Hello, kiddies! Thanks for tuning in to my latest blog post-mortem!! Hehehehehheheeeee!!
Pop culture again. Ahhh, those were the days…
So, last year at this time I talked about a couple of the subgenres horror can be broken down into. It’s important to know which group your tale of terror sits best with so you know how to approach the different elements and the way they mesh together. Knowing this also helps to sell it and promote it.
By the same token, when you sit down to write something “scary,” it can help to know just what you’re hoping to accomplish. People get their heads cut off in the Saw movies, in Attack of the Clones, in The Man in the Iron Mask, and in A Mighty Heart, but these decapitations are all received in very different ways because of how their particular stories are being told. In the same way, Freddy Kruger has been a slasher, a monster, and a plain old villain, even though the character has barely changed at all. How, exactly, do you intend to scare your readers with this moment as opposed to that one? Or are they supposed to evoke the same kind of fear?
You can nitpick back and forth, but I think fear, as a sensation, generally breaks down into three basic categories. There’s a couple different names people use for them, but for our purposes today, let’s call them the shocker, the gross out, and dread. These three form the food pyramid of fear, if you will, which means using and combining them in the right ways can make a variety of tasty seasonal treats.
…starting to sound like a cooking blog…
The Shocker– This is when something unexpected happens and makes the audience jump. It’s the fear of what’s happening right at this moment. If you’ve ever watched someone read and seen their eyes bug, they probably just hit a shocker. Ever been in a theater when most everyone screams? Same thing. When someone walks around the camp cabin and Jason buries his machete in their skull, that’ll make you jump even watching a movie where you know people are going to get machetes in the skull. When Michael suddenly shoots Ana Lusia on LOST, that’s a shocker, too. Individual shocks can be stretched out a bit–especially on film– with lots of shouting and chaos and a few smaller shocks to keep it going, but really a shock is a short-lived thing.
The shocker is powerful, but it’s important for writers to remember it can’t stand on its own for long. As I’ve mentioned before, a good way to think of shocks is like exclamation points. You can use them! You can use a lot of them!!! But after a while, there needs to be something that actually requires emphasis! If not the shocks will start to lose power and your readers or audience will start to get bored!! Shocks eventually need something solid and lasting to support them.
The Gross-Out – As named by the King himself. It’s when things are just disgusting. This is when the writer’s trying to tap into the reader’s sense of revulsion and maybe even induce some nausea. It’s when we spend two or three pages on someone getting their limbs sawed off or just eating a peanut butter and maggot sandwich, where the little sour-milk colored larva are eating their own paths through the spread before getting crushed against the roof of the mouth by someone’s tongue. The gross out usually differs from the shocker because of duration. While a shock gets weak the longer the writer tries to prolong it, a gross out can actually gain strength as it goes on and on (and thus, torture porn was born). Go too long or too frequently, though, and audiences will get bored with the gross out just like anything else.
An interesting point is that the audience often (but not always) knows the gross out is coming. We don’t linger on it, but it rarely comes out of nowhere.
It’s also worth noting that a lot of gross-out stuff moves closer to dread when it isn’t described at length. Speaking of Stephen King, we all remember the lovely “hobbling” scene in Misery, yes? What’s happening almost takes second place to Annie calmly explaining what she’s doing and why she’s doing it… even in the middle of the procedure.
Dread – This is when something doesn’t happen, but we know it could. It’s fear of potential events, if that makes sense. You could also call this suspense or perhaps terror (if you wanted to nitpick). We’re waiting and waiting because we know something’s going to reach out from under the bed or crawl out of the closet and the fact that it hasn’t yet is giving us the chills. Pennywise the Clown gives us anxiety because we know he isn’t just a clown and it’s very wrong for him to be down in those sewer drains. Hannibal Lecter is creepy just sitting in his cell talking about the things he’s done in the past. And the zombie Julie Walker is kind of hot, but you also know she’s on that razor’s edge of probably eating everyone in the room (and not in the fun way). Dread works well in larger tales because there’s space for eerie backstories, but a good writer can also make it function in tighter spaces.
