NUTS & BOLTS: A Helpful Guide for the Writing of Things

Here are fifty little thoughts about writing good stories.


  1. Have good ideas.
  2. Write down all the ideas.
  3. Decide to write something.
  4. Life will be easier if you commit to just ONE project at a time.
  5. Make sure the central concept is compelling.
  6. Imagine the tone, the feeling, the style so that it supports the central concept.
  7. Plot. You can ‘just write’ for a few pages, but then you’ll get stuck or bored. Plot.
  8. Plot broadly, then zoom in. When stuck, step further back.
  9. Each scene leads to the next.
  10. This is how stories work: something happens, THEREFORE something else happens.
  11. Or: something happens, BUT something else happens.
  12. The more causally linked events are, the better. It makes the story feel INEVITABLE.
  13. The best plots are determined by the following formula: INITIAL CONDITIONS + TIME.
  14. The best stories are full of irony. It makes it feel RIGHT.
  15. Open with a problem, a mystery, and/or a goal. If not, then a surprise.
  16. Know the stakes.
  17. Raise the stakes.
  18. Raise the stakes as high as they can reasonably go within the confines of your world and your story.
  19. The protagonist should be interesting.
  20. It would help if they were also likeable.
  21. Most importantly, we should be able to identify with them.
  22. They need a goal.
  23. It is better if they actively pursue it. The more urgently, the better.
  24. Deadlines are good for characters as well as writers.
  25. The single most important thing to remember is this: DON’T BE BORING.
  26. Create INTEREST. Create interest through SITUATIONS.
  27. Create situations through CIRCUMSTANCES and/or STRONG CHARACTER WANT.
  29. Create CONFLICT. Conflict = DRAMA.
  30. To create conflict, establish clear goals for EVERY character. When characters’ goals get in the way of other characters’ goals, there is conflict.
  31. Make the conflict PRODUCTIVE to the causal development of the plot. Do not make it redundant.
  32. Don’t pad. Don’t waste time.
  33. Enter late, leave early.
  34. Never let the audience know everything. They don’t need to.
  35. Control the information: how much different characters know, when they find out new information…
  36. Careful manipulation of who knows what when, is the foundation of suspense, surprise, mystery, and tension.
  37. Both tragedy and comedy are commonly built around MISCOMMUNICATION, a lack of understanding.
  38. Make characters deal with their weaknesses, fears, dislikes, and past failures.
  39. It takes a moment of true CRISIS for a character to CHANGE.
  40. Character is about the DECISIONS they make. What are they made of?
  41. Write prose like dialogue.
  42. Write dialogue like music.
  43. Write your characters as if they are being written for the stage. Are actors going to want to play these roles? Are they fun? Are they challenging? Are they memorable? Do they appear regularly?
  44. Characters should react as naturally as possible in any given circumstance – within the confines of who they are.
  45. Comedy is commonly created through the subversion of expectation.
  46. Writing is all about CHOICES. Find the balance between the satisfaction of the logical next step, and the increased interestingness of the unexpected.
  47. The end is the conceit. Get it right and make it count.
  48. Get the first draft finished as soon as possible.
  49. If something doesn’t work, it may be because: it wasn’t set up, it goes against character, it doesn’t fit with the reality of the fictional world, it slows the story down.

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Some of the Things I Learnt this Semester

What it says on the tin. I did a drama course, a writing course, a film course and an ancient history course. All very practical, I imagine.

