July 8, 2010 / 2 Comments

A Shock to the System

We all know this moment. It shows up in books and films.

Our heroine, Dot, descends into the darkened cellar with only a flickering flashlight to guide the way (or a torch, for our British readers). We hear a rustle of movement. Something gets knocked over behind her–a set of golf clubs. She pans to the light left and right, revealing so many places to hide. There’s definitely someone-or something— down here in the cellar with her. There’s more movement, more noise, a few cries from Dot and then

–HAH —

the cat leaps into her arms from the top of a nearby cabinet or stack of old newspapers.

This, my friends, is what we commonly call a cheap shot. It’s when you wind up tension and expectations only to pay them off with a shock that turns out to be completely innocent. Granted sometimes it isn’t innocent because


the cat leaps away just as the psychopath dives out and runs Dot through with the umbrella from the golf bag. This is still a cheat, however, because the psychopath is just relying on shock value. All that built-up tension got paid off early with the cat and, well, the cat is not the payoff we were hoping for.

In certain activities, this sort of thing is called “premature”…

Cheap shots and shock gags are popular in stories for two reasons. One is because they’re hard to screw up. Put a racing crescendo in the soundtrack, add a racing heartbeat, splatter some gore, let rip with an off-color fart joke, and the audience almost has to react a certain way. That’s the second reason. You can practically guarantee the audience will respond how you want because they’re the lowest common denominator of emotional stimulation.

Now, let’s be clear on one thing. These little shocks are great, either in horror or action or comedy or whatever. Anything that gives the audience a little jolt out of their complacency is always good.

The problem is when that’s all a given story has to offer. A lot of stories try to get by with lots of cheap shots and shock gags because they don’t have anything else. The comedies aren’t that funny. The horror stories aren’t that scary.

There was a little horror movie I saw a while back where the suspected killer (or is he…?) had a habit of appearing from nowhere. Someone moves or the camera shifts and there he is. Walk into the office reading your mail, look up, and there he is. Open the medicine cabinet for an aspirin, close it, and behind you in the reflection there he is. Have a talk with your friend about stress, say goodbye, turn around, and there he is. Go out to get something from the fridge at night, close the fridge door, and there he is.

Notice how the italics are getting boring? That’s shock value wearing out its welcome. It’s breaking the flow again and again by reminding you this is a constructed story trying to play on your emotions. At the screening for this particular movie, I realized halfway through that the other critics and I were all doing the same thing. We were conducting the film with our fingers, cueing the suspected killer’s appearances because they’d become so predictable.

Consider, if you will, the lesson of Monty Python.

For those pathetic few of you who don’t know, Monty Python was the name of a British comedy troupe back in the ‘70s. John Cleese was a founding member. So was writer-director Terry Gilliam. There’s probably a few other faces in there you’d recognize, but I didn’t really want to talk about them.

The whole point of Monty Python was to do off-beat, nonsensical comedy. It was absurdist humor taken to the extreme, with people arguing about book stores, dead parrots, and even arguing about arguments. Unexpectedly, Monty Python became a huge hit. Their show ran for several seasons. The group did international tours. They made a couple of movies.

And they became predictable.

People started taking about jokes and skits being “Pythonesque.” It was hard to be nonsensical when people were expecting nonsense. The absurdity became standard. And right about this time Monty Python started to be a little less funny. Then a lot less funny. And then they more or less broke up.

If you don’t want to think poorly on the Pythons, consider slasher films. They dominated the ‘80s because it was easy to shock audiences with more gruesome and gory deaths. Eventually, though, slasher films almost became another form of comedy. People were laughing at them more than cringing because they’d become bored by the constant cycle of extreme death. It’s just like what I mentioned a while back about endings that come out of left-field. They become so commonplace in bad indie films that people just expect them now. They lost what shock value they once had.

Again, as I said above, there’s nothing wrong with a shock or a cheap shot now and then. Shocks and surprises are good. We all enjoy them.


You need to have more than that, though, if you want to really connect with your audience. There needs to be real tension. Real suspense. Real payoffs.

Yeah, it’s tough and, yeah, some readers simply are not capable of understanding foreshadowing and suspense. A real uphill battle. So you need to decide if you’re going to aim high or if you’re going to go for the lowest common denominator.

Because you can only be premature so many times before other folks start getting frustrated with you.

And then you’re going to find yourself all alone.

Next time, I need to talk about the developing flea problem.

Until then, go write.

October 29, 2009 / 3 Comments

Haunted Website of Horror!!!

It’s like a radio–a radio tuned to the frequency of evil!

