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

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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

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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.

Building The Writing “Habit” (October #Authortoolboxbloghop)

This post was written for the Author Toolbox monthly Blog Hop – if you want to sign up you can do so right here!

One thing I always hear other writers complain about is the fact that they say they “can’t” write at a certain time; they lack motivation, they lack inspiration, they lack the right environment. While its true that all of these things can cause you to slow down and become stuck in a rut, I really don’t believe the should cause you to come to a complete halt.

There are some things we can do in order to minimise the effect of these various lacks and issues. The most effective, in my experience, is to get into the habit of writing regularly when you’re riding high on motivation, inspiration, and free time; while forming a habit might not help you to avoid losing motivation or hitting a writing wall, but it will enable you to begin pushing through such times in your writing career.

 

The Writing Habit

Habit – a recurrent, often unconscious, pattern of behaviour which is acquired through frequent repetition. 

There is a common myth that it takes 21 days to form a new habit, for example drinking a glass of water every morning when you wake up, but this, as it turns out, is very much not true.

According to various studies (one summed up succinctly in this site) learning a new habit can take a minimum of 21 days with many people taking closer to 3 months to form a concrete habit. This might sound less than comforting, but don’t stress too much; studies also show that if you miss a day here and there it won’t ruin everything. As long as you get right back on the horse you will be able to form the habit without having to restart the process all over again.

 

Laying The Foundation

So, while you’ll need longer to build the habit of writing than you may have anticipated the first two weeks can easily be classed as critical; these are the foundation for going forward.

If you want to give yourself the best chance of laying a strong foundation you need to be consistent and reasonable in your goals. Trying to write five thousand words each and every day will most likely be unattainable unless you have the time and means to make writing a full-time job. Try to set a routine that is:

  • Manageable
  • Reasonable
  • Intuitive

If you are a night owl, for example, and try to force yourself to get up early to write you’ll find that you become exhausted and fed up very quickly. When trying to build a new habit do so one at a time. At first, work with your body and mind in ways that they are used to.

For example, set yourself the goal of writing a single page first thing in the morning or last thing at night for the first two weeks. For the first two weeks do this every single day, including weekends.

 

Capitalising On It

Once the first two weeks are over you should begin to work into the grooves you have already laid out for yourself, so to speak. At this point, you should start treating your writing habit like a day job; five on, two off.

I can hear you screeching to a half – “what? Deliberately skip days?” I hear you ask… well, no, because you’re not skipping days as much as you are building a working routine that allows for decompression. The best way to fail to build a habit, or to build a habit that breaks you down, is to set a routine that does not allow for rest and recuperation.

When you’re hitting your single page goal each working day you can begin to up your quota; try going for a page and a half for a week, and then two pages per day for a week. Adjust your daily goal until you find a level that is engaging, but comfortable. This will depend on your personal situation; if you’re writing full time this could be three or four pages per day or more. If you have only an hour or two a day jump back down to one page.

The key is consistency.

 

Moving Forward

Once you have a good habit behind you, you can start to think about technique and style. Considering how to world build, how to develop ideas, and how to build characters.

The important thing is that you first get into a habit of consistent productivity and that you allow for your own nature; you will miss your goal now and then, but that should never dissuade you from trying the next day.