Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Bad Bandit, Good Writer

Recently I re-visited Terry Gilliam’s film Time Bandits, a beautiful example of historical storytelling (with a generous dash of fantasy) for kids. 

Over half term, children in London were invited to attend free screenings of three classic films followed by a talk from a children’s author. This event was co-sponsored by the Rio Cinema in Hackney and Victoria Park Books. They invited me to give a talk following Terry Gilliam’s fun 1981 film about a boy kidnapped by bandit dwarves and taken on a journey through time. At 10am on a rainy Thursday, bookseller Jo De Guia introduced the film by showing some student-made trailers for books by the three authors. (Here’s the one they made for my latest book). Then, two dozen children and their parents settled down to enjoy the main feature.  

Francesca Isherwood, Caroline Lawrence, Conrad Ford
Joining me in the balcony above were Francesca Isherwood and Conrad Ford. Fran, now aged 22, played Flavia Gemina in the CBBC Roman Mysteries series seven years ago. Conrad is the son of a family friend, a filmmaker waiting for his first break. I benefitted from their comments and observations. Fran had never seen it; she and I kept ‘snapping’ comments. Conrad has seen Time Bandits many times and kept pointing out details we might otherwise have missed. I had watched a non HD version on YouTube a few days earlier, and it was a completely different experience seeing it on a big screen where we could absorb the fantastic amount of detail that went into its making.

Time Bandits is the story of Kevin, an English boy obsessed with history. Six dwarf bandits emerge from his wardrobe one night clutching a map that shows time portals in the fabric of the universe. They have stolen the map as they want to leave their boring job in charge of shrubbery and lead the more exciting life of bandits. But they are being pursued by God (AKA the Ultimate Being) and Satan (AKA Evil), both of whom want the map back. The dwarves take Kevin with them in their flight. No more spoilers in case you haven’t seen the film. 

Jo De Guia from Victoria Park Books introduces the film
From our lofty vantage point above the stalls, Fran, Conrad and I could look down on the kids and see that they were enjoying the movie hugely. Afterwards, everybody moved a short distance to the Hackney Library where families produced a picnic lunch. As parents and children munched sandwiches and crisps, I led a discussion of the film and then offered some practical tips on how to write a gripping story. 

Good historical fiction – be it poetry, prose or film – should transport the reader to another place and time. In our discussion, we first identified the seven distinct settings or ‘arenas’ in the film Time Bandits:

1. Kevin’s World, especially his Bedroom
2. Napoleon’s Castiglione
3. Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest
4. Agamemnon’s Ancient Greece
5. The Titanic
6. The Time of Legends
7. The Fortress of Ultimate Darkness

The Rio Cinema in Hackney, London
As we discussed the film, it occurred to me that when a competent criminal commits a crime, he leaves no evidence, no clues, no eyewitnesses and no DNA. A bad bandit, on the other hand, scatters the scene with clues, witness and DNA. 

Storytellers have to be bad bandits. We have to leave clues, present reliable and unreliable eyewitnesses, scatter our DNA everywhere. If we do, our readers will be captivated. Here are some Time Bandit-inspired techniques that writers could use to create vibrant historical fiction. 

CLUES. Props and artefacts are the clues the storyteller leaves to help us decode a world. Kevin’s home was crammed with 1980 props like microwave ovens, blenders and a television. When the film first came out, these were state-of-the-art. Thirty years later, they are historical artefacts vividly painting a place and time. Props in Napoleon’s world included torches, muskets, Punch and Judy. For Sherwood Forest we saw carriages, rope traps, bows and arrows. In ancient Greece a kind of Corinthian helmet, as well as swords and daggers were more or less accurate, as was a Mycenaean death mask like the one Schliemann claimed to have found. On the Titanic the props crew got the champagne glasses right, along with deck chairs and a tennis racquet. The Time of Legends gave us a cauldron and a giant ship, not to mention a giant who became part of the landscape in this strange world. The Fortress of Ultimate Darkness was a nightmare world where every object was a grossly inflated or exaggerated version of toy or picture from Kevin’s room. Conrad pointed out that even the plastic film that covered Evil's henchmen hearkened back to the protective covers over the couches in Kevin’s sitting room. Conrad also drew my attention to the giant LEGO pieces, chessboard and skeletons in the walls, all magnifications of items in Kevin's bedroom. 

