Different media, different approaches

I find it interesting to look at stories that have been presented in different media. The classic example has to be Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – the same author produced a radio version, TV version, movie version and book version of the same story. Each is slightly different. Which is the true story?

By studying the differences and similarities, you can get a much clearer idea of the essence of the story. In any adaptation/new version, you need to look at each scene/event. I reckon each falls into one of three categories:

  • Absolutely essential. Needs to appear in very close to the same way in each version.
  • Important. Carries part of the story but can be tackled in some other way if necessary.
  • Minor. Maybe it adds extra colour, or background, or reinforces what’s going on, but the story works just as well without.

It might well be a useful exercise, when working on a novel, to pull each scene apart in those terms. What does it add? Is it essential, important or minor? What’s the balance between these three categories? Is there too much minor content compared to the essential? Is it all essential, with very little spare? What is the role of each scene? If you were to translate it into a different medium, which elements are essential? What is the purpose of each scene, not just in what happens but how it carries the story forward?

For example, if you were to take the story of Little Red Riding Hood, which parts are important? What is the nugget of the story? The fact that LRRH was picking flowers on the way? The fact that the wolf had fur? The fact that the relative she was visiting was a grandmother? Or the fact that she was distracted from her task, allowed the enemy to confuse her for a while, and then finally saw through his deceit? Which parts can you safely discard or change? Which parts carry the story? How far can you go in changing/adapting before you lose sight of what you started with?

This musing was prompted by my visit to the cinema over the weekend to view Ender’s Game, the movie adaptation of one of my favourite novels.

If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, be warned that this entry from this point forward will contain spoilers. And if you haven’t read the book – go read it, and skip the movie. And if you’ve seen the movie but not the book – go read the book. As usual, it’s far better than the movie…

 

 

 

***spoilers for Ender’s Game from this point on***

 

I’ve read Ender’s Game several times. It goes down as one of my favourite books of all time. When I heard of the movie being released, I had reservations – it has a lot to live up to. So we headed out to take a look.

Just like the graphic novel, the movie story is greatly simplified. There’s a whole story arc from the book – Val and Peter’s schemings – that are missed out. Understandable in a way, and yet what does it add to the story? It puts it into a world context. It explains why Val is willing to encourage Ender back into training. It makes the story so much richer.

The training is far shorter and simplified. That’s sad but understandable. That comes into the middle category – the training itself is important, but the depth and detail aren’t so important.

And yet there’s a whole aspect that I would view as essential to the story, that they missed completely. The fact that by opening the gate without defeating the enemy first Ender is bending the rules completely is lost by telling the kids that’s how you win the game. In this way the whole impact of the story disappears. The way that Ender is isolated and forced to rely on his own abilities to keep himself safe, and is taught that there is never anyone else to save him, that it’s always just him. The fact that in the end he wins by doing something totally unexpected, that he believes is against the rules, done in a fit of anger against the unfairness of the way he’s being treated.

The imagery in the movie was impressive. Although the battle room should not have clear walls, and there should be more than one battle room, and the whole station is far too small, the essentials were there. The final battles in the command school were particularly well rendered, although Ender should be totally isolated, not standing with his friends.

Part of the point of the story is the ansible – the instantaneous communication. There was no need to travel closer in order to communicate. This ties into the way that the formics (and calling them that rather than the buggers was again understandable but incredibly irritating) communicated with Ender via his dreams and the mind game. The people on earth should be in fear of a third invasion, not realising that we are the third invasion, another point that was completely lost. And the fact that Mazer Rackham had been sent into deep space in order to remain alive to train the new commander was very unclear.

The ages of the movie characters were disappointing of course – originally Ender is six, and the training takes a few years, but in the movie he is a lot older to start with and the training takes place only in a very short time. That’s forgivable – just – but the fact that Ender is supposed to be small and innocent and vulnerable is lost when the boy is actually a lot taller than Bonzo!

So all in all I was incredibly disappointed by the movie, which seemed to miss most of the story and get wrong the parts it did include.

The lesson, however, of how to pull your story apart, figure out the exact purpose of each scene and how to put it into a different context is a valuable one.

 

Sci Fi and powerful writing

I caught an episode of Deep Space Nine today, for the first time in ages, and was totally blown away by the power of the episode.

Like all good science fiction, this particular program succeeds because it shows ordinary people in recognisable situations, which can be seen all the more clearly for the unfamiliar setting.  I’ll give a little background, but the real life parallel will be obvious.

For anyone unfamiliar with it, it’s a Star Trek series based on Deep Space Nine, a space station (think motorway service station) near a planet, Bajor, and a wormhole (think motorway) to another quadrant, where the Cardassians originate.

A few years earlier, Cardassians occupied Bajor, and the Bajorans were freedom fighters standing up against the oppressors. Now Cardassia has retreated, and Bajor is trying to rebuild.

Kira is a Bajoran working on board Deep Space Nine (which is run by the Federation, a neutral group), and when a Cardassian calls in and asks for medical treatment, she accuses of him being the leader of a concentration camp.

