The Dark Knight… sinks, badly.

Last night I went to see The Dark Knight Rises at the BFI IMAX in Waterloo, London. I hated it.

I started my writing career by writing film, book and music reviews for the BBC Collective website (see portfolio). It takes a very different approach to writing than does fiction, but it shares enough in common. You need a point and you need structure. And the whole thing has to flow. I learned a lot by writing reviews. And after watching The Dark Knight Rises, or rather, enduring it, I came out so upset by the film’s failures that I wanted to write a film review again, for the first time in 6 years.

But a tirade of negativity just isn’t me. What’s the point in raving at walls? And then I thought… What if something positive could come out of it instead? What if rather than just slating it, we could learn from it? So let’s do that. Let’s break down the film and find out why it was rubbish, and how any writer can learn to avoid the same mistakes.

[Note: contains spoilers. But then who cares, there was so little tension in this film – indeed one friend fell asleep watching it – and it’s so crap, that I don’t care if this is full of spoilers. Batman falls in love with Catwoman and they live happily ever after at the end. There’s your first spoiler. You don’t believe it, do you?, because it’s so unlikely given the first two films. But it’s true. The last shot is the two of them acting young and free in Florence. What a crock of shit.]

A. The story

This has to be where it starts, with the story.  I’ll recap and then break down why it doesn’t work.

Bruce Wayne has lived in exile for eight years. Batman has not been seen since Two Face died, and is accused of his murder.

Bane, a hulk of a man who wears a mask over his face kidnaps a nuclear physicist and then disappears for ages.

A board member of Wayne Enterprises wants to take over the company. He steals Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints, and has Bane place most of Bruce Wayne’s money on the stock market in a lot of dodgy deals. Bruce is penniless, his body broken, his will to be Batman at a low. The board member is then primed to take over the company. Except Bruce asks another board member, Miranda, to stop him. Apparently she does, though we don’t see any of this. It just happens, as if by magic. Then the evil board member is killed by Bane. Just like that.

Bane steals a fusion reactor that promises clean energy for everyone. He turns it into a neutron bomb. And then does not much with it for a while. Batman comes back for a bit. Bane faces off against Batman, and defeats him after a minor punch up. We jump to somewhere unspecified (somewhere in the Middle East by the looks of it) where Bruce is put into a dark pit. We are told there is no escape from this pit, and that only one person has ever done it. We are repeatedly told that it was Bane who escaped. Bruce has his back stretched, does a few sit ups, and then escapes. And somehow, without money or a passport, gets back to America. Oh and into Gotham, which has been closed off to everyone. But we’re not shown that. Perhaps it’s by magic?

Batman tackles Bane, who ends up dead. The bomb is still around somewhere. Miranda turns out to be the baddie, and runs off with the neutron bomb. Batman stops her vehicle, she dies. The characters stand around for a bit while the neutron bomb counts down to some supposedly tension-inducing final couple of seconds. And then stand around a bit more, snogging. Because you’d do that. Eventually Batman flies the bomb out over the sea, where it blows up in a big mushroom cloud. Everyone is saved, and some children look at the mushroom cloud and don’t appear to be upset by it. Bruce Wayne hooks up with Catwoman (oh yeah, Catwoman’s in this. But don’t worry, she’s not a character, just a plot device, so you missed nothing from the story synopsis). The end.

And, er, that’s it.

What’s wrong with the story?

What I described above is a sequence of events. Batman and Bruce Wayne are no more. Someone wants to blow up the city. Batman comes back and defeats them. Fine. The basic structure is there: a character has fallen low, there is a great threat, the character has to overcome their own limitations before they tackle the great threat. The character is triumphant. And so what? All stories do that. That doesn’t get you any points, for following Story Telling 101. So why does it fail as a story?

Let’s go into reverse a bit. “… the character has to overcome their own limitations…” Let’s start there, with some:

B. Character motivation

Your characters need a motivation, a reason to be doing something. Let’s go through the main characters and see what their motivations are:

Bruce Wayne / Batman

Bruce is bored and a recluse. He responds to a threat to Gotham because… because that’s what he does. Even he doesn’t really know. Then he keeps going because there’s a bomb that will kill people. There is none of the personal story of Bruce Wayne and his battle with his darker side here. It’s even exposed in the film. “You don’t fear death,” says one character. “That’s right,” Bruce may as well have replied, “I have no flaws. I do things because they’re right, I’m at peace with myself, and I’ll overcome these challenges after a bit of a rest.”

Bruce Wayne is perfect. He has no serious flaws any more. But that’s not what an audience needs. It wants a flawed hero. That’s what he is in the first two films. Flawed by the darkness inside him, flawed by his conflict with loving someone, flawed by his struggle with friendship. In this film he’s… Well, he’s come to terms with all of that. Even at the end when he hangs up his cape, it’s with no regret, no difficult parting, no tortured struggle within his being, his very soul. He just sods off to Italy, apparently now with some money (after losing everything in the film), and is very happy, thanks.

Where is Bruce Wayne’s struggle with his dark side? Where is his fight against adversity?

Bruce says to Alfred, “If Bane’s a hard nut, I’ll just be harder still. That’s what I always do.” And with that he completely undercuts any tension, any “will he / won’t he?” that might have followed. Bane captures Batman in Gotham, then suddenly we’re in the Middle East (I assume, there’s no explanation of how the characters get from Gotham to this mysterious place, they’re just there), and Bruce is put in a deep pit from which no one has ever escaped (* see Bane section below).

Bruce lies around for a bit, and we’re told that he’s going to have his soul tortured. That he will never escape, and will see his beloved Gotham destroyed. We don’t see any of this soul-torture. Bruce talks to Tom Conti, who does a bit of chiropracty on him, then he does some sit-ups, and is much better. And that point arrives where he could become flawed again, where the internal conflict could come back and make things interesting.

“You do not fear death,” says a handy character. “To escape, you must.”

At that point it could have become interesting – plunge back into the fear he spent so long escaping. Bruce climbs a wall to escape the pit, and he has to take a leap of faith. Which on his 3rd attempt, he does, and he makes it. At no point does the struggle look difficult for him. And this climb out of a pit into the light is supposed to be juxtaposed with his fall from perfection. Darkness should re-enter his soul, the ultimate irony: he should fear death and mortality just as he emerges into the light. And does it? No. He’s magically back in Gotham, and fights and defeats the baddies.

Let’s summarise the character journey here: he’s happy with the world, he has no flaws, he does things because they’re right, he’s captured, he has to become afraid (not face his fears), he escapes from a pit with no real challenge, and then wins. No struggle, no tension, no valedictory triumph. Where is the “Dark” Knight? This is a “Shining” Knight.

Writers: Learning point number 1: your hero needs to be flawed, they need to go on a journey and overcome a great challenge within. That challenge can be externalised – in Star Wars, Luke must face Vader, not just his greatest fear, but later, we learn, his father. Luke must face his own fears and strike down his own father. Now that’s a journey to go on. In this film Bruce has to be… perfect. “I’ll be harder still,” says Bruce and lo – it came to pass, as we knew it would.

2. Bane

What’s Bane about? He’s the baddie, right? Oooh, scary big man.

Nothing, except that he looks cool and gives Tom Hardy a chance to create a bonkers character. Credit where credit is due – Tom Hardy is enigmatic on screen. And this is especially hard given that Bane hardly moves, you can’t see his face, and you can’t hear or make out half of what he says. There’s a physicality to Tom Hardy’s acting that draws you in. It’s just a shame it’s so wasted.

