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 clichés? 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 morehttps://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).
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.