I am interested in writing formulas, but I know others look down on them. I believe that formulas can help writers be more creative.
A while back I read an article on-line, no idea where now, about formulas. The author was very anti-formula. He talked about Michael Moorcock’s ” how to write a novel in three days”, which also mentions Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula.
This link has a description of both of these: http://www.wetasphalt.com/?q=content/how-write-book-three-days-lessons-michael-moorcock.
The writer disparaged the whole “pulp fiction” approach to writing. He said that good writers don’t do “pulp writing”. What caught my eye was his examples of good writers: H. P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ray Bradbury. I wondered if he had his tongue in cheek because all these writers started writing for pulp magazines.
What this illustrates for me is that use of a writing formula is not a barrier to artistic expression. I found formulas helpful in my writing, although I wouldn’t claim to be a successful writer artistically or financially.
The comparison I think of is poetry, and specifically the sonnet. Sonnets follow a very strict format. The number of lines, the lengths of the lines and the rhyming scheme are set out. This has not stopped many poets from creating many great sonnets over the years.
Formulas do place constraints on a story, but writers, like poets, can see these as opportunities for creativity. A formula can allow a writer to focus on the deeper parts of the story and not the superficial plot.
I haven’t really used a formula to help my creativity to any great extent. In my transportation stories, “The Gladstone Barrier” and “The Glencoe Development”, I did extend the formula by substitution verbal arguments for physical violence. When I converted these stories into my movie “The Barrier” I didn’t stick to the formula.
I suspect that all stories use a formula, but that the more sophisticated writers develop a formula for the one story and never use it again. Since it never gets reused, nobody thinks of it as a formula.
I have created a MailChimp notification campaign that sends out notices when my blog is updated.
A friend who watched my movie “The Barrier” commented that established genres, like mysteries, have well established stock characters and situations that people are familiar with. Few people have that kind of familiarity with transportation planning. That makes it harder to connect with the audience.
With “The Barrier” (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-LOUNSEKac) I have tried to create a new story genre. That does create a challenge for me when I try to communicate to the potential audience.
In any genre there are stock characters and situations that people are familiar with. For example, in a mystery story there is the detective, the victim, the client and the villain. The role of the detective is clear, they catch the bad guy. The detective follows is a set procedure to achieve that goal.
In a transportation fiction story, the audience would not know who is the hero and who is the villain. Is the transportation engineer a good guy or a bad guy? What is he or she supposed to accomplish? Writers want some ambiguity and depth to their characters to intrigue the reader. However, if there is too much, the audience will just be confused.
I have thought of a number of ways to over come the communication challenge. I believe that I need to build an audience who are attuned to the genre. Unless I reach beyond the transportation planning community, the potential audience is too small to support a project like “The Barrier”.
One idea that continues to come up in my thoughts is to create an on-line “zine” to publish and promote transportation planning fiction. It doesn’t look like it would be a hard thing to do technically. The difficult part is to attract people who want to read, and write, transportation planning fiction.
I have had a few people contact me in connection with “The Barrier” about their experiences that would make for good stories. At the time I didn’t want to follow up on those suggestions because of potential copyright and liability problems. If I created a “zine”, I would need to work those out. While my main interest is to promote my movies and stories, I need to see that other contributors get what they want out of the venture as well.
I can see problems with paying contributors, especially when there is no certainty of adequate revenue. I would likely need to do quite a bit of editing of submissions; and I’m not the greatest writer in the history of the world by any stretch of the imagination.
The one aspect I have worked out to my satisfaction is the title: “The Journal of Transportation Fiction”. It is a play on the titles of typical technical journals. On the other hand, Bent Flyvbjerg might say there is already too much transportation fiction.
If you, or someone you know, would like to pursue this idea, please get in touch with me. If there is enough interest, we might just make a go of it.
I want to redo the opening scene of my transportation planner movie “The Barrier” because people don’t seem to understand what happens in it. Although Xtranormal is supposed to be rereleased, I don’t think I use it to do what I want to do in this scene. I think I can do it with Blender. I started a trial version this week. (see http://dynamiclethargyfilms.ca/filmlist/the-barrier/)
In the first scene of “The Barrier”, my hero, Arthur, drives along a rural road and narrowly avoids a traffic collision.