Here are some of the things I learnt this semester:

  • Often lectures realise that they’re losing you, and think the reason for this is you don’t understand what they’re saying, so they continue to talk about something of no relevance or interest in more detail, digging deeper into the hole they’ve made. It can be amusing if you are aware that this is what is happening.
  • Some, perhaps most, lecturers go for more than a decade peddling the exact same course material, opinions and references. Most people probably already knew this.
  • The law library has an ÜberStapler. You don’t even press the thing. Careful, though: that beast ain’t tame; you don’t know when it’s gonna bite. It’s like that bit in Flash Gordon when Timothy Dalton puts his hand in that hole. Or would be if his hand got stapled.
  • The Architecture and Music Library exists. They have a lot of DVDs there. Probably of every musical ever filmed and some that weren’t.
  • There are lots of stairs between Level 2 of a building and Level 6. They are rarely fun.
  • You have two hours to watch a film in the High Use area of the library. This is a problem, particularly when the film is not less than two hours long, and the machine is being stupid. And seeing as you have borrowed out not just the film but headphones, some card you don’t need, and a remote control, you end up with outrageous! overdue fines. You then have to spend the rest of the semester making sure you don’t go over $20 in unpaid fines, or you have to pay them. It would’ve been simpler to buy the damned movie.
  • According to a second year writing course, you can research things by reading books and stuff on the internet, looking at pictures, or even by talking to people! Also, stories often have a three-act structure. And there is grammar, too.
  • You can get a surprisingly large amount of mileage in EMSAH courses out of the Green World of Shakespeare.
  • Not a page of Homer’s Odyssey goes by without at least one Greek warrior weeping or sacrificing a couple of thigh bones.
  • There is a course you can do called “Looking at Art”.
  • The universe doesn’t actually collapse if you read all four of the plays in your drama course.
  • A postmodern performance project is a blessing, not a curse.
  • There are fuzzy colours and swirly sounds. Or, at least, some people think there are.
  • Charlie Chaplin wasn’t half as funny as Buster Keaton.

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Pop Music & Predictability: why it is necessary and good but sometimes not

This started as a comment on FB to this status: “Pop music is so predictable. I’d rather listen to music that both surprises and intrigues me.” Then it got a bit long, so I put it here.


Predictability isn’t necessarily a vice. Combinations of simple chord progressions are used again and again because they work – they’re pleasing, symmetrical. If I had to pick ‘perfect’ or ‘best’ songs, they’d be simple songs: La Bamba, La Mer, Mbube. These aren’t my ‘favourite’ pieces of music, but there’s almost something objectively simple and brilliant about them.

Lots of old folk songs, too, are simple and wonderful, and certainly more pleasing than much of what has come after them. Listen to something like The Parting Glass; it could never be less perfect because of its sameness, which is obviously the wrong word, but I hope you get what I mean. The naturalness is important. There’s a reason most songs are basically 4/4 or 3/4 –  it feels right.

The influence of our Western culture is important to remember here as well, e.g. it seems utterly bewildering to me that major keys haven’t always been considered happier. Obviously, there can be, and are, ‘simple’, ‘perfect’ pieces of music in unusual key and time signatures, but there are a heck of a lot less of ’em.

The sameness of instrumentation and sound is less defendable, but many of these previous points apply. With the expectation for guitars, pianos and kit, perhaps comes as much comfort as comes with ending the piece on the root of the chord. Not sure. Familiarity is comforting, and people don’t always want to be challenged. In fact, people pretty much don’t want to be challenged, full stop. YOU don’t want to be challenged. The things that intrigue and surprise you – you enter that world through paths of familiarity. You don’t go straight through some wormhole. Familiar elements guide you through to the unfamiliar.

Perhaps, the predictability of the music is for the same reason as the predictability of the themes of pop songs. I doubt a musician has had anything significant to add to the subject of love lyrically for a long time. But it’s not about adding something new. Think about the epic poets and storytellers of ancient times. The sagas they were recounting were stories that audiences knew. The poets would add in new bits, embellishments, tell a tale in a slightly different way, but the spine of the story stayed the same, because it worked: people loved it, they were invested in it. It spoke about things they all understood: love, betrayal, hope. Perhaps pop music, ‘mainstream music’, is predictable for these same reasons.

Though, at the same time, we do have to be surprised. It’s complex. Of course it’s complex.

