At the turn of the year I sat with my daughter in an otherwise empty cinema. She’d just commented that we had our own private viewing when a mother and her young son arrived. It was term time and I thought it strange that he wasn’t in school. Then the film started and I forgot about them.
A Monster Calls is about death and how a young boy comes to face a terrifying truth. Both the book and the film were written by Patrick Ness inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd, who died before she could realise it. Both book and film share a dark, frightening world in which a young boy is visited by a monster who comes to him each night to tell him a story. On the last night, the boy must tell the monster his own tale but it is a story that is too terrible for the boy to speak.
Both the film and the book are dark and the foreboding atmosphere fills you with dread as you wait for the Monster’s arrival each night at the same time and the nightmarish landscapes which the boy must visit until the very last night when it is his turn to tell his own story. In the film, Liam Neeson voices the Monster, his deep, booming voice vibrating through the terrifying world that the young boy, played by Lewis MacDougall, inhabits. His mother is played by Felicity J0nes. It’s no spoiler that the boy has to face his mother’s death and all that means to his world.
The language and visualisation is dramatic and dark. As writers we have to find the best ways to tell a story that will affect our audience dramatically and the build in tension and fear is palpable in this film. We know what is coming but we still remain in our seats, living our hero’s torment on the giant screen as it sucks us into his dark world, hoping that somehow he will escape his fate but knowing that he can’t.
In real life when we are faced with the spectre of death, our language is more restrained, the monsters are in our heads but we subdue and control them with civilised language when we tell their story. Yet they never go away. How do we talk about our own death though when we can see that it is imminent? Steve Hewlett, a journalist with the BBC, used his training to tell his story from diagnosis to near death. His words were quiet, his message succinct but just as in the darkness of that cinema, I could not control my tears as I listened. Here was a journalist plying his trade, delivering his message so that we could understand it, no melodrama, no self pity, for he knew that those of his listeners who were able to feel, would do so somewhere in the depths of themselves. His words were not dramatic but the weight of them was as wounding as the images of Lewis MacDougall’s struggle in A Monster Calls.
When the lights went up in that auditorium at the turn of the year, the mother and son were no longer there.
You can listen to Steve Hewlett in the BBC podcast at the following link. TheEddieMairInterview-20161121-SteveHewlettISeeMyConditionAsABitOfAStory.mp3(3.12MB)? From:aod-pod-uk-live.akamaized.net
or Search The Eddie Mair Interviews on the BBC Website.
Who is the fairest of them all? If you’re an actor, anyone with access to a good make-up artist. We take for granted that the people on the small screens in our living rooms or on the big screens in our cinemas are wearing make-up. They’ve got to look perfect for the camera. That’s what’s the audience expects but is it what they need, when the character being portrayed should look more like the person next door.
More and more female actors are refusing to wear make-up. Sarah Lancashire in the UK crime drama series, “Happy Valley” appears without foundation just like any middle-aged policewoman might do in real life, when there’s more important things than lip gloss, like finding the killer or preventing a murder.
As Sheila Hancock pointed out in the MailOnline recently, more and more women actors “hardly wear any make-up at all and that’s why it looks so real.” She goes on to say “the public won’t notice that.” And she’s right, they won’t, because if it’s a good drama, they’ll be concentrating on the film but subconsciously it will filter through the different layers of the story telling. It will have a greater impact on the audience, on their emotions, and on their empathy for the character and long after the lights have gone up in the cinema and the TV screen gone blank, a small spark will keep the memory of what they’ve seen alive.
We still need heroes today, to look up to and emulate, whether they’re fictional or not. However, when those heroes are coated in layers of make-up, with not a hair or eyelash out of place, how can you have anything in common with them and therefore how can the story have any real meaning? Good stories should ripple out into our lives. It’s why we tell them. To make sense of our lives, we need to identify with the characters and it’s so much easier to do that without a layer of slap in between.
Ever got into an argument about a film you thought was great and everyone else in the pub thought was rubbish? And you couldn’t defend your opinion? When I first started thinking about writing for the screen, I’d watch loads of films but couldn’t understand why some of them worked and others didn’t. And you need to understand because pub debates are fuelled by alcohol but also mainly emotion that’s been aroused by what you’ve seen.
When I’m trying to discover why something doesn’t work in a film, I follow Paula Milne’s advice:
“Take a bad film and a good film – in your own estimation, not anyone else’s – and apply this to both. Watch the first 10 to 15 minutes, then switch if off and think: What do I know? What have I been told? What’s the agenda of the film,? What’s at stake? Who are the characters? Do I care? And do that every 15 minutes or half an hour until the end of the film …”
You’re going to watch films you’ve already seen so you have to stay focused but you’ll enjoy the good ones even more and understand why they work and the bad ones don’t.
The rest of Paula Milne’s advice is at http://www.ideastap.com/IdeasMag/the-knowledge/paula-milne-screenwriter
Pre-1980’s research into the brain appeared to show that people fall into two distinct camps – left brainers and right brainers. The left brain was supposed to be the logical, problem solving side and was claimed by people who were good at maths and unemotional, whereas the right side was for all those airy fairy, creative types. I rather liked the idea of being right brain – I was bad at Maths and good at dreaming. Now I had an excuse for failing my Maths “O” level. I wasn’t stupid – I was a creative genius but apparently not.