My first step is to create the set. I used Blender to create another set I used in the movie, but it was a much simpler set to create. The set was basically a box with some images on the walls. The new set is more complex and I’ll need to create several different types of elements.
- a road, that twists and turns,
- a ground on either side of the road with hills and valleys, and
- trees along the side of the road.
I might add a few more elements later to make the set look more realistic. I don’t want a photo realistic set. It needs to look a bit cartoony to match the rest of the movie.
For the most part, I focussed on the road way this week. I thought it would be the simplest to do. It would also be easier to conform the surrounding land to match the road, rather than the other way round.
I started with a Blender file that I used to create an image of the Glencoe development in the movie. It had a grass “ground” and some roads. I had to relearn how to manipulate the individual points of the plane meshes. I managed to stubble on how to do it fairly quickly. I don’t normally check the manual before I do this kind of stuff.
In order to have a curvy road, I needed to have it split into segments, so I could manipulate individual points. I found how to subdivide, but it split both ways, so I had a 20 by 20 grid, and not the 1 by 20 grid I wanted. I’m sure there must be an easy way to do this, but I went ahead and deleted the individual faces I didn’t want until I had the 1 by 20 mesh I wanted. I made several copies, just in case.
I had to figure out where I wanted to put the individual points, so most of my time was spend calculating where they should be. I studied roadway design back in University, but I really don’t remember much. I tossed my class notes about 10 years ago as well. I decided that it didn’t need to be technically correct, it just had to look OK.
My first attempt failed. I tried to create a layout that matched the one I used elsewhere in the movie. That turned out to have some very difficult geometry and I found it hard to match. For my second attempt, I started from scratch and made all my turns multiples of 45º. That made the calculations much simpler.
Another issue that came up was that the section of road was too short for what I wanted to do. In scale it was only about 50 metres long! I adjusted that to 1 kilometre, so I can track Arthur driving along the road for longer. I had to redo the calculations. Again.
I finally got back to Blender and built the road there. I misjudged how many segments I needed in the roadway and it came up short. I decided that since this was originally planned as an experiment, that would be good enough. The proportions of the road didn’t look right and I found it difficult to image. In the end I realized that I had used the wrong scale and it was far larger than I intended. I adjusted that down. I wonder if I can cut down the length of the road from a full kilometre and have it look better.
I tried to match the grass patches I had to the roadway, but it seems that the individual points are specified as deviations from the centre of the plane. That makes it much harder to match up with the road. It seems to me that there must be some kind of setting so you can use a local or global co-ordinate system. I haven’t found it yet.
While I was disappointed at how little I accomplished on the set, I still think it was worthwhile because I learned much more about how to use Blender.
I’ve had an interest in conspiracy theories for a long time, even though I am very sceptical about them in general. I’ve been tempted to create my own conspiracy theory for fun and profit. I’ve hesitated to do that because I was afraid that people might take it seriously.
Years ago I got interested in the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories. At first I kept an open mind, but, as I learned more about the theories, I began to think they were just too implausible to be true. My thoughts on the conspiracy theory led me to make my movie “Who Shot the President”. http://dynamiclethargyfilms.ca/filmlist/who-shot-the-president/
“Who Shot the President” resulted in more threats than money, but more people have watched that than any of my other movies. I didn’t like the threats, but I could see that there was a great deal of interest in the topic. Like any other filmmaker, I do want to find an audience and there is clearly one that looks for conspiracy theories.
In the past I hesitated to pursue conspiracy theories in my movies for a couple of reasons.
First, I don’t want to trick people to get them to watch my movies. To me, that seems very dishonest. If I take that route I would feel I have abandoned the reasons that I wanted to make movies in the first place. It wasn’t just to make money, although that would be nice. I wanted to say something of value.
Second, I worry that some people might take my conspiracy theory seriously. Even some very outrageous conspiracy theories have their adherents. Even if presented as broad satire, some people will still want to believe.
Despite these concerns I’ve developed a fake conspiracy theory.
