Author Archives: mary

For Stage Or Page

A guest blog by Marie Bilodeau

Back in 2005, I wasn’t getting published. I had lots of stuff in the mail (SASEs, anyone?), but not many bites. I stumbled across storytelling, a performance art completely revolving around stories. I fell in love (with the idea of a captive audience, as most audiences are too polite to walk out). I took a class, started telling, and I’ve now had the chance to be a professional storyteller for 13 years, telling stories across Canada and the United Stated, in lovely settings like theatres, and shiny settings like under disco balls.

In my early days, I thought that stories I’d tell would be great to published, and vice versa. Except for a few exceptions, I have been utterly and completely wrong. But this is so that each story can shine in its own medium, much like books don’t always translate well to movies.

The “why” is still a question that haunts me (haunts may be the wrong word here), but I have unearthed a few reasons:

The Thread

Like most storytellers, I don’t memorize my stories. I get up there and let the words flow (I do practice them, however. Sometimes.)

To make a story memorable, I typically memorize (more or less) three things:

  • my first few sentences (so I can nicely set the stage)
  • my last few sentences (to nail it)
  • a few images / pieces of dialogue (to make it memorable / stand out)

Everything else has to flow for the audience to be able to follow (their brows furrowing is super distracting while you’re telling) and, to accomplish that, I also have to find the story thread. That’s the core of your story – the journey that everything hooks onto, from action to characters, so that it’s easy enough for the listener to sit back and enjoy the journey.

It doesn’t mean your stories are simple or that the thread is obvious! Think about some of the earliest oral storytelling examples: Epics, myths, legends, fairy tales… they all have similar beats. That’s the thread.

Also, and perhaps most importantly, if you know your story thread and you get lost while telling (a banging door, a screaming child, your feet hurt, you’re sweating under the spotlights), you can easily hop back in your story and improvise your way back because you know where to go. The teller must never break their own spell, after all.

The Audience

Your audience is there with you. You’re sharing a story, not just living it alone. You can throw in movement, song, a glance that highlights sarcasm. You’re living a story together, so you adapt as you go, to get your audience to feel or react in the best possible way. You can develop in-jokes, which you share only with your audience.

Because of the audience, the stories are never told the same. And because of you, the teller, they’re always a bit different.

You’re not just words. You’re a full package experience!

The Silences

These are similar to the breaks and white spaces in writing. But in telling, the hardest thing to get used to, and the most important, are the silences. It’s letting that empty space sit, so that your audience can digest something you’ve told them, make the connections and follow where you might be heading, sit with their emotions for a few moments. And you’re holding them by looking at your audience, sweeping over them and making eye contact, and they’re looking back, and every second feels like an eternity. You’re not there to hide, my friends. You’re there to deliver the story, silences and all.

Telling and writing may not be interchangeable (fully), but I know that they’ve helped each other get better. I’m better at story because of both of these art forms. Parsing a story differently is a great skill to develop, so even if the stage is not for you, definitely find a different medium to try out. Those skills will be handy in one way or another.

Check out some storytelling! 

About Marie Bilodeau: mariebilodeau
Marie Bilodeau is an award-winning science-fiction, fantasy and horror writer. Her latest book, Nigh, which she fondly describes as a “faerie-pocalypse,” is currently being serialized in bite-sized chunks, and is all about exploring tension through setting. Find out more about Marie at www.mariebilodeau.com.

No “Hack Jobs” Allowed

MTMTE3When a new movie comes out, or a new toyline releases, or a new TV show takes off, it’s common to see plenty of licensed merchandise on store shelves, hoping to cash in on the “hot property” of the day.

Most of us have probably encountered “hack” novelizations of movies, toy tie-in kids’ books, direct to video sequels….and sometimes feature films themselves which count on popular characters with established fanbases to put butts in movie seats, even if the movie itself is awful.

A major piece of advice I got at Superstars Writing Seminars was never to turn in a “hack” job on anything. If you’re hired to write purple unicorns, no matter how stupid you think purple unicorns are, you turn in the best purple unicorn story you can.

