Friday, 13 August 2010

Friday Flash - Free

Teva scraped another line into the tally on her wall. One thousand, one hundred and seventy four scratches marked the small patch of soft chalk in the granite wall. She rocked back onto her heels. The guard would come in ten minutes time.

She hauled herself onto the hard mattress in the corner. A rusted spring squealed in protest. She stretched out on her back. She let her feet hang over the end. A spider scuttled around in the corner. Teva watched it renovate its web.

The battered door swung open. A grizzled man in a dark grey uniform stood in the doorway. He held a carbine rifle across his chest. Flinty eyes glared out from below the peak of his cap.

“It’s time.”

“I know,” said Teva. She swung her legs off the bed and stood up.

“I knew you’d know,” said the guard. “You know too much, that’s your problem.”

Teva knew the way to the grey room but she allowed the guard to lead the way. She followed him down identical grey corridors, her footsteps falling on cracked grey tiles. She wondered what might happen if she rushed the guard. She could try to steal the rifle. She knew she would not. She knew the guard expected that.

A door blocked the end of the corridor. The guard inserted a heavy key into the lock. The door slid to one side.

“Go on then, they’re expecting you,” said the guard. He gestured for Teva to go inside.

“I know they are,” replied Teva. She twisted her face at the guard, a final childish gesture. He gazed at her with disinterest.

Four people sat in the grey room. Men in smart suits occupied three of the four empty chairs on one side of a walnut desk. They all wore black armbands over their jacket sleeves. A man with a shaven head sat on a low stool opposite. A tattoo of a squid clung to his bald skull. Heavy manacles bound his wrists and ankles. He stared at a spot of dirt on the grey floor in front of him.

“Ah, Teva! There you are. Have a seat,” said one of the suited men.

“Now you’re here, we can get started,” said another.

Teva slid into the vacant seat. The three men turned to face the prisoner.

“You have been charged with attempted robbery, attempted murder, actual bodily harm and grand theft auto. You have also applied for parole,” said the third man.

“We’d love to grant you parole, really, we would. But we can’t do that unless we know you’re not going to be a danger to yourself, or others. It would be incredibly irresponsible of us not to make certain, and we don’t like being irresponsible,” said the second man.

“This is where young Teva here comes in. She is going to tell us if you will break your parole. Your freedom depends on her. Do you understand what I’m telling you?” asked the first man.

The prisoner nodded.

“Well then. Teva, it’s over to you.”

Teva looked at the man. She half-closed her eyes, and let her vision drift out of focus. She let her mind break loose of its moorings, and she drifted towards the prisoner. He squirmed when she ran her insubstantial hands over his head. She stroked the stubble. He whined.

Teva remembered herself, and walked her fingers around to his forehead. She brushed the skin above his eyebrows. She saw the world as he saw it. She saw the grey floor, and the walnut desk, through his eyes. She stuck out her astral tongue and flicked it through his aura. He tasted lonely. She detected an aftertaste of remorse and grief.

She opened her eyes, back in her own body. The prisoner looked at her. Sorrow filled his blue eyes. She turned to the three men in suits. They looked at her in expectation. She nodded once. The first man broke into a grin.

“Well, young Sid! This is your lucky day! Teva here doesn’t think you’re going to break your parole, so it is with a great deal of satisfaction that I can call you a free man!”

Another guard stepped into the room and unlocked the manacles. The men in suits burst into a round of applause. Sid looked at them. He hesitated.

“Go on, son! Get out of here before we change our minds!” said the second suited man.

The guard led Sid out of the grey room. Teva heard him sob. Freedom sometimes did that to people.
The suited men stopped laughing. They turned in unison and glared at her. One of the men snapped his fingers and the grizzled guard with the rifle walked into the room.

“Take the lovely Teva back to her room. We don’t want our prize asset wandering around, now, do we?”

The guard grabbed Teva’s arm and hauled her out of her seat. He marched her into the corridor. She glanced out of the window and saw Sid walk out into the yard. The guard would take him across the yard to the other side of the prison where he would be processed and released. For now, Sid simply tipped back his head to the sky. Sunlight caressed his face.

Teva turned her face to the shadows in the corridor. She ducked into her small cell and lay down on the mattress. The spider still scampered about in its web. Teva envied its freedom to create. She sighed. She still had one gift for mankind.

She would remain imprisoned so that others might go free.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

How to use a video game to write fiction

I posted an open call for suggestions for blog entries on Twitter, and the lovely Dan Powell came up with "Timesplitters". That was actually related to a Facebook conversation on Saturday about how I wished someone would open a Timesplitter theme park, and I tried to think of ways I could incorporate a video game into a blog post on a blog that attempts to be connected to writing.