The Other Earth Conspiracy
A conspiracy needs a good name, to catch people’s attention. The theory is about NASA, but I can’t call it the NASA Conspiracy, because there are already plenty of conspiracies about NASA. For now I’ll call it The Other Earth Conspiracy. That sounds lame to me, but maybe I can come up with a better name later.
The theory is based on some strange behaviours on the part of NASA. I’ve listed those below.
1. NASA has begun to search for other earths
NASA has for the last 20 or so years supported the research of astronomers in their search for extra solar planets. They have a website devoted to this work:
“Planet Quest – The Search for Another Earth” at http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/
While the stated reason for this research is scientific curiosity, the question that comes to mind is, “What is the big rush?” After all, it may be millennia before we could ever actually visit them.
2. NASA has developed plans for a warp drive space ship
Most of us of heard of warp drive from the “Star Trek” TV programs and movies. They use warp drive as a plot device to get the characters from one solar system to another quickly so the crew can have a new adventure every week.
The idea seems like a pretty far out science fiction invention. However, NASA has designed a space ship that uses warp drive. See: “NASA Reveals Latest Warp-Drive Ship Designs” at http://www.iflscience.com/space/nasa-reveals-latest-warp-drive-ship-designs
As with the search for another earth, we have to ask the question, “What is the big rush?” So far as we know, no one has even demonstrated that warp drive is even possible.
3. NASA has wasted a lot of money
In recent years it seems like every one criticises NASA for inefficiency, mismanagement, and waste. Here are a few samples:
• GAO: True Cost of SLS, Orion Unclear http://www.spacenews.com/article/civil-space/40610gao-true-cost-of-sls-orion-unclear
• More Wasteful EPO Spending at NASA http://nasawatch.com/archives/2014/01/more-wasteful-e.html
• NASA: James Webb Space Telescope to Now Cost $8.7 Billion http://www.space.com/12759-james-webb-space-telescope-nasa-cost-increase.html
• $4 billion over budget, four years past schedule: Meet Northrop’s problem program http://www.bizjournals.com/washington/blog/fedbiz_daily/2014/04/4-billion-over-budget-four-years-past-schedule.html?page=all
What is odd, is that NASA used to have a very good reputation. Remember, who else besides NASA has promised the Moon and delivered?
What happened to NASA? Now it seems like they can’t even do anything without massive cost over runs. Can that really be true?
One begins to wonder, “Are these projects really that badly run?” Could it be that these projects are just a front? Could it be that the money is actually spent on other, secret, projects?
4. NASA is a leader in the study of global warming
One of NASA’s activities is the study of Earth’s climate. See: http://climate.nasa.gov/. Many people have expressed scepticism about global warming, and say NASA exaggerates the danger.
But a recent study paints a very different picture. The authors of “Climate change prediction: Erring on the side of least drama?” found that scientists have tended to under estimate and under play the effects of global warming. For example the shrinkage of the Arctic polar icecap has been much greater than even the worst case scenario.
The original article can be found at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959378012001215, but since it is behind a pay wall, you can read about some of the results at: http://www.skepticalscience.com/climate-scientists-esld.html.
The question that comes to mind is, “Why does NASA want to downplay the threat of global warming?” Are they just too cautious, or could there be a more frightening explanation?
What are we to make of all of this? Possibly they are nothing but a collection of unrelated facts. But, they might also point to a conspiracy. There are a lot of unanswered questions about NASA is up to.
• Could it be that they have discovered that human life on Earth is doomed?
• Could it be that they have abandoned any hope they can stop the inevitable?
• Could it be that they have planned an escape for the elite and themselves?
• Could it be that they have started to build the warp drive space ship to escape?
• Could it be that they have started to look for another planet to escape to?
• Could it be that they have diverted money to pay for the escape?
• Could it be that they have down played the danger of global warming to keep the general population in the dark until it is too late?
This all seems too far fetched to be real. But who knows? Maybe, somewhere far out in space, a new earth orbits around a dim star in our sky, and around that new earth, astronauts from our old Earth have already looked down on their new home.
Warning: This is just an exercise in speculation and I don’t believe that any of it is true. Please don’t take it seriously.
I realize that this conspiracy theory is similar to “Alternative 3″. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternative_3
They say that reading is part of writing, so I think I can count some of my recent reading as work on “Felix”. I’ve read a bunch of stuff about Lovecraft and ancient astronauts recently, which is something touched on in my story.