There’s two catches that come with dread. One is that it relies on the writer having a very solid grasp of how the audience is going to react and what they’re going to know. If I tell you there’s a Strigori knocking at the front door, most of you are going to shrug your shoulders and open up. Likewise, I may find ketchup disturbing, but I shouldn’t assume everyone’s skin is going to crawl at the sight of it. Paint the creepy stuff on too thin or to vague and the audience just won’t get it and they’ll be bored. Paint it to thick and they’ll be angry you assumed they weren’t going to get it. If the shocker is a hammer, suspense is the scalpel of fear.
Tying back to that, dread also relies on the audience having… well, not to sound crass, but it depends on a certain level of intelligence and involvement. If you try explaining climate change to a chimpanzee, you’ll notice they don’t get too worried about it–assuming they sit there for your whole lecture. It makes me sound old, I know, but part of the challenge with dread these days is the shortening of people’s attention spans. If people keep switching channels, walking away, twitting, or texting, they’re not getting involved in the story. Without that involvement, it’s very hard to build a sense of dread.
Also worth noting that dread needs good characters more than the other two types. We need to be able to identify with what a character’s going through. If we can’t, this is a news report, not a story.
Once you know just what you’re trying to do, it’s easy to see how each one works and how they can work with each other. Campfire stories are often little suspense tales that build to a shock in the same way jokes build to a punchline. A lot of the ‘80s slasher films would start with a touch of suspense, jump to shock, and then dive headfirst into the gross-out. Alfred Hitchcock could drag suspense out for ages, but knew a good shock or two could make a film unforgettable.
(mother, please. I’m trying to work on my blog. No mother, it’s not one of those websites, it’s for good people…)
Next time is mostly for the budding screenwriters. Some of you found out last week that you didn’t get one of the 2010 Nicholl Fellowships, yes? I’m willing to bet that no one reading this did, but I’m also sure some of you didn’t try for one. Let’s talk about why you didn’t get one.
Until then, go hand out candy. Oh, and write between trick or treaters.
A long-overdue pop culture reference for the title, just to get us moving.
It’s always interesting to me when I try to figure out what next week’s blog will be about, for that little teaser at the end of this week’s blog. This week’s started off when I was passing quick notes back and forth with a friend who’s doing the NaNoWriMo challenge this year. He had a clever idea for one of his upcoming chapters, about midway though his work-in-progress, and I… well, I was advising against it. Then someone brought up the same issue on a publisher’s message board I frequent. A few days later, I was reading scripts for a contest and found one where said issue had become one of the problems crippling the screenplay.
What is said problem, you ask?
Well, the first time I ever saw Doctor Who was halfway through a very trippy story arc called “The Deadly Assassin” (which has finally become available on DVD). It was probably the worst set of episodes to try to start watching the show on, because the Doctor spent a good chunk of it in the mind-twisting reality of the Matrix (yes, Doctor Who had a Matrix decades before Keanu Reeves did). A few months later I tried again and WGBH (which only had so many episodes) had circled back around to “Robot,” which was the first Tom Baker story, also featuring the lovely Elizabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane. And that’s how I became a Doctor Who fan, and have remained one for most of my life.
What the heck does that have to do with any of this?
Well, it’s hard to tell, isn’t it? Suddenly bam I’ve gone from the usual rant to some senile doddering about my childhood without any sort of transition.
Transitions are what I wanted to rant about this week. That moment your story goes from this to something else. It can be a shift in character, person, location, or time. Every time you switch, you’re asking your audience to take a moment to readjust. The bigger the shift, the bigger the time of adjustment. Most of us could make it past either a six inch step or a three foot drop, but one’s going to take a lot more effort than the other.
