What We Can Learn From ‘Hellblade’ – #Authortoolboxbloghop

Structuring a narrative and plot isn’t the easiest job in the world… in fact, it may be one of the hardest, and it doesn’t get easier when you’re trying to work with an unreliable narrator. In the past I’ve covered how 13 Reasons Why deals with mental illness and the effects of this on the narrator, I’ve also discussed why I think Hannah Baker is the ultimate unreliable narrator.

Why do I have such a high opinion of the way 13 Reasons Why handles unreliable narration? Well, for many reasons that I’ve already covered but because it practices layered narration at the same time; this is part of what makes Hannah such an unreliable masterpiece… but that’s an old point. In any case, I thought I’d never find a better example of the two together until I played Hellblade; Senua’s Sacrifice and found a story that not only blew my mind on a personal level but on a professional level too. Before we even get into the specifics lets just talk about the acting and the dialogue in the first Zynbel/Senua monologue;

And now that you’re home, he’s so far away… They’ve taken his soul; to these Gods you cannot pray.” 

That’s powerful stuff, and it borders on poetry at some points. Give it a watch if you want to know how to balance ominous malice with understanding and empathy (but be aware that the video does have spoilers);

What should be of most interest to writers about this scene, and this game, however, is the way it layers story upon story upon story. This is no doubt a reflection of Senua’s state of mind but is also a clever and powerful structural tool.

Religion, Psychosis, And Layered Narration

The first thing that strikes you about Senua’s Sacrifice is the voices that whisper all around you. If you wear headphones, you might even feel like they’re behind you; of all the tools that this clever game uses to show Senua’s mental illness or connection to the dead, they are the most haunting and least subtle. The visual cues which litter the landscape are far more poignant and gentle by far.

What is most remarkable about the use and portrayal of psychosis in this game, however, is the way they balance it with ideas of religion, mythology, and the afterlife, and the way each element impacts each story in the game.

Senua’s story is, in fact, four stories. It’s her story, her mothers’ story, Druths’ story, and the story of her warring relationships with Dillion and her father Zynbel. Each of these stories could take precedence, and while some people might feel that the way they were all mixed together made the narrative over-crowded and confusing I firmly feel that this is not the case. Why? Because each of the four stories has affected the way she goes about seeking peace with the traumatic death of Dillion, and each has had an effect on her psychological make-up and beliefs.

Her mothers’ spiritualistic view to her own illness normalised Senua’s early experiences, her fathers religious dogma created the fatalistic, self-blaming ideology that we see in her internal monologue, Dillions’ influence made her question Zynbel, and, finally, Druths’ own stories gave her the information or narrative which we follow through the game. More than this, however, Druths’ stories provided the means by which the game writers could create a subtle and complex layered narrative. Senua’s story, depending on which way you turn it could either be a spiritualist allegory for grief, a heroic quest into the realms of mythology, or a religiously influenced psychotic break created by grief. There is no definitive answer for us, just as there is no definitive answer for Senua. It’s this plausibility which makes every part of the game, including the visual distortions and taunting voices, so haunting. The question, however, is what we can learn from it as writers.

I would argue that we can learn how to find balance, how to increase plausibility, and how to codify story elements. Three main elements of the game are all we need to study in order to gain access to these lessons; Druths’ narration, Zynbel, and the ‘bosses’.

Druth

Image result for druth

Depending upon your own view of the game, Druth is either a spirit guide to Senua or a grim imaginary friend in the image of a dead man. Either way, he performs two important functions within the narrative.

  1. He informs us, and Senua, of the world around her. 
  2. He provides context. 

In many of the less favourable reviews of Hellblade, you will find these picked out as faults. In particular, the ‘lore stone’ narratives are picked upon as unnecessary additions which serve only to tell unrelated stories of Norse mythology. Likewise, his ‘spirit-guide’ monologues are often cited as being little more than a blatant way to lead you through the game.

While this is not incorrect, per say, it is uncomplex. In terms of game mechanics, yes Druth does fulfill these roles, but he also represents so much more. For a start, he allows us, the reader/player, to make sense of Senua’s chaotic life and mind when we are dropped into the thick of her darkest hour. He informs us of the beliefs to which she now clings, and if you are careful of the details you comb over he explains some of what she sees in the world around her.

For example, the very first lore stone to be found details the path that Senua was to take to Hellheim; away from Orkney and across the sea to where the land leads “down”. She is to follow a river. He notes that some acts will take you straight to Hela, while “Gods and the living” should take this path. This might read as mythology, but could also be the path by which she came to enter Norway, Finland, or even Denmark depending on where the tides took her.