If you get that reference… God, I pity you.

So, I’ve talked about different genre issues here a few times before. With the upcoming holiday, though, I thought it would be nice to pause and talk about one that’s near and dear to me.

To be honest, I wasn’t always into horror. As I noted on a friend’s website recently, it wasn’t until my college years that I really embraced the many forms of the genre. Before that, I was terrified of more things than we’ve got room to list. Yet I eventually hit the point that I started selling original horror stories of my own and was even asked to become a dark god and crush the hopes and dreams of mortals.

But that’s a story for another time…

The different forms of horror is what I really wanted to talk about in this week’s little rant, though. Anyone who’s dabbled in the genre knows that, alas, when you tell folks this is your field you tend to get lumped into this vague slasher/ vampire/ Satanist category. Either that or earmarked as someone working through childhood issues. Most folks don’t realize horror can be broken down into many different sub-genres, just like comedy, drama, or other art forms like painting. Being under the same umbrella of “horror” doesn’t mean Dracula is anything like Hostel, and neither of them resembles Resident Evil. As a wise man once said “I am nothing like Family Guy!!”

The catch here (and there’s always a catch, or you wouldn’t be bothering to read any of this, would you?) is that a lot of fledgling writers aren’t sure where their stories fit under the umbrella, either. They’ll start off with the trappings of one sub-genre, 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. They have a specific name for this problem. It’s called Plan 9 From Outer Space.

It’s important to know just what you’re writing, for two different reasons. One is so you’ll be true to it and don’t end up with a sprawling story that covers everything and goes nowhere. You don’t want your slasher pic to degenerate into torture porn, and if you’re aiming for cosmic-level evil it’d be depressing to find all the earmarks and resolutions of a common supernatural story. You also want to be able to market your story, which means you need to know what it is. If you tell an editor it’s not torture porn when it plainly is, at the best you’re going to get rejected. At the worst, they’ll remember you as “that idiot” when your next piece of work crosses their desk.

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 on my own that I feel are worth mentioning. Use them a lot and maybe they’ll enter the lexicon.

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 girl out hitchhiking alone in the middle of night. The mother who wishes on a monkey’s paw that her dead son would come home.

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.

Even with it’s clever twist, The Sixth Sense is still a great example of a supernatural story, as is “The Signalman” and “A Christmas Carol,” both by that populist hack Charles Dickens.

Giant Evil stories

These are the grim tales when the universe itself is against you. Every person you meet, every thing they do–it all serves some greater, awful evil. H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Howard wrote a lot of giant evil stories. The Omen is another good (so to speak) story of the universe turning against the protagonist. And any fan of Sutter Cane will of course remember the reality-twisting film In The Mouth of Madness.

Personally, I would 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. The Haunting of Hill House, The Shining, and Event Horizon could all be seen as supernatural stories, but their settings really elevate them to giant evil stories.


Thrillers also stand a bit away from the pack because they tend to be the most grounded of horror stories. No creatures of the night, no dark entities, far fewer axe-wielding psychopaths. The key thing to remember is that a thriller isn’t so much about what happens as about what could happen. It’s more about the ticking clock, the killer hiding in the closet, or the booby trap that’s a razor-width from going off and doing… well, awful things to our characters. There’s a lot of suspense focused on one or two characters and it stays focused on that one character for the run of your story. A thriller keeps the characters (and the reader) on edge almost every minute.

Alfred Hitchcock was really the master of thrillers, although much of his work came from other sources. How many folks have actually read Robert Bloch’s Psycho, for example? Silence of the Lambs is another great thriller, both the book and the film.

Slasher stories

Slasher stories are really about one thing, and that’s the 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. 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 is. These days it’s more often a twist, and often not a very well-done one. You’d’ve never guessed she was the killer, would you? And the reason you never guessed was because she has no motivation, there was no foreshadowing, and it makes no sense whatsoever within the established story. Slasher films, especially, 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 unkillabillity (new word, just coined, take that Shakespeare). The emphasis here is that nothing your 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, Frankenstein. Godzilla is a monster, in a very obvious sense, but so are zombies 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.

Adventure Horror stories

To paraphrase from Hellboy (which would also fit 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-number way. 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. Or bothersome irritations, at the least.

Brian Lumley’s Titus Crow novellas are a great example of adventure horror stories that are set in the world of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, as is the short story “Blood Bags and Tentacles,” by D.L. Snell. The Resident Evil franchise is horror adventure with zombies, just like my own Ex-Heroes. Some of you may have seen Dog Soldiers, and several of you have probably seen Army of Darkness.