You should probably remember that this is mostly me playing devil’s advocate. If you asked me what sort of music I liked, my first answer would definitely not be “pop music”. It would be “good music”. Which sounds kinda patronising, but it’s true. And I have my own definition of what makes good music good, and I don’t really know what that definition is. I could say that I like elegant melodies, but that doesn’t even begin to cover it. I could list some things that other people are less likely to list, thereby defining myself against them. I like film scores, old school Broadway belters, 30s jazz, baroque brass and Beach Boys harmonies. I think a happy song might be better than a sad song of equal quality. I think Paul McCartney was easily the best songwriter in the Beatles (I do actually feel pretty strongly about that one). And I don’t understand when people don’t realise that most really good bands only ever write a couple of really good songs.

So that just lets you know where I’m coming from. And I’d like to head towards the conclusion here by pointing out that it was the rejection of the predictable, and the desire to surprise and shock that lead to the avant-garde experimentation that repelled the masses from classical music. The reaction to the uncommunicative, unknowable avant-garde, was pop music and rock ‘n’ roll. The masses wanted to connect with music, and through it, connect with each other.

In the words of George Lucas, “Don’t avoid clichés. They’re clichés because they work.” I’m not actually going to check that, but I think that’s what he said. And he made possibly the most important, course-changing piece of entertainment in the 20th Century: Howard the Duck. See? You don’t always have to be predictable. Though being right is better, hence correction: Star Wars.

Cantina Band

In many ways popular music still operates on the same familiar principles as it did a long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away). We can learn a lot from Modal Nodes.

Saying all this though, I don’t listen to mainstream pop music – because it is all rubbish and the same and I hate it. But that’s because it doesn’t value quality. Otherwise it wouldn’t involve autotune. It would have harmonies; it would use the full spectrum of vocal pitch; it would be smart, it would be funny, and it would be heartfelt. Indie music suffers many of the same problems, just without the money.

Nevertheless, musically and thematically, a certain degree of predictability is necessary for art and entertainment to succeed, to fulfil its purpose, to connect.

I don’t want to drag this out anymore, so I’ll just end with this: I like good music, and you do, too. Some people just don’t know they do. They should listen to some sometime. They’d like it.

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As you may have guessed from its title, this blog post is about Twitter. And though you may be right in saying that said title is unimaginative, you cannot dispute the fact that it is accurate. Or more accurately, you could dispute it, but you would be wrong. Also, it is short, and with Twitter, short is good.

I’ve had a Twitter account for a little while, but have only just started to actually tweet. You don’t have to, but I’m giving it a go.  Tweets – each only 140 characters in length – are, you may have noticed, traditionally shorter than blog posts. I suppose this increases the likelihood of continued use. We’ll see how it turns out, but for now, here are my freshman observations.

Some mythbusting, first up. Twitter is not a list of what people are doing at this precise moment, and every other moment following that. It does not consist solely of updates on coffee drinking and baking and walking and breathing. Maybe some people do this, probably a lot of people, but if you follow the right people, you will be provided with a pretty constant stream of interesting, diverting and entertaining links to all manner of essays, videos, photos, articles, jokes, news items and assorted miscellanies.

Twitter is not everybody talking to everybody else. A lot of people are talking, but, just like in real life, you tune out the noise, and focus on what you want to focus on. Anybody can theoretically talk to (almost) anyone else, but they wouldn’t have to engage. In fact, compared to other sites, like Facebook or YouTube, Twitter is noticeably less vitriolic and more optimistic. Perhaps it’s that the brevity enforced by the character limit makes people stop and think, and compose their message, rather than smash their fists and face into the keyboard in a rabid, slavering, bile-burking rant in a comments section. (And the permanent blocking of mizzle-witted trolls is done in but a click.) In some ways, fitting what you want to say into the allotted space is an interesting mental exercise, without the frustration that comes with word counts for longer forms like essays.