At first the Cardassian insists he was just a filing clerk at the camp, and asks Kira how many Cardassian civilians she killed during her days as a freedom fighter (or terrorist). These are hard questions for Kira, but she sticks to her guns, researches, and eventually turns up a photo to prove the Cardassian really is the camp leader. Sure enough, he confesses and gloats about his crimes to her.

Just as they’re ready to hand him over to the Bajoran authorities for trial, further evidence turns up – the real camp leader died several years ago, and the guy claiming to be him seemed to have undergone plastic surgery, wound up his affairs and then deliberately sought passage to Deep Space Nine, where he was likely to be recognised and picked up.

So who exactly is he? In a moving conversation, Kira discovers that the Cardassian really was a filing clerk at the camp, who was horrified by the treatment of Bajorans but helpless to do anything about it. In despair, his conscience pricking him, he decided to pose as the camp leader and turn himself in, hoping that the ensuing trial would force Cardassia to face up to its crimes.

Kira ends up sympathising with him and assuring him that he was not to blame for the crimes. As she escorts him to the ship to take him back home, one of the Bajorans who lives on the station rushes up and stabs him in the back. “What did you do that for?” cried Kira. “He’s not the camp leader.”

“He’s a Cardassian,” replies the man. “Isn’t that enough?”

“No,” says Kira, cradling the dying man in her arms. “It’s not enough.”

And at that moment you realise that while at the beginning of the episode she too felt that the only good Cardassian was a dead Cardassian, she and we had travelled on a journey that led to the conclusion that there is  good and bad on both sides, and that it pays to look far more deeply.

That, to me, holds all the power of a true science fiction story – just as Kira is absolutely certain at the beginning and has her attitude changed by the end, so we too realise that there are two sides to the story, and that you can’t lump everyone together, label them and feel secure in that labelling.

The tension between Bajor and Cardassia plays a large part in the show, as does the religious beliefs of the Bajorans, and while DS9 may not have the excitement of a new planet to visit every week, I do believe it helps the stories themselves to become much deeper, with very strong characterisation and situations that truly reflect society.

I would love the ability to write stories of that calibre. And I’m looking forward to a couple of weeks at home, when I can catch up with more DS9 episodes.

 

Rumour

It started as a rumour.  No-one believed it at first, of course; just like every previous time when the end of the world was announced.  Just voices whispering about how strange things had been sighted in the sky. A meteor, hurtling through space, passing close enough to the earth’s path to be seen clearly.  Only the maths had been done and indicated that it wasn’t going to be the near miss that had originally been predicted.

Instead it was going to hit directly.

The newspapers were dismissed as panic-mongering, and retaliated by calling experts to back them up. The argument raged over the media for days, until it began to dawn on the public at large that far too many experts were not giving direct, reassuring answers, but instead were avoiding the question and talking around probabilities and trajectories and failing to disguise was what beginning to look a lot like panic.

No-one seemed to know what to do.  Panic buying struck; shops sold out of bottles of water and tins of food.  We didn’t believe the rumours, of course, but still we could see that if we didn’t buy in stocks pretty soon then supplies would dry up following the excessive demand, and so we bowed to peer pressure and stocked up in our turn. It was Bill’s idea to buy in frozen food. We pointed out that in the case of massive disaster electricity would stop working and the freezers would fail, but Bill pointed out that it would probably keep long enough to get through the initial aftermath, and after that – well, if things weren’t sorted soon they’d never be sorted at all, and so having food that would last for years instead of days would be unlikely to change the overall outcome.

So everyone built up their stores, and talked about the end of the world in a disbelieving manner, and moved through each day not quite sure how to behave, whether to celebrate still being alive or mourn what it was suggested was about to come.

 

Time to get (almost) serious

Geeks with gifts logo

Working title – not entirely serious!

Okay, I’ve dug up an old nano novel.  I’ve rejected it as being vaguely interesting but far too badly plotted (plot? what plot? it had a plot?) and probably also too many characters. I’ve decided I still like the characters and like the idea.  Where do I go from here?

So far I’ve had the conceited opinion that I shouldn’t put my writing on my blog in any volume because it could lead to copyright problems if I ever got as far as publishing.  Which, let’s face it, is ridiculous.  The chances of my ever getting anything to the point of publishing are slim to none, and if I did – well, there are examples of books that were originally published online anyway.

So as I potter around with my ideas I’m going to share them on here.  You, gentle reader, will have the chance to see how my story evolves, and to make your own suggestions and comments should you wish to do so (consider it a collaborative project, maybe; which I guess means I couldn’t publish it and make money out of it as it wouldn’t be all my own work (as if it would ever get that far anyway!), but there’ll still be the fun of writing it, and maybe other projects will get completed offline).