As a writer, you don’t want the audience to think about that adjustment. If everything’s done right, the transitions will be as invisible as the word “said.” If there are too many transitions, though, going in too many different directions, it’s too much like driving on a road covered with speed bumps. You’re asking the reader to pause again and again and again and again. If a manuscript has too many transitions, or too many extreme ones, it’s going to go into that large pile on the left. What would you do if a manuscript made you pause half a dozen times in the first ten pages? Would you keep reading or get back to folding laundry?
I mentioned my friend who started all this off (and who most likely is reading this). Let me be blunt and hope he forgives me. In the middle of his superhero action-intrigue story, he wanted to do an entire chapter in verse. Chaucer-style, Canterbury Tales verse. Why isn’t important for our purposes, just that he was going to do it. He had a very solid reason for it, and I have no doubt he could’ve pulled it off.
The thing was, he’d actually had several point of view shifts in his novel already. Some of them were basic shifts– we’d go from third person focused on him to third person on him. Then there would be jumps to first person narratives. And epistolary chapters. And flashbacks. Plus a frame that was a flash-forward. So it wasn’t just that he wanted to do a chapter in verse, it’s that he wanted to do a chapter in verse on top of everything else. All fine and good on their own, but as they begin to pile up…
As a brief but relevant segue, let me talk about Dean Koontz for a moment, author of (among many, many others) Watchers, Dark Rivers of the Heart, and the Fear Nothing series (which I really hope he goes back to some day). Early in his career, Koontz wrote a great little book called How To Write Best Selling Fiction It’s gone out of print, and the author himself has said he’s got no interest in seeing it re-issued. I think a lot of the reasons for both are political, because in this book young Koontz did say a lot of blunt, rather unkind things about publishing, gurus, and wannabe writers. Now, in all fairness, many of these things were completely true, and still are today. They’re not what people want to hear or admit, but, as a friend of mine once told our boss, if you wanted a cheerleader you should’ve hired one. If you can find a copy– grab it (they go for big bucks on eBay). If you can find it online, download it, memorize it, and delete it. Than write an angry letter to Writers Digest Books telling them how they’ve forced you to resort to piracy.
Back on track, though.
One thing Koontz stresses, and you can see it in his work, is to never shift viewpoints within a chapter. Use the chapter break itself as the big pause and try to have as few little ones within it as possible. Now, I’d never go as far to say you should never switch within a chapter, but I also think Koontz has a solid track record backing him up.
So, a few quick tips for transitions…
Fewer – This is the easiest one. The simplest way to avoid troubling shifts is… well, avoid them. Look at the transitions in your writing and figure out how many of them can be trimmed out or consolidated. Is it harder to tell a story with fewer transitions? A bit, yes, but far from impossible. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope doesn’t have one transition in it. It’s a single continuous film narrative from start to finish. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe only has two in the entire novel. It switches to an epistolary journal for a few dozen pages and then back to the regular narrative. There aren’t even chapter breaks.
Smaller – As I mentioned above, it’s easier to go down a six inch step than a three foot drop. It’s easy for a reader to go from third person, past- tense to another third person, past tense. It’s a bit harder to start in third person, past tense and jump to second person, future tense section and then back… or to a first person, present. Likewise, jumping between the thoughts of a Harvard professor and a golden retriever is going to be a bit jarring. Bigger jumps mean bigger pauses to adjust, and also more of a disruption in the flow of your story.
Smoother – One way to lessen the impact between sections is to make the transition as organic as possible. A common way of doing this is by creating parallel structure in text or dialogue to keep up a certain rhythym. Another is to do continuations, where, for example, a question gets asked in the first part but the answer is given after the transition.
Make Them Have Purpose – Is there a real reason the story’s going from this point of view to that one? If so, your readers will be more willing to accept the change. If not, it’s just going to frustrate them more. Much like when I prattled on about structure, if the shift doesn’t accomplish something in the story, you shouldn’t be doing it. Make sure the story as a whole is focused, and that there’s a real reason we’re suddenly spending a page with Wakko, the wannabe actor who’s working as a waiter on weekends and about to serve a drink to the main character.