Smugness always comes before a fall. Recent research shows that to be good at Maths, you need to use both sides of your brain. Then just as us so-called right-brainers consoled ourselves that we were still better at language, this too has been blown out of the water, with the identification of a large language centre in the left brain that interprets actions and the world around us
Twenty years ago, I did a study with a class of Creative Writing students on their preferred learning styles – did they learn best from seeing, hearing or doing. The younger students had very distinct preferences for a certain style, but the older the student the more likely they were to use all of the styles, not showing a preference for any particular one. The conclusion I drew was that the older you are, the more used you become to accessing all areas of the brain, probably through a process of trial and error. Humans will usually find the easiest way to do anything. There was one older student though, who was a visual learner only. He was the best writer in the group and his novel was very visual but he found it difficult to edit. He couldn’t see the structure of his work.
So how can we as writers access all the areas of our brains? It depends how you write. Do you have an outline or do you, like Francoise Sagan with “Bonjour Tristesse”, pour it all out verbatim on the page as you go? If you have an innate sense of structure and drama, then possibly you don’t need an outline. For anything other than a short story, I do. If nothing else, it stops me repeating myself!
It also helps me to have a clearer idea of the whole story, so as I write I can ‘see’ it in my head and know what bit is where and why it’s there. It’s helpful to know about structure – a bit more than beginning, middle and end – where one ends and the next section begins and what event marks that ending/beginning – three act structure and not only for scripts – you can use it for any story.
And most important of all character biographies – and we’re not talking about what they like to eat or what size shoes they wear, unless it’s crucial to the plot. It’s the psychology of your characters – what drives them, what are their fears, what are their nightmares?
Here’s a short exercise to get you analysing – write a one page synopsis of something you’ve read or watched in the last couple of days or something you’re working on yourself. Three paragraphs, okay you can have long ones, one each for beginning, middle and end. To do it, you have to identify the key points that tell the story – and only the key points and identify when each section ends and the next one begins and what action causes it. Happy whole-braining!
First person has its draw backs. You can only see what the protagonist/heroine sees unless you adopt a structure for your novel, where the reader can see subplots or the antagonist/baddie going about their business or you can use letters or diaries written by other characters.
But first person can be more memorable: how much less dramatic would the following novel opening be, if it were in the third person?
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me” “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier.
It draws you like a sleep walker into the dream like story and the sense of danger surrounding the heroine but even as you read it, you are the heroine, you are in danger.
When a character’s a strong individual, first person can work really well.
Veronica Roth is completely at ease in her heroine, Tris in “Divergent” and using the first person takes the reader straight into her life and her world. No matter where she is, you move when she moves, you feel her fear, her pain, so effective is Roth’s style of writing. When she runs to board the train, you know exactly how her feet feel as she begins to jog alongside and you hear her thoughts as she has to increase her speed before she reaches up and clasps an outstretched hand. You are Tris.
In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’ heroine, Katniss is first person point of view as well, waiting for the reader to step into her shoes. We’re inside her head, her feelings for Gale catch at our hearts, her love for her mother strikes a chord and as she fights for her life, we understand her choices in who she will save and who she must kill.
And if you’re still not convinced, Mslexia’s judges for their annual novel competition have just compiled their long list with comments on the factors that affected their decisions. Amongst them was the following:
” … those written in the first person, with a strong and idiosyncratic voice, often grabbed their attention.”
But in the end, it’s the character who chooses the voice, in that moment when they pop uninvited into your head.
Question:Who owns a writer?
Answer: The person who buys their work?
If you’re a famous writer, you can become a bit like a celebrity where everyone who reads a cheap rag thinks they own a piece of you.
But do writers owe anybody anything? You wrote something, someone bought it and liked it and wanted more and more.
And they liked it because you created a whole make believe world they could lose themselves in, with a host of characters they could identify with, with magical powers they could use to solve any difficulty they came up against – it was their escape route from a world that was challenging and stressful and didn’t appreciate them. And most of us can identify with that.
And then one day the books stop. But hey, the writer’s produced a play with the same characters, the saga continues. You don’t go to see the play, well it’s in London and anyway you don’t go to the theatre but they’ve published the play. So off you go and buy it and then all your excited anticipation turns to dust. It’s not a book, it’s a play. Well yes, that’s what it says on the label.
Then just as you went in hordes to buy that writer’s books, now you descend on Twitter to lambaste that poor writer. One irate fan even suggests that “she owes me a book!”
J. K. Rowling doesn’t owe anybody anything. She had an idea, made a decision about how to deliver it and carried her decision out with the help of a playwright and director. There was never any secrecy about it; it was on the television news and in the papers.
If all of this furore highlights anything, it’s the ignorance of the different formats of dramatic writing – just because you like the Harry Potter movies doesn’t mean you’d be able to enjoy one of their scripts.
The irony of all this is the Harry Potter series of books is rightly credited with increasing readership amongst children but judging by the level of English displayed by the irate tweeters, it’s done nothing to improve their literacy – grammatical errors, misspellings and their inability to read labels! It’s a pity Harry Potter’s magic wand couldn’t fix any of that.