But I should really do a 101 for the uninitiated. The @soandso thingies are the users, and if you write their name like that in a tweet, it gets sent or cc’d to that person. You can retweet others’ tweets, if you like the cut of their jib, and favourite them if you deem their jibs exceptionally well cut on the occasion. #Hashtags are, well, tags. They categorise, index, flurescent-post-it-note-marker-mark certain words or topics, so that you can search for those things. Hashtags that are tagged an awful lot become trending topics. There are other little bits of shorthand, too: like #FF stands for Follow Friday, when people recommend some other good people to follow. That’s pretty much it for the basics, and I don’t think it gets much more complicated. Though I may have got most of it wrong.

The other things Twitter is known for are its immediate news coverage and its use as a vehicle for social movement (organising protest rallies, etc.). I’m not sure about this second point, but I can understand how it could be useful. But the first point is interesting. Yesterday, I found out about Bob Brown’s resignation as the leader of the Greens only a few minutes after the announcement. This level of connectivity, of rapid awareness, is quite frankly astounding. I could talk about how far we have come from the earliest days of communication, and of the couriering of news, but it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter where someone, or something is in the world: something happens and BAM! – you can know about it. That isn’t exclusive to Twitter, I know, but it somehow seems to work really, really well in that particular format/social networking site.

Twitter is simple, stylish, and clean, where Facebook is crowded, messy, and a tad boring. But they do different things (whilst overlapping in some areas). As I see it, Facebook is mainly for communicating with a relatively close group of people you actually know. Twitter is an immediate library of what people are thinking and reading and watching and sharing. I find I usually stay on Twitter longer, as well. Though it should be remembered that what is written is largely inconsequential; but that’s the same with stuff written anywhere.

When you’re procrastinating, footling about, just wanting something to look at on a shiny screen, Twitter is as good a place to start as any. Though you could do what I just did and write a blog about it instead.

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What “Kony 2012” says about us

After seeing “Kony2012” and similar hashtaggy comments popping up on Twitter and YouTube these last couple of days, I, pragmatist that I am, decided to see what all the fuss was about. An organisation called Invisible Children made a film, which has now been seen by a few million people, to promote publicity around terrorist Joseph Kony, the leader of the Ugandan guerrilla group the LRA, in hope of bringing about his capture. I’ve now watched the film, and I’ve reached some conclusions.

Firstly, it is obviously very well made. Secondly, it seems to have achieved its primary purpose of gaining public attention, this itself a testament to the subject of my first observation, because to maintain the attention of so many viewers for a whole half hour is frankly quite a feat, especially considering the uncomfortable subject matter.

But here’s my third observation: it manages to get people moved and angry and excited and inspired about this uncomfortable subject matter by addressing it in a very comfortable way. Perhaps this is more practical. But still, think about it: you hear some statistics, and you know they’re big and bad – terrible and horrible, in fact. But the pictures you are shown of the brutality come fast and are soon over, making way for Mumford and Sons and shots of cute kids and rallies and people waving signs and putting up posters. And suddenly you’re part of a movement – the revolutionaries of the Digital Age. It’s an uprising. It’s inspiring. It makes you feel good.

And the situation has to be boiled down to binary opposition. Who are the baddies? Who are the goodies? It’s simplified for the viewer. I am certainly not saying that the man is anything other than an inhuman criminal who deserves punishment and pain for the things he has done. But there are other bad guys, right? Corrupt African governments, and so on; and other terrorists. And I can’t really believe this man is that much more evil than the next mass-murderer living and breathing today in some other part of the world. But this is simpler, this we can focus on, and there’s a direct line of action for viewers after watching the film. The simplicity drives home the message – which can only be applauded, I suppose. It’s storytelling. Superb storytelling. And what nobler purpose for stories than to bring about change for the better, and champion morality and humanity?

