Research on genre: thriller and horror stories.

This blog entry is about making the independent animated film VOLTAIRE and losing my sanity along the way. And what I learned from it.

Pinning down the genre for a story or film can give a solid reference frame for story writing problems. I had my setting already – a story about weather cocks on church spires – but I couldn’t find a way of knowing what the story was actually about. Instead of trying to force a story like I had tried before and failed, I turned to genre. I always liked horror and suspense films, so a started doing some research. A great site about (film) genres I found was filmsite.org.

It has this to say about thriller and suspense films:

The tension usually arises when the main character(s) is placed in a menacing situation or mystery, or an escape or dangerous mission from which escape seems impossible.

https://www.filmsite.org/thrillerfilms.html

That is an interesting and somewhat obvious insight. Tension is the essential ingredient here. Sometimes it’s good to have an obvious, firm, simple oneliner to keep your story writing focused. This oneliner easily told me what my story was about: a character in a menacing situation.

Now, that oneliner is easy to pin down or apply in hindsight, after all the writing is done. When I was developing my story, VOLTAIRE, I think I must have absorbed this little line and it ran in the background of my brain while I was writing. The Filmsite.org article is full of handsome oneliners from which you can build any kind of story. But it’s probably not a good idea to use these as a formula – remember clich├ęs? But if you use them as a general guide, as a source of inspiration, or to have some direction, I think they’re great. At the very least, they can make you think about possible possibilities.

Another good one was this:

Characters in thrillers include convicts, criminals, stalkers, assassins, down-on-their-luck losers, innocent victims (often on the run), …, characters with dark pasts, psychotic individuals, …, and more

https://www.filmsite.org/thrillerfilms.html

I had been struggling for a while to know my characters. Actually, getting to know your characters is usually the hardest part of writing. I’m always concerned about the plot, but when I know my characters, the plot tends to become less constructed and artificial. The characters drive the plot, but until you know them, it’s hard to make any plot believable.

From the quote above, stalker/psychopath, assassin and loser were the defining character traits I modeled my characters on. And it did make a lot of sense. From my brainstorming sessions about the world of weather cocks on church spires, I realized that that world is all about being on top. If you’re a weather cock and you’re on top of a big tower, you’ve made it. Every weather cock wants a prestigious home and would like to take pride in succes. The ones that inhabit grand cathedrals are especially successful. But maybe not all weather cocks have made it. Some may inhabit crappy and small towers, or have no tower at all. For instance, unlucky weather cocks on some forgotten country chapel. Or what about weather cocks that are condemned to watching the succes of others, forced to live in their shadow, without a tower of their own? From this idea, my story was born:

An old, medieval weather cock (ie. the stalker) has spent hundreds of years as a grave ornament in the graveyard, in the shadow of a huge cathedral tower. Years spent looking up at the old weather cock on top of the spire have made him bitter. One night, he breaks free and intends to take over.
Meanwhile, an insignificant weather cock (ie. the loser) is struggling with life at his crappy weathervane on a country chapel. That same night, his old weathervane breaks off and he finds himself homeless. Intrigued by the beautiful cathedral on the horizon, he naively decides to take his chance. And unknowingly stumbles into a murder plot and gets chased by the killer (the menacing situation).

Concept art from VOLTAIRE.
“An envious weather cock watching the cathedral from the graveyard.”
Pencil on paper, A3
Jan Snoekx

It seems so simple in hindsight, but to actually get to that story outline took lots of effort, lots of rewrites and repeated character development. In fact, I didn’t see clearly at all during most of my writing. I usually wrote some meandering, plot-oriented storyline and then had to step back when that didn’t work. Only through simplifying and rewriting, trying to figure out who the characters were, their weaknesses and motivations, reducing the story to its core, I was able to see the underlying story forming.

Writing is hard, keep writing. Keep simplifying.

Watch VOLTAIRE on vimeo.

Discovering writing is very hard – the first genesis of VOLTAIRE

This blog entry is about making an independent animated film and losing my sanity along the way. And what I learned.

So how do you start writing a story from scratch? How do you find the right story? What should it be about? Do you make the plot structure first, or does story come from some god-gifted talent?

It is one thing to start writing from any idea that pops up and just go with the flow, but it’s another thing to actually create a story structure out of nothing. I struggled with this. Somehow, I had these (naive) notions that this is what good writers do:

  • Have an idea
  • Start writing, a structured story appears if you’re a talented or a good writer.
  • Refine the story, work on the structure.
  • Finish the story.
    If the writer is good, the story will be good. If the writer is bad, the story will suck.

Before starting out, I considered myself an able writer, so naturally, the resulting story would come out decently. I started many story ideas, but slowly a realization creeped on me. I had a tough time creating a good story structure from unstructured writing. Maybe I wasn’t a good writer! Something wasn’t working.

I was honest enough to figure that I didn’t know much about story structure and especially screenwriting. About how you’re supposed to write a story for the screen that has dramatic structure. What the hell is dramatic structure anyway and how do you create it? So I started reading great books on drama, screenwriting and dramatic structure. These books got me started:

  • Story, by Robert McKee.
    A great and very accessible book on screenwriting and story structure.
  • The illusion of life, by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.
    If you want to do anything related to animation film, read this first. It has great parts on developing story and character.
  • Poetics, by Aristotle.
    Rightfully a classic, and very concise. It explains how tragedy and great drama works (tragically, the part on comedy got lost to history).
  • The writer’s journey, by Christopher Vogler.
    The book reveals mythic story structure and archetypes. Based on the works of Joseph Campbell.
  • Which got me into reading The hero with a thousand faces, by Joseph Campbell.
    One of my favorite books ever. Powerful and almost on a religious level. This book discusses his theory of the mythological structure of the journey of the archetypal hero found in world myths.

