrestling with copy that you’re pretty sure the writer came up with by pressing their face into the keyboard for several seconds before clicking ‘send’ with an invoice attached, you’ll have developed a healthy loathing for lazy writers.
Comics are a collaborative medium, and if the writer can’t be arsed to do their job that means everyone else in the collaborative chain has to pick up the slack (and do so for the same paycheck). I don’t ever want artists or letterers to feel like jumping out of a window the minute they learn they’ve been saddled with me on a project. I know where my responsibilities lie, and within those boundaries I will take care to be approachable, adaptable and do my best to resolve any issues that might trouble the pencil monkeys and letter wranglers later down the line.
Last in line
Formatting the script is actually the last thing I do before a final printout and proofread. Once I’ve broken down the action into pages and panels, I’ll open a new Word doc. and write placeholder panel descriptions, e.g. ‘3.) Estab shot interrogation room’, ‘4.) Cop shows photo to Ang’, ‘5.) Cop angry; we see dagger’. Then I’ll bullet the exposition (that is, exposition that I’ve been unable to communicate visually) beneath the panel in which it’s most likely to appear, e.g. ‘DD unlicensed; against law’, ‘Explain dagger’, ‘Faeries want it back’. Then I’ll turn all that exposition into nice juicy character-revealing dialogue. I won’t add the attributions just yet; I read somewhere that good dialogue is so rooted in character that you should be able to tell who’s saying what without the attributions. With the dialogue written, I’ll go back and rewrite the placeholder panel descriptions. This bit’s easy, like writing a bunch of emails. I usually do it during a commute to another job, which saves me an hour or two at the desk. Then – after a lot of rewriting, shuffling stuff about, and reading stuff aloud in funny voices – I’ll format the script.
By the way, please don’t get the impression from reading this that I actually know what I’m talking about. Don’t take anything that I say here as comics-writing gospel. Notice the title of this blog does NOT read ‘How to format your comic script’. This is just how I do it, based on what I’ve learned in the short time I’ve been writing comics professionally. I actually have a horrible feeling that a more seasoned pro will read this blog and laugh themselves into a coma.
Anyway, with all this in mind, and all the usual provisos that must accompany this sort of article now in place, I’ll go through each component of my script and explain why I’ve done what I’ve done for the benefit of anyone out there who may be interested in sexy stuff like font size and underlining, or who may be stuck for ideas about how to lay out their own scripts and/or present them professionally when submitting, say, a Future Shock to 2000 AD. Here goes…
It’s Microsoft Word for me. You can keep your £300-a-pop scriptwriting software. I know many writers use programs like Final Draft and Movie Magic, but I don’t know a whole lot about these and having to tap the indent key a few times really isn’t a big deal for me.
Font, spacing, and language settings
I’ve taken a fancy to ‘Courier New’ at point size 11. I used to use ‘Verdana’ at point size 10 because it looked nice and readable, but it ended up looking weird in this new format. Plus, Courier is like what proper screenwriting types use and I like the way it makes me feel a bit like Robert Towne clattering out a draft of Chinatown.
I set the spacing at 1.5, so anyone (including me) has space to scribble down any notes or corrections on a hard copy. Oh, and I set the spelling on UK English, of course, because 2000 AD is a publication as British as petty crime, doomed optimism, and eating chips in the rain.
Header and page numbers
A publishing standard, this, a traditional safeguard against the possibility of a butter-fingered editor clutching several printed manuscripts tripping over a subeditor who has finally assumed a foetal position, thus scattering your precious pages all over the office. This way, someone will at least be able to identify which submission is which, so the editor will know to whom they have to send the rejection letter.
Same goes for page numbers, guys. Writers who don’t number their pages are in league with Lucifer. Ask any subeditor - whose eyelid will probably start twitching, at which point you need to back away slowly.
I write ‘Series title: episode X of X’ in the header just to keep everyone on point (including me) as to how much more of this crap they’re expected to read.
Name, email and phone number
The editor needs to know who wrote the script they are reading, if only so he or she knows who to yell at once they've finished. I always add basic contact details, so everyone else I’m working with knows where to find me. With this series of Dandridge, I knew I’d be working with artist Warren Pleece, but if the script is a new project or a done-in-one like a Tharg’s 3riller or a Tale From The Black Museum, chances are I won’t know who’ll be doing the artwork. In these cases, I always include a single-sentence to-whom-it-may-concern-type note to the lucky artist just below the contact details, telling them they are welcome to get in touch. And they usually do. If you’re submitting a script on spec (‘on speculation’, meaning material submitted at your own expense and which an editor is under no obligation to purchase) as you’d do with a Future Shock submission, adding anything more than your name, email and contact phone number is going to look a bit presumptuous, cowboy. So no links to your website, blog or anything else that has nothing to do with the script you’re sending.
Title, episode number and page numbers
All capitalised and bold so they immediately stand out. (No need, of course, to add ‘EPISODE ONE’ if it’s a done-in-one story like a Future Shock.) These (and the panel numbers) are the only things in the script that are bold, so the artist and letterer can get their bearings at a glance.