Bane is the baddie of the film, until he isn’t. He stomps around looking angry. He appears to have a plan. He wants to grab this fusion reactor and turn it into a bomb and kill everyone. Except he doesn’t want to kill everyone, he wants to free the people from their rich rulers and their legal oppressors (the police, upholding the rule of law). Except he wants to kill everyone, because the bomb can’t be defused. But he also wants to free everyone from their oppressors. But he’s killed the only man who can defuse the bomb, so everyone’s going to die. But he wants to free… Hang on a minute. Let’s skip this and get to the proper point.

What is Bane’s motivation? If he’s successful, what does he achieve?

Well, we’re never told. That’s right. Bane wants to free people (and kill them) for the purpose of… Um. Er. Nope, no reason is given.

He’s the film’s main antagonist. He’s set up as Batman’s nemesis. At one point, when he captures Batman, he says that he wants to make Batman suffer, that he is going to torture his soul. There isn’t really any reason given for this.

Both Bane and Batman are products of the mysterious League of Shadows. Batman left, discovering they were a bit mental. In the first film, where the conflict is really driven by Batman’s internal conflict (his dark side vs his desire for love and affection) we find the League of Shadows pop up in Liam Neeson, who wants to spread disorder and bring down Gotham’s rulers. There’s no real reason given there, either, and it’s the weakest part of the first film. But it wasn’t so important, because that story was about Batman and his struggle. The League of Shadows was incidental. It wasn’t the point of the story. It was the cause of some bad things happening (Arkham, the Scarecrow and so on) but it wasn’t the major plot device.

Here, well. Let’s leave it there for the moment. We’ll come back to it in a moment.

The other thing with Bane is that he’s just a monster. There’s nothing sympathetic about him. We learn that he’s a protector for the Miranda character when she was young. We’re encouraged to believe that he’s in love with her. But by the point we learn this, there’s no space left for sympathy for him – the misdirected lover, brought into a world of evil by his over-riding love for a woman? No. By the time we learn this, he’s a man in a mask who’s killed loads of people. We don’t like him, and he’s about to die. The opportunity to create a sympathetic monster has been lost. If we’d learned earlier that he was tortured, that he’d followed Miranda into the League of Shadows to continue protecting her, having been blinded by unrequited or promised love, we could be better terrified by his monstrousness. All of that intelligence and might, which could easily have been used as a force for good, channelled into anarchy and hatred. The conflict which lies within us all, the monster we could all have become, and so on. But instead he’s just a monster.

Let’s look at a different aspect of Bane: his face mask.

He wears a mask and characters keep asking why. “A-hah!” you think, “the mask will be important later.” And it is, so let’s find out why.

In story telling if a character in a story has a “thing” – a trick, a knack, something different – it has to be because it serves the story. Continuing with the comparison to Star Wars, Darth Vader is trapped inside his suit and breathing apparatus because it serves to remind us of a couple of things: one, that he is vulnerable, the suit keeps him alive; two, that he was once fully human but has become “more machine now than man” – we know that somewhere inside there is a human. This is underscored by Luke’s assertion that, “There is good in him.” It creates a tragic character. Terrifying to look at, but vulnerable, human, and in secret conflict. And three, because at the end Darth Vader chooses to sacrifice himself. He could survive after killing the Emperor, but he asks Luke to remove his face mask at the point when he needs it most. He completes his journey, his redemption, and sacrifices himself for the greater good. Darth Vader wears a mask – has a thing – because it serves the story.

Bane wears a mask, and people keep asking, “Why?”. We learn the reason behind it – it is some sort of pain control device. Fine, but what’s the point of it in the story? At the end, Batman aims to punch off Bane’s mask (despite the leads coming out of it which you could easily pull out… but let’s gloss over that). And he succeeds! Ah, so now we’ll have some struggle with Bane. Now Bane is in pain, and he’ll battle against his sudden weakness and still try to defeat Batman, driven on by his rage only. He will… Oh no, Batman has him defeated. But Miranda turns up and, with a knife plunged between Batman’s ribs (which he conveniently forgets about a few moments later), plugs Bane’s mask in again. This is where the purpose of Bane’s mask is revealed, the reason it’s important to the story. Let’s change characters to find out why.

3. Miranda

Just as Batman has Bane on the floor, mask compromised, Miranda turns up. She plunges a knife between Batman’s ribs (not sure how she got through is body armour, but let’s gloss over that…) and with Batman immobile, she painstakingly plugs in the two loose leads on Bane’s mask. The sort of job that takes 5 seconds, but we’re entering exposition time.

She spends three minutes explaining what’s actually been happening for the past 2.5 hours. Yes, instead of creating tension at the start, by setting up a goal for the bad people, something we want to avoid happening, it’s explained right at the end.

“Hi,” she may as well have said, “I’m actually the baddie. Surprise! So, you know that bomb and all the carnage that Bane’s been going on about? See how you never knew why he was doing it? It’s because of me. I’m the daughter of Liam Neeson’s character. What’s that? There would’ve been more tension if we’d learned this earlier? Oh shush now. Yes, so he was my father. Both me and Bane were in the League of Shadows, but Bane was kicked out, so fuck knows why he’s trying to carry on their work. And I was too, I think. I’m a bit vague on that, really. I mean, I was, but I don’t appear to know any martial arts or anything. But also, have I talked enough yet? No, let’s carry on a bit more then. Oh yes, Liam Neeson was my father. But he rejected me. So why am I carrying on his work of blowing up Gotham? Um, why do I need a reason? I just am. Ha ha ha! What? Blow up another city? But I want to blow up Gotham because. Well, there isn’t a because. I just do, OK? Have I talked enough yet? Still not? OK, let’s draw this out a bit longer. Yes, I just thought I’d free the people from the rich rulers, like Daddy wanted. Oh, I’ve no idea what I’ll do after that. That’s right, thanks for the reminder, I’ll blow them up. I mean free them. Blow them up. Oh dear, I’m just as confused as Bane on this one. But hey, guess what! Bane said that the bomb’s trigger had been given to an ordinary person. That was because the power to control one’s destiny has been taken from the ordinary people and placed into the hands of the rich. And I hate the rich rulers of Gotham, even though I’m one of them.  So guess what? As a very rich board member of Wayne Enterprises, I have the bomb trigger. That’s right. And I will explain away this contradiction by saying that “I’m a normal person, too.” And don’t point out how that means that the rich rulers are also normal people, because that completely undermines the point of removing the rich rulers. And stop asking why I want to remove the rich rulers. I DON’T NEED A REASON, OK? And I will free the people by killing them, and I don’t a reason for that either. Oh look, I’ve talked for three minutes. Now I’ll run away. Thanks.”

4. Bane (a slight return)

With your big baddie, you want there to be a struggle with the hero. In the ultimate fight, the baddie must almost win, until the hero finds that last ounce of strength, or makes that major internal breakthrough which allows them to rise up and defeat the baddie.

Here the resolution to the Bane/Batman fight is a Raiders of the Lost Ark lie. Catwoman turns up and shoots Bane mid-fight. We see him fly across the floor for about 0.25 seconds, and then – whoof! – we cut away and he’s never mentioned again. Talk about an anti-climax.

And what in the end was Bane’s motivation for killing so many people? We’re led to believe it was for the love of Miranda. Not that we see any compassion between them. At the end, when she runs away to get her precious bomb, she looks at him and says, “Goodbye old friend.” Ouch. Straight into the friend zone. What should have happened after was this:

BANE PAUSES

BANE

What did she just say?

BATMAN

Dude, she put you in the friend zone.