This may or may not work, but I'm going to use Timesplitters 2 as a reference point for exploring story structure! I know, it isn't a perfect game, with its hammy dialogue and contrived plot, but for our purposes, it's ideal.

For those who haven't played it, the game is set in the 25th Century. You play Sergeant Cortez, a space marine (who looks suspiciously like Vin Diesel). War is raging between humanity and an evil alien race known as the Timesplitters. They use time crystals to zip about in time, changing history to bring Earth to ruin (slightly more labourious than invasion, but there you go). Cortez heads off into Time to try and get the last few crystals. Each level is the time period he visits, and he takes the form to match those eras. My personal favourite is the bounty hunter in the Wild West - even if you fire your pistol in the air, the bullet still makes a ricochet sound. Brilliant!

A problem shared...
All narratives work best with some kind of problem that must be solved. The opening cut scene of the game sets out this problem - in this case, the Time Crystals are stolen by the evil Timesplitters, and Cortez must leap about in time looking for them. The good news is, you don't have to write sci-fi, action thrillers or even video game scripts for this to apply. Think of all those romantic comedies where the boy and girl must overcome some kind of hurdle before they can get together. Humanity is forever setting itself tasks or causing itself problems, so if you can think of a problem that must be solved, then you can think up a narrative (or have a reason to hire the A-Team - your choice). a problem halved
Now, you can't solve your problem too quickly, or it'll be too boring. It's also not realistic. Imagine if the Na'vi had just sat down with the mining corporation and worked out an amicable arrangement over tea and biscuits. No Avatar! (I say that like it would be a bad thing...) Or what if Captain Barbossa realised Elizabeth was lying about being Bootstrap's daughter and let her go? No Pirates of the Caribbean! Marion Crane would have saved herself a whole world of trouble if she'd just put the money back in the safe, and not decided to spend the night at the Bates Motel.

So you need to put obstacles in the way. Political corruption, physical distance, differences in temperament, mutant abilities, a bank robbery gone wrong, a natural disaster - I'm sure you can think of something. Look at Tomb Raider - Lara Croft doesn't just waltz into a cave system and find what she's looking for within a few minutes. No, you have to guide her through an implausibly large labyrinth of puzzles before you can get anywhere near the ancient artefact. Whether your obstacles are literal or metaphorical, you need them. In Timesplitters 2, the obstacles are physical, in the form of the anonymous henchmen you dispatch throughout each level, as well as the 'puzzles' you sometimes have to solve. (i.e. pick this up, take it over there, turn that lever, go somewhere else etc.).

Aiding and abetting
It is rare that your character will have to "go it alone", and aid is often given in some form or other. In Timesplitters 2, you get information or maps from Anya. She randomly radios Cortez across the barrier of Time to tell him (and, by extension, you) what to do. You also get a second character as an anchor to the level, someone who's already up against the bad guys. In Rear Window, Jeff solves the mystery with the help of his girlfriend, Lisa. Even Harry Potter needs Hermione and Ron before he can get the job done. Try and think up good, solid supporting characters to help your hero or heroine along. They will often have abilities or skills that your hero lacks - without them, your hero or heroine can't finish the job. This isn't as bad as it sounds - your hero/heroine needs to have flaws if your reader is going to relate to them.

Location, location, location
Location is incredibly important to your story, and the time travel nature of Timesplitters 2 means that Cortez travels between a myriad of different locations and time periods. Costume and props (not to mention weapons) change to suit the era, and each level offers its own challenges. You can't exactly dodge flying robots in the Wild West, and you're unlikely to encounter angry 1920s mobsters in an Aztec jungle! Give a thought to setting, including basic iconography and costume, to ground your story.

The minor triumph
The episodic, level-based format of Timesplitters 2 also highlights the importance of the minor triumph. By all means set your character a major problem to solve, but if you give them smaller ones to deal with throughout the narrative, it keeps the reader hooked for the whole story arc. Look at Lord of the Rings - Frodo doesn't just have to get the Ring to Mordor, he has to make it through the Mines of Moria, survive various Orc attacks and avoid betrayal by Gollum. The completion of each mini quest takes him one step closer to his goal. It's the same with Cortez - every time you complete a level, you've collected a Crystal and mended the rift in Space/Time, but you still need all of them before you can defeat the Timesplitters. The minor victories give you the momentum to continue.