Bad Bandits and their Map
The outstanding prop of Time Bandits is the MAP. More than a clue, it is a kind of talisman but also the object of the quest, what Hitchcock would call the MacGuffin. The bandits have stolen it and the opponent, Evil, wants it in his battle against the Supreme Being. In storytelling, it is always good to make the goal visible. And if the goal is abstract, make sure you have a concrete symbol of the goal. 

‘WHAT WAS HE WEARING?’ Good storytellers have got to be geeky about costumes. Seeing Time Bandits on a big screen was a revelation. Fran pointed out that that one of Napoleon’s generals was wearing pink long underwear… and a corset! Agamemnon and his murderous wife Clytemnestra wear fine linen tunics and jewel-coloured silk mantles with gold thread. John Cleese as a foppish Robin Hood refused to wear tights but his outfit is still Lincoln green. 

SCENE OF THE CRIME. Gilliam is specific about the setting of the story. It’s not just any town Napoleon is invading; it’s Castiglione. It’s not just any forest full of robbers; it’s Sherwood Forest. It’s not just any ocean liner; it’s the Titanic. If it’s mythical, make it as detailed as any world, a technique at which Game of Thrones excels. 

TIME OF THE CRIME. Gilliam and the writers varied the time and place of the heists to make each arena more distinctive. Napoleon’s night time fortress was lit by torch and candle. Mist and rain shrouded Sherwood Forest. Ancient Greece – filmed in Morocco – shimmered with heat. The Titanic was fair weather, midday, until they hit the iceberg. Then everything got wet and white. 

SUSPECTS. When I write historical fiction, I often scatter a few genuine historical people in the background. Put in Napoleon and you know you’re somewhere around the year 1800; mention Castiglione and you know it’s 1796. Drop in Agamemnon and you know you’re in the world of Greek mythology. Set Robin Hood in among men in tights. Plonk Bertie Wooster types on the Titanic. 

MOTIVE. As writers, we need to find motives for all our characters’ actions. When writing a history-mystery story with a crime or crimes at the centre, we have to first establish the motive for that crime. Only then do we address the detective’s motive which is usually straightforward: to solve the crime and capture the perp. But we writers need a motive, too. Why have we written this story? What is our goal? Every criminal knows what he’s after. Do we?

METHOD. We need to learn basic techniques like plot structure. And flourishes like scene deepening. We need to assemble the team, the archetypal characters who will help the hero on his journey. We need to plan, plan, plan. Keep going over the heist. Get it right. Get it down. And then, after you’ve planned it all out on the day you have to be ready to abandon that plan and go with your instincts. And all the time, keep your eye on the prize. What is this story about? What are you after?

OPPORTUNITY. Like any good pickpocket, cat burglar or heist-meister, we need to prioritize time to hone our skills. Crime is a craft. Writing is a craft. We need to make time to do it.
So, to sum up: If you want to be a Good Storyteller, be a Bad Bandit. Leave clues. Leave eyewitnesses. Scatter your DNA. 

What do I mean by that last one? The DNA? I mean find your own unique style of writing, which is already as much a part of you as your voice or your eyes. It’s back to OPPORTUNITY. You just have to find it. And the only way to do that is to write, write, write! 

My latest book is The Case of the Pistol-packing Widows, about a 12-year-old half Sioux detective in Nevada in the winter of 1862. It's out in two different hardback editions, the US and the UK. Terry Gilliam's new film The Zero Theorem opens soon. 

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