When I first learnt of Erich von Däniken’s “Chariots of the Gods”, I was immediately convinced of it’s veracity. However, as I read more, all of the claims disappeared in a puff of smoke. This lead to my interest in scepticism.
I have long since stopped reading the work of the people who perpetuate von Däniken’s ideas. These proponents haven’t come up with any convincing evidence for their hypothesis. Nonetheless, I am still fascinated with the idea. In part, it is because the idea is, to me, plausible.
Recently I started to follow Jason Colavito blog about ancient astronauts and pseudo archaeology. See: http://www.jasoncolavito.com/blog. He takes a sceptical stance and investigates claims in some detail. One his major claims is that people who make claims about ancient astronauts were inspired by the stories of H. P. Lovecraft. He published the book “The Cult of Alien Gods” about his ideas. See: http://www.jasoncolavito.com/cult-of-alien-gods.html.
One of the disturbing aspects of many the ancient astronaut claims is their inherent racism. Although it doesn’t often appear overtly, many of the arguments used boil down to “those people” were not capable of building something so impressive. Lovecraft often expressed racist views, which many of his modern day fans are uncomfortable with.
Over the years I’ve come across many stories and movies that invoke the possibility of extraterrestrial visitors to Earth in the distant past. As noted above, H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories involve extraterrestrial visitors who have influenced history. He wrote most of these stories between 1926 and 1936.
Recently I came across an earlier story, Jack London’s “The Red One”, which was published in 1918. It concerns a man who finds an alien artefact deep in the interior of Guadalcanal. The descriptions of the natives in the story are quite racist, although it isn’t clear to me if this reflects London’s views or those of the character in the story. The story is available from Project Gutenberg. See: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/788.
Several of Arthur C. Clarke stories have ancient alien visitations as a back ground. Most famous are the 1951 short story “The Sentinel” and the 1968 novel and movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sentinel_(short_story).
I hope to soon add my story “Felix” to this list.
In the past, some scientists have taken the idea seriously. Most notable was Carl Sagan, who published papers on the subject in the early 1960s and later was involved with the SETI project. Since pseudoscience has taken over the ancient astronaut hypothesis, few scientists will take a serious look at the possibility. If you know of a serious scientific study of this, please let me know.
I remain intrigued by the idea of alien visitations in the past. For now it seems that it can only be explored in fiction. Some day some thing may show up to validate the hypothesis, but it does seem that not even the advocates have made any serious attempts to find that evidence.
I would like to explore this idea more in my stories and movies.
Much of the humour in the comic strip “Dilbert” is based on one of the characters demonstrating ignorance without being aware of their ignorance. This behaviour has a name, The Dunning–Kruger Effect, and in real life it makes my blood boil.
What is The Dunning–Kruger Effect?
“… ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” – Charles Darwin
The Dunning–Kruger Effect is what is known as a cognitive bias. A cognitive bias is where our minds take a short cut which results in an illogical decision. Wikipedia lists 167 different cognitive biases.
The Dunning–Kruger Effect states that when people who lack knowledge or skill in an area, they tend to be over confident in their abilities, don’t recognize real ability in other people and are unaware of their lack of knowledge.
“If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent. […] the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is. – David Dunning
Dunning and Kruger say that education and training can correct this bias in people.
The Other Side of The Dunning–Kruger Effect
As the Charles Darwin quote above suggests, people who are skilled and knowledgeable, tend to be less confident. In my case I find that the more I know about a topic, the more aware I become of how things can go wrong. I come to believe that there are important aspects of the topic that I am still unaware of. This knowledge and belief make it hard for me to act with confidence.
Nate Silver’s “prediction paradox” supports this view. He points out that less confident someone is in their prediction, the more likely they are to be right. Unfortunately, most people will trust some who appears confident over someone who is not.
Why The Dunning–Kruger Effect Gets Me Angry
Several times over my life I have gone through some very unpleasant experiences where The Dunning–Kruger Effect played a big role. These were situations where I was knowledgeable about an issue to a much greater degree than others who then ignored my opinions, which lead to bad decisions. Bad decisions that I then had to try to work around.
