Back To School

Today’s class,  our first since returning from holidays, was the introductory lesson to the Principles of Dramatic Writing II module.Tony told us we would be focusing on genre, and in this class, we’d be working with Horror. Horror is the genre I would say, from a filmmaking perspective, that I understand the least, but one that I admire. It is a very primal genre, that when done well, emphasises the primacy of dramatic action, most notably through its use of tension. I’d love to be able to write a good horror…but I’m not sure if I’ve got it in me yet. Something to have put in the envelope, perhaps? We were given a Tennyson poem, Mariana – a poem with which I was unfamiliar, though some of my classmates seem to have read it before. Confession – I’ve never really read ANY Tennyson (or really any T S Eliot, while we’re at it).

After reading the poem out, we were split into groups and tasked with writing a horror story, utilising as little or as much of the poem as we wanted to. My immediate thought was “there’s absolutely no plot here”. The poem is certainly evocative, but can be crudely summarised, plot wise, as “Woman mopes for man. He doesn’t come. She wants to die, she doesn’t die.” Unless I was going to crank out a horror version of Godot, I knew we’d need to do some rejigging. In an attempt to generate some ideas, I looked at the horror genre tropes that Tony had provided on the handout, and tried to apply them to some of the images in the poem. Nothing.

(Side note: I tried to jump onto a sentence three thoughts on from the one I was writing, before I had even finished the sentence I was writing. This is the primary urge I need to slice from my life this year.)

Our group sat in the canteen, talking about other things, venturing jokey ideas…settling on nothing and watching the time drift away. Eventually, we settled on a sort of survival horror idea, with a young phD student heading into a Chenobyl-esque area to examine the return of nature. Only once she is accepted and on her way, she is told the previous researcher has not returned. She has 7 days worth of inoculation against the radiation, after which she must leave. We didn’t get much further with the idea, beyond an image of her high in this observation tower, lights and figures shifting below. Maybe groans or music heard in the distance. She is ‘safe’ in the tower, but only in the flimsiest possible way. Deciding to try and find key plot points, we decided she would, at the first act turning point, find the old researcher, half dead. She would nurse him back to health, perhaps there would be a romance. The Act 2 mid point would be HE IS NOT AS HE SEEMS! Somehow…and start of act three would be her attempting to get out, and realising that she cannot. A last minute thrown in addition would be perhaps there is a ghost town there living a peaceful afterlife and they do not want man to return.

We came back to present our ideas, and I was a little embarrassed by the fact we were the only group not to knock together a coherent, well thought out story. As Tony pointed out, we had not committed to an idea and this had screwed our development. This is a problem I have in general, but it feeds heavily into my writing.

Each of the four groups swapped story concepts, to see if we could improve each others.The group with the most developed idea got ours to work on. Result? They created a sort of sci fi Adam & Eve narrative, (complete with title), and that image of the student and the previous researcher becoming lovers in this paradise created by man’s absence was a powerful one. It may have been more of a sci fi concept, but the horror themes were there. They even did something interesting with the injections where it turns out they’re actually hallucinogens that prevent the protagonist from seeing the Zone as it really is. With the other groups tweaks, I could see the story right away (very reminiscent of gothic literature, in its way). Tony repeated his point about the importance of images that sum up the film, and I now entirely believe that this can be a productive way for me to work – always keeping in mind a couple of images that anchor the story.

In the case of The Study, as they titled it, the picture of this woman alone in the tower, and the post apocalyptic Garden of Eden are what I’d use. It captures the tone and themes of the potential story perfectly. (I recall that there’s a location called Vault 22 in the game Fallout: New Vegas that plays with that idea. It was beautiful from outside, in contrast to the barren wastes, but ultimately terrifying. Perfect.)

LESSONS LEARNED: In future, in order to improve the efficiency with which I write, I need to DEDICATE myself to a concept and run with it, pick it apart – don’t get stalled with possibilities. Also, reinforcing an idea from an earlier post, FIND a couple of images that sum up the script I am writing and use those as anchors for my fleeting mind.

Discipline, people, Discipline…which will hopefully be applied to blogposts as well. I turned the computer back on at 1 AM in order to write this entry, so I suppose that’s a start. Let’s see where it gets me on my Thursday night essay binge.

P.S. Tony also mentioned that our concept reminded him of a Tarkovsky film, Stalker. I’ve never seen it, but having read the wikipage, I’m sticking it on the list.

P.S.S. Focusing on genre today made me realise that all of my three scenes are straight dramas. Didn’t I want to write comedy or something?

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