Already the narrative is layered; Druth shows us how she could have come to the Gods or have come to be in foreign lands. The lore stones are not always so straightforward, but when he speaks directly to Senua he is entirely straightforward. What we learn from Druths character is how to show the reader what the character is and what they can be in a deft stroke. Druth speaks to what Senua is,

” Like you Senua, the man I once was has died. And when that happens, even Gods you worship can die with you.”

And to what lies ahead,

“For every battle won, a greater battle takes its place and so it goes until we fall. And in the end we all fall. Even the gods have their time.”

In between these points lies the subtle implication of what could be; Senua could let go. Turn around. She could leave Hellheim and choose to lay down her sword. In novels, it is not so easy to layer stories like Druth and Senuas, but with skill, it can be done. The lesson we should take from him is to balance the need to take the reader by the hand, the necessity of letting them breathe; this is how we can weave a subtle and powerful story.

Zynbel

Image result for zynbel

Unlike Druth, who notes he was mocked for speaking his truth, Zynbel, as a character, operates in the recesses of Senuas mind, or in the spiritual shadows (depending upon your view).

We never confront Zynbel directly until the very end of the game, though he makes his appearances throughout as a booming, demonic voice and a malevolent presence. Often we are Zynbel and Senua speaks as if to us. Sometimes his voice issues from Senua. In terms of the story, he could either be seen as a demonic presence or Senuas deepest fears and insecurities.

From a writers point of view, Zynbel can more definitely be thought of as the authors voice whispering half-truths and prophecies into the readers ear. Whether being malicious,

“You will never be rid of me, I am your shadow. And I will be with you until you breath your last dying gasp.”

Or empathetic,

So you will walk into the lair of the beast, look it in the eye and you will go to war. This is your mission. This is your quest. There is nothing else left.

Zynbel is the voice of omniscience. While he might twist the truth, Zynbels spirit or specter never lies to Senua unless it is in a memory, such as the one we see upon finding out the fate of her mother, Galena. Furthermore, Zynbel pushes the plot continually; Senua’s fear of him, of being like him, of being what he claimed she was, pushed Senua constantly. In this way, he is the plot.

This may seem like something that has no bearing upon writing, but it does; as a novelist, you are the guiding hand and the plot. Like Zynbel the author must operate from the shadows, however. Pushing, prodding, antagonising, and occasionally empathising with the characters are the best ways in which we can create tension. Removing traces of the authorial hand from a novel is a part of the editing process, in many ways, but we can simply melt away if we think of ourselves not as the author but as the protagonists’ main antagonist.

ValRavn, Surt, And Gramr

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Finally, while this game has enough fat to chew for a lifetime, the various minibosses that Senua faces are so symbolic that it almost loses subtlety altogether. Interestingly, this is where Druth comes back in; by giving the mythological history of Surt and ValRavn he provides enough blur to once again obscure the mechanics of storytelling.

The concept of having characters fight their demons literally is not new, what we can learn from the way Hellblade undertakes this common technique is how to embody the struggle in a more complete way. For example, ValRavn could represent Senuas mental illness, her hardships in the wilds, her emotional abuse, or some people have even stipulated that he represents an instance of sexual assault. In fact, he could be an embodiment of all of this; ValRavn is secondary to the environment which Senua must traipse through to find him for our purposes.

The continual misdirection, the shifting landscape, the ominous sense of being watched at all times is representative of what Senua struggled with as a mentally ill woman in her pre-modern society.

Likewise, when dealing with Surt the broken, blood-smeared, dangerous environment, complete with sudden bursts of flame represents the consequences of Senuas rage more effectively than Surt does as the embodiment of her rage and suffering.

Once again, as writers, it is hard to encapsulate the visual and auditory elements of these levels. What we can learn from them, however, is that there is more than one way to have our characters face their demons. And, more importantly, very often the actual fight with the proverbial demon is not as difficult as coming to face it. In this sense, the environment represents Senuas delusions about her mental state; as writers, we can mirror this with the worlds in which we place them.

Gramr, or the beast guarding Fenrirs lair, is practically the embodiment of her illness. Unlike Surt and ValRavn, Gramr is found in a landscape that has no obvious dangers. He hunts her through the shadows. In this place the dynamic is reversed; Senua is not willing to face this demon. She keeps Gramr in the shadows. And so finding him is not the trouble – facing him is.