BANE

Bitch. I want my Blink 182 CDs back. BRB Batman. LOLZ!

BANE RUNS AFTER HER. THEY STRUGGLE OVER CONTROL OF THE BOMB. IT EXPLODES AND THEIR ANARCHY IS ULTIMATELY SELF DESTRUCTIVE.

That would’ve been interesting. But instead Bane doesn’t blink. He just tries to kill Batman, until Catwoman turns up – somehow knowing just where to find Batman – and shoots Bane dead, so ner! Is there a lingering camera shot over Bane, a remorseful comment like, “Love can blind even the best of us?” No, he flies across the floor, and before he even comes to a stop (or perhaps I blinked in that 0.2 seconds of screen time) we cut away and he’s never seen again.

Writers: the learning tips here are: even your monsters need a sympathetic side. A flawed bad person is just as interesting as a flawed good person. A “that could have been me in other circumstances.”  And if there is a terrific, final conflict between your baddie and hero, make sure of two things: a) don’t stop the conflict half way through to explain what’s been going on for the last 500 pages of your novel, filter in that exposition throughout your story, and b) let the baddie’s defeat be satisfying. Let the hero fight and be on the point of losing, but then find some hidden strength they didn’t realise they had. Oh, and if your monster has a trick, a knack, a thing like a breathing mask, don’t give it to them because it looks cool, make it serve the story. If it’s their weakpoint, make the hero struggle to reach it.

5. Catwoman

I wasn’t going to bother with anything on Catwoman, but she serves a useful point for writing. If you have a character, make sure there’s a reason they’re that character.

Catwoman serves one purpose only: so Batman can find Bane.

Now, any character can do that. It could’ve been a junkie, one of Bane’s crew who had a crisis of conscience, even a remote controlled bat-drone-camera flying down a tunnel. A device would have done it.

If you make the character apparently central to your plot, like Catwoman appears to be, give them some depth, some of their own conflict, and a compelling reason to be there. In this film Catwoman is completely one dimensional, until she experiences a very strange conversion near the end (or perhaps doesn’t, which I’ll explain in a sec).

Here, Catwoman is a thief, and unrepentant. That’s what she does. She sells out Batman for what she can get out of it. Her character is caught in a bizarre trajectory of committing larger and larger crimes, none of which she’s indicted for, so she can get a computer program to wipe her criminal record, so she can stop committing crimes. She’s not a tragic character, just a stupid one.

At the end, she is ready to flee the bomb. “You’re better than that,” says Batman. “I’m not,” she replies. Flip forward a few minutes, and with no hint of internal conflict, she turns up to kill Bane.

What a strange conversion. No hint of conflict at all. But then there’s the end. In the closing few shots, we see Bruce Wayne and Catwoman apparently in love, and carefree. There is no hint of this through the film (or if there is, it is poorly acted and represented on screen, and not developed), until right near the end when Catwoman kisses Batman for no good reason whatsoever. Then that end shot, of them carefree. Perhaps she hasn’t changed, perhaps she just smelled money on Bruce Wayne, and decided to steal him to end her life of crime? Or… Nah, that’s too deep.

6. Other characters

Commissioner Gordon spends most of the film in a hospital bed, looking relieved to be out of the film. At the end he has some action, but looks bored and confused.

A police man keeps turning up at the right place and the right time during the film. He serves no use to the story, except that at the end we find out he’s called Robin, and he discovers the Batcave. So, you know. Franchise. Oh, and he knows Batman is Bruce Wayne, because as a 10 year old child he worked it all out and everything, so there.

There’s a police commander who gets very confused. Bane has just killed lots of people at the stock exchange and driven off with live hostages. He’s hacked into the stock exchange, for what reason no one knows – but as it’s a stock exchange, you have to accept the risk that it could bring down the global economy. One of the minor characters even says so. And with this as a backdrop, what does he do? Send all of the police to catch Bane and halt the story 30 minutes in? Nope. Batman turns up, so he chases after Batman instead. You know, with Bane having killed everyone and potentially causing global economic collapse. Because that makes sense.

Alfred’s in it, and Michael Caine steals every scene he’s in. What a wonderful actor. Only Alfred leaves about 30 minutes in, when it all starts crumbling into a dreadful film (well done, Michael Caine). We leap from Alfred exhorting Bruce Wayne to wake up to himself, through a very weird edit, to the two of them suddenly shouting at each other on the stairs, and Alfred saying he’s leaving. Just like that. He turns up at the end to preside over Bruce Wayne’s grave stone and see Bruce in Florence, all loved up with Catwoman. Because happily ever after is what happens to Batman.

Writers: if you have a character in a story, make sure they’re there for a reason. Catwoman could easily have been a drone, a tracking device, a Star Trek guy in a red shirt. It was inflated to a lead role because… Because you need a lead female character who looks hot in a catsuit? Surely Christopher Nolan can leave that kind of scripting to Transformers? And if you have returning characters, like Commissioner Gordon, so well portrayed as a troubled, layered personality by Gary Oldman in the first two films, then give them the same role if you bring them back. If Gary Oldman was too busy to shoot the film, then don’t put the character in. Ask yourself as a writer: why is this character here? If it’s “so the bad guy can escape”, then make sure letting the bad guy escape is within the character’s normal behaviour – a second in command police commander who goes chasing Batman when there’s grand larceny, murder and kidnapping going on isn’t a good example of this.

C. Editing

The Dark Knight Rises falls prey to George Lucas disease, which is increasingly affecting Hollywood. Combat scenes are drawn out and receive long camera shots and a lot of screen time. Exposition and story telling are reduced to micro-scenes, savagely cut and presented on screen in a series of disruptive lurches. The flow of character development and story telling in this film is awful, and some of the editing cuts scenes so far back that they have no room to breathe. It’s almost like there’s an editorial decision of “ARGH! STORY! Get it off screen as quick as possible!”

There’s always a tension in writing. Writers often want long descriptive scenes – Umberto Eco does it particularly well – whereas audiences want to be entertained. But sacrificing story for the sake of explosions isn’t the way to do it. If your audience (has been forced to believe that it) needs some action every 36.7 seconds (or whatever), then use the action to push forward the story.

At one point we have a great opportunity for some deeper, darker character development, when Bruce Wayne is cast into a pit. Tom Conti turns up and starts helping him (we aren’t told why). The sequence is essentially reduced to a montage of training, and is all the worse for it. Important parts of Tom Conti’s role are chopped up and spliced throughout the rest of the film, when placed together in a slower, intense sequence, they could have given Bane and Miranda some real character depth. A love forged in the dark and shadows, become tragically twisted by the rejection of Miranda by her father. But no.

Writers: pace is important, of course it is. Heavy exposition scenes (“Let me just explain my master plan, Mister Bond,”) can feel forced. It takes practice, and it needs feedback from your audience. Go by what Kurt Vonnegut said: “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.” Don’t leave the important information out, and don’t leave it so late in the story that no one cares any more. And don’t compress your character development scenes as if they’re annoying. They may need editing for pace, but they don’t need sacrificing for explosions.

D. Some other things while I’m ranting

In the film, a Special Forces team turns up to help the people of Gotham. They are killed immediately. So why have them in? Useless.

Bruce Wayne walks with a stick in the first part of the film. We even see him get a device which goes over his knee to help him walk. Then he’s thrown into a pit, wearing just rags. And… he can climb walls and walk just fine, thanks. Um.

We’re set up to care about some characters, like Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). Near the end we see him struggling to escape a chamber being flooded and… Um. What happened to him? Apparently he escaped, because he pops up later, but otherwise, we don’t see his struggle to escape. He just gets to a ladder and looks a bit panicked.

