Historical reference! It’s like a pop culture reference, but it lets you pass tests…
            I’ve talked about different genre issues a few times in the past.  With the upcoming holiday, though, I thought it would be nice to revisit one that’s near and dear to me.  To be more specific, I thought we could talk about the different forms of horror. 
            Anyone who’s dabbled in horror knows that, when we tell folks this is our chosen genre, our work tends to get lumped into this vague slasher/vampire/Satanist category.  Either that or we’re tagged as someone working through a collection of childhood issues.  Most folks don’t realize horror can be broken down into many different sub-genres, just like drama or comedy or war stories.  Just because Resident Evil is under the umbrella (no pun intended) of horror doesn’t mean it’s anything like It Follows, and neither of them resembles Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Or Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot.  Or Craig DiLouie’s Suffer The Children.
            So, here’s a few different panels of that umbrella.  Some of them are established sub-genres which have already been debated to death.  Others are just things I’ve noticed and named on my own that I feel are worth mentioning.
            Also, you may notice I’m defining a lot of these by how the characters in the story react/interact with the scary things.  That’s deliberate. All stories are about characters, and horror stories hinge on that.  One of the most common complaints we all hear about horror—to the point that it’s almost a joke—is when the characters do something that makes no sense.  So how my characters act and react is going to have a lot of effect on the story I’m telling…
Supernatural stories—This is one of the easiest ones to spot.  It’s your classic ghost story.  The phone lines that fall into the cemetery.  The pale girl out hitchhiking alone in the middle of night.  The foul-smelling thing in the lower berth. 
            There are a few key things you’ll notice about these.  One of the biggies is that the protagonist rarely comes to harm in a supernatural story.  Their underwear will need to go through the wash three or four times and they may not sleep well for years afterwards, but physically, and even mentally, they tend to come out okay.  If anyone suffers in a supernatural story it’s usually the bad guy or some smaller character.  Also, these stories tend not to have explanations– they just are.  There aren’t any cursed objects or ancient histories at play.  Things happen because… well, they happen.
            The Sixth Sense is still a great example of a supernatural story, as is “A Christmas Carol” by that populist hack Charles Dickens.  Even the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is more supernatural stories than anything else.
Giant Evil stories—These are the grim tales when the universe itself is against my characters.  Every person they meet, everything they encounter–it all serves some greater, awful evil.  H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Howard wrote a lot of giant evil storiesThe Omen is another good (so to speak) story of the universe turning against the protagonist.  Any fan of Sutter Cane will of course remember the reality-twisting film In The Mouth of Madness.  In a way, most post-apocalyptic stories fall here, too—the world belongs to radioactive mutants, the killer virus, or the zombie hordes.
            Personally, I’d toss a lot of haunted house stories in here, because the haunted house (or ship, or insane asylum, or spaceship, or whatever) is essentially the universe of the story.  Not all of them, but a decent number.  The reader or audience doesn’t see anything else and the characters don’t get to interact with anything else.  House on Haunted Hill, The Shining, Event Horizon, and most of the Paranormal Activity films could all be seen as supernatural stories, but their settings really elevate them to giant evil stories.
Thrillers—Thrillers also stand a bit away from the pack because they tend to be the most grounded of horror stories.  Few creatures of the night, no dark entities, far fewer axe-wielding psychopaths.  The key thing to remember is that a thriller is all about right now.  It’s about the clock counting down in front of my heroine, the killer hiding right there in the closet, or the booby trap that’s a razor-width from going off and doing… well, awful things to my characters.  There’s a lot of suspense focused on one or two characters and it stays focused on them for the run of my story.  A thriller keeps the characters (and the reader) on edge almost every minute.

Slasher stories—These are really about one thing, and that’s body count.  How many men, women, and fornicating teens can the killer reduce to cold meat?  Note that there’s a few distinctions between a slasher story and a torture porn story (see below), and one of them is usually the sheer number of people killed.  There’s also often a degree of creativity and violence to the deaths, although it’s important to note it’s rarely deliberate or malicious.  Often it’s just the killer using the most convenient tools at hand for the job—slasher tales are pretty much a parkour of death.  The original Friday the 13th film series has pretty much become the standard for slasher pics, and it’s what most people tend to think of first when you mention the term.

            A lot slasher stories used to have a mystery sub-element to them, and often it was trying to figure out who the killer was.  Then it kind of morphed into being a twist… alas, often not a very well-done one.   Slasher stories also developed a bad habit of falling back on the insanity defense and got stereotyped as “psycho-killer” movies.  Which is a shame because some of them are actually very clever and creepy.