Now, there is sort of a halfbreed flipside to this. A common problem, especially in screenplays, is a complete lack of transitions. Gurus and how-to books tell people to cut description, cut words, cut everything. So fledgling writers take that advice and cut… well, everything.
The problem with that approach is, while it sounds wise on the surface, what it really does is leave you with nothing on the page and nothing between scenes. Suddenly, we’re in a house with Jane. What kind of house? Old? Modern? Is it the present day? Are we in the kitchen at lunchtime? The bedroom at midnight? And while I’m still reeling trying to figure out where we are and why Jane is yelling at George, suddenly we’re in an office. A newspaper office? A telemarketing office? Is it real office or a field of cubicles? Too late, now we’re with George in his car…
I’ve set down a lot of scripts like this while I was reading for contests. None of them went in the pile on the right.
So, there’s my random musings on transitions. Hopefully not too random.
By the way, the reason “The Deadly Assassin” was so hard to follow as an introductory episode was because it took place across a virtual landscape formed from the stored memories of the Time Lords. In other words, it was a mish-mash of settings with no transitions between them. It would’ve been so much smoother if I’d said that up front, yes…?
Next week we’re getting into the holidays, so I won’t take up too much of your time. I may talk about it, though.
Until then, go write.
The answer to that question, according to Hitchcock, is your paycheck. He was talking about actors, but there’s a bit of truth in there for writers, too.
So, a while back a friend of mine asked me to look at a script he’d been working on. It was pretty darn solid, overall, but right in the beginning I noticed something that struck me as a bit odd. Our hero’s renovating a large home and has been told one area of the estate is off limits. Don’t go through that door. Well, as tends to happen in movies… guess what?
It was how it happened that got my attention, though, and not in a good way. Just a few pages later said character is slamming his shoulder against the door three or four times until it pops open and he can explore a bit. Which was odd, because up until now this guy had seemed like a straight-shooting model citizen. Now suddenly he’s breaking and entering just to satisfy a mild sense of curiosity.
Here’s another example (not from my friend’s script). Let’s say Bob is hanging out with a female friend, they decide to go out, and she heads off to her room to get changed. It says one thing about Bob if, when he heads to the bathroom, he happens to catch a glimpse of his friend naked through the door and has a momentary “Wow.” It says another thing if, as soon as she walks off, he casually finds the angle that lets him stare into her room. It’s a third thing altogether if he pulls out his cell phone to use the camera and take pictures. On the surface, the same thing is happening–Bob is seeing his friend with no clothes–but these are three very different scenes because of his intentions in each one (innocent, lecherous, and kinda creepy).
Y’see, Timmy, motivation is one of the keys to storytelling, because it’s one of the keys to great characters. It’s why everything happens, and why someone’s doing something affects how they do it. People can be motivated by greed, survival, anger, hatred, fear, duty, love, lust, zealotry– any number of things. Everything a character does has to come from some type of motivation. Everything. Unmotivated characters will just sit on the couch for 300 or so pages, and nobody’s interested in that. We all know people like that in real life. Why read about it? More to the point of this week’s little rant, it’s the writer’s job to make sure motivations make sense and are consistent for both the characters and their world. When they aren’t, that starts chipping away at suspension of disbelief.
Now, hands down, the biggest and most common problem is when the writer confuses their motivation with the character’s. The big battle can’t happen if Wakko doesn’t do this, so he does this. I need Yakko to say something so we can get to chapter seven, so Yakko says it. Granted, this is how all writing happens, but if you’ve already established that Wakko would have a strong aversion to doing that and Yakko would never say this, the reader’s going to wonder where these choices are coming from. Just because the writer has ultimate power over the characters does not automatically mean anything that gets written is “right” for the characters. Even when you’re behind the wheel, you have to drive certain ways in certain places. If you doubt this, try shifting into reverse next time you’re on the freeway.