Gotham is threatened with a neutron bomb. This is later confused with an atom bomb. The two things are different. A neutron bomb would kill all the people, but leave the buildings standing. They are banned by international agreement because their purpose is to specifically kill people, rather than destroy infrastructure to impede an enemy. I don’t want to get in a discussion about arms control, but the reason a neutron bomb is used in the film obviously had some relevance at some point. It’s never drawn out, though. Maybe this is what the League of Shadows wanted? To kill everyone in Gotham so they could take over the buildings. But then… how would they do that? Oh yes, it’s never explained, because Bane and Miranda have no reason for doing what they’re doing, other than that Liam Neeson tried to do it in the first Batman film. You know, you kinda want to send them back to How To Be A Bad Guy School and have a conversation with them:

TEACHER: So, Bane, Miranda, which of you wants to tell me what your plan is for Gotham?

BANE: We want to free the people.

MIRANDA: That’s right. And blow them up.

BANE: Oh yeah. Blow them up.

TEACHER: I’m sorry, kids, you can’t free them and blow them up. Try again.

MIRANDA: Free them, then.

TEACHER: Good, and how will you do that?

BANE: By giving them control of a bomb that will blow up anyway, regardless of what they do?

TEACHER: Let’s go back again. What is it about these people that shackles them?

BANE: Um, oppressors. The police.

TEACHER: Good. And what do the police do?

BANE: Put rapists and murderers and thieves in prison?

MIRANDA: We want to free them of the rich people, stupid.

BANE: Oh yeah. We want to kill the rich. Miranda, you’re pretty.

TEACHER: Let’s stay focused. Once you’ve freed the people of the rich people controlling them, what do you want to happen?

BANE: Um. We kill them?

TEACHER: Sigh.

MIRANDA: I want my daddy.

Writers: Final point. If you write a script like this and it gets made into a Hollywood blockbuster, then well done you. Enjoy your big house and gold-plated pension. But if you want to keep your audience and be respected in the longer term, don’t write a script like this. It’s fucking terrible.

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Inciting incidents

“You’ve lost me,” I said. I pressed HOME on the Kindle, a few other buttons and deleted the book. I felt bad, but then no one would ever find out.

Except – then I decided to blog about it. But why?

On Sunday just gone, I read the start of a book by a self published author. I picked up on the author from Google+ (which by the way is an amazing social media platform). Interested in their posts and the occasional link to their writing, I investigated, which led to a free sample of their book from Amazon.

Because their posts were lucid and well written, and because they talked about the publishing industry, I settled into their book with positive feelings. Here I could learn from somebody.

The book started with description, it described a scene. A quiet scene, and by the end of the first page, when nothing much had happened except the scene establishment, I was starting to waver. Don’t get me wrong, it was well-written, it’s just… nothing was happening. But I’d been reading this person, this author’s posts on Google+ for some time, so I wanted to like it. I persevered.

Finally there was some dialogue between two characters. Ah, was this going to lead somewhere? Would it give us the all important inciting incident? That thing which happens which is the cause of the story.

No. It was a minor exchange, which was probably meant to be tense, but because of the scene establishment – all rather bucolic, thank you very much – the dialogue came across as incidental. The scene moved on rather pleasantly and ended. And then we were somewhere else, where not much else was happening, other than a list of things in a different scene, and some one-sided dialogue in which a character listed things incidental to any story.

I ploughed on for a couple more pages, still hoping, and still nothing happened.

Which is when I decided to stop reading the sample and delete it from my Kindle. The writer had lost me. Or perhaps in retrospect it’s fair to say they’d never found me. I wandered, waiting to be found, but remained lost.

I used to do the same thing. It’s not always natural to start a story with an inciting incident. Sometimes as a writer you want to create the world first, so that when your reader finally gets to the story they get it. I mean, they really get it, in the same way the writer does in their head.

But here’s the rub: “…when your reader finally gets to the story…“. That’s what the reader’s there for, the story. Writers need to get to the story quickly. Pick up a book and read the first two pages. When does the story start? When is that all important inciting incident?

There is a great story about Ernest Hemingway setting a challenge  to write an emotionally affecting story in as few words as possible. He came up with, “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” (And from there we get the game of “six word novels”.)

Bang! Those final two words out of six suddenly reveal the full horror of the story. We are set up by the first two words, “For sale:”. This is the inciting incident – something has been put up for sale. It’s the cause of the story. The middle two words give us some description, “Baby shoes”. At this point we don’t know why they’re for sale, but we know that the story has started – something has been put for sale by someone, and we are interested in what. Then we know that it is baby shoes for sale. These two words open up the reader’s emotions, making them vulnerable to the story. Babies are cute, babies are sweet, babies are delicate and need protecting, and babies can sometimes be annoying. So where are we going? We’re waiting for input, ready to invest ourselves in what comes next.

The final two words say everything that’s needed. “Never worn.” We don’t need any other description. We no longer need a description of the “for sale” sign, where the advert was placed, what the baby looked like. We don’t need to be told anything. We don’t have to know who wrote the advert, or when or in which country. Those two words, “Never worn” finally make our open minds do all the work in the story. We fill in from our own knowledge of the world.

Knowing when to give and leave out description comes from experience, of course. And some readers like more description and some less. Writers also have preferences with description. I prefer to give as little as possible and leave the reader to fill in the blanks so that the literary world becomes personal for them, whereas other writers are sumptuous in their scene descriptions. Eventually it comes down to a matter of taste and some compromise. Description is needed occasionally, and it has to be relevant and well written.

But regardless of where we lie with description – colouring in the universe in which our story is set – we still need the story. And stories need to start.

I’ve made the same mistake myself. My first novel, planetfall (currently with agents under the name All Fall Down) started with a couple of pages of slow description, where I tried to re-create a cinematic shot I could see playing in my head. It was sweeping, it was visual, it was beautiful. But there was no story in it. The story started, eventually, about ten pages in. That’s a lot to ask of someone, to read through pages of world creation without giving them a story.

So what can we do about this? If we’re amateur writers, and we want people to be interested in our stories, then how do we start our story, while also creating a world that people are interested in?

The best thing is to benchmark our approach with those already successful. I’ve just pulled four books at random from the bookshelf here. I’ll quote the inciting incident from them, and tell you where it is in the story:

James Joyce – The Dubliners: the very first line of the book. Here’s the first few sentences to show that the first line is the inciting incident

There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke. Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window: and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse. He had often said to me: “I am not long for this world,” and I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they were true.

So we know that someone has died, there is a change in the quality of light, and that this had long been predicted. But we don’t know why, yet. There is some tension to be resolved.

Christos Tsiolkas – The Slap: a little tricky this one. It’s not as immediate as The Dubliners, but we are drawn into a world with tension from the first page. Here’s why:

…Hector’s hand sluggishly reached across the bed. Good. Aish was up.

We already know in the first three lines (as printed on the page) that Hector is happy to wake up alone. Then we build further down the page,

Sweet young cunt. He’d spoken out loud.

Connie.

At the thought of her, sleep surrendered its grip on him. Aish would think him a pervert if she had overheard him.

Now we know something else. This man, Hector, slowly waking, has said “Sweet young cunt,” out loud, and thought immediately of another woman, Connie. And we know that Aish, the woman he’s glad wasn’t in his bed when he woke, would think him a pervert. We are setting up dramatic tension. The inciting incident is established – Hector has woken, his private thoughts have leaked out, he is thinking of another woman, and he is suddenly glad his wife, Aish, isn’t with him in bed. We are now just before the end of the first page.