Monster stories—The tales in this little sub-genre tend to be about unstoppable, inescapable things that mean the protagonist harm.  They’re rarely secretive or mysterious, but they do have an alarming habit of tending toward nigh-immortality.   The emphasis here is that nothing my heroes (or the villains, police, military, or the innocent bystanders) do can end this thing’s rampage, and any worthwhile rampage tends to involve people dying.  There may be blood and death, but the focus with a monster isn’t finding it or learning about it– it’s stopping it.  Or at least getting as far away from it as possible.  Of course, how far is far enough with something that doesn’t stop?
            The original monster story is, of course, FrankensteinGodzilla is a monster, in a very obvious sense, but so are zombies, Samara in The Ring, and even Freddy Kruger.  I still hold that the reason Jason X is so reviled by fans of the franchise is that the filmmakers turned it into a monster movie, not a slasher film like the ones before it.
            My lovely lady also made an interesting observation recently.  In monster stories, you almost always have a moment when the audience feels a twinge of sympathy for the monster.  Look at any of those named above, and you’ll see there’s a point when we empathize with Frankenstein, Godzilla, and yeah… even super-killer cyborg Jason (who seems to settle down once a holodeck dumps him back at a deserted and lonely Camp Crystal Lake and you realize he just wants to be left alone).
Adventure Horror stories—To paraphrase from Hellboy (which would fit quite well in this category), adventure horror is where the good guys bump back.  While they may use a lot of tropes from some of the other subgenres, the key element to these stories is that the heroes are fighting back.  Not in a weak, flailing, shrieking cheerleader way, but in a trained, heavily-armed, we’ve-got-your-numberway.  Oh, it can still go exceptionally bad for them (and often does), but this sub-genre is about protagonists who get to inflict a bit of damage and live to tell the tale.  For a while, anyway.  To quote an even wiser man, even monsters have nightmares.
            The Resident Evil franchise is horror adventure with zombies, just like my own Ex-Heroes.  Jonathan Maberry’s definitely dabbled in it as well, with some of his eerier Joe Ledger books. The Ghostbustersmovies could fit here, too.  There’s long-running shows like Grimm and Supernatural, and some of you may have seen a fun little cable series called Ash vs. Evil Dead
Torture porn—Director Paul Verhoven once commented that the reason Murphy is killed so brutally in the beginning of Robocop was because there wasn’t time at the start of the film to develop him as a character.  So they gave him a horribly gruesome death, knowing it would create instant sympathy for him, and then they’d be able to fill in more details about his life later on in the film.  That’s the general idea behind torture porn.  Minus the filling in more details about the characters later.
            I’m not sure if King himself actually coined the term “torture porn” in his Entertainment Weekly column, but that’s the first place I remember seeing it.  At its simplest, torture porn is about making the reader or the audience squirm.  If you can make them physically ill, power to you.  The victims are usually underdeveloped, unmemorable, and doomed from the moment they’re introduced.  It’s not about characters, it’s about the visceral things being done to the characters.  They’re getting skinned, scalped, boiled, slowly impaled, vivisected… and we’re getting every gory detail of it.  A film industry co-worker once told me “porn is when you show everything,” and this sub-genre really is about leaving nothing to the imagination.  They are the anti-thriller, to put it simply.
            A key element to torture porn is the victim is almost always helpless.  They’re bound, drugged, completely alone, or vastly outnumbered.  Unlike a slasher film– where there’s always that sense that Dot might escape if she just ran a little faster or make a bit less noise– there is no question in these stories that the victim is not going to get away.  That hope isn’t here, because that’s not what these stories are about.
            So there’s seven subgenres we can break horror down into.  And there’s many more.  All fascinating stuff, right?
            Why are we talking about it?
            Y’see, Timmy, when a lot of us start off  as writers, we flail a bit, usually in the attempt to copy stories we don’t quite understand the mechanics of.  As such, we aren’t sure where our own stories fit under the big horror umbrella (or sci-fi, or fantasy, or…).  We’ll begin a tale in one sub-genre, then move into a plot more fitting a different one, wrap up with an ending that belongs on a third, and have the tone of yet another through the whole thing. 
            It’s important to know what I’m writing for two different reasons.  One is so I’ll be true to it and don’t end up with a sprawling story that covers everything and goes nowhere.  I don’t want my thriller to degenerate into a slasher, and if I’m aiming for cosmic-level, Lovecraftian evil it’d be depressing to find all the earmarks of a classic supernatural story.  I also want to be able to market my story, which means I need to know what it is.  If I tell an editor it’s not torture porn when it plainly is, at the best I’m going to get rejected.  At the worst, they’ll remember me as “that idiot” when my next piece crosses their desk.
            In closing, I’ll also toss in the free observation that it’s difficult to merge two of these subgenres because a lot of them contradict each other by their very nature.  Not impossible, mind you, but difficult.  Probably one of the few exceptions I can think of in recent times is The Cabin In The Woods, which does an amazing dancing back and forth between being a monster movie and a giant evil movie.
            So, that’s enough of that.  Feel free to dwell on these points over the weekend while you’re drinking, watching some scary movies, and sneaking Kit Kats out of the candy bowl (seriously—feel ashamed about that. Those are for the kids!)
            Next time… I thought we could talk a little bit about democracy.
            Happy Halloween.  Don’t forget to get some writing done.
December 24, 2015