The Final Chapter
The levels progress in difficulty, just as the minor quests in your narrative should grow in difficulty and complexity. Look at the challenges faced by Perseus in Clash of the Titans - each of the smaller victories serves to teach the hero a new skill, or help them to develop an ability, before the final episode. In this 'cut scene' the problem is solved, and the narrative is resolved. In this case, Cortez retrieves all of the crystals, and manages to blow up the space station overrun by Timesplitters. Whether you have a happy ending, or a sad one, the problem will need to be solved in some way in this final scene...unless of course you want your reader to go away feeling unfulfilled and a tad bemused. Probably best to avoid this option, unless you're secretly James Joyce.

So there you have it! A video game can teach you a lot about story structure, so now you have an excuse to play them!

Sunday, 8 August 2010

The Legend behind the Black Knight

This week's Friday Flash, A Black Night In The Churchyard, seems to have captured a lot of people's imaginations. After the good reception that my post on Bunhill Fields cemetery got, I thought I would dabble in local history again and explain a little about the setting that inspired my flash.

In the heart of Newcastle upon Tyne stands St Nicholas' Cathedral (see left), the Church of England church for the Diocese of Newcastle. A church has stood on this site since 1091, although the original parish church burned down in 1216. It was rebuilt in 1359, and it became a cathedral in 1882. The lantern spire dates to 1448. In my humble opinion, it is one of the most beautiful ecclesiastical buildings in the entire country. Certainly, York Minster, Durham Cathedral or Canterbury Cathedral are impressive, but St Nicholas' smaller scale makes it seem almost cosy. I am not religious in the slightest but I still find the place quite welcoming (though that may be due to the friendly volunteers who'll take you around during the day to point out notable features).

Inside the Cathedral is a tomb. This isn't particularly remarkable due to the English insistence on burying their dead under the foundations of their holy buildings (although the great Christopher Wren wanted an end to the practice due to the subsidence problems caused by a combination of rotting flesh, noxious gases and early building materials). This particular tomb is believed to house an anonymous knight. Local lore has it that his lord gave him instructions to protect the Church, which he continues to do even in death.

Clanking armour and the sound of metal-clad feet on gravel have been heard, while people have also reported seeing a cloak disappearing around the corner, or through a wall. Alone in the Dark Entertainment run ghost walks and tours in the area, so I asked David Marshall, one of their guides, about the story of the boy who broke the window.

"A small group of chavs were sitting drinking some cheap liquor within the grounds when one of the lads started arguing with his female partner for the night. In a fit of drunken rage, he threw a bottle at the window, destroying centuries of history within seconds. Without a thought for what he'd done, the lad and his group continued arguing and shouting, eventually leaving the site and heading back to their homes.

"For days afterwards, the lad was plagued by dreams, waking up in a cold sweat with fading visions of swords being hung above his head and a dark figure chasing him through his sleep. The dreams grew worse and  in the coming weeks other things started happening. The TV would turn itself on and off, objects would be moved when no one was in the room, keys would disappear only to reappear weeks later in full view. On and on these events went, gradually getting worse and worse, to the point of things being thrown by an unseen source.

"The dreams continued, the sword, the dark shape from a darker place.. a warning.. Admit his sin or perish. The lad was taken to psychiatrists, where they could only suggest sleeping tablets. A team was called in to investigate the strange happenings at home, the poltergeist, the daemon, the angry spirit.
Nothing helped. The lad could take it no longer and travelled into the city, walked into the police station and begged to be locked up. ... He was taken to trial, all the while the torments continued, until the moment at which the gavel struck and the sentence passed. In that one instance, the torment ended. ... The boy slept safe and secure, penance paid, in his cell."

Given that it is unlikely a drunken hooligan would be aware of the Black Knight, it is therefore easy to discount the possibility of him "imagining" these events as a symptom of his paranoia. I've always liked this particular story, although it has since been left out of the ghost walk at the Cathedral's request. I wanted to celebrate the work of the Knight, and that provided the impetus to write the flash.

I admit that I did change a few details, since the Cathedral is far from being forgotten or dilapidated, although it is true that building work in the area has eaten into the churchyard and changed the level of the ground. The yard was also the site of grave robbing, and other ghosts have been seen in the area. I also took a little artistic license since the Knight of legend terrorises ne'er-do-wells rather than consuming their souls.

I do hope that the Knight one day manages to find peace, but sadly I think the descent of humanity into new levels of selfishness and degradation will mean he is needed more than ever.

* * *

If you're in Newcastle upon Tyne, then I highly recommend a visit to St Nicholas' Cathedral. I also recommend checking out the many tours and walks that Alone in the Dark Entertainment run. If you're interested in the dark tales of my home town, then Vanessa Histon's Nightmare on Grey Street and Ghosts of Grainger Town are both excellent places to start!