Your name as an author–the foundation of your writing career–needs to be tied to quality work. Don’t get a reputation as a “hack.” Get a reputation of turning in a great story, even if it’s about a concept that you (or other people) might think is silly.

You might be surprised where it leads. 

James Roberts, the writer of Transformers: Lost Light and its prequel series, Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, has won (well deserved) awards for his fascinating, multilayered, inclusive, comic-and-tragic sci-fi storytelling. It’s everything the feature films aren’t.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is beginning its eighth season soon. Along with great all-ages comics, a feature film and a spinoff series, MLP: FIM has expanded the My Little Pony brand to all manner of fans who’d never have thought twice about ponies when the show first started.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has built an empire on one-time “B-list” characters whose rights no film studio wanted. (Black Panther is magnificent.)

None of those success stories would have happened if the creators involved had turned out the minimum effort, taken their paycheques, and gone home.

Make the most of your opportunity. Respect the franchise you’re writing for. And build the kind of reputation you want.

 

About Mary:

Mary Pletsch is a glider pilot, toy collector and graduate of the University of Huron College, the Royal Military College of Canada and Dalhousie University. She is the author of several previously published short stories in a variety of genres, including science fiction, steampunk, fantasy and horror. She currently lives in New Brunswick with Dylan Blacquiere and their four cats.

Episodic Vs Sequential: TV Shows and Novel Series

TV storytelling has changed with the advent of VCRs, DVDs and streaming services. In the golden age of TV, it was much more common for each episode of a TV show to be a self-contained story.

The reason is simple: showrunners couldn’t presume that viewers had been able to watch the previous episodes. If you were busy during the show’s airing time, then you missed the show. So, it made sense for each episode to stand alone. Title sequences introduced new viewers to the show’s characters, theme and mood. Even if you’d never seen a show before, you could get a pretty good idea what it was about before the day’s episode started. (And title sequences are getting shorter these days, or being left out entirely, now that most viewers no longer need them to learn about the show they’re about to see.)

The problem with episodic storytelling is that it’s more difficult to show long-term character development, or to give events permanent consequences. In its purest form, the end of the episode presses the reset button, returning the characters to the status quo at the beginning of the next episode. Still, some shows developed a certain sense of continuity: origin episodes, introduction of new characters or departure of old ones, key events in season finales.

With the advent of the VCR, people could record shows and watch them later at their convenience. And now, with streaming services, it’s become common for viewers to “binge” on a show and watch the entire season over the course of a few days.

(This is not to say that the golden age of TV didn’t have serials–soap operas, anyone?–or that there isn’t great episodic TV being made right now. )

But general trends changed when it became easier for people to keep up with their favourite shows. When data suggested that people enjoyed viewing shows in a single sitting (or two or three), showrunners naturally made shows catering to those kind of viewing habits. There’s now a strong trend towards “bingeable” shows – long running serials that tell a multi-thread story over the course of a season, and an even bigger story over the course of a series. Actions have consequences, and characters grow and change – but it’s rare for a viewer to pick a random episode in the middle of a series just to “check it out,” now that it’s easier to start at the beginning.

When you’re writing a novel series, which model do you want to follow?

In part, it depends on genre. For example, if you’re writing a category romance novel series, it’s often expected that a new reader should be able to pick up a book at any point in the series and enjoy the story. Additionally, romance stories derive their tension from showing how the hero and heroine get together–tension that’s hard to show once they’re an established couple. As a result, category romance series have developed a certain pattern. Each book in the series takes place in the same world, but each book (usually) focuses on a new hero and heroine. The supporting characters are often either the heroes/heroines of previous books, or future hero/heroines of upcoming stories. As a result, fans are able to return to a world they love, while new readers won’t be lost if they aren’t familiar with the supporting characters from previous books, and the primary tension is still focused on watching a couple overcome their obstacles to be together. However, this formula makes it difficult to show character relationships growing and changing beyond the book that the characters “star” in.

On the other hand, some series all but require you read them in order, or you’ll be lost continuity-wise. For myself, I love a big, ongoing, developing story where characters’ actions have consequences, and the plot unfolds based on the choices the characters made previously. But this technique makes it harder for new readers to “jump in” in the middle.

