Themes, Dreams and Screams

I was prompted to write this post after being asked for some writing advice. A friend was trying to write a TV show pitch and wanted to know the best place to start. Though I am far from the most knowledgeable writer on the planet – or even my school – I gave him some of my go-to rules, which I am now sharing here, albeit more concisely.

Themes

Theming is an idea that I find a lot of amateur writers dismiss out of hand. Something to be “discovered” or “considered later”. I respectfully disagree. I always start with one of my two main themes in my work: life-changing decisions, and facing one’s own mortality. My current feature-length script project began life as a film about a life-changing decision – an undercover F.B.I agent is forced against his will to work for a criminal mastermind – but over time it became more of a story of mortality. A great many of my characters were struggling with the deaths of loved ones, or their own impending demises, and I have radically doctored the script to suit this new theme. My main theme changed, but there was one there. Working backwards from a theme helps steer the story, and fill in any gaps in the story beats. A theme is often confused with the moral of a story, so much so that the terms are used interchangeably. I often think of the moral as a lesson, but the theme as the class. Often a writer doesn’t quite know what they’re trying to say with their work until they’ve finished it – this is their moral. But the actual premise tends to reflect an idea of some kind. Find what that is, and then think about your actual message as you write.

Dreams

Now that we have our theme, we need a central character. And what I tend to do when setting out my protagonist is start with what they want to be, not what they are currently. Aspiration drives people in real life. Someone who wants to be a musician will spend hours practising to be better. Just as a boxer will spend hours at the gym, or a writer will (or should) spend hours writing.  If you want an audience to empathise with a character, give them a dream, something they want to be. Batman wants to fight all the crime in Gotham – it is by no means a practical or remotely reasonable goal, but it’s what motivates every action he takes from then on.
Depending on the story you want to tell, this dream can come in a number of forms. Short or long-term, big plans or little objectives. Max Rockatansky’s goal in the Mad Max franchise is simply to avoid being killed by the harsh environment he lives in (just like most people who live in Australia). And whilst there are twists and turns in what his objective at certain moments are, they are all in aid of his one aspiration.

Screams

Ok, so with a theme to discuss and a protagonist to support up to their goal, what a story needs now is something conflicting. Something that will either make the hero’s goal crumble to dust, or make it seem further away than ever before. A person or an event, or even just an inanimate thing, but it’s best if it has something to do with the theme. To take all of my points in one example, take the case of John Wick:

Theme: A person cannot change who they truly are.

Dream: John wants to have a quiet retirement, free of violence and death.

Scream(s)John’s wife dies of cancer, and the son of his old criminal boss takes his two most treasured mementos of her.

This is just one of the ways John Wick is brilliant. The writers took such a messianic, unstoppable hitman and presented him with something he cannot shoot or punch – cancer. He wanted to leave the life of death behind him, but lost his love to a truly insidious fate. Then, everything else he loves is taken from him in a violent attack from on old friend’s son. Do you see how the “Dream” and “Scream” parallel, and both are tied to the “Theme”?

So if you’re looking to write a story, start with these three elements. Everything else should come naturally.

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Fantasy Short Story

A little story based on a writing prompt: “Write a story where something doesn’t quite seem right.” 

It was only the fourth time Lisa bucked beneath him that Danus grew suspicious.

The mount was oak-brown, the colour of woodlands in winter. A horse raised in Port Tarren, like Danus himself. And like Danus, Lisa would have had to have been trained from a young age as befitting a war beast. A war beast? Is that how I think of myself now? Danus had not actually seen war, his perfectly sharpened sword attested that he had barely seen battle, besides a few Corsair skirmishes in the Port. But he was a gifted archer, and could sit a horse better than most of the Tarrenfolk. That was why Lisa had been the perfect match for him. A strong mare, irksome yet calm, except for now.

It was strange, Danus thought, that neither man nor beast had been more than a few days without returning to their birthplace. That was until today, when he had loaded the beast’s saddlebags and joined the rest of Port Tarren’s Forresters on the ride east, as summoned. The rider had come towards the end of the working day, and Danus had been on watch when he arrived. Clad in the teal cloak of a royal Messenger, he was bid to summon all fighting men to Kynstone; but for what he did not say. He had galloped away as hastily as he had arrived, with only a few hoofprints in the dirty road to ever suggest he had been at all. The Forresters had not delayed in preparations, with a haste and careful order that suggested that the summons had been long-awaited.