And so we must know when to make our characters work for their improvement, and when to force their demons upon them.

If you want to join the #Authortoolboxbloghop you can find more great blogs and sign up HERE.

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Historical Research For Writers (#Authortoolboxbloghop)

Researching is a skill that surprisingly few people have. If you do have it you should definitely put it on your C.V.; good research is often the thing you do not see, but the want of it is blindingly obvious. This is especially the case when you write historical fiction, or you’re writing about cultures and people you don’t know anything about.

Research isn’t about consuming every piece of information you can find on your topic; it’s about knowing what is and isn’t important. You can learn this by taking a degree of some sort (History in particular will smack you in the face with research skill requirements before you’ve even finished the first year… hoo-boy that was a learning curve, I can tell you), or you can piggyback my History degree; go on, I don’t mind. I’ll share some of the pearls I’ve discovered while cracking open every proverbial shellfish on that metaphorical beach.

 

Know Your Books

We’re writers, ok, I get it. I Get It. You want to read a super old, musty book and feel the thick, alien paper, and smell the centuries on it…

But these books are WILDLY out-dated. Hugely so, even when they’re less than one hundred years old in some cases. For example, The Problem of the Picts was published in 1955, but today is considered so obsolete as to be of use ONLY to historians and archaeologists, and only then as a contrasting study for those wishing to write about how far we’ve come. The answer? A hell of a lot; in the 67 years since this collection of essays on archaeological practice, Pictish culture, language, architecture, and art was published our conception of the Picts has evolved beyond all recognition.

The lesson here is that old books have their place; they can show you what the author at the time, what society at the time, thought to be the case. If a history text is older than 100 or 150 years old you may start to notice that the style of writing is less rigid, and by the time you’re reading something 200 years old or over referencing of sources becomes a sideline (or nonexistent) activity. A historian would treat these as unreliable materials; contemporary works have value because of their proximity to the time period, modern works are valued because they apply all the available techniques.

Everything else varies.

As an author you don’t need to know all this, per se, but it helps to understand that you should be sticking to more modern texts, or that you can return to the seminal primary sources.

 

Technology is Your Friend

If you have an encyclopedia which covers the relevant time period throw it out the window… haha, no, don’t do that; you’ll kill someone. But seriously, don’t trust encyclopedia; they age poorly. If you want to do surface skim research just use the internet. In fact, for much of the research that authors do online sources are the best sources;

  • They’re up to date
  • They are often written in less flowery, dense language
  • You can do a pinpoint search with ease
  • They’re free

Even if you need or want specialised, academic sources you can often find them through Google Scholar. Remember that book, The Problem of the Picts? When writing an essay discussing our development since it’s publication I made more use of an article by Steven Driscoll found on Google Scholar than I did of many books from the University library. The internet may be full of misinformation, but if you look in the right places you can find exactly what you need quickly and easily. Consider;

  • Google Scholar
  • Foundation/trust pages for specific historic places or events (e.g. the Highland Clearances webpage, or the website for Stirling Castle)
  • Wikipedia (to an extent, but be sure to fact check)
  • Pinpoint searches, e.g. “when was X invented” or “what did Y do with Z”

 

Note-Keeping Tips

When researching you should keep notes as you go; make sure you keep a note of which book the information came from and which page you found it on (this will be a God send if you have to double check the information). When keeping notes most people make the mistake of writing down every single fact that they come across. This is time consuming and unhelpful.

When taking notes you need to keep two things in mind: your question/topic, and what kind of information will be relevant to it.

You should think about;

  • What events are key to your story
  • How important wider context is (i.e. will what’s happening in France during the period affect your characters as much as what’s happening in Germany?)
  • Whether or not you need a chronology and what events should be present on it (for example, if you’re writing a story about Jewish people escaping/hiding in Nazi Germany the dates/chronology will be more important than if you’re writing about someone who happens to live through the highland clearances but is not affected).
  • Details of material culture, e.g. clothing, architecture, pottery. These will likely be more important to the authenticity of your story than things like medieval warfare tactics or the foreign policy of the country your characters live in.

Keep your notes concise and in bullet points for quick reference; you could consider colour coding, too, for ease.

 

Alternative Sources

There are some things that academic texts cannot give you a feel for, or which will be better illustrated by alternative sources. Speech patterns, for example, or architecture can be better grasped out with the local university or college library. You can consider the following options to supplement your more academic resources;

  • Movies or TV Series in the same time period or place
  • Books dealing with similar themes, countries, or based in the same time period
  • Visiting places you mention first hand
  • Talking to experts in the field; many academics will be happy to answer questions if you approach them politely and with the understanding that they are busy people.