Okay then, time to think of the plot.  Originally I had a guy (we assume he was an alien; it was never made clear) who took on a bunch of babies (10 of them to start; I later halved the number as it was tricky to keep track of all of them).  He altered these babies somehow, to give them special powers.  His plan was thwarted by another member of his group, and he was made to return the babies.  They were all put into care and then adopted or fostered, and grew up independent of each other until they met together at age 11 and their powers were triggered.

There were various short chapters illustrating the life of some of the kids growing up:

Chapter – Felicity

“So do you think Oxford or Cambridge would be better?”  Felicity’s mother leaned forward earnestly to elicit the information from her child’s teacher.

The teacher looked extremely uncomfortable.  “Mrs Collins, I’m sorry, but it really is far too early to tell.”

Mrs Collins sat back, looking disappointed.  “But you must have a good idea of how clever she is, how intelligent, how sensitive…”

“ I’m aware that Felicity is a very sensitive child.”  The teacher thought of the tantrum Felicity had thrown the previous morning when another child had tried to use some of the bricks she had been amassing to build her princess castle, and wondered whether to make some mention of the child’s emotional development, but considered the woman in front of her and thought better of it.  “But Mrs Collins, Felicity is only three.  It really is far too soon to be thinking of what university to send her to.  We need to allow her to develop in her own time.”

“But it’s so difficult for her with all these other – children around.”  Felicity’s mother shuddered at the thought of all these common children Felicity was forced to mingle with.  She would far rather keep the child on her own at home, but her husband had insisted that a good nursery school would do wonders for her development, and help her start forming the contacts she would need to help her in the future.  Besides, the teachers here were all of the highest standard.  Even though this particular one seemed to be rather dense, not so eager to offer Felicity all the extra tuition she deserved.  Mrs Collins decided then and there that she would have a word with the head of the school.  Felicity deserved the best, and that was what she was going to get.  And I thoroughly agreed with her.  It was vitally important that all my children received the very best education, so that once their gifts became fully active they would be ready to take their place as leaders in their society, and conduct their world safely out of its crisis.

___

The “I” in the last paragraph is the being who originally changed the kids – he’s keeping an eye on things and providing his own running commentary on them.

So my first issue is how many characters, and what are their special powers?  The second is how do I put a plot around them?  Originally there was very little plot, just setting the kids up, watching them grow, having them all meet together and start discovering their powers, then they got kidnapped and taken to a boarding school in Wales, from where they escaped, split up again and ended up together years later at Canterbury University, at which point some other aliens who wanted to take over the world landed on top of Canterbury Cathedral.  And that took me to 50,138 words and I stopped (I think I was getting a little desperate at that point!).

My other issue is names; I cheated in my novel, and gave them code names rather than proper names – if they were based on an aspect of a character I knew, that was the name I gave them, but I really need to break out of that and come up with proper names (not least so I don’t completely embarrass myself by revealing some of my inner thoughts!).

I think I’ll stick to five characters for now, but this time I need to have a proper plot before I start writing the actual story, and the powers need to have a particular purpose in the plot, not just be something cool – for example I remember a movie when the ability to turn into a small animal seemed totally pointless until that was just the one skill that could save everyone.  My favourite type of story is where everything suddenly slots into place and everything makes sense, so that’s what I’m aiming for here.

As for superpowers, I originally had the ability to sense feelings and emotions, the ability to affect feelings and emotions (would make sense to combine those two into one), the ability to speed up or slow down time (I want that one!), the ability to affect electrical/electronic/mechanical equipment, the ability to look completely different, superhuman strength, the ability to heal, the ability to recover from injuries very quickly (again, those two could be combined), and of course telepathy and telekinesis as standard for all.  The only one I’m not happy with in that list is the ability to change appearance, which is rather weak.

As for characters, I had one who would very rarely speak, one who was shy and bullied, one who was very confident, Felicity who was rather a snob (blame her mother!), one who was a carer for his mother, one who provoked rows everywhere he went (he was the one who could influence/project emotions), one who was abused as a child – oh, all the sorts of things you could possibly throw in the ring!

I need now to settle on the child characters, their abilities, their names and their background, and decide on just how they are going to fulfil their destiny.  In my original story their mentor was constantly telling them they had to fulfil their destiny and save the world, and they just laughed at him, pointing out they were kids. That’s where the alien invasion came in at the end, to try to force them into some sort of action.

In the meantime, I accidentally opened another start of a story from my writing folder and was blown away by it.  Guess I’d better get going, and see how far I can get with this over the summer.  If nothing else, I should get some enjoyment out of it all, and after all, isn’t that a good reason for writing? 🙂

 

The tomorrow people

I used to love that programme as a child – it was the highlight of the week. Just watched an episode on youtube – and quite frankly it was crap. Stiff dialogue delivered in RP accents. But nevertheless, the idea persists. Because some ideas are bigger than their presentation. Because some ideas deserve to be honoured.
Apparently The Tomorrow People was ITV’s answer to Doctor Who. Which is amusing, since my nano novel is kind of Doctor Who meets The Tomorrow People. Two great scifi ideas, rolled into one, for my own personal amusement. And maybe for yours at some point.