Monday, 5 September 2011


To celebrate the publication of Johnny Mackintosh: Battle for Earth
tall tales & short stories welcomes author and guest blogger, Keith Mansfield, to the blog.

People in London are being taken away in unmarked police vans, never to be seen again...
While trying to keep up with his school studies and ensuring his football team stays top of the league, it's Johnny's job to safeguard planet Earth.
Suspicious of the strange occurrences, Johnny investigates to find that alien enemies are feeding humans to their Queen on a nearby planet. 
He then discovers a more terrifying secret:
the aliens are planning a devastating invasion of Earth. 
The battle for Earth will take all of Johnny's and his friends' strength and resolve.
Can they win? 
If they do, what price will they pay to save the world?


Keith Mansfield is the author of the hugely popular Johnny Mackintosh sci-fi series and in his guest post he explains the three-act structure and how to tell a story in just 60 seconds.


Towards the end of my time at university I paid a visit to the Careers Service and took a test to see what jobs I should apply for after I graduated. Despite having studied maths and physics, the computer spewed out a sheet of paper that listed my ideal future occupation as:
1) Advertising planner
2) Advertising copywriter
3) Publisher

I was vaguely aware that advertising copywriters were the people who penned such great lines as “For mash get Smash” or “It’s not easy being a dolphin”. I soon found out a planner’s job was equally or even more interesting, devising the entire campaign strategy. I was pretty sure I knew what a publisher did but it sounded a little less glamorous so, liking the sound of the first two roles, I started applying to advertising agencies. I was instantly rewarded with interviews at all the best ones, but it turned out that, although I could write brilliant applications I was the world’s most rubbish interviewee.

During this time I applied for just one publishing job (at Robert Maxwell’s Pergamon Press) and was offered it, so my career in advertising never began. In the late 1980s, it was probably the most creative industry to enter and commercials were works of art. You could almost make a whole movie in miniature and one of my all time favourites was this little-screened Pirelli tyres ad.

Nowadays everyone knows the background music of “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turindot – it was almost as important as Gazza’s tears in reviving English football through the Italia 90 World Cup, but at this time no one outside of opera aficionados had heard of it.

To this beautiful soundtrack comes a brilliantly structured short film. In my writing nowadays I think increasingly about structure and it’s remarkable how you can fit the standard elements of a traditional feature film into a one-minute commercial.

Initiating incident: every story wants a hook – something to immediately capture your attention. Here it’s the reports (in Japanese, English and then Italian) that the world is about to stop spinning on its axis.

Turning point one: at the end of the first act (check out the three act structure of movies), while everyone else is fleeing the scene we see a young woman (model Lisa Butcher) striding purposefully through the crowd.

Midpoint: halfway through the film (sometimes called “the point of no return” when events are irrevocably set in motion) the woman steps into a red Lamborghini Countach Anniversary and drives away.

Turning point two: most movies have a surprise second turning point where it looks as though everything is lost and that’s possibly what’s missing from the commercial to turn it into a film proper. Perhaps it’s the perils of the Lamborghini on its drive up the mountain, narrowly avoiding sliding off the road and leaving the planet to its fate.

Climax: it may already be too late. We cut to a picture of Earth itself and its rotation stops. The end is nigh. But not quite. Butcher reverses the Lamborghini into a hidden cave that only she knows. There is a cog, part of a secret system that governs the world’s rotation. The tyres of the car are on the cog. The wheels are spinning. We cut to the Earth and once again it begins to turn.

The tag line for this commercial (something that’s vital for any movie) was “gripping stuff” but sadly it’s missed off the bottom of the YouTube video. Even so I hope you still enjoy the clip.

I’ve picked an end of the world scenario for this blog post, partly because I’m sure readers will expect a similar theme in a book entitled Johnny Mackintosh: Battle for Earth.

If you’re interested in story-telling, whether in films or books or another medium, do think about your structure. Books can be more free form, but benefit from planning. In movies, you always start at the end and work backwards with everything leading up to that point. And you begin your film as late as you possibly can, with a gripping initiating incident.

In Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London the initiating incident occurs on page 2 – detecting an alien signal.
In Johnny Mackintosh: Star Blaze it’s again on page 2, when the rendezvous with Cheybora has gone wrong.
In Battle for Earth it’s ... Well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out.


Johnny Mackintosh & the Spirit of London

When thirteen-year-old Johnny's talking computer Kovac detects an extraterrestrial signal, his life is set to change for ever. Soon things start happening around him that Johnny doesn't understand: why is his mother, who is on life support in a hospital for the criminally insane, being guarded by sinister looking men? And why was a journalist murdered shortly after Johnny talked to him? His search for answers takes him farther from home than he could ever have imagined, on a spectacular journey through time and space.

Johnny Mackintosh: Star Blaze

Invaders have exploded the sun's nearest star. Will Earth's sun be next? While trying to keep up with his school studies and ensuring his football team stays top of the league, it's Johnny's job to safeguard Earth. Johnny and his sister Clara prepare to travel in their space ship to the galactic capital for help, but their mission is stalled when Johnny discovers that his mysterious elder brother Nicky is on the side of the invaders ... Will Johnny save his brother, and planet Earth, in time?


Anthony Cowin said...

Very interesting analysis. I read screenwriting books even though I'm working on a novel. I think there is so much we can learn from films that can add to the excitement and tension in our writing.

I'm not saying we should make books into mini-movies, but there are certainly elements we can borrow. When I'm writing I'll think of it visually and apply those scenes to a film like structure. When people tell me about a book saying how it read like a film, or they could see it being made into a blockbuster I know what the writer applied the same techniques.

The Johnny Macintosh books sound fantastic and I'll certainly be recommending them to my daughter to read.

Thanks again Tracy.

Tracy said...

Glad you enjoyed the post, Anthony.

I think I write in a very visual, cinematic way and as I write it certainly plays out in my head as a film but that probably also has something to do with my years of working in the film industry.

Enjoy the books!

Candy Gourlay said...

brilliant post!

Sue said...

I was nodding all the way through this post like a tacky dog in the back of a 1970s car! I spent the late 80s and 90s working as a planner in ad agencies in London and have only just realised how much of what I learned then has filtered through to my writing.

Thanks to both!

Tracy said...

Thanks Candy and Sue

Glad you both enjoyed Keith's post.

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