Port Tarren was unique as a settlement: it was a small naval village, with its most complex structure being the stone quay that had been built in the years before Danus’ birth; but it had a larger standing army than any other town or village in a dozen leagues. Most fishermen simply relied on their pikes if they encountered raiding ships, or some lucky few had (and fewer still could use) a bow. Each of Port Tarren’s Forresters had a bow and blade, and knew how to use them. Often they guarded the fishermen in their light two-man skiffs, but they were mostly gatherers in the tundra surrounding the village. On the rare occasion pirates came reaving along the shores, they would not be ready to face a score of trained men. Danus was proud to be a member of such an elite force, envy of all the surrounding villages.

But now, he was growing wary. The Forresters had arrived at Kynstone, an ancient stone barrow older than anyone who now lived, but there was no sign of any other villages, or even the Messenger who had sent for them all. But, as loyal servants, Holt, captain of the Forresters, had bid them to stay and wait.

“We don’t refuse a lordly summons.” He pointed out. “Lest we want to look like cowards for all the province to see. We wait” Even so, his dark eyes glanced furtively around the surrounding stone pillars that dotted the small clearing. Danus’ own eyes gazed down the muddy path south, as he had been instructed. “If anyone is coming, it’ll be up from Tenpass.” Holt had stated. “You have the best eyes of anyone here. Keep them fixed on that path.” His countenance had been troubled, however. Something else worried him. Danus didn’t know what, but he could smell apprehension in the air, like warm breath and cold sweat.

They had been there for an hour, and night was starting to creep over the horizon. Danus hadn’t left his saddle, and he shifted uncomfortably. It was then that Lisa bucked again, for the fourth time. He did his best to soothe her, but she was afraid of something. It was then that another scent filled his lungs. It was a scent of fear, of dread, of death.

It was the smell of oil.

Black pools, leaking from previously unnoticed gaps in the rock, flooding the tiny indents in the ground which Danus could now see had been shaped to create a cage-like perimeter around and throughout Kynstone.

“It was a damn trap.” Holt growled. “Retreat!”

It was the last thing he said.

A burning twig – no, an arrow – dug into the ground a few feet away from the captain of the strongest fighting force in the province. Instantly, the oil erupted into burning flame, crawling across the ground. Holt tried to clamber back on his horse, but instead slipped in the dark liquid now pooling at his feet. He fell, and moments later was consumed in flame that devoured his simple leather jerkin with ease. He writhed and screamed, until both stopped, and Danus knew he was dead.

As chaos erupted around him, more and more flaming arrows soaring through the trees to pierce the ground or fellow Forresters, Danus was frozen in horror. Lisa bucked and whinnied, desperately trying to avoid the flames springing up around her, but it was to no avail. All around them, the fire closed in, and still the oil kept spreading. Danus thought he could barely make out the shape of a creature in the trees, illuminated for the briefest second by the roaring flames, before he was thrown from Lisa’s back and catapulted into the fires. His mind was alight with fiery thoughts as fierce in burning as those around him. He rolled, screaming all the way, as he felt leather bubble and boil with him inside it. Agony would be a sweet release from this kind of pain. He kept rolling, until he came to a sudden stop. He was pressed against one of the Kynstone pillars, still spilling oil like the source of a river of flaming death. It was no salvation, but it was a chance. Danus gripped one of the handholds in the century-old stone, and hoisted himself up. His leather tunic still burned and pressed against him, so he tore it off with his other hand. He felt skin tear away as he pulled at the straps, but eventually he managed to wriggle out of it. All the while he was clambering, swapping from hand to hand. Hours of practice with sword and bow meant that he had strong arms. It was perhaps some dark irony that this was when that came of use. His boot slipped on one of the leaking oil tubes, coating his leg in the vile substance. He took extra care with that foot, as he kept pulling his body upwards. Eventually, in what could have been hours or minutes, he summited the pillar, as tall as the nearby trees.

All his eyes could see was flame, as though the whole forest were alight. All his ears could hear were the screams of men, his friends, mixing with the cries of horses as they burned. And all his nose could smell was the sickening stench of burning meat. Then, his mouth tasted the bitter teardrops he hadn’t even known were falling from his eyes. His senses simply couldn’t bear all that pressed upon them, and Danus simply sat upon his stony perch and wept.

He didn’t know when the oil ceased flooding out of Kynstone, but eventually the burning ceased. Not just the stone, but the trees themselves, which surely would continue burning, stopped. Even the air grew cold. Not cool, like a summer’s breeze, but as though the wind itself had frozen over. It took Danus in its embrace, and he felt nothing.

Short Story – It begins

This was a spur of the moment piece I wrote when I had a spare hour today. Interested to hear any and all thoughts.

