Thursday, September 11, 2008

Creative feedback loop

How machinima has helped me write prose fiction

About 40 years ago, I decided I wanted to be a writer. All through school I wrote short stories, and came to the conclusion that I was a lousy playwright and a worse poet. But I still dreamt of being a novelist, until I was about 17 or 18. I used to show my juvenile works to a guy I knew who was a writer. Not a particularly good one, and certainly not famous, but he was at least a professional who would give me the time of day. One day, after critiquing some points of style, he launched into me in a way that stopped me dead in my tracks.

"What makes you think you have a damn thing to say that anybody would want to listen to? What have you done in your life that makes you think you know anything at all about people? Have you ever experienced love? Loss? Triumph? Why don't you wait until you have something to say, and then maybe you'll write something worth reading?"

Ouch. Harsh, but fair. So I set out to find those things.

In many ways, even though I haven't written that novel yet, I've been a writer ever since. I was a journalist for ages, writing about subjects as diverse as African politics, cookery, music, motorsport, technology, film, and computer games. I've written material for RPGs, wargames, computer games, and history magazines. I've written more Web site copy than I can recall. I write business plans, presentations, contracts, user documentation and software specifications. I've written song lyrics, haiku, CD cover notes. (And I did that machinima book.) It wasn't always exciting stuff, but it helped me develop clarity, economy, and the understanding of how to write for different audiences in different voices - and I got paid for nearly all of it. And, perhaps most importantly from the point of view of being a professional writer, how to write fast and hit a deadline.

And recently, I've started to write screenplays, purely so that I could film them for my own pleasure. The biggest breakthrough for me was reading William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade. (If you're into films and haven't read it, do. Seriously.) His technique for writing scripts changed the way I approached everything. Screenplays aren't about the dialogue. They're about describing to the director what the audience sees on the screen, and how they feel about what they see, and how they interpret what they see. When you read a Goldman script, you can already see the film in your head. It's like reading a well-written comic script, where we writer describes each panel in detail. At one point I was quite friendly with various of the 2000AD scriptwriters, and it was interesting to compare the different styles in which they communicated their ideas to the artists.

As I started to apply Goldman's methods to my screenwriting, I started to detect an interesting synergy between the filming and the writing. As a writer, I'd begun to think like a director. I was thinking visually, about how things would look on the screen, about how the camera moved, how the edits worked, and I was putting that into my screenplays. As a director, I'd begun to understand the relationship between the way stories are carried through both spoken and non-spoken elements. I've had to think about where I want to focus my audience's attention, and how to convey emotion without resorting to simply saying how people feel. Doing voice production has made me think about how people talk, and how the same words can carry so many different subtexts through subtle emphasis and inflection. Doing sound design has made me think about the way that music can completely change the feeling of a scene.

Through machinima, I've had to understand that stories aren't about the plot, or the words people say to each other, they're about how making the audience feel that they're actually there, and that they care about what the characters are going through. Yes, it's Creative Writing 101, but knowing it, understanding it, and being able to do it are different stages of the process.

And then, this weekend, I sat down and wrote a short story for the first time in about twenty years. With some trepidation I sent it to various people for their criticisms. The comment that pleased me most was this:

"You have a knack for painting a scene, for manipulating words to the point I feel as though I just watched a movie when it's over."

What I seem to have here is a very positive creative feedback loop. Making machinima, even just unpublished test pieces, has got me thinking about a whole new way of telling stories using sound and moving images. That, in turn, has made me develop my screenwriting skills so that I could express those sounds and images through words. And now, I've taken that back into prose fiction, and am learning how to write so that my readers can see and hear what I'd want them to see and hear if they were watching a film. Which, in turn, will help me write better screenplays, and make better movies - I hope!

I don't claim to be a good writer yet. I know how good I want to be. And I know I'm still a long way from being the director I want to be. But I'm fascinated by the way that making machinima has made a real difference to the way I write stories as well as screenplays. Perhaps it's something that more writers could learn from. Perhaps it's another of those roles that machinima will one day slip into.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to read my story and tell me exactly what they thought of it. It's all appreciated, especially the tough love.

1 comment:

Pineapple Pictures said...

I can relate to this Matt. I feel I have much more to write about now than in my early twenties, and writing makes more sense to me now. It has a function and is less disconnected. I'm really glad that being able to 'see' your work has made such a difference. Kate