These situations often created a great deal of anger within myself. I was angry at the less knowledgeable people because they didn’t take my opinions seriously. In my mind I would scream, “Why can’t you see that you fool!” That isn’t a diplomatically effective way to talk and I was usually able to keep my mouth shut. I suspect they got the message anyway.
Part of my anger was with myself, but, as with others, my behaviour reflected my own cognitive biases.
- Since I was aware of the danger that I might be the one who suffered from The Dunning–Kruger Effect, I was hesitant to speak out forcefully, since it could be me that was in the wrong. When I did speak out, I came across as tentative and unsure. That made it easy for others to ignore or discount my opinions.
- I also suffered from The Curse of Knowledge. That is a cognitive bias where you assume that if you know something, then others know it as well. In retrospect I realized that because I assumed too much about the other’s level of knowledge before I talked to them, I wasn’t in a position to explain the knowledge effectively when I became aware of their ignorance.
People will develop their positions quickly after they begin to consider an issue and then stick to it. If you are to have a real effect on their views, it is important to convey information before they have begun to form their opinion.
How Can I Use The Dunning–Kruger Effect In A Story?
In my better films, like “Line of Taxis”, I have taken emotions I have experienced and placed them in a different context. I have never done this consciously with the anger I felt because of The Dunning–Kruger Effect. Maybe my feelings are still too raw to use.
I think that The Dunning–Kruger Effect and other cognitive biases can provide a basis for more complex character and motivations. They allow a way for a “bad guy” to behave badly, when they are not really a bad person; just flawed in their thinking.
Off hand, I don’t see cognitive biases as a basis for a story, but they can certainly add complexity to a conflict situation.
In “The Barrier” I can see some aspects of The Dunning–Kruger Effect. Both the protagonist, Arthur Macdonald, and his boss, Brandon Baker, struggle against it. Since I didn’t try to include it deliberately, I didn’t develop it fully. When it comes time to revise the movie, there may be some opportunity to exploit cognitive biases much more.
For More Information
If you want to know more about The Dunning–Kruger Effect and cognitive bias, Wikipedia has several articles you can read.
You can watch the movies I mention in this blog on these pages:
- “The Barrier” – http://dynamiclethargyfilms.ca/the-barrier/
- “Line of Taxis” – http://www.dynamiclethargyfilms.ca/filmlist/line-of-taxis
Lately, while procrastinating about “Felix”, I’ve thought about some old ideas that I could use to create new stories. One of these is what I call Virtual Parliament, where electronic communication is used to change the way parliament works.
One of the problems with governing a large country like Canada, is that members of parliament and senators spent much of their time in Ottawa and away from the people they represent. This creates a barrier between government and the people.
My idea was that this problem could be addressed if we could create a Virtual Parliament. The technology of the internet could be used to replace the need for parliament to travel to Ottawa to meet. MPs and Senators could live in the constituencies they represent, while they continued to have their parliamentary sessions on-line.
There are pros and cons to this solution, and since my objective is to develop new stories, it is the cons that would provide the conflict needed for a story. I’ll start with some of the pros.
- A Virtual Parliament would allow politicians to better develop and maintain their relationships with the people they represent. This would give politicians a better sense of what people wanted.
- A Virtual Parliament would improve the quality of debate. Debates would not need to be conducted in real time. This would allow politicians more of an opportunity to study and review discussions before they asked questions or voted.
- A Virtual Parliament would create a more transparent environment where people could watch their representatives more closely.
While my initial idea was a kind of a utopian vision of politics, I suspect that there could be some real drawbacks to this approach.
- A Virtual Parliament would reduce informal contact between members of Parliament. When people rarely meet face to face, formal contacts can lead to conflicts that make it more difficult for politicians to work out the compromises needed for effective government. It is much easier for misunderstandings to arise from communication over the internet. Anyone who has followed on-line discussions has seen how badly it can turn out.
- A Virtual Parliament would create a conflict between a politician’s desire to serve their constituents and their desire to maintain political connections. Some will see this as a benefit rather than a problem, but it can also make it more difficult for the politician to be effective.
- A Virtual Parliament would undermine the importance of political parties. Again, some people will see this as a benefit. However, without political parties, parliament could become much more volatile, which again could undermine its effectiveness.