AS Byatt – Possession: this starts by quoting a poem, and then by establishing a scene. But buried on the first half of page is the inciting incident:

The librarian handed [the dusty book] to Roland Mitchell… It had been exhumed from Locked Safe no.5

In the opening lines we are in a world where books are locked away, rarely seen, and handed to people. The transfer of knowledge is the inciting incident. The opening of a book will let us – and Roland Mitchell – learn something. Over the next few lines we learn that this dusty book

sprang apart, like a box, disgorging leaf after leaf of faded paper, blue, cream, grey, covered with rusty writing, the brown scratches of a steel nib. Roland recognised the handwriting with a shock of excitement.

The world is established. Secret knowledge has been locked away, the librarian, the keeper of the secret knowledge, has handed it to Roland, and the book has sprung open, eager to disgorge what it contains.

Iain Banks – Espedair Street:

Two days ago I decided to kill myself.

Bang, straight in with Mr Banks.

Here we have different examples of inciting incidents: A light in a window showing that someone has died; a man waking alone and thinking of another woman; a book being passed over and springing open; a man deciding to kill himself. They all start on the first page and are fully established within two pages. Some start without description (Iain Banks), while others are prose-like (AS Byatt).

If you’re writing – short stories, novellas, novels, reports, articles – read over your recent works and try to establish if your inciting incident is captured within the first page or so. And if it is within the first page or so – is it obvious to the reader? Does it create some kind of dramatic tension, to which we need resolution? Who has died and why is it important? Why has Hector woken thinking of another woman, and who is Connie? What is in the book and why is it important to Roland? Why did the man decide to kill himself, and was he – or will he be – successful?

Try a few different versions of your inciting incident, and see what works for you. And importantly – ask someone to read your opening few pages, and ask for some feedback. Good luck.

A dollar badly spent (work in progress)

Hello. [blog update 07 August 2012]

In the interests of opening up my writing process, I’m posting a work in progress. The following text is from a short story currently called “A dollar badly spent”. It’s being written for a competition of the same name. I’m posting it so I can get feedback from a general readership, to inform where it goes next and help tighten up the writing so far.

I have to give some legal disclaimers before I go on. (Intake of breath.)

The characters in this story, whether human or mechanical, and any specific organisation names, are the copyright of Orion Pictures Corporation or Lucasfilm. That’s because it’s based on Robocop. I am using them in a non-profit manner. The story is mine though.

Right, enough legal gubbins. Here’s the first part of:

 

A Dollar Badly Spent

A Dollar Badly Spent

 

“Mr. Snyder, can you recall how it all started?” The journalist looked at the man in the faded dressing gown, ready to take down notes.

“I’d buy that for a dollar,” Bixby Snyder said. He fumbled with a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles, his geriatric hands shaking with the effort. A cough animated him for a moment, but the life quickly faded, leaving just the shine in his rheumy eyes as a hint of who he might once have been.

“Ah, Mr. Snyder, if we could concentrate on the story?” The journalist wondered if the man’s mind was going. On the table by the man’s chair was a jar of baby food. What did it mean? Teeth gone? Digestive problems? He made a note about it. Sometimes the small details were what brought to life a story.

“No no,” wheezed Bixby, “my catchphrase. ‘I’d buy that for a dollar’. You ain’t never seen my show on re-run?”

The journalist shrugged his shoulders and scribbled “Snyder – TV?”

“Course, you’re a baby. This was back in the bad old days.” Bixby appraised the journalist. “Look at you, so young. Why you here anyway?”

The journalist shrugged, “Assignment from my editor. Your date’s coming up next year. Early research for an article. You know, ‘End of an era’ kind of thing?” The journalist cleared his throat.

“Yeah, but why you here?”

The journalist shrugged. “Pop always said to pay attention to old folks.”

“Yeah, well maybe good advice. Maybe not.” Bixby picked up the baby food. He just held the jar in his hand and gazed at it. The lid stayed on. Behind the glass, on his chair, he re-arranged his faded dressing grown. “Let me tell you how it all went wrong.” He put the jar down, “How I went from millionaire to death row.”

*

I was lucky. Society was going down the pan. Crime everywhere. Police privatised. Corruption so normal no one bothered fighting it any more.

And I had this TV show. No one was sure if it was ironic, a bitter attack on the spiralling economic collapse or if I was the ultimate product of that society. But there I was, primetime. Surrounded by beautiful women and shouting my catchphrase every other minute, “I’d buy that for a dollar!” They were the best times.

It all came to an end when OCP was brought down. You must’ve heard of that. A new generation of police enforcement, the Robocop, uncovered evidence of murder, corruption. But he did something different. He broadcast it live to Chicago and from there it went viral. Things changed over night. The OCP share value plummeted so quickly that it was worthless within a few months.

The government brought all the police back under their control. Some politicians, somewhere, found some balls. You know about the televised trials, the express death sentences handed out. That’s all recorded history. Things are good now, it’s amazing how quickly you forget how bad it was.

Once OCP became worthless, the buildings and police assets were re-possessed by the government, and there was hardly anything left of it.

And there was nothing left of me. The new society didn’t want my kind of humour. Rolling in money of my own, buying everything for a dollar to show how little value life had left. Even I wasn’t sure at the time if I was celebrating that old culture or parodying it. Who knows? I was happy. The people who watched were happy. They took what they needed from it. So did I. I was rich. But when that new spirit of community appeared, of holding the powerful to account, the humour changed. I was everything they now hated. I tried to change, to keep up. It was like changing the direction of a road train at full speed. You either take a long time to slow and turn in a huge circle, or you try it quickly, flip the trucks and crash. That was me. Biggest RTA in television history. When I tried a live comedy show trying to buy the new government departments and trotting out my catchphrase, the network’s value dipped fifteen points. The next day I was fired. I was furious at the time. In retrospect I would have done the same thing as they did. I was now dead wood, an embarrassment.

I still had my money, most of it. Takes a while to change your spending patterns though. You get used to being able to buy what you want, do what you want. Being out of work with no income was a shock. I hid from it for a while. Had this store of drugs. And the women were still around. I still smelled of success, you see. People love that smell, the aroma of power. Of course, when the drugs ran out, so did the women. And my money was going fast, too.

A year later, OCP went up for sale. I hadn’t worked for months. I was desperate. I went along to the auction. There was no one else there. Collective amnesia, I think. Everyone just wanted to forget about what Chicago had become. Now, at the auction the judge looked at me, sighed and said, “What are you willing to bid?” You know, just like that. Kinda tired sounding. Weary.

Half-heartedly I shot back, “I’d buy that for a dollar.” It was meant as a joke. I just wanted someone to recognise me, you see? A last shot at fame.

He banged his gavel and that was it. Suddenly I was the new owner of OCP for a dollar.

*

“Sorry,” the journalist interrupted. “You owned the entire company? For a dollar?”

“A bad dollar. Worst I ever spent. Gotta remember back then, a dollar was worth a lot to some.”

“And what, you got the employees, files..?”

“Nah,” Bixby said, “lemme tell you what I got. Damn thing put me in here.”

*

I left that auction house thinking nothing more of it. Signed some forms, you know how it is. Legal sale, all of that. Walked home. You had to walk in those days. Public transport was all gone. My car had always come from the TV station; I didn’t know how to drive. Fortunately the auction house was in the financial district and I only lived ten blocks away. I owned my property, one of the few who did. It was an apartment in a converted hotel. Still had some of that early twentieth century charm. Like Hemingway crossed with Art Deco.