And some series walk a middle line. Each book is a self-contained arc, but if you put them together, you’ll also see a series-long story arc developing. For example, in some mystery series, a new mystery gets solved in each book, but as the series progresses, the main characters change, develop, and grow, giving the series a sense of continuity and ongoing development.

In large part, it depends on what you as a writer want to do. Do you want to write a series where each book focuses on a different character in the same universe? Do you want the flexibility to add “new adventures” if the series takes off?

Or do you have a long-term vision for a story that’s too long for just one (or three, or more) books to hold? Do you want to show a character growing and changing over the long term, and do you believe that you can convince audiences to care about this character, to choose to spend time in their company over and over again?

If the first book in a series hooks a reader, they’re likely to come back for more—particularly when they feel that the story is “going somewhere” and that each book “matters” because events have consequences. But there’s also something to be said for a format that’s welcoming to new readers, and doesn’t require them to put Book 4 back on the shelf and go looking for Book 1 in order to understand what’s going on. There’s audiences for both types of series (as well as the middle gorund) so choose what method best suits your genre and the story you want to tell.

 

About Mary: 

Mary Pletsch is a glider pilot, toy collector and graduate of the University of Huron College, the Royal Military College of Canada and Dalhousie University. She is the author of several previously published short stories in a variety of genres, including science fiction, steampunk, fantasy and horror. She currently lives in New Brunswick with Dylan Blacquiere and their four cats.

 

How Not To Torture Your Artist

Yesterday I wrote about my first opportunity to write a comic script. I talked about the differences between writing a short story and writing a script for a comic book.

There are some very talented folks (i.e. Nick Roche – Sins of the Wreckers; Hiromu Arakawa – Fullmetal Alchemist; Naoko Takeuchi – Sailor Moon) who can write plot/dialogue and also draw the art to go with it. I know my art skills aren’t equal to my writing skills. So I was paired up with a talented artist who would draw the fan comic I wrote.

There are different ways to write comic scripts. Sometimes the writer describes the entire story in a few paragraphs, leaving it to the artist to break it up into panels, and then going back later to fill in dialogue on the relevant panels. On the other extreme, the writer can describe each panel in minute detail, but that gives the artist far less room to contribute creatively.

I wanted to make sure the finished product would tell the story I had in mind, but I also didn’t want to reduce the artist to a servant who could only draw what I described. In writing my script , I tried to find a middle ground.

I described an idea (or a few possible ideas) for each panel, and I mentioned if there was some crucial item or action that had to be drawn in order for the story to make sense. Beyond that, I gave my artist freedom to choose what they wanted to draw and how they wanted to draw it. As a fan project, it was intended to be fun for both of us. To me that meant giving the artist some room to interpret the scenes and contribute to the storytelling by imagining the characters’ expressions, gestures and locations.

Writing a comic script challenged me as a writer. I couldn’t rely on the luxury of multiple paragraphs of internal dialogue to explain how my characters came to their decisions and what they truly felt. I had to communicate their thoughts and feelings through gesture, expression and (limited) spoken dialogue. I had to up my game of description and dialogue. And I had to do it with a very, very limited number of words.

And I had to do it in collaboration with someone else–an artist with their own interpretation of the characters, the dialogue and the story.

The actual script wasn’t that long, yet the time it took me to write was easily the time I devote to a short story five times the length.

I’d love to get the opportunity to write more comics scripts in the future. I learned a lot from my first. I want to improve my balance between action and dialogue. I would love to see if I could tell a story with no narration boxes whatsoever.

Comics scripts aren’t just short stories with pictures. They’re a whole new means of storytelling.

About Mary: 

Mary Pletsch is a glider pilot, toy collector and graduate of the University of Huron College, the Royal Military College of Canada and Dalhousie University. She is the author of several previously published short stories in a variety of genres, including science fiction, steampunk, fantasy and horror. She currently lives in New Brunswick with Dylan Blacquiere and their four cats.