I don’t think these problems are that serious. To be successful, politicians need strong communications skills and the ability to exercise extreme diplomacy when they deal with people they disagree with or even despise. These skills should allow them to avoid or deal with the problems of communication in a Virtual Parliament.
In my case, I want to see conflicts that could be the basis for stories. It is the pit falls of communication that provide the greatest opportunity for conflict and it is the communication skills of politicians that are the tools they need to resolve the conflicts.
This all sounds very idealistic to me, which makes me wonder if it might not be a good option for story telling. Also, my personal experiences have not given me a real understanding of the communication skills of politicians, which would make it harder for me to write a realistic story.
Xtranormal State will be rereleased, but it isn’t clear just when that will happen, and what will be available. In the mean time I will do some experiments with StatePlus on some changes I want to make to “The Barrier”.
There are several changes I want to make to “The Barrier” that I wanted to try out.
For example, I want to replace some or all of the synthetic voices with real voices. I tried that out with my own voice and it looks like it isn’t problem technically. I do need some people with better voices than I have though. I’ll need money to pay them too.
This week I focussed on changes to the opening scene. In it, my protagonist drives along a road and then narrowly avoids a collision with a big truck. In the version I used for the current version of the movie, I just have a close up of his face and appropriate sound effects. From the responses I’ve had, this doesn’t make the situation clear to many people.
The kind of action I want for the scene really can’t be done directly in State or StatePlus. There isn’t a set that is appropriate and there isn’t a big truck. They do have a car though and I think I can work around the limitations to get what I want.
My plan is to create the appropriate set in Blender, like I did with the open house scene where I created a small gymnasium. I would need to create a big truck in Blender as well. I plan to work on those changes in Blender later.
If I want to incorporate the car and my character from State/StatePlus I will need to modify the set with the car so that it has a green screen background. I played around with that this week.
The set for the car is a bit tricky to alter to create the green background. Some of the elements of the set are actually props rather than parts of the set, so I needed to find those props and change them as well.
I still have bits and pieces of the set that are not green, so I still have some detective work to do. However, I may be able to get the shots I want with what I have now.
The next thing I need to do for this scene is to create the set in Blender, then I can start to match up the car and the set.
On one level a story can be just a story; an exercise in entertainment. But to write a story a writer needs motivation. What is my motivation? In general I see any creative activity as a way for the creator to express their personal philosophy. When I look at the stories and movies I’ve done, they all reflect ideas or emotions that were important to me. That is even true of projects where I didn’t consciously set out to make a point.
What about “Felix”?
My initial inspiration for “Felix” was a desire to rewrite one of H. P. Lovecraft’s short stories. At the time I started, I didn’t give any thought to what I wanted to say in the story. I believe that if I want to finish this story and make it worth reading, then I need to clarify in my mind what I want the story about.
In many of Lovecraft’s stories he tries to evoke a sense that people are just a small and insignificant part of the Universe. His protagonists are horrified by that revelation. It is not that the other beings are evil, but that they simply don’t care about humanity.
At the end of “Felix” I have a similar revelation. As I said in an earlier blog post, it is very difficult to hide the climax to a story like this. Since there can be no surprise ending to the story, my focus needs to be on how my protagonists react to the revelation. In the current version of the story I have the two protagonists react in different ways.
The story up until the climax needs to build up the reader’s empathy for the protagonists. I need to develop the characters to the point where, while their reactions may be unexpected, the reader can understand why the characters react the way they do.
What I want the reader to think about while they read is how the characters might react to the revelation. Then, after they have read the story, I want them to go on to speculate how they would react in their place. I do want to provoke an emotional response, but I don’t believe I would call it fear.
I would like reader to find what I seek; an acceptance of the Universe as it is. So often we get caught up in the travails and frustrations of our day to day existence. I believe that it is easier to find happiness and enjoy life if we see our troubles as not that important in the whole scheme of things.
This seems like a mighty ambitious goal for a little story like mine. I find it rather intimidating to think of it in those terms, which doesn’t help much with my writer’s block. On the other hand, just because I might not succeed is no reason not to try. A failed attempt may still be worth the effort.