 

How Much is Too Much?

This is a hard question to answer as researching for a novel is wildly different from researching for an essay; you will pass on much less to the reader when writing a novel than when writing an essay.

What they have in common, however, is that it’s important for you to know and be familiar with the largest part of the issue. In both case you would need to know about WWII, for example, the start and end dates for all major parties involved, the key battles, the key figures, and the kinds of equipment available to people then. Unlike when writing an academic essay, however, writers producing a novel might need to know how the rationing system worked on a day to day basis, what foods were most commonly found and which were very rare, what the average worker earned, and the common fashions of the day.

As a basic benchmark, however, you consider perhaps reading a basic, high-school level educational text, a novel written in the same period, and perhaps watch any available documentaries which cover the period in question. After this point, you can rely on the spot research for minor details. If research is getting in the way of actually writing then you should definitely call a halt and move on; you can always go back to fill in gaps in your knowledge later. 

Historical research is not only a good tool for writers, but is a skill that can carried across to other jobs; it requires the ability to prioritise information, recognise reliable sources, and deploy facts in effective ways. This is a skill well worth developing, but remember that it should be secondary to actually writing your novel. 

If you want to join the #Authortoolboxbloghop you can find more great blogs and sign up HERE.

Re-evaluate, Re-vamp, and Revive Your Writing in 2019

New Year, new me; isn’t that what we say every year? 

Well, I think I speak for all of us when I say that 2017 and 2018 were complete clusterf**cks. 2019 has to be our year, lets face it, because it’s about time we all got off of this downward facing roller-coaster…

I can’t tell you how to meet all your goals this year, nor can I promise that this is the year that it all changes. What I can do, though, is help you to get fresh ideas, develop them, and better your writing style; so stick with me, kids, and we’ll weep our way through 2019 together. 

Planning For Success; Time Management and The Writing Habit

Plan and Prioritise to Keep Your Workload Under Control

In the past we’ve discussed time management and the benefit of getting in to a habit of writing in detail elsewhere, so in the interests of brevity we’ll cover a few quick and dirty ways to manage your time and get into a habit of writing!

Quick Time Management Tips

When you have a busy day, or week, ahead and a workload that just won’t quit there are a few quick things that you can do to get things under control once more;

  1. Get Up And At It; I advocate sticking to normal working hours as much as possible (time to relax is key for everyone, but easy to lose altogether as a freelancer), but when the going gets tough an early morning or two can go a long way towards getting you back on the right track. 
  2. Clear The Decks; A quick way to give yourself a feeling of accomplishment and de-clutter your to-do list is to deal with all of your small tasks in one morning. Get all of your calls, emails, and small “house-keeping” tasks like invoicing out of the way and you’ll notice that the white-noise recedes a little. 
  3. Prioritise; Make a list of the tasks that are left numbered from one downwards, number one being the highest priority, and work your way through it. 
  4. Re-evaluate; Once half of the day has gone, look at the work you have left, re-evaluate it and renumber if necessary. 
  5. Leave Yourself Notes; If you have unfinished work at the end of the day make a note of what needs done and knock-off at a reasonable time so you can do it all again tomorrow. 

Getting Into The Habit Of Writing

The truth is that you can only build a habit by, well, actually writing (I know, right?), but if you’re having trouble with your fiction at the moment there are a few things you can do to build the framework of your new habit. 

  1. Start Keeping A Journal; Whether you write about your life, your hopes, story ideas, or just b*tch and moan about how you can’t write, keeping a journal will not only get you into the habit of writing every day, but can actually help you clear your head. Set out ten to thirty minutes to just empty the contents of your mind onto the page first thing in the morning, or just before bed, and you might find that ideas start to crop up. 
  2. Write Fanfiction; Don’t turn your nose up at fanfiction! Sometimes letting yourself run away with favourite characters and worlds could be just the thing to get your motor running again. 
  3. Let Your Family In; Tell your family about your goals and your workload – ask them to hold you accountable (this will become annoying quickly, but hopefully it will motivate you to work in order to AVOID the reminders). 
  4. Sprint It Out; Quick sprints can ease you back into writing without risking becoming overwhelmed by an ambitious word count goal or work appointment. Ten minute or 500 word sprints can be an excellent way in which to make progress without pressuring yourself.