It Begins

It was raining again. That hard, thick rain that could puncture skin, if you were unlucky. The tiny droplets would smash into the ground with such force that they’d briefly go back up again. Alas, they didn’t get far; and the water formed small rivers and canals, all leading to the mighty Hudson. The river was restless, the ofttimes calm waters turning in on themselves, and against the small tugboats that fought on through the night.

It was here, in the cabin of a tiny craft, that I sat. The thin tin roof above me amplified the sound of the rainfall, so that it could have been a mass of gravel pouring down on New York City. To my left, I could see a thousand buildings; each building lit by a thousand lights, a thousand lives. But tonight’s river journey was about finding if there was one less light in New York.

The captain of the boat, if you could call him a captain, staggered his way into view of the small, clear plastic on the cabin door. I quickly stood, and made to unhook the small iron latch, as he had instructed me to do. The man looked so drenched you’d almost believe that he’d fallen into the river. He pulled the sodden cap from his head, and a small stream of rainwater fell to the floor.

“The chief’s sent up the signal. The boats are going back to dock.” Despite how close we were, he had to yell over the heavy puttering on the roof.

“Why would he do that?” I responded with equal volume.

“One of two things. Either the storm’s getting too bad, or they’ve found something.”

Probably both, I reasoned, as the Captain adjusted the engine and began turning the wheel. As I squinted out into the darkness, somehow made darker by the twinkling city, I could barely make out the shapes of the other vessels, of varying sizes and speeds, turning and retreating to the safety of Manhattan.

The Captain had barely moored us as I leaped ashore. I knew it was dangerous, with the rotten old wood being precarious even when dry; but I had to see.

Chief Allen, a normally jolly fellow fond of smoking cigars almost as fat as he was, was already waiting for me as I, rain falling in beads from strands of hair in my face, approached the end of the jetty.

“Shelby.” He greeted me, striking a match to light his favoured cigars.

“Allen.” I responded, pushing the stray locks from my eyes. “What did you find?”

As he replaced the book of matches on the strap of his hat, showing his own balding scalp; he indicated for me to follow him down the corridor. “Come and see.”

I had to stop myself from running, speeding down that hallway. I needed to see if I were right. And I was.

The dock workers had clearly just unloaded the body, yellow and bloated from its tenure in the water. Bluish veins, visible through discoloured skin, were bulging. I had seen it before, and far worse, but you are never truly prepared to see this. Never. I adjusted my glasses, and moved closer.

This one had tried to swim, to get free, evidenced by the rope-burns on her ankles. The rope in question had been loosened and put to one side, still holding the misshapen, heavy rock it had been tied to. But, there was more. Another, similar set of markings were on her wrists. This was new. I turned to Allen, who was just behind and to my left.

“These ones on her wrist, do we know what caused them?”

Allen nodded gravely. He guided my eyes to the other end of the room, where I saw it. Another rope, thicker and stronger, attached to a buoy. I approached it, understanding quickly. He had wanted it to be found. But wait, that wasn’t all. Tied to the buoy, a chain, with a lockbox clipped to it by a harness. I peered at the lock.

“Do we have any way to open this?” I asked, to the gathered group. Allen shrugged, and I sighed, exasperated. And it was at this moment that I spotted, reflecting off of the exposed bulb, a gleam of metal in the corpse’s hand. I moved over to the body. It was a key. I pulled a pair of tweezers from my pocket, and crouched beside the cadaver. The stench, from standing above, had only been a strong smell of briny water, but was far worse when poised directly beside the mass. I could almost smell the detritus of the Hudson that this poor girl’s body had been steeped in. With a small pull, the key came loose, and I carefully dropped it into my hand. I showed it to the assembled crowd of workers and police, and finally to Allen, who seemed uncomfortable but determined. He took the key from my hand without a word and opened the box.

Aside from the cacophony of rain outside, it was silent on this dock. Allen stayed, for several seconds on his knees, then reached into the lockbox. I braced, expecting a gruesome souvenir or a trophy, but all that was clutched in Allen’s hands were cut-out bits of papers.

Newspapers.

Allen held them out to me, and I took the first one. I read the all-too familiar headline.

“ENGLISH JOURNALIST HELPS CATCH THE HUDSON DRENCHER

The New Yorker’s own Thomas Shelby to thank.”

My hands trembled, and I knew it was true. The killer I thought I had stopped was still out there, and I’d put an innocent man in the worst hellhole on earth. I looked past Allen, to the window, and to the city beyond it.

What had I done?