Happy Holidays!

             Hey, there!  Thanks for checking in on Christmas Eve!  Or Krampusnacht, which is a lot more dangerous, depending on some of the choices you made this past year…
            Speaking of choices, I thought I’d toss out something real quick, just in case the holiday season had sparked a story idea or two in your mind.  I wanted to give you a quick warning about Christmas.
            No, not in a “Krampus is coming” sort of way…
            Writing stories that revolve around Christmas, or any holiday, is tempting.  They’re very relatable.  A lot of the groundwork is already done for us (there’s no need to explain the plump guy in the red suit sliding down the chimney). It can be a great contrasting background for some stories.
            Plus, let’s be honest. Christmas stories are lucrative.  There’s a fair argument to be made they’re consistently one of the best-selling genres out there, especially if you write screenplays.  Think of all those cable channels that are just brimming with original movies.  Heck, I had a short story in a holiday-themed anthology this year, and I know of two or three other anthologies that were open for submissions, too.
            Not to sound all capitalist, but… there’s a lot of money to be made off Christmas.
            Now, that being said…
            If I’m thinking about a clever idea for a holiday story I need to be careful.  The ugly truth is, it’s all been done before.  All of it.  No matter how clever or original I think my take is, there’s a good chance someone’s done it before.  Because, as I mentioned above, this is a huge market and lots of folks have written lots of stories.
            Look at it this way.  How many holiday specials are a tradition in your household?  My lovely lady and I enjoy all the classics, but we also dig out the Christmas episodes from some of our favorite shows.  And we have a big stack of about a dozen movies we watch every year about this time.  So, without even trying, there’s over two dozen Christmas stories.  Comedies. Action flicks.  Superhero movies.  Message movies.  Even a few horror stories. 
            And that’s just a little bit of peeking in the closets.  Think of all the different Santa Claus stories out there.  Good Santa. Evil Santa.  Naughty Santa.  Robot Santa.  Accidental Santa.  New Santa.  Temp Santa.  Kidnapped Santa.  Arrested Santa. Hell, I’ve now seen multiple stories where Santa is an action star defending his workshop from invading forces.
            How about A Christmas Carol?  Personally, I’ve seen the Dickens classic done many times in the past and present, and even once with time travel on an alien planet.  There’ve been versions that leaned toward comedy, toward drama, toward horror.  Heck, I remember a bionic version on The Six Million Dollar Man when I was a kid.  No, I’m dead serious.  Steve Austin in a Santa suit leaping around and convincing a stingy businessman he was a spirit.
            Ahhh, says me. But I’m not really doing a classic Christmas story.  I’m being clever and going back to the old country.  I’m writing a Krampus story.  How many people have ever heard of Krampus?
            Well, you may have heard of a Finnish film called Rare Exports from a few years back.  That’s pretty much a Krampus story.  Grimm did a great Krampus holiday episode last year.  There was a Krampusmovie this year.  He also shows up in that anthology I mentioned up above, and in an anthology movie I just watched the other night with friends. 
            Again, all done many times, and in many ways.
            I’m not saying these stories can’t be done, but I need to be aware that this is a fruitcake that’s been regifted a lot.  So if I’m going to try passing it along, too, I should have a good idea how many hands it’s already passed through.  I don’t want to be giving it to someone who just saw it a few hours ago.
            How’s that for one last awful holiday metaphor?
            So think about stories this holiday season.  But if you’re thinking about holiday stories… put in a little extra thought.
            Next time, let’s review a few things.
            Until then… Merry Christmas.
            Joyous Kwanzaa.
            Happy Holidays.
            Glorious Ascension of Tzeentch.
            Now go write.
April 9, 2010 / 4 Comments


Running a little late this week. I blame it on my landlord, who insists I have rent money every month. He’s very capitalist that way.

