Posts in the Film Making category

Games and Storytelling: Tropes

This article was originally written a couple of months ago for the Surreal Game Design blog, which is currently deceased. I'm publishing it here instead.

I know what you're thinking. Let me guess. I can see it on the tip of your tongue. What the hell is a trope? Is this British lunatic making up words again?

A trope is a kind of story-telling shorthand. Camera cuts are tropes. Camera dissolves are tropes. The good guy in a Western riding off into the sunset at the Khaaaaaaaaan!!!!! end of the movie is a trope. The nerdy guy getting the girl by the end of the teen movie? That's a trope too.

They're like memes, but instead of being Just infectious ideas, they're specifically memes that relate to how a story is told. The only other meme with a given name I've ever come across is the ear worm.

The really cool thing about tropes (other than the information they convey) is that unlike most industry short-hand, they actually have cool names. I mean, where else are you going to come across a camera move called "The Khan"? (Although it should really be spelled The Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!)[1]

Of course, video games have their own particular brands of tropes specific to them. After all, once you have a new story-telling medium, it suddenly accrues tropes like barnacles. The one everyone has heard of is "Crate Expectations", and it's now a sport to rank games on the amount of time you have to play until you hit the first crate in the game.

Why do we like tropes?

Well, for a start, once they become embedded in the media, you don't have to think about them any more. You don't think about hitting the Start button to pause your game... and nowadays, all kinds of things can be expected to live in the start menu - like your current list of objectives. That's a trope too.

Oh wow... what's that... oh... it's another crate. Not only are they a useful user interface tool, but they push the medium along. Look at an old movie from the 60s. (Sorry, film students... I'm going to pick on Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey now as specific examples). They're shit. Well, okay, maybe that's a bit strong. They're not shit. They exemplify the inherent beauty in the medium, and they were stellar works for their time... but the medium has moved on. They're now boring as all hell, and no matter how emphatically anyone whispers "Rosebud"[2] into a boom mike, and no matter how many candles of lighting you throw at it to make it have the largest depth of field ever imaginable (even if the actors get all squinty), I'm still going to only get 15 minutes into the movie at the end of the day before I get bored and turn it off. As for 2001, let's face it, you're only going to watch it for the end these days, and there's only so many times you can watch that without getting so completely mindblowingly high that you start trying to sync it up to Dark Side Of The Moon.


The medium has moved on. We learned the short-hand. And once you know the short-hand, you don't need the long version any more. Everything these days is fast paced Jerry Bruckheimer cuts[3] and always starts in media res. In fact, some media relies on tropes for its effectiveness. Spoof films like Airplane, for example. Horror movies pretty much require them - you just don't get that "Don't go in there!" feeling unless you've seen how it goes down when they walk through that door a million times before.

This kind of thing doesn't usually happen when I drink tequila. Although the hangover feels like that. Where things get interesting is when a new trope hits and spreads like wildfire. The rage flashes in The Suffering were a horror videogame trope that hadn't appeared before in the medium (although they'd been used in other places in film before). Possibly the most well known new camera trope in a long time has to be the Bullet Time sequences in The Matrix movies (which then quickly jumped the divide and started showing up in video games as well - heck, Stranglehold even called it Tequila Time). Michael Gondry had previously tried to get the ball rolling with a number of music videos along the same lines, and then The Gap commercials writ it in stone, but it took The Matrix for it to become a trope. And now it shows up everywhere - even in animation where frankly, it's not even that flashy because... well.. it's animation, and you can do anything you like in animation, just by drawing whatever you want to see.

So what's the brand new trope I care about right now?

That'd be something I just saw in Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. And I'll talk about it in my next (hopefully much shorter) post.

(Crate photo stolen from

[1] Which brings me right back to the earworms... but I digress.
[2] Spoiler Warning: It's the sled. The sled is called Rosebud.
[3] Jerry Bruckheimer cuts are cuts which last no longer than 5 seconds. Watch any Bruckheimer movie, and you'll see that none of his cuts last longer than this. It's what makes them chock-full of actiony stuff.


Little Miss Litty - The Pitch

The elevator pitch:

Little Miss Litty is the story of a schoolteacher who discovers that one of her children is being haunted by a demon. In an effort to save her, she ends up burning down a classroom full of children - and then, the demon latches onto her.

So what now?