But this seems like the sort of thing the Internet – that empowered, global community – soon forgets about, and moves on from. On to the next week’s headline. And I don’t really know how much of a community the Internet or Facebook or Twitter really are. Any more so than the sum of human population can be called a community? In many ways more connected, yes, and growing evermore so. But if a soldier puts a bullet through Kony’s head, if the LRA crumbles, if Uganda becomes a peaceful, prosperous nation, will that be where the world wide web’s support stops? Do we as a community have the stamina, the desire, and the will to move such collective attention and fervour onto the next atrocity? Maybe. But which cause next? Whichever one is simplest?

I don’t know. I fear I am being cynical, callous, dismissive, thoughtless. If by making the viewer feel empowered and good about themselves the goal is achieved, and good triumphs, then what’s wrong with simplifying the subject a little and inspiring people? However, on the other hand, should we not learn to accept the existence of sadness and ruin and poverty and chaos? Not to leave it at that, but to understand that it does exist, and will continue to exist in some form well past your lifetime. Then we are in it together. Then we feel compassion, not just a desire to save people and defeat the bad guys. Not just an anger, but sorrow. Not just hate for the oppressor, but love for the oppressed. Is this rubbish? Not sure; could be. I guess what the film and our reaction to it really proves is the natural human repulsion to inhumanity, our natural connection with story, and our need for hope, in all its terrible ignorance and moving generosity.

Finally, on a bit of a tangent, but an important one: the question of intervention naturally arises, and applies to the subject of international aid in all forms. It then brings up questions of the individual’s moral obligations, and countries’ moral and practical obligations, and in my opinion, the topic of divided responsibility. Our level of moral accountability and responsibility does depend on how close our association is. In our society, for instance, parents are responsible for their children first, and a country’s government must protect its people’s interest first. And it is the responsibility of the global community, in the form of individual nations, to work together and fairly offer aid to those countries that need it. Unfortunately, that top community tier has precious little experience with cooperation, and changing that is probably the most important step that can be taken towards a world less plagued with inequality and depravity.

I hope that the Kony 2012 movement succeeds. And I hope it is start of something bigger. But I just don’t know.

And here’s a link to a better article than this one, that takes a sobering look at the factual accuracy of the Kony 2012 campaign. If you care about the issue, it is the thing to read.

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Filed under Film, News and Features, Uncategorized

Oscars 2012: Music & Mo-Cap Missing in Action; and My Picks for Best Song

The list of nominees for the 84th Academy Awards has been announced. Obviously, there are the usual number of snubs and surprises. The ones people will talk about most will be Albert Brooks, Tilda Swinton and Michael Fassbender missing out on acting nods. And also the ugly shock that the by-all-accounts terribly mediocre Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is nominated for Best Picture. It won’t win.

But missing in action seems to be the ol’ motion capture. Andy Serkis wasn’t nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Rise of the Planet of the Apes and The Adventures of Tintin was ridiculously not nominated for Best Animation. The acting and animation branches of the Academy are still at odds with the technique, unfortunately. Also missing on the animation front are Aardman’s Arthur Christmas and Pixar’s Cars 2, meaning that neither of probably the two greatest animation companies in the world manage to get a slot. On the plus side, Rango is definitely in the running – though it should possibly have got a Best Original Screenplay nod as well.

In my opinion, the greatest, most unforgivable snub was in the Best Original Song category. And what exactly was it that was snubbed? Which little tune in particular? Well, almost all of them, actually. Staggeringly, only two songs have been nominated: “Man or Muppet” from The Muppets and “Real in Rio” from Rio. Firstly, the latter of these doesn’t even belong in the top ten; secondly, I would say that “Man or Muppet” was only the third-best song in The Muppets. Though admittedly, also the third-best song of the year overall. However, the rules dictate that a film can have a maximum of two songs nominated, so I would have chosen the fantastic opener “Life’s a Happy Song” and Kermit’s touching “Pictures in My Head”. But here, to prove that there was a lot of good music this year, are all the songs eligible for Oscars that I believe were worthy of being nominated, in approximate order:

