December 10, 2008 / 1 Comment

A Scary Observation

Sorry for all the time off. Holidays, work, all that.

Where did we leave off…?

Oh, that was it. Writing.

So, Clive Barker once noted (in the beginning of Weaveworld) that stories can only ever have an arbitrary beginning. We may chose, as storytellers, to pick up the threads at a given point, but all the elements had a history long before then. Our characters had childhoods and went to school (or maybe were grown in a lab and computer-educated). The locations had previous tenants. The objects passed through dozens of hands before they got to the ones we’re focused on. No story ever truly begins right where we start telling it.

In a similar way, very few stories end at the point we stop telling them. The Hardy Boys grow up and possibly die, as do Nancy Drew, the Three Musketeers, Hannibal Lecter, and Sherlock Holmes. John Carter of Mars doesn’t, but that’s a story all in itself. That house is still up on Haunted Hill, there’s at least two videotapes floating around of that girl in the well, and the Lost Ark is just tucked away in a warehouse somewhere (in Arizona, if you believe that last movie).

The point that I’m getting to (in my all-too-often rambling way) is that this observation relates to horror, and types of horror. And you could probably apply it to other types of stories as well.

Consider the Japanese horror story (sometimes called J-horror or Ju-On horror). It’s been noted by many folks that in a Japanese horror movie… you’re pretty much just screwed. There’s no way out, no escape, no way to avoid it. That hunchbacked, gray-skinned little girl or boy is going to crawl out of something, somewhere and kill you. Horribly. There is nothing you can do, no ancient rite or exorcism or magic crystal that will save you. In Japan, once you step in the haunted house you’re as good as dead. And the moral lesson there is… well, don’t go in haunted houses.

In American horror, however, you can get away. Go ahead and step into the old house. Spend the night. Have sex there as a teenager, with multiple partners. Smoke some weed and get drunk. Heck, pee in the corner and desecrate those Native American remains you found in the closet. In the United States, there’s almost always a priest or rabbi or librarian or somebody who knows what happened there and what needs to be done to stop it. And in the end, they’ll save you, probably halting the unspeakable evil from the dawn of time while they do.

Simply put, Japanese horror takes place in the middle of the bigger story. These are the folks who die gruesome deaths so, years later, the Americans can come along and solve the problem at the end of the story. The Americans look back at the awful things that happened to the Japanese, don’t repeat the same mistakes (well, most of them don’t), and then bring the ancient (or relatively old) evil to an end.

So, fascinating as these ruminations are, I’m sure some of you are wondering… What’s the point of all this film-school level hypothesizing?

The point is simply this. If you know where your story fits in the bigger framework—the bigger story—it’s much easier to work out what does and doesn’t need to happen in it. It’s simpler to figure out rough character arcs or general motivations, and you’ve got a better idea of what kind of ending you should be aiming at.

Now, I’d never suggest plotting all this out. It does work for some people, I don’t happen to be one of them. Maybe you are. Maybe you aren’t. However, just knowing the general area you’re aiming for—the specific kind of story you’re trying to write—is a huge step in the right direction. It keeps you from flailing around and wasting time with that Jesuit priest, or retrieving that exorcism book, or even doing major character development on someone who… well, who’s just screwed because they had the bad luck of stepping into that haunted house. Probably while having sex and wearing a red shirt or something equally dumb…

There’s nothing wrong with just sitting down and starting to write. Heck, several times here I’ve encouraged it. But when you do, in the back of your mind, just try to keep track of what happened before the events you’re telling, and what may happen after them. It can only make things stronger.

So, with that in mind, get back to writing.

And for God’s sake, do not step in that haunted house…

0 replies on “A Scary Observation”

oooh, nice point. I’d say the J-Horror thing applies to a lot of other non-american horror as well – [rec] is the most recent one that springs to mind. Do you think maybe this is one reason why japanese movies are so popular for remaking at the moment, because hollywood wants to tell more of the story?

i’m now gonna phone my j-horror lovin friend and argue this point with him, mwahahaha. 🙂

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