Monday, July 25, 2011

Scaling Syndication

In every narrative work the suspense, tension and excitement work together to craft the perfect thriller, an amazing ride that keeps the audience entranced. Seldom does the creator view their work complete in one ride, almost every writer views the work as but a piece of a larger story.

While motivations for expanding a piece can range from the monetary to an intentional overarching theme or an overarching theme. There are also a multitude of ways to craft a series from the components of their first ride. Less common is developing additional stories based upon secondary characters from the first work and expanding into their own works. Another more frequent method of expanding the ride is to simply apply all of the original elements to another track. Taking the same characters and dropping them into another plot. These methods are quite prevalent in novellas, TV and even most sequels to the original piece. These are not, however, the true foundation for the Epic.

"The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book." - Mickey Spillane
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There are a number of components that need to be kept in check when crafting a true series that can expand across multiple rides culminating in one grande experience. The Epic is not only a series but an artfully woven piece that allows each component to stand on it's own as well as hold it's place in the larger narrative. This is analogous to crafting one large ride with such detail that it would be impossible for the audience to find the seams between the pieces.

As every journey begins with a single step, the same is true of the foundation for the series. The first narrative introduces the characters, setting and a problem that can be solved within the confines of the first ride while hinting at a larger arc. This is the same as crafting a 'hook' in the first piece. It draws the audience and leaves them wondering what comes next. The largest issue in crafting this element is maintaining the cohesiveness of the solitary ride. If the first piece ends with a less than satisfying ending to tie-in the next ride it will greatly reduce the chances of having the audience continue on to that next ride. The balance of the Thriller elements needs to be complete.

The subsequent steps in the series behave as the consistent thrilling ride with multiple twists, turns, ups and downs. Each narrative in this greater piece can focus on a multitude of sub-events that help the audience explore the world and characters through various trials. These serve to develop characters and demonstrate their place in the world, each is a complete ride in-of-itself yet they hint at something larger.

The timeline of a series is very fluid and often has been subject to influence from publication. While a piece can be constructed in such a way as to move through periods of time out of internal chronological order the strongest come from a consistent sense of progress. Typically timelines for installments in a series have gaps between those installments varying from months to years. These gaps permit writers to 'refresh' characters and even add additional elements to each new installment. The failure of this pacing is the audience may forget the previous ride and the Epic will lose some of its impact. Some series actually carry the narrative from one to the next with no time in between installments.

An Epic is defined by the over arching plot or theme that the audience needs to experience on a small scale before they finally reach that conclusion at the end of the series. Because the satisfaction of the excitement must match the suspense and tension of the ride, many series focus on a grande-scale world changing event. Like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series, the characters start on a small-scale adventure and end by changing the world. A great many Urban Fantasy and Thrillers rely on these as the tropes to make an Epic series. Just as many also fail because they do target such world shifting problems that breaks the audience's connection with the ride. Believability falls to the wayside and there is no recovering. Not every Epic needs a world changing event, it can still be as small as changing the world of a single character. In the series Veronica Mars, the entirety of the first plot arc centered on finding the true killer of the main characters' best friend. The arc did not change the world but changed the world for the protagonist. 

Crafting a perfect thrill ride that keeps the audience enraptured can be a challenge to keep that tension and excitement balance. The key to crafting the Epic is scaling. Every component is a cohesive thrill ride set at a given scale that alludes to something that drives the characters. Rapidly shifting scale from one installment to the next can break believability and sever the connection between audience and attraction.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Drawing the Thrills

Fear, Thrills, Excitement…

As with any ride that is artfully crafted, participants are intrigued by the anxiety of not knowing what will happen next. The steady pressure of this anxiety, this fear creates a tension and through it a suspense that drives the narrative forward.

"Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win." - Stephen King

The suspense may drive the piece forward but without a release the characters and audience will be too fatigued by the end of the piece to enjoy the ride. Many seek out thrills to experience that rush, the race of their heartbeat, the fear of the unknown and the feeling of relief that comes once they've overcome that obstacle. It is a psychological need to understand, a fascination with that which they can not comprehend because it is so different from our everyday lives. That fascination stems from a need to find out how much fear the individual can tolerate and ultimately the sense of satisfaction that comes from being able to endure that anxiety.

In a roller-coaster it is the anxiety of not knowing what comes next that makes the ride so appealing but it is the excitement that makes the ride satisfying. The longer the anxiety is permitted to build, the more tension the participants will feel and by extension the greater the satisfaction will be for the release of that tension.

While the tension of a ride may continue to build the conditional stress experienced is still subject to the individual's tolerances for prolonged anxiety. This means that while a ride may layer anxiety and tension to keep applying pressure the individual has physiological tolerances to that stressor. The individual can become exhausted and in terms of a narrative this means they will put the story down. Exciting moments are release points for the tension. If the excitement does not address the current anxiety or tension in any way then it will not serve as a release but another form of tension.

Thrilling moments are derived from an equal balance of anxiety and the satisfaction of that release. Like a roller-coaster, if the ride climbs to an epic height the drop, excitement, should be of equal height unless there is a need to keep partial stress. This can mean a greater satisfaction from the climax of the ride however, it also means greater chances of fatigue along the journey.

Thrills are created by provoking emotional anxiety both for the character and the reader through exploring that which they can not understand. What is it like to have someone close murdered? What is it like the have two people fall in love with the same person? What is it like to catch a criminal? Stop a supernatural horror? People look to experience a thrill, something that they do not experience on a routine basis. To deliver that thrill, it needs to come in equal parts of tension and excitement. If you reduce the tension, the excitement will not have the same impact. If you reduce the excitement, the satisfaction will fade with it. The perfect thrill is one that is built with suspense and has partial releases (pay-offs) until the close.

Romance example: Antoine has a crush on Jayne but she doesn't know he exists. Antoine set about trying to get her attention. (Tension) After a period he finds a means of talking with her. (Partial-Release)  Jayne smiles at him passing in the hall. (Partial-Release) Mean Ex-BF threatens Antoine, they walk away together. (Tension) Antoine confronts EB. (Tension) Jayne admits she's in love with Antoine. (Release)

Supernatural Thriller example: Antoine discovers people are disappearing. Secretly has crush on Jayne. (Tension) Discusses with friends and friends confirm more disappearances. (Tension) Starts working with Jayne to find missing people. (Partial-Release) In-fighting about how to proceed as friends disappear. (Tension) Find clues about disappearances, in-fighting between them due to tension. (Partial-Release, relationship tension) Antoine admits crush to Jayne, interrupted before Jayne can react. (Tension) Antoine saves Jayne form supernatural threat. (Partial-Release- still relationship tension) Together they stop the threat and Jayne admits to being in love with Antoine. (Release) 

Ultimately, if you build too much tension without at least a partial release it is akin to queuing in line for hours to get on a roller-coaster that goes down one dip and dumps you off at the gift shop.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Assigning Stressors

As the narrative roller-coaster unfolds it is not simply the suspense and excitement that drives the piece forward but the tension, the taut emotions that consume both characters and audience

Every piece begins with anticipation, presumptions about events and serves to draw an emotional connection between the audience and the ride. It is that emotional connection that a creator can draw upon to influence perceptions and elevate their work beyond the initial hook.

An audience's connection begins with anticipation as the first conflict is assigned to the character. This is the prominent conflict that is designed to both introduce the audience to the characters and test the characters. Psychology describes this conflict as a stressor and the emotion associated with an unresolved stressor is the foundation of every narrative, Tension. Through the introduction of this unresolved stressor the narrative is compelled forward and providing the connection has been initially been established the audience will be driven to find a resolution for the stressor based upon the General Adaptation Syndrome model.