“Life’s a Happy Song” from The Muppets

“Pictures in My Head” from The Muppets

“Man or Muppet” from The Muppets

“Gathering Stories” from We Bought a Zoo

“The Backson Song” from Winnie the Pooh

“Pop” from White Irish Drinkers

“Lay Your Head Down” from Albert Nobbs

“So Long” from Winnie the Pooh

“Hello Hello” from Gnomeo & Juliet

“The Greatest Song I Ever Heard” from POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

“The Keeper” from Machine Gun Preacher

“Star Spangled Man” from Captain America: The First Avenger

“Sparkling Day” from One Day

“The Living Proof” from The Help

“Collision of Worlds” from Cars 2

“Imaginary Friends” from Olive

They are all worth listening to, and represent the best of song-writing in 2011.

But now some good news: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has not been nominated for Best Original Score. Huzzah! The composers, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, won last year for The Social Network, and while their atmospheric electronic loops suited the material, it was not musically superior to – and required less skill to write than – a traditional film score. What should have won hands down was John Powell’s score for How to Train Your Dragon. But that’s in the past; these are the Best Original Score nominees for 2012:

War HorseJohn Williams

And you can find the complete list of nominees for the 2012 Oscars here.

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Filed under Film, Music, News and Features

2012: Celebration, Annihilation & Pronunciation – and Mayans! (Or not.)

Happy New Year!

I think this is the year where we switch from “two thousand and something” to “twenty something”.

Twenty Twelve. I think it’s the alliteration that’s the clincher.

But of course the big 2012 thing is the whole Mayan Calendar predicting the End of the World thing. Thinking that a potential apocalypse was deserving of some small portion of my time, I had a look into this, and a small portion of my time (about a minute) later, I had discovered the unbelievable truth: that the Maya people did not think the world would end in 2012. What a relief! And I was seriously worried there for a second…

Basically, 21/12/12 is the start of a new cycle or baktun on the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar. The Armageddon conspiracy surrounding the date comes from New Age whackjobs, pseudoscientists, and the marketing department for Roland Emmerich’s disaster film; apparently, the Maya even mention events that will happen on dates beyond this year in other pieces of writing. It’s like an archaeologist from 500 years in the future finding a regular calendar from 2012 and deducing that the world ended 500 years ago on December 31st. Besides, we’ve been here before: Y2K – and what an anticlimax that was. You’d think the Earth’s magnetic poles should have reversed at the very least (which is actually going to happen at some point in the future – again).

But what else were the Mayans famous for? Why, lots of stuff! Actual stuff that actually happened! For instance, they were actually really good at astronomy. And they were literate and numerate, with some seriously groovy hieroglyphs. And they really were in the human sacrifice business, with full-on ripping-out-the-still-beating-heart-of-the-victim authenticity. But presumably only on special occasions. And you could play as the Mayans in Age of Empires II: The Conquerors. They had the Plumed Archer. And this is a fact. Also, Wikipedia tells me they had this ol’ deity: God K.

God K

So, K (played by Tommy Lee Jones, and Josh Brolin when he was younger in the 60s) was a God of Lightning. Sweet! And he had a serpent for one of his legs, and what looks like a really big nose. He was also a god of agriculture, so I imagine that the sizeable proboscis is for smelling yummy Mezoamerican foody goodness.

And the Mayans had Chichen Itza, too.

Chichen Itza

Lastly, I’d like to address the eschatological issue (the end of the world). It seems that scientists and boffins around the world are a bit miffed that they’ve proven (without very much effort) that the world will not meet its demise at the figurative hands of a calendar. This is the only explanation I can reach as to why they would want to go out and reconstruct the genetic code of the germ that caused the Black Death, build a laser so powerful it could boil and rip open the fabric of the universe, or make 18-metre tall humanoid robots. Do we learn nothing from movies? Do some scientists just have a death wish? Or is it that we as a species simply have a desire to expand our horizons, advance science, and poke things with sticks until they blow up in our faces?

Wouldn’t want it any other way. Maya hava very happy 2012 🙂

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