I'm working on wrapping up the rewrites on the screenplay. I've identified about 10 extra pages I need to add to the script... possibly 15. (I know... it's weird, but I have a tendency of writing short... So it's too tight, and needs a bit of padding - and missing pieces added back in... I try to err on the side of assuming that my audience can read my mind... I just took it a wee bit too far this time.).

I'm officially looking for representation at this point. I need an agent who can push this to the right people.

This puppy is officially for sale :D This is page 2, by the way...

What else?

Well, if I have my druthers, I'd get it in the hands of Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Cypher), or James Wan (Saw, Death Sentence). Somehow I can see David Hewlett playing Miles, and he's basically part of the package with Natali, so that's cool :)

Either way, time to get this puppy wrapped up, and into the hands of people who can do something with it.

If you'd like to be part of my read-through crew, or if you are an agent, or know a good one, please contact me at simon at popcorn films dot com.


Champagne Time!

The first draft of Little Miss Litty is now complete!

This calls for a drink ;-) Why don't you join me?

Strawberry and Champagne - Day 246

That's probably all I need to say. Two more drafts, and I should be done.

Current version comes in at 90 pages. I expect the final one to hit about 93/95. (There's a few bits and pieces that I put in really rough that need expanding once I get more eyes on it).


Photo credit: Strawberry & Champagne, by Velo Steve, used under Creative Commons license.


Little Miss Litty...

... just hit the 80 pages point. I'm in the home stretch! (although I need to take another roll through my treatment and convert the end into something I can screenplayify).

And then, the glorious task that is 1st draft is done. It will then be time to get my readers' feedback, and print it out, and start getting medieval on its ass.

I have a 3 date maximum. Some people have a 3 date minimum, but to them I say "live a little!". Some writers will rewrite and polish until you can see your face in it, hitting hundreds of drafts. To them, I say "Push your children out of the nest!". Hah!

Good times :D


Little Miss Litty - The Treatment is Complete

I finally finished the treatment for Little Miss Litty, and I think it's good :)

I write these things in stages. I know that for me, the biggest hurdle I hit when I'm writing is that if I know how the story ends, I stop actually writing it down. I tell it to people instead. Nowhere near as useful, or as satisfying as a well crafted story - but unfortunately at that point, my personal need to understand and tell the story has been met.

This time I tried something else; Little Miss Litty is a short story I first worked on about 12 or so years ago. I never completed it, but I came across it recently and it seemed like a great kernel for a longer story.

So I took what I had, and expanded on it, this time in screenplay form.

Once I ran out of that source material, I started "rolling" on the story. I normally hate planning stories too far in advance because once things get going, the characters like to do their own thing. I can push them in one direction or another, but the rest of it is really truly and honestly up to them.

Sounds kind of weird, I know, but the characters do know what's going on better than I do at any point.

So my new process involves writing a chunk of treatment in OneNote - enough to get me going for the next 20 to 40 pages, and then a very brief outline following that of the next 30 or so pages after that, in italic so that I know it's not yet fleshed out.

(I do the same thing for any bits I get stuck on - just put them in rough, in italic, so I know I need to do some research or expand on them later - this stops me from getting stuck, or letting myself succumb to writer's block).

Next, I write this up in Final Draft in screenplay format, striking out bits of the treatment as I go through it.

This method seems to work well. It means I have a guide-rope (so to speak) that I can follow through the story, but without blowing it all for me as I'm discovering it. It's just enough to keep me going without having to make it up on the fly in long-form.

Some writers keep note cards to plan out scenes, and rearrange them once they have a script going. I don't do that - I don't need to. Programming (for better or for worse) has taught me all the tools I need to do that in my head. Once I have the script written, I've got a visual map of elements and blocks that I can rearrange to make sure the structure's right. To be honest, I don't need to do it that often - like with my day-job, I seem to have gotten that down to an intuitive process, so most of the time it comes out right first time.

OneNote as used for my script treatment

I also use OneNote to throw elements of story ideas I come up with in there. That way I can mine it later for bits and pieces that I want to use later. The other advantage to this is that once it's written down, I can drop it out of my brain until I want to pick it up again later, rather than spinning on this latest greatest idea for too long and letting it get in the way of the real writing work.

That doesn't, of course, stop me from wasting time on the blog though ;-)

Current screen-play page count: 69. Dude. About 30 more to go, give or take.

More medical writing to come soon, btw. It's such a heavy topic, and things have been rough at work with the crunch, so I needed to switch to something a little easier for the time being... More soon on that topic, I promise.