New Year, New View 

Narrow or Widen Your Focus for Interesting Results

When the old year goes out you have the chance to begin again; improving your writing does not always mean focusing on the technicalities of grammar and prose. Sometimes it’s about experimentation and lateral growth. 

Expanding Your Repertoire

That old saying “write what you know” is not so much a restriction as a challenge; if you increase your knowledge, embrace new points of view, and read voraciously you can write with more flair, more breadth, and more confidence. 

This isn’t just about knowing your history, your geography, your anthropology, however, but about writing style, and about the genre in which you write. If you understand and know the tropes of your genre, and you have experience of various writing styles, you can turn your hand to more. 

So, if you want to expand the pool from which you draw your stories and your ideas you can spend 2019 in this way; 

  1. Read Speciality Magazines; history, gossip, hobby, industry. Whatever takes your interest, whatever you think can be of use to you. 
  2. Read Novels Within Your Chosen Genre; search google for, for example, the seminal fantasy novels and read any ones that you haven’t already. 
  3. Read Novels Outwith Your Genre; dip in to science fiction, literature, romance, horror… anything that takes your fancy outside your genre. Broaden your horizons and see what tropes, themes, and turns of phrase you can pilfer from elsewhere. 
  4. Undertake Writing Challenges; prompts, one line starters, and theme challenges are a good way to stimulate creativity. 
  5. Live A Little; don’t spend all day every day reading and writing! Get out and live life; experiences inform our writing as much as anything else. 

Style And Substance; Making It All Count

Crown Yourself King or Queen Of Writing Excellence!

So, you’ve got your time management skills on point, your workload is prioritised, and you’re world view is broader than it has ever been; all you need to do now is make sure your prose is on fleek!

Nuances and Technicalities

People will tell you that writing is an art, that a good story trumps technically flawless writing, and that rules are made to be broken… 

It would be wrong to say that all of the above is false, but there is a caveat to consider. Writing may be an art, but it is also a craft which requires work. Good story telling can compensate for bad technique, but a good story becomes great when your technique is also good. Finally, rules are made for a reason. 

I know, I know, this is an unpopular and old fashioned opinion, but i hold to it; the rules are like scaffolding. Learning and following these rules helps you to learn in a structured way and create pieces of writing that are functional as well as pleasing, if not overly original. 

Understanding why these rules are in place is the next step; when you understand why they are there you can figure out which can be bent without making your story structurally unsound. 

If you want to improve your technique and style you should;

  1. Read About Writing; books such as On Writing (Stephen King), and Zen in the Art of Writing (Ray Bradbury) are good basic texts to get you started. You could also consider The Art of Voice (Tony Hoagland) which, yes, is about poetry, but should be required reading for all writers (I think). No craft will prepare you for novel writing quite like
  2. Brush-up On Your Grammar; English Grammar For Dummies is not the last word on English grammar rules, but if you were never formally introduced to the foundational aspects of grammar (as so many people in the UK were not) this is a great place to start.
  3. Learn How To Edit; when you look into the practice of editing you’ll find yourself surprised by the way in which editors consider fiction (I know I was!). You don’t need to have professional editing skills in order to write well, but a basic level of skill will help you to prepare your manuscript for literary agents. Better still, it will help you up your skills so that there’s less work to do when the editing stage rolls around! Consider Copy-Editing For Dummies or Copy-Editing  to help you on your way.

Experimentation

Finally, fuse your new found skills and techniques with all that new knowledge and your expanded world view for interesting (and often pleasing) results. How?

  1. Rewrite A Famous Fairy Tale; a fresh take on an old story could be just what you need to revamp your portfolio. Try a sci-fi, horror, or modern take on a few different fairy tales. Don’t just stick to the big ones, either; look into some of the more obscure examples too. 
  2. The Train Of Thought Challenge; sit down with a phrase, word, or character and start writing. Whatever comes into your head until it comes to a natural conclusion. 
  3. Revisit Your Old Work; see how your new eyes feel about old writing. What changes would you suggest? Do you feel the same way about the idea that you used to?
  4. Write In A New Genre; move out of your comfort zone to put some of your skills to the test. 
  5. Try New Points Of View; used to writing in 1st person? Try 3rd! Used to past tense? Why not give present a go? In fact, if you want a real challenge try writing in 2nd person with a future tense (that’ll bend your head!).

Above and beyond all of this, however, you should have fun with the process; life is for living. Make 2019 your year, and stay merry!