In the General Adaptation Syndrome model physiologists describe stress as taking place in the three phases of Alarm, Resistance and Exhaustion. In the alarm phase the body will react to initial stressor with adrenaline and commonly the 'fight or flight response.' The Resistance phase takes place under a sustained tension and represents how the individual will either cope or remove the stressor. As the final phase of the GAS model exhaustion takes hold on the subject and the body's systems are compromised. Abstracting this concept to the characters in a story, these stressors can not only develop new conflicts but also represent additional depth to the characters. As the tension continues to mount across time for the characters it can have a profound impact on their behavior.

A story is a taut ride, a thrilling roller-coaster that takes unexpected turns and drops to keep the audience enraptured. The suspense is born of anxiety, a tension that is drawn in such a manner as to keep both the characters and audience moving through the story. Applying different stressors can keep tension high, keep the audience engaged, but as with any stressor, if there is no relief exhaustion can set in and break the piece.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Drawing the Paranoia

Suspense, anxiety, fear….

While every story is its' own thriller, a roller-coaster of suspense, tension and excitement it is the writers' ability to wield the elements to enhance the connection between the narrative and the audience that defines the nature of the piece. Through closer examination of these elements it is possible to not only further enhance a piece but also further define the audience of a piece.

"Being prepared for almost anything, he was not, by any means, prepared… for nothing" - Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.

Suspense is an imperative to any piece, it defines the need for an audience to continue through a story. It embodies the questions that need answers. Will the character fall in love with the protagonist? Did they do the right thing by buying that house? Who committed the murder? Will they stop the antagonist? These are only a few of the many questions that are crafted for not only the audience but for the characters in a piece to answer. These are the driving force that keeps a piece moving forward but what is the defined use?

The element of suspense is a feeling of uncertainty and strong anxiety about the outcome(s) for certain actions. Most commonly it is utilized in the build-up right before a grand or dramatic moment to enhance the impact of that moment. In a romance it can mean the silence before the love interest responds to the almighty ILY from the protagonist. In a mystery it can be the interrogation of a suspect, while in a thriller it can be a race to stop something from happening. There is more than one way to utilize suspense in a narrative though.

One of the most powerful uses of suspense is not genre specific but it does require an artful use and a delicate balancing act. Suspense can be established and rather than releasing the tension through excitement, the excitement of the piece only serves to further enhance the suspense. In classic horror and thriller fashion it is known as "Nothing is Scarier." In short this trope means that as the suspense builds it is more powerful if the excitement or release moment comes without an actual release. This same device can be utilized in any genre, it is not horror or thriller specific but these are genres that use it openly. In a diametric example, Romance this could mean the protagonist admits the ILY to the interest but before the interest can respond something intervenes. The audience is left with that suspense while something adds an additional layer to the suspense.

There are roughly three variants of this device that are very common to horror and thrillers. These are the classic, full and has been variants. In the classic horror example suspense is built as the audience anticipates something to jump out from the dark and does. This is almost viewed as cliche now and it utilized in almost every horror and thriller. Abstracting this is simply suspense building up to a release point that is inevitable and often expected. The second full variant of this is often the most powerful of the three variants. The suspense is built as the audience anticipates something bad to happen, a monster to jump out of the dark but something intervenes to prevent release point. The audience still anticipates the attack, the monster but it doesn't come. Abstracting this variant we have suspense building to the point of release but the release point never comes. This is a very powerful element for most mystery, thriller and horror narratives. The final is the has been variant and is now quite common in horror stories. Often this is seen horror movies as a character expecting something in the darkness, another character distracts them and then the 'whatsit' attacks. Abstracting this variant suspense is built to the point of release but something intervenes to delay the release point.

Suspense is the key element in a taught story. It is the basis for many thrillers and horror stories but the elements are not exclusive to a single genre. As a writer draws the suspense of their piece it is possible to turn any story into a suspenseful page turner regardless of genre. What are the suspenseful elements of your piece?

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