Probably the most common place for this kind of motivational mistake is dialogue. The writer comes up with a funny or cool line and needs a character to say it. Any character. Someone has to say this cool line! Suddenly Father Mike is cracking sex jokes and Sister Hannah is cursing like a sailor. Still great lines, but would these people really use them? The need for explanation can also lead to unmotivated dialogue and make monosyllabic characters start lecturing like college professors. This is a two-fold problem, because not only does it weaken the suspension of disbelief, as mentioned above, it also breaks the flow of the story.
Motivation also becomes a problem when the writer is trying to hit certain benchmarks or requirements with their work. Gurus exhort people to hit this point by page nine, have this action by chapter ten, or make sure this happens X number of times before Y. Fledgling writers follow these rules as a rigid gospel, make their stories and characters twist unnaturally to meet them, and often the result is just a bunch of false drama. In Hollywood, where they refer to elaborate stunt or effects sequences as set pieces, it’s not unusual for producers to hand the screenwriter a laundry list of set pieces to fit into their script– or to write the script around. Robert Towne’s script for Mission Impossible II is, alas, an example of just such a thing. Throughout it, stuff just happens. No reason for it, it just happens because the director, producers, and star wanted it in the script. Don’t even get me started on Wanted.
In all fairness, some times those requirements are self-imposed. Like that cool line of dialogue I mentioned above, the writer comes up with something they just can’t let go of. Maybe it’s a certain action sequence, a clever homage, or some odd wish-fulfillment being expressed on the page. Regardless, it usually ends up with some unmotivated decisions, violence, or romantic encounters.
Another common mistake, on the flipside, is to give the motivations for every single thing that happens, including characters or actions that… well, that just aren’t all that important. Odds are I don’t need to know that the woman at the bus stop ran away from home at age thirteen or that the long-haired waiter doubles as a male stripper to pay for med school. As I’ve mentioned before, if it doesn’t have a direct effect on the story being told, don’t waste time with it. It may feel luxurious and literary, but more likely it’s clumsy and confusing.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying these characters and actions shouldn’t have a motivation. Everything in your story needs a motivation, but the reader doesn’t need to know it all. They just need to see the consistent results of it. At no point in Casablanca is it ever brought up or discussed why Rick suddenly decides to be generous to the young couple trying to win money for an exit visa. People comment that he did it and it’s very out of character, but why he did it is never mentioned. Does it need to be? No, of course not. Anyone paying attention to the film can explain why Rick has this sudden turn of heart.
Now, there is another school of though in writing that unmotivated action is the best. Life is random after all. Much as we don’t like to think about it, people often suffer setbacks that have no deliberate machinations behind them. They get dealthly ill. They’re involved in fatal car accidents. In the real world, stories don’t always get happy endings and neither do people. Things get left unresolved and mysteries go unexplained. So doing this in your work can only make your writing more realistic and believable, yes?
I’m calling shenanigans on this one, and on every professor, critic, indie filmmaker, and self-proclaimed guru who pushes this viewpoint. If you take this approach in your writing it isn’t artistic– its lazy. Things like that happen in the real world, but we’re talking about fiction. Nothing on the page is coming from the randomness of the universe, it’s all coming directly out of the writer’s mind. It’s a created world, and as the writer it’s your job to resolve the issues you’ve created. To have readers invest their time and emotions in a character which the writer then kills off just for the heck of it is cheap. When doing so leaves conflicts unresolved, it’s a cop-out. It’s the kind of pretentious excuse made by people who don’t actually want to put any real effort into their work.
Nobody here wants to be that kind of writer, right?
Next week, before we get further into the sparkly holiday season, I want to talk about some stuff that really sucks. No, seriously.
Until then, hopefully this has motivated you to go write.