Took me a while to notice the sound.

I’d been walking in a daze. Despite the drugs and the lack of work, I was still thinking about new characters, new acts. It filtered in eventually, the sound I mean. With every step I heard this kinda wheezing-clanging sound. Eventually I just had to look round, see what it was. You still got punks then, kids looking for trouble. Though most of them, even the punks, had been caught up in the great ‘work reform’. But they still gave you trouble from time to time.

I turned around and there it was. An ED-209. Following me at a distance of fifty feet.

You ever hear of an ED-209? Think about a metal chicken. Take off the head and neck so it’s just a body. Then turn its wings into moveable machine guns. Oh, and a short temper. That’s the guy. Autonomous law enforcement robots they were. You’d never see the like now. It’s genetically modified slave animals. But back then robots were the big thing.

Well I tell you. I looked this thing in its black shiny face plate. And I was terrified. You look one of those in the face you have maybe twenty seconds to start being nice or… Those guns ain’t for show. So I was looking at this thing and quailing. And I swear. It put one metal foot forward and pawed the ground. Like a dog, begging for a treat. Pawed the ground, made an awful screeching noise. And then it rocked, just like a puppy ready to set or git.

Never saw a more surprising thing.

“What d’you want?” I shouted.

It just played one word from its pre-recorded phrases, but it was enough. “You,” it said in that menacing voice. The end of the word kinda dipped, because it should have been followed by, “have twenty seconds to comply.” But the ED-209 just played the same bit, communicating as much as it could with a limited vocabulary.

“What do you mean, me?” I was shaking, I remember. Hid it though, didn’t want to show weakness to this thing.

It moved forward and dropped its head. Bowing before me. It said, “…comply,” when it bowed.

Well you could have knocked me down with a feather. The streets were empty, thank goodness. It was a Sunday, most people were at home, with their family. Some had started going to the churches, which had re-opened.

If that thing had had eyebrows, I swear it would have looked at me from under them. I couldn’t say no. Damn thing looked so pathetic.

“Did I just buy you for a dollar?” I asked it. It couldn’t answer. There wasn’t the vocab recorded in its memory. But it nodded. It knew enough to do that. I wavered. What the hell was I going to do with an ED-209? They’d killed so many people before they were taken out of service. And they were only in service for a couple of months.

“Gonna shoot me?” I asked.

“…comply,” was its answer.

“OK,” I said, “you can come home with me.” Well it just jumped up at this. Just like that puppy I mentioned earlier. As if I’d said, ‘walkies’ or was about to throw a stick. For some reason it stayed fifty feet behind me. Can’t imagine what its programming was up to at the time. Damnedest thing I ever saw.

For the next four weeks I got used to having it in the courtyard area of my apartment. I even fixed up a shelter for it, to protect it from the rain. I’d watch it sometimes, from the upstairs window. My apartment went over two floors, you see. Ground floor was for the kitchen, and most of it taken up with the lift shaft for the apartment block. I’d got a discount on the apartment because of that, and the ground floor space. My apartment proper was on the first floor. From there I’d look out the window at this robot in my yard.

It patrolled. Imagine that. Industrial killing machine ran regular patrols of the courtyard. Even saw it shoot a pigeon once. Can’t say I was too bothered. Even made me laugh, and I was glad of it at the time. I wasn’t seeing friends or colleagues. There was little pleasure in life. Watching ED-209 obliterate that pigeon in a cloud of feathers was the funniest thing I ever saw.

That was what gave me the idea. The one that led me to death row.

*

The journalist interrupted again. “Sorry, Sir. Do you have a picture of this thing? This,” he checked his notes, “Eddy 209?”

“It’s E.D., like the initials. ED-209. No, but there’ll be some on the internet. Most of the case file is on there. Surprised you haven’t done your research.”

The journalist flushed. He’d assumed this was going to be a boring assignment. Interviewing some crazy old guy in prison who was about to die. And it was only research notes anyway. When the execution went ahead next year, it would be a bigger affair, more experienced journalists would take the centre stage and claim credit for the articles.

“I’ll look them up, Sir,” the journalist said. “So tell me, ah. You had this thing in your courtyard and what? It got out, ran amok, killed people?”

“If only it had been that simple,” said Bixby, “I could have sued the manufacturers. No, what happened was this.”

*

Eventually OCP’s final assets were delivered to my house. It amounted to technical files for the ED-209, and some expenses claim forms. I gave those straight to my accountant, and he found a way to claim a couple of hundred thousand dollars against tax for me. That kept me going for a while and gave me the seed money to start a new business.

Yes, I’d had a business idea.

Before I took up comedy I’d been a computer programmer. I could still remember most of it. I was rusty, of course, but it was still up there. I started leafing through the technical manuals and they showed how to program the ED-209. By this time we were friends. It was summer and I was spending a lot of time in the courtyard, keeping myself brown. The ED-209 stood by me, and I started interacting with it when I had to move its shadow from my sun. Pretty quickly I was talking to it about all sorts of things. I didn’t think it would understand. It was just the only thing I had to talk to. And for the first time in my life, the first time I had someone to talk to who didn’t talk back, want my money or drugs or tell me what to do.

At one point I considered sticking a woman’s face on it, but that idea went out the window very quickly. I was starting to enjoy my solitude, starting to enjoy not having someone around, a human. Seeing another person’s face would have spoiled it. But I did dress up the ED-209. Put a little sun cap on it, gave it a little bit of personality. It didn’t seem to mind.

During those long hours, long days outside in the courtyard, I started teaching it some manners. Like not suddenly opening machine gun fire on squirrels bounding through the yard. Damn thing scared the crap out of me more than once doing that. And it could serve me drinks. I had to set them up, put them on a tray. There’s only so much a machine can do when it has machine guns for hands. But it could stand there holding the tray wedged between its gun barrels.

Leafing through the technical manuals I came up with some ideas.

There was a nostalgia movement starting, the older generation getting interested in old films, music, that kind of thing. Kids wanting to have some artistic expression, going to these cinema nights put on by the oldies. I went to one, in disguise. There was still antipathy towards me. I watched television, saw the new satirical news shows, comedy programmes. They lampooned me, and well they should have. Each passing generation needs to make a fire break from the worst excesses of the last. I didn’t mind, you know. I was starting to have my own nostalgia, too.

At this cinema night, someone had rigged up an old machine, I think it was a Blu-ray. There was a projector screen, too, with a tear down one side, and stains on it which the old timers had done their best to wash out. They pretty much disappeared during the darker parts of the film. But not during the parts with lighter colours. It was the first thirty minutes where I got my idea.

The film was the Empire Strikes Back.

*

“Sorry to interrupt again,” the journalist put down his stylus and adjusted his seating. “I think I know this film. Late twentieth century, right?”

“That’s the one.”

“Don’t tell me. The one about the Enterprise?”

“Ah kid. You people make the same mistake over and over. That was Star Trek. This was Star Wars.”

“Damn it, I knew that,” the journalist scratched his stylus across his electronic notebook. “Crazy old films, looks like they were all made with a toy cupboard.”

“Well, back in them days they still used some puppetry, and mechanical animation. Before my time, too, before you make any smart comment.”

“Not my place to judge, Sir.” The journalist checked the wall clock. There was only thirty minutes left of visiting hours. “Could we maybe get to the part where things go wrong? Just I’m being kicked out of here, soon.”

“I’d gladly swap places with you, son.”

The journalist gave a nervous smile and stayed quiet.

