Sunday, 22 November 2015

Taking Inspiration by Matthew Presley

Water from one source is easily poisoned. Likewise, taking inspiration from only one source skews a written work. If you’re only drawing from one experience to write a scene, how do you distance your character from being an Author Avatar? You might love the Dresden Files or Discworld; how do you stop your story being rip-offs of them? Want to build a world, but the only fantasy world you’ve experienced was through Warcraft games? It’ll show quickly.
The easiest and best way to stop this is to take inspiration from multiple sources. Not just other written work in the same genre as you’re writing; that’s still water from the same source. Here’s some examples;

Music: More than any other media, music is the fastest inspiration. In four to five minutes (prog rock/Primal Scream are exceptions) the musician/s have to convey their emotions. While with a lot of music, the emotion is ‘that guy/girl is hot! I would like to kiss him/her’, music is a broad church. Listening to disparate music genres can influence your writing. When I’m writing, I think what songs best convey the emotions I want in the scene. What’s your character’s favourite song? If the producer making the film adaptation asked you, what songs would you suggest for the score? Don’t just listen to music you like either; power ballads or teen-pop have their place in the world too.
Sometimes the connections are easy; writing about a relationship breaking up? ‘Kayleigh’ by Marillion! Other times, multiple songs can go into a scene, especially if the mood of it shifts around. Writing a complicated break-up? Well ‘We used to be friends’ by Dandy Warhols is about a close relationship long past. ‘Leave right now’ by Will Young is about someone wanting out of a destructive relationship and vicious circle. The first verse of ‘Work it out’ by Jurassic 5 is about realising after the fact how poorly you treated someone. The score to the final scene of ‘Return of the King’ evokes a separation for the better, difficult as it is. Mixing all these together helps take the character’s experience away from your personal one, and makes the character less of an avatar.

Films/TV: My first drafts are often littered with Princess Bride lines. It’s going to get me in trouble some day. Other times, I want the pace of the scene up, so I start thinking about David Tennant’s Dr. Who and how he’d rattle through an explanatory staccato monologue as fast as he could before making the same point in conclusion; pick the pace up!
Films and TV offer a lot of visual and audial inspirations to put into your story, but don’t make the mistake of plagiarising scenes without any alteration. Some authors can get away with it, but it can break the dramatic tension if a story turns into parody or pastiche. Adding the idea of a scene, however, and changing it to fit your characters and story, will make it unrecognisable. One thing I do is listen to directors commentaries. Finding out the thought behind a scene can help understand it and write something similar, but not superficially the same. How would your protagonist react if thrown into the Rancor pit, or was chased by the T-1000? What the film does and how your story progresses are two different things.
Like music, watching films from different genres can influence a scene. While watching rom-coms is, for me, an excruciating way to deplete my finite lifespan, I can appreciate that, when writing romantic plots, there are certain notes you have to hit. I don’t much care for Disney films, but some of them have inventive or memorable baddies. And even though kung fu films don’t translate into novel form, watching how a clever choreographer can tell a story through the fighting can be inspiring to writing.

Books: Literature beyond the genre you want to write can help write a better story. Not just classical or high literature either, though I’m not disparaging it. Low-end trash novels can be inspiring, even if the inspiration is ‘God that was awful; I can do better than that’. The worst book I’ve ever read had, I’ll admit, some very vivid descriptions and scene setting. Mistakes others make, in plotting or scene resolution, keep you sharp to when you do the same. Maybe one plot thread turns out to go nowhere and you’re thinking ‘well that was pointless’. When reading through your own stuff, you know what to look out for. Or if a sentence, while grammatically correct, when you read it you have trouble deciphering the sentence and, or perhaps or, the intent. I do this a lot. Now that I’ve noticed and been irritated by it in other works, I don’t do it so often now that I’ve noticed it. Writers group is a harsh lesson in sentence structure as well; when you read something out loud, you notice mistakes. Another writer at our group does hilariously overwritten parody; if I’m writing something and start to hear it in his voice, I know it needs work.

Art: Visualising your world helps make it more real in your mind, and so more believable when you write it. There’s a lot of art out there; chances are, no matter how new or amazing your idea is, someone’s drawn something similar. For me, seeing an idea lets me flesh out the details rather than plucking them from thin air. Art includes photography; looking at actor’s headshots can be inspiring as well. Who would you cast in the film adaptation of your story? Who would you contract as conceptual designer? Artwork and story can feed each other; a friend drew one of my characters on a birthday card, and drew her with pierced ears. A minor detail, but when I thought about the characters back-story I wondered ‘would she have pierced ears?’ What does ear piercing represent historically? In a fantasy setting, could it have negative connotations? My friend had just added it as a detail, but I went on to write a short piece about that character getting her ears pierced. Whether that piece would fit into another story or not, the art gave me ideas I wouldn’t have come up with independently.

Games: Computer games are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and more cinematic in their presentation. While, like films and TV, these storylines can be inspiring, they’re very much set in stone; the character does this because the plot does that. Games offer other inspiration, though, when they present choices, more than what gun to fire or what swords to swing. Dwarf Fortress is nigh unplayable without a computer science degree, but when your game ends (that’s when, not if) you can have your failed settlement remain in the world as ruins; these ruins might by overrun with animals or monsters, or just be a stark reminder to the next doomed settlement. The graphics are non-existent, the gameplay is frustrating and the coding is bizarre and deliberately obtuse, in terms of building a world of collapsed empires, Dwarf Fortress can help fill in the blanks. Likewise, most MMO games exist in a state of quasi-choice; you can win the battle or lose, it doesn’t change the world. But what if it did? What if the dungeon was finally cleared out? What if the flag was captured for the last time, and the front line of the battle was shifted to a new arena? What if the world was allowed to change?

To conclude; everything is inspiration. Look for other things to put in your story; you’ll be surprised at what can fit.


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