Anyway, pop culture reference in the title, but only the old people will get it..
Speaking of getting it, want to hear the absolute silliest thing I ever read online? It’s not a dirty joke or anything like that. This was in a defiant post someone made on a movie-predictions board I used to visit on a regular basis. Essentially, this one misogynist gent– who took great pains to tell everyone (frequently) that he was a writer– was explaining why he’d never read one of several classic books that were getting the adaptation treatment that season. I think one of them may have been the second Narnia book. There was another one, too, but I can’t remember what it was.
Anyway–the reason he’d never read any of them?
REAL writers don’t have time to read.”
No, seriously. That’s what he said. With the capitals and the italics. I can’t really blame it on him, though. I keep seeing or hearing variations on this once a month or so. Just heard it recently at a housewarming party.
Now, I write full time. Eight hours a day or more, five or six days a week. It is how I make my living. So far this year I’ve already done a dozen articles for the magazine and another half dozen or so for the weekly newsletter. Plus I’m poking at a short story for an anthology, a sequel for Ex-Heroes (shameless plug–order your copy over there on the right), and scribbling notes for another book idea that’s been poking at me. Jabbing, really.
Keeping all that in mind… I’ve already read well over a dozen books this year.
We’re barely into April and I’ve already read sixteen books–more than one a week. I’ve read classic novels like Dracula and shiny-new ones like Under The Dome. I read The Terror by Dan Simmons and then followed it up with an actual history of the Franklin expedition. I’ve read books on ancient Egyptian history and early 20th century spiritualism. I’ve read an end-of-the-world story by Dave Dunwoody that was really fun and another one by Dean Koontz that really wasn’t.
Plus I have to read a lot for work. Screenplays for Alice in Wonderland, Nightmare on Elm Street, Season of the Witch, and several other films. Heck, I read a couple scripts for films I’m not even covering.
I love reading. There’s nothing like getting caught up in a great storytelling experience. It’s like eating a good meal. It relaxes me and gets my mind spinning.
Y’see, Timmy, you can’t make something out of nothing. A physicist needs to study what’s been done in order to develop new theories. A film director has to study the work of previous directors. Writers need to read.
Look at it this way. Bodybuilders need to take in protein to create new muscle. If they continue to do all those strenuous exercises without taking anything in, it actually becomes more detrimental than beneficial. They burn up calories, their muscles wither, and very quickly it starts to affect their performance. Suddenly they can’t lift as much or go for as long. In the end, not taking in material will ruin their chances of being a successful bodybuilder.
In a like manner, a smart bodybuilder knows what to take in. They know eating nothing but steak is just as bad as eating nothing but Twinkies. There are times to eat steamed broccoli and lean turkey breast, but there are also times you need a cheeseburger. No, seriously. I used to train with a professional weightlifter and bodybuilder who made a point of eating a huge fast-food cheeseburger after every competition. In the days before he’d work his body fat down to dangerous levels, but once the competition was over it was important to replenish those levels as quickly as possible to stay healthy. He knew there was a time he had to eat fatty junk food in order to be a success.
So when you read, read everything you can. Don’t just limit yourself to your chosen genre or format. Break up all that horror with some satire or sci-fi. If you’re writing romantic comedy scripts, pause to check out a drama or two, and vice-versa. And don’t forget to mix a little bit of not-so-fantastic stuff in there, too.
It’s also worth mentioning that while the classics are great, make sure you’re staying current. Dickens is fantastic, but make sure you’ve got a vague idea what Dan Brown and Stephen King are doing. Casablanca and Chinatown are fantastic scripts, but the first draft of Wanted was a heckuva lot better than the movie and that’s what sold it. No one’s saying the classics aren’t good, but if you’re reading the ranty blog I’m guessing you want to sell something in the near future, not a few decades in the past.
Next week, how a lantern can let you get away with almost anything. Honest. You’re going to love it. Plus I’m going to get to name-drop a lot, and that’s always fun.
Until then go write. And read a bit, too.
November 13, 2009 / 3 Comments

Got Anything That Doesn’t Suck?