“Yeah. So, where was I?”

“Something about programming and old films?”

“Oh yeah. So I went to this screening…”

*

The film gave me an idea. Old timers like me were misty eyed over the special effects. Kids were real critical at first until the old timers explained the technology and such. Then of course you had this one kid says, “Let’s make our own.” Just like that. Let’s make our own.

Got me thinking. New society, new jobs, economy starting to move. Not me, I was unemployed, but solvent enough, though starting to look at a danger zone. It’d been a long time since I’d seen those films and they brought back feelings of, what? Innocence, I guess. How I felt when I’d watched them as a child. Not exactly nostalgia, more a feeling that everything would be alright. Childish thoughts, I guess.

With those childish thoughts came a similar emotion. Wonder. And wonder is like a virus. It moves from emotional state to activity far too easily. I started wondering. If they can make their own Star Wars vehicles, can I?

Well arriving home I went to sit in the court yard to enjoy an evening drink. And then it struck me. ED-209.

I worked hard, long long hours. First the programming, and then the costumes. Took me a week of hard work. And you know what? I really enjoyed it. The programming came back to me pretty quickly, considering the break I’d had. The costumes were the harder part, but I had experience from my early days on the comedy circuit. After those long, long hours, I was ready to start my new business venture. But I needed a launch event.

I waited another week, tested the costumes. Ran a few dress rehearsals. Remember, I was still a professional performer. I was used to scripting, rehearsing, going into costume, make up.

Eventually it was time for another film screening. This time the follow up, Return of the Jedi. It was perfect timing.

The screenings were in the evenings, when everyone was locked up in their houses. Despite the general lack of punks and the uplift in the economy, people were still in the habit of staying inside at night. That whole ‘reclaim the streets’ thing hadn’t yet happened. So I was able to travel to the screening without being spotted or stopped. It was held in a backroom which you had to access from an alley way. I’d love to destroy your mental images, but this was a typical alley way. Overflowing dumpster, puddles, stains. A creaking old fire escape running down one wall. And this crappy little door with a home made sign, “FILM NIGHT!!!”

I made sure I was last to arrive. The ED-209 I left outside, and my costume I hid behind the dumpster.

I went inside and settled into the screening. There were maybe thirty people there. A few more kids this time, one or two more old timers. Some of the kids had brought along their first attempts at model making. One of them had his computer and was showing off an animation he’d done. They were all pretty good. Just as I got inside, about to take my seat – one of those fold-up metal chairs so popular in community halls – one of the old timers called everyone to order.

“Now here this,” he called. He organised the thing, so I think he fancied himself a Master of Ceremonies. “Now here this,” he said and tapped one of the metal chairs with a pen. Clonk clonk clonk went the sound. An empty metallic noise. Everyone quietened. The only sound was a coffee machine, going through its final slurping sounds, waking up the air with those bitter aromas.

“Tonight these fine young men have shown us how we can make capture the glory of the old days. Make our own entertainments. But I have a special surprise for you.”

I sat there, suddenly nervous that I’d been found out. Had he been outside while I’d been looking at their crappy little vehicles and animations?

He walked over to a table in the corner which was covered with a cloth. I think we’d all thought the same thing. This backroom had obviously been cleared of whatever it stored. It was dusty, there were cobwebs in the corners. You know, it was a place that hadn’t been animated for a long time, except for the few movie screenings they’d held so far. The smell of dust still dried the air and tickled the nose. So we’d all ignored this table. Figured it was still storing something. The cloths covering some old piece of equipment.

Well not so. The self-styled MC whipped away the cover. “Ta-da!” he croaked. He was older than me at the time. Probably in his 70s, I’d say. His “Ta-da!” reveal was as graceful as a rheumatic dog clearing its throat.

There was stunned silence. The kids looked on, eyes wide, whispering to each other.

The old timers squinted, reaching for their glasses. They’d all been wearing their close-to glasses and had to swap to their distance ones.

The MC guy, he looked over the room waiting for a response. He waited and waited. His face turned from glory, the lines and wrinkles stretched back to an almost child-like sheen. But as long seconds passed and no one spoke, they sagged and the skin fell together again.

“What is it?” asked one of the kids. Of course, they’d never seen the like.

Eventually one of the old timers got up and walked over, sitting as they were on the other side of the room. “Where the hey-all you git that?” he asked. One of those southern gents who’d moved up to Chicago shortly after the coastlines were swamped by rising sea levels.

“Had this in storage the last six decades,” the MC said. “Used to belong to my pa.”

“Sorry, what is it?” this kid asked again. I stayed quiet, trying to figure out the right moment to introduce my own surprise.

“This here’s a Scout Walker,” said the MC.

“An AT-ST,” said the old-timer who’d gone up to look at it.

“A what?” one of the other kids had stood up, and soon they’d all gone to crowd around.

I took this as an opportunity to sneak out and suit up. I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity, all those kids crowding round to see some original Star Wars toys. The door creaked a little when I opened it, but it was lost in the sounds of reminiscing and excited questions. Some things don’t change. Comedy changes. Parody and satire change with politics, and the target of a joke shifts depending on who’s powerful at any given moment. But you put boys and toys together, and it doesn’t matter what age you’re in. Could be 1784 or 2046. While they played with that faded lump of plastic and some of the other little figures and toys that old man had brought in, I snuck out.

I pulled on the costume behind the dumpster. Mostly I was wearing. The trousers with a stripe, the waistcoat, shirt. I was wearing a light jacket to hide them, so I took that off, put on a long green coat. Closest I could get it. The ED-209 I woke up. It rose on its haunches, its little servo motors whirring.

By the time I got back inside they’d all settled down and were just starting the film. I bided my time. We watched the Jedi return, the battle on Endor, the Death Star blow up again. Before any of the conversation could descend into the usual conversations, I stood up.

“Er, hey,” I was at the back of the group and wearing a long green coat.

“Who are you?” said one guy.

“I was here the other week, for Empire.”

Blank looks.

I fiddled with the coat buttons, each one popping out of its little slit like I was shelling beans. “I, er…”

I didn’t get to finish. One of the old timers shouted out, “What the heck you doing man? You some kind of pervert?”

“No, no,” I protested. I got the last button undone and shrugged off the coat.

Everyone tensed. The old timer had obviously made them feel like I was about to expose myself. Just what I needed. No job and facing a misdemeanour charge.

Finally one of the kids said, “Cool.”

I was dressed like Han Solo.

“Hey, nice outfit man.”

I looked this second kid in the eye, “There’s more. I want you all to come outside.”

“What for?” The MC looked suspicious. I could tell what was happening. He’d ruled the roost all night. Trumped the kids’ efforts with an original toy. And still in its box, too, though the cardboard was held together with tape and had some moisture damage. And then shown Jedi, blowing the kids minds and generating enough nostalgia from the old timers that you could tell his little film night was secured as a regular thing, now. He was king. And then here was I, right at the end, with something new.

“Just come along,” I walked to the door and activated a little remote control I’d built. The alley way floated through the door on its molecules of damp and decay. And then everyone heard the wheezing servos and metallic thunk of something heavy moving. I was pushing fifty years old at this point, but I still managed a cocksure smile and a wink. You know at this age, sitting in prison, I realised how young fifty years old is. I know how it feels when you’re younger, twenty or something. Fifty’s ancient. But believe me, the energy you still have, the confidence. It’s your peak, really.

In the backroom, with the smell of alley way piss wafting in, I said, “Trust me,” and slipped out.

*

“Time!”