These books gave me a lot of ideas, a decent framework for my story structure problems and above all, insight on how a story actually works. I was finally on firm ground. But I still didn’t have a story.

Around the same time, I felt I had to constrain my future story around a few ingredients, if I had any chance of actually making a film:

  • The main characters should be technically “uncomplicated” to do in CGI. No fur, no feathers, no humans. I wanted to be able to do it myself on a computer.
  • Preferably, the setting of the story should be limited to one simple location. Something manageable in CGI and visually interesting.

And then I saw an image in a magazine like this and I was startled.

I had it! My story was going to be about weather cocks!

I quickly embarked on exploring the possibilities this concept offered me. I figured weather cocks are pretty lonely and must lack love. So it would be quite difficult for them to form meaningful relationships. Actually finding a mate and getting there would be an adventure in itself. And then, it all had to be dramatic too. Being fully into the Aristotle tragedy stuff, I got myself into the drama-zone while writing, playing a lot of Wagner music. I felt it. It was heart-wrenching. It was dramatic. My story finally had a lot of structure! “A lonely weather cock embarks on a quest to a nearby church, through the fields, barely escaping the gun of a hunter. Once there, he is smitten by the church’s weather hen, climbs the tower and declares his love for her. But the hunter, having trailed him, shoots her. The lonely weather cock remains on the church tower, having lost the love of his life.”

Very dramatic and tragic, right?

A good friend of mine, the talented director – and storytelling natural – Toon Aerts, was the first assigned volunteer to read my script. He was aware I was writing something and was somewhat curious. And that was fortunate, since by that time, I had exhausted the goodwill of my girlfriend’s spontaneous reading motivation.

Toon read the story as I watched him. He turned the last page and swallowed. I knew he was feeling it when he quietly said, “Dude…”

The dramatic structure had worked and had him by the throat! I had nailed it.

He continued, “Dude… you actually wrote a silly love story…” And he swallowed again, this time looking more like he was swallowing a turd.

It is no fun having someone whose opinion you value, declaring your work to be pretty shit. But he was being a good friend. He politely advised me to ditch the story and do something else. But, we discussed this failure and he did tell me there was something interesting about the setting and the weather cock stuff. And even though my ego suffered that night, this was one golden experience.

Lessons learned:

  • Writing is a lot of work. It’s good to read books about story if you you’re stuck, but never get caught up in writing a formula.
  • Step out of the zone where you are the only one feeling it, and be brave to show a work in progress to someone who’s truly honest. And kind.
  • Allow yourself to write badly. There might still be something of value in the rubble of a disaster.
  • Don’t take failure personally.

It was back to where I started. How do I write a good story? And what kind of story can I tell about a weather cock? Obviously not a phoney love story where I was pushing heart-wrenching high feelings and tragedy. That was fake. I did some self-research and wondered what kind of stories I really enjoy myself. What kind of genres do I naturally gravitate to?

The answer was I had always liked scary stories… Horror, thriller, suspense!

Step 1: writing a film

This blog entry is part of the process of making an independent animated film and losing your sanity along the way. The mistakes I made and what I learned from it.

So I started writing my film. Ideas came quickly and were great. As long as I didn’t let anyone else read my first draft and kept myself locked in “the zone”. As soon as I exited that safe place, story problems emerged. Somewhat. Or surely it was my cherished, personally elected audience of one person that misunderstood things. They must have.

My first story was about a pigeon who doesn’t realize he’s living at an international airport and whose love interest is threatened by a jumbo jet. To back it up, I scribbled a character design that was pretty good and funny right away.

Funny, right? Hmm, yes, the logline is kind of funny. But that doesn’t guarantee a funny film. Or an intelligible plot. And what about a character design that pops out just like that, nearly finished? I could see myself starting work on the animation tomorrow morning. I had my film!

But hold on. The story was complicated. And heavy on contrived slapstick and adjectives. It didn’t quite work. I could feel it. That weird little feeling in my stomach told me so. But I wasn’t honestly listening to that little stomach voice. Because stomachs are not supposed to talk.

Sure enough, I didn’t rewrite the pigeon story after that. I never started animation. I kinda lost interest. The reason: I knew it wasn’t that good. It needed a lot of development. And I couldn’t muster the power to develop it, because it didn’t touch me on a deeper level.

Why the hell do I mention all this? Because these are the important things I learned from this:

  • Your first draft probably sucks and that’s ok.
    It is not supposed to be good or finished. It’s supposed to be a first step, where ideas form. If you like your first draft, you only like it because you were in the zone when you wrote it.
  • Listen to your stomach.
    It has no brain or ego. That’s why it’s honest.
  • Never trust your first drawing.
    The great Chuck Jones once said: “Every artist has thousands of bad drawings in them and the only way to get rid of them is to draw them out.”
    If you stick with your first idea or drawing, you aren’t looking very well.
  • Ideas come and go. Develop the ones that stay.
    The good ones tend to linger, because there’s something about them that touches you.

Strangely, I remember writing this pigeon story vividly. Because in hindsight, it is relevant to VOLTAIRE. There are a few ideas that came from this story, ideas that formed VOLTAIRE. I never realized it until just now.

The story was about a naive bird. It had a big metal bird as the villain.

Why I made VOLTAIRE.

Once upon a time, I was a 3D artist and animator working for animation studios and doing freelance work. I loved doing it, but I wanted to make a “real” film. Be a director. Instead of “only” making commercials for advertising agencies and VFX work for film production companies.

I had always loved film. I started film studies because I was obsessed with making skateboard films of my friends. In film school, I made my first animated films. I was confident enough to think I was pretty good at it.

So the only thing I needed to do was to write a story, and I’d be making my film the next day, right?