Thank the late Captain Murphy for that title.

Let me pull out the big guns right at the start. There’s a great line by Tolstoy (see, I warned you)– Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. There’s a wonderful lesson in those words, and it’s what I wanted to pontificate about this week.

Everyone reading this has read something that was awful or seen a movie that just sucked, right? I mean, if you’re doing your job as a writer and taking in everything you can, it’s unavoidable. We’ve all been exposed to some serious crap.

Time for another one of my random guilty confessions. I love bad stuff. I can watch awful movies for hours (sometimes I even get paid to watch them). I’ve been exposed to crap scripts that are getting off easy with the label crap. I read horrible books cover to cover, and I’ve read some stinkers. My girlfriend is often in awe (we’ll call it awe, anyway) that I continue to read things even as I lament how bad they are. I admit I take a certain perverse pride in being able to say I’ve finished almost every book I’ve ever picked up. Some took longer than others, and some I’m still working on, but I don’t think I’ve ever given up on something once I started reading it.


That’s a fair question. I mean, why subject yourself to the bad stuff? There’s plenty of great stuff out there, after all. There are timeless works of fiction in all genres. Some phenomenal movies and television. Why should anyone waste time and effort going over the crap?

Let’s play a little game. Name five writers someone must read if they want to be a good writer. No ifs, ands, or buts, you have to know these authors’ works. You can write them down if you like, or just keep them in your forebrain for a few minutes. This won’t take long.

Got ’em?

Okay, then…

Shakespeare’s probably there on your list, yes? Maybe Hawthorne, Dickens, Hemingway, or Steinbeck? If you’re a bit more horror-oriented, odds are you have Lovecraft or King. Bradbury and Matheson both bridge horror and sci-fi quite nicely, if that’s your focus.

The point of the game–of this round of it, anyway–is that I probably just named at least three of your top five authors, didn’t I? Maybe even all five? The reason I can do that is because everyone picks the same authors. We could do the same thing with five filmmakers every budding director or screenwriter should study. Go on, try it with your friends.

That brings us to round two. Can you name five authors someone should avoid at all costs if they’re studying to be a writer? Heck, can you just name five books?

It’s been said that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. The unspoken lesson is you can’t just study all the winners, you have to study the losers, too. Knowing why Ronald Reagan won his election is good, but it’s also good to know why Jimmy Carter lost–and no, they are not the same reasons.

The same goes for writing. You can take dozens of classes that will teach you (and tens of thousands of other people) all the same things about all the same good authors and novels. Then all of you can turn out the same good stories of your own that imitate those same authors and novels.

The problem here is that you’re not learning how to avoid the problems and pitfalls of writing– you’re being taught they don’t exist. It’s the literary equivalent of the spoiled rich kid whose never had to do anything for him or herself. Paris Hilton never learned how to change a flat tire because in her world there’s always a repairman and a back-up limo one phone call away. Does that make her an expert at car repair or just someone who never has to deal with it?

Of course, just reading the bad stuff and rolling your eyes doesn’t help. Anyone can say “that sucks.” Anyone. It doesn’t take any special skills or education. Heck, you can train a parrot to say it. Keep that in mind. When someone points at a piece of writing and just mocks it for no reason, they’re operating on the same level as a bird (or celebutante daughter of a hotel magnate) with a brain the size of a walnut.

No, you need to look at the bad stuff and be able to explain why it sucks. What mistakes did the storyteller make. What’s wrong with the dialogue? Why can’t you believe in the characters? Is it an actual problem or a matter of personal taste? Why was the resolution so unsatisfying? And the most important question to answer, of course, is how could you make it better? What would it take for this piece of crap to be something passably good, or even great? Again, you want to have a real answer, not a smart-aleck, off-the-cuff response. A real writer can discuss a crap book just as easily as a good one.

Which brings us back around to the why.

Y’see, Timmy, if you can honestly identify and critique another piece of work, it’s going to make it easier for you to judge your own work. Being able to honestly judge your own work is how you’re going to improve. There are a lot of ways to be a bad writer, and if you can’t recognize them for what they are–and figure out how to avoid them–then odds are that’s the path you’ll end up on and you won’t even know it.

So go forth and learn from the badness.

Next time, I’d like to talk about something completely different.

Until then, go write. And for God’s sake, write something that doesn’t suck.