The prison guard patrolled the line of inmates. The journalist looked through the glass and glanced at the wall.

“Ah, come on. I need more than this,” he said through the grille.

Bixby looked at the guard, nodded, stood and folded his dressing gown over his chest. He smoothed his hair and held up a hand to the guard. “Come back next month, I’ll tell ya the rest.” He winked, a slow affair which involved a fold of skin loosening and retracting with some difficulty. Bixby shuffled away without a second look or a goodbye.

Another guard tapped the journalist’s chair. “Time to leave, stringer,” he said.

“But,” the journalist began.

“You heard the man. Come back next month. Or write to him. Old fashioned way, mind. They ain’t allowed on the internet.”

The journalist gathered his things and left the prison. Outside it was bitterly cold. Winter had come to Chicago and a bone chilling wind arrested any pedestrian foolish to set foot outside. The journalist hailed a cab and warmed his hands as the vehicle made its way back to his offices.

Something bothered him.

He read through his notes and started tried to work it out. But it eluded him. Whatever was scratching at his brain wouldn’t come out. He went home.

The journalist lived alone. He thought himself lucky to be able to rent a few square metres of room. Chicago was full of immigrants after the sea level rises in the south, and then the drying of the mid-west. People wanted to live further north where rain fell and there were lakes for fresh water. The centre of the country burned while the south drowned. It was the same across the planet. Deserts crept northward eating the fertile land, while coastlines were reclaimed by a hungry sea.

The journalist made noodles and sat on his bed, which was his only furniture. His clothes he kept under the bed. His entertainment was provided through immersion goggles. The walls closed in around him. At the foot of his bed the door to the room barely opened before it scraped against the frame. There was a groove in the door from years of openings. Down one side of the bed was just enough floor space to walk. A small sink unit stuck out from antique pipe work and next to it was a 2-ring hob.

How very much like a prison, he thought. Except I’m free. I can leave whenever I want.

The journalist looked around again. This was how everyone lived now, in all the big cities. The rent was extortionate. Most of his salary went on keeping this place. There was always pressure from immigrants, and landlords held all the power. He’d once a read an early twentieth century book about a similar situation where a man had discovered some extra space behind a false wall. But the journalist had tapped every wall of his small room and found nothing. He put his hands behind his head and thought over Bixby Snyder’s story.

It struck him then what the flaw was in Bixby’s story. Not that he knew the ending, though he’d already put a request in to meet the following month. The flaw was this. That coming out of an auction house, this ED-209 police robot had followed him home. How could that be? Why hadn’t it been acquired by the government? How was it loose on the streets, in an auction house, powered up and active? Especially after Bixby had said the robots had killed so many people.

The story was starting to unravel. The journalist pulled out his computer and stylus and started making notes. Satisfied, he slept, while trains rattled past the tiny, cupboard-sized apartment and rain started to fall outside.

Writing exercises

In this post I want to discuss writing exercises. I also include one of my own writing exercises.

Imagine you want to run 10km, but have never run before. What do you do? Put on your training shoes, go outside and just run 10km first time?

Clearly, no.

To run 10km we need to train. We start with short runs, interspersed with walking. Gradually we build up our running distance.

And we also do something else. We build up our upper body strength and our core strength. Our upper bodies help act as a pendulum to propel us forward. And all good running should come from our core muscles.

It’s the same with writing, too. We can’t just write a novel straight off. We need to build up our strength, not only in novel writing, but in other aspects of writing. Things like dialogue, plotting, maintaining a story arc, foreshadowing, characterisation, and so on.

Of course I learned this the hard way. My first attempt at writing was to dive straight into a novel, without really know what it was about or how it was structured. And I had no fiction-writing experience to help me. That first novel was a creation story, about how a world came into being. It never went beyond 67 pages.

My next attempt at fiction-writing was my first novel, All Fall Down, the first in the planetfall trilogy. I’ve lost count of the number of times I started, deleted and started again on this book. But one thing started to become apparent amongst those re-starts: I needed to practice different parts of my writing.

I took a break from that book to write a short children’s story, which had a story arc – it told the surreal tale of a young girl called Ayla who suddenly found herself on a bus, not really knowing how she got there. Her quest is to find a ticket so she can stay on the bus, and to evade the dreaded Bus Conductor. I was lucky to have a friend illustrate the book for me. (By the way, you can download a black and white Kindle version of the book here: Ayla’s Journey.)

Having plotted a story over seven chapters or so, I went back to planetfall. I’ve blogged before about my attempts at storyboarding, and how I became more proficient at it.

There were other writing exercises, too.

Dialogue is a particularly weak point of mine. I love writing flowing description, and I’ve become pretty good at pinning it to a story structure. But relating characters’ thoughts through dialogue is a hard skill to master. So I set myself some writing tasks – short stories comprised, mainly, of dialogue and little prose. One of those is below (Frankenstein).

I also set myself tasks like this:

  • write a story in 1 side of A4 (actually this is how planetfall started in the first place)
  • write a description of the interior of a church in 1 side of A4, but importantly fill the page
  • write something which generates an emotional response in under 500 words
  • write biographies of characters for stories I’ll never write
  • create characters from the people around me in a coffee shop
  • create characters so different from the way I think, that I hate them, then write a short story about them and make them do and say things I don’t agree with (this can be as simple as voting the opposite way to my own political preferences, as normal as hitting people when angry or as extreme as murder)

These writing exercises are akin to going to the gym and doing sit-ups or lifting weights. They build our writing muscles in different parts of our creativity.

At the moment I’m writing a short story about a character from the film Robocop. A sort of, What happened next story about one of the minor characters. I’m constrained by the world and character someone else created, which means I have to find a way to understand an established character and write something true to them and true to a unique story.

If you’re just starting on your writing journey, bear this in mind. Writing a novel needs training. Training means distractions from your novel. It’s a long journey. And at the end of it, you’ll be fitter, creatively, than you’ve ever been.

Here’s a writing exercise. It’s based on two men in an art gallery, looking at a painting called The Psychoanalytic Puppeteer Losing His Mind (shown below, not my photo)

Image

Frankenstein

“What’s that creepy girl doll with the man’s body?”

“Painting of me, darling,” says John.

“Says ‘George Condo’. Listen, you know what we talked about? Will you do it?” Seb looks at John. Museum visitors move around them.

“That’s what it reminds you of?” John looks side long at Seb and squints.

“It’s been a year, John. Our anniversary.”

“You’re Brian Sewell, now? Painting as sexual identity?”

“John, please.”

“Can we not talk about this here. It looks like my grandmother being caught doing something she shouldn’t.”

“As opposed to you not being caught doing something you should.”

“Can’t you just… Fine then.”

Seb turns from the painting. “Tonight?”

“When the time’s right.”

“For God’s sake, John. There’s no right time. You just have to do it.”

John clenches his hands. He snaps his head to Seb. A group of older people stand next to them and comment on the painting.

“Look, it freaks me out is all.” He speaks through tight lips.

“It freaked me out when I told my parents. I still did it.” The group moves away. John and Seb are left standing alone.

“I just don’t wan’t them to think of me as some sort of freak. Like Frankenstein or something.”

“You’re just coming out, John.”

“You’re all so grown up. I feel like I’ve a child’s head on an adult’s body. You know what my Dad said.”

“Yes, ‘Don’t mind ’em but wouldn’t have one in the house.’”

“Will you be there?”

“I’ll look after you. Creepy doll’s head and man’s body and all.”

“Alright.”

“Who’s the next painter?”

“Says, ‘Francis Bacon’.”

“Oh fuck.”

[end]