As you can see from example one (above), I used to have a separate line and actually write ‘Panel 1.’ I like the new way (below) much better – 1.) – if only because it’s bloody obvious you’re referring to a panel! It also cuts down on a line and provides a nice sort of intro to the topic sentence of your panel description.
Ooooh, tricky. This probably needs a separate blog, which I may write some other time. For now, here’s a few rules I currently tell myself to stick to:
* Keep panel descriptions as short as possible; aim for a line or two. A panel description should sit in your head after a single read.
* Watch out for the word ‘and’ in panel descriptions; it's often a telltale sign that you’re trying to communicate more than one beat of action.
* Ambiguity has NO place in panel descriptions. Avoid metaphors and unusual similes. Give concrete details! If that means giving the exact height or width of something, do it!
* Describe a camera angle (close-up, establishing shot) only when the required impact or information would be lost without it. Otherwise, default to a standard (implied) full shot. Specific instructions constrict the artist.
* Where possible, describe each new element on a new line, so the information is presented to the artist clearly and in order of dominance.
I’ve seen some scripts where the writer capitalises the name of a character the first time they appear in the script; sometimes EVERY time the character appears. This practice originates from screenwriting, so crewmembers flipping through a copy of the shooting script can easily find the scene in which a character first appears. I tend not to do this when writing a comic script. I don’t like too many capitals in the panel descriptions as they can clash with the capped dialogue. Yes, I know in panel one of this sample I’ve written the magazine title ‘INTERVIEW’, but that’s only because that’s how I wanted it to appear in the panel.
Dialogue attributions and dialogue
My attributions are indented x4 and the dialogue x2 (see below), with the right-hand margin set at 11. I used to put tabs into the dialogue in order to make it all line up neatly (see above), but this can create problems for lettering droids, who may have to go through the entire script and take the tabs out before cutting and pasting.
Giving the attributions a line to themselves (as oppose to setting them before the dialogue – see above) also solves the problem I sometimes had of having to squeeze in bracketed dialogue directions – e.g. ‘(off)’ or ‘(shouts)’ – if the character had a long name. By the way, ‘off’ and ‘shouts’ are pretty much the only such directions I ever use.
A separate line for each speaker also means I can ditch the attribution ‘LINK’. One less attribution to get wrong, right? I put the dialogue in capitals ‘cos that’s how it appears on the finished comic. I’m also a lot more careful about my dialogue-to-panels ratio than I used to be, although ‘Good Cop’ seems to be waffling on a fair bit for a six-panel page. Ahem. A golden rule of dialogue (there are many): let your characters talk then edit the hell out of them.
I try and stick to five panels with two balloons per panel each containing 25 words (max!). I spell out numerals (‘twenty-three’ and not ‘23’), and underline any words that need vocal emphasis. I rely on my ear for this, and the less underlining the better. I would have bolded these emphasised words, as they would appear in the finished comic, but underlining looked better and created a clearer hierarchy among the script’s components.
I generally use an ellipsis (‘…’) for a pause in mid-speech (character takes breath, struggles for words, pauses for effect) and a double hyphen (‘--’) to denote an interruption, a longer pause or for establishing a connecting link when speech continues over several panels. (And I don’t leave a space between the hyphen and the last letter of the last word.) I also use double quotes when spoken dialogue either precedes or follows the panel in the form of a caption in a different scene.
When I started submitting Future Shocks back in 2007, the submissions editor advised me not to break panels and dialogue over two pages, as the artist or letterer might think the page stops there and miss what else your characters have to say. I solve this problem by shuffling the entire panel down onto the next page (or chiselling at the panel description until the thing fits), then adding a ‘[Contd…]’ or ‘[Page continues…]’ note at the bottom.
It turns out letterers do not share a comprehensive grimoire of sound effects containing the correct spelling for every sound from ‘slapped face’ to ‘a bowling ball landing in a bucket of eggs’. So I come up with these for myself, and attribute them in exactly the same way as I do dialogue, e.g. ‘SFX: KERSPLAT!’
I’m of the opinion that, as a general rule, SFX shouldn’t stand out, that they should be absorbed subliminally by the reader. Therefore, I’m usually happy with the universal language of ‘blam’ and ‘kaboom’ with a few more unusual effects like ‘fwommph’ (bursting into flame) to add variety. Sometimes the letterer will – quite rightly – omit a sound effect that I’ve included when the image clearly speaks for itself.
And that’s that. The points I’ve described above are merely guidelines. I’ll often tweak them depending on what needs communicating. The aim is to present the information as clearly and neatly as possible. Common sense rules.
To finish off, here’s the first three pages of the script followed by the first page of the finished comic. Enjoy.
If you want further reference material on formatting, visit the Comic Book Script Archive, which contains a ton of published scripts for you to peruse. If you’re submitting a Future Shock to 2000 AD, then for the love of all that’s sacred read the comic’s submission guidelines.