Torture porn

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 the character, 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 Stephen King himself actually coined the term “torture porn” in his Entertainment Weekly column, but that’s the first place I remember seeing it. Before then, I was referring to these as “uncomfortable stories.” Torture porn, at its simplest, 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. As I mentioned last week, porn is when you show everything and this sub-genre is about leaving nothing to the imagination. They are the anti-thriller, to put it simply. This is where you’ll find the Saw and Hostel films, and many of Rob Zombie’s movies.

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 Bambi or Candi might escape if they just run 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.

In closing, I’ll also toss in the free observation that it’s very difficult to merge two of these subgenres because a lot of them contradict each other by their very nature. Not impossible, mind you, but very difficult. If you remember the jumble that was Freddy vs. Jason, a big part of the problem there was as the script stumbled back and forth between a monster movie (when it focused on Freddy) and a slasher film (when Jason was on screen). You can’t have a film that focuses on chopping up teens one moment and just terrorizing them the next. It’s also why the film stabilized a bit, tone-wise, in the second half when it settled into a straight out monster-mash.

So, that’s enough of that. Feel free to dwell on these points while you’re munching on the ill-gotten gains you scored via your candy beard. Yeah, all of you with kids, you know what I’m talking about…

Happy Halloween. Don’t forget to get some writing done.

July 9, 2009 / 2 Comments

Tell Me About Your Childhood

Has anyone else noticed that it’s only considered “telling” with the pop psychology folks if you write horror? If you write scary stuff, it must be because something awful happened to you as a child. Absolutely no one wonders if young Ray Bradbury met Martians, if Tom Clancy was a spy kid, or if ten year old Dan Brown got chased by a secret society. Write about zombies or serial killers, though, and the immediate assumption is that on your eight birthday you witnessed Uncle Bob killing his wife with a chainsaw while wearing a Santa Clown suit.

Go figure.

In past rants here, I’ve talked about how important believability can be and also offered a few tips about crafting believable characters. A lot of this, though, can all get thrown under one blanket term. We call it empathy.

The idea of empathy has been around for a while in one form or another, and it’s something that gets a lot of study from psychologists and sociologists. There are tons of more specific definitions, but simply put, it’s that unconscious connection we have with the people around us. If you’ve ever realized this is not the crowd to tell that joke in, that’s empathy. It’s how you know when your friend needs a hug, a stiff drink, or maybe just to be left alone. It’s also how you can sense he’s not interested, she’s waiting to pounce, and that other guy… well, we should all just keep clear of that other guy.

For writers, empathy is probably the most important skill you can have. It’s going to be very hard to be successful without it. It’s what lets us craft characters that act like real people instead of puppets, because it’s how we know when something seems natural and/ or unnatural for a real person to do. Empathy is also what lets us predict how the audience is going to react. Are they going to be excited? Screaming? Howling with laughter?

An example…

Let’s say I wanted to make you cringe a bit while you read this post. I could try typing bunnies a few dozen times, but except for one or two of you who were emotionally scarred in your youth, it’s not going to produce the desired result. Even when the imagery catches you off-guard, it’s still FLUFFY BUNNIES!!!! unlikely this mental image will make you wince or shudder for a moment. Trying to make you cringe that way just shows a lack of connection to my audience and how they’re going to react.

On the other hand, if I was to mention one of those women with the long, curving, dragon-lady fingernails and watching her pluck out someone’s eyeball like an olive from a jar… that might affect you. And if I told you she took a potato peeler to that eye while it was still attached by that long string of nerves, and sliced off thin slivers of eyeball one after another for almost half an hour before it finally burst… Heck, that gets to me, and I’m the guy who made it up.

Not only that, but I also knew the bit about the bunnies would make you chuckle. Or at least smile a bit.

A story…

Back when I was at UMass, I was stealing a friend’s computer in the afternoons to type out page after page of my college novel, which went under the working title of The Trinity. The villain was a bit of a headcase who thought God loved bloodshed and fear, so his master plan was to use shaped demolition charges to tip over the Empire State Building during business hours. Thousands die in the tower. Thousands die under it when it falls. And probably a few more die in the ensuing panic and chaos that would spread throughout the tri-state area. Keep in mind, I was writing this in the early ‘90s.

Well, said friend—we’ll call him Alpha– read my notes and listened to my idea and said “That’s silly.”

“What? What part?”

“His plan. People wouldn’t act like that.”

“Of course they would.”

“No they wouldn’t,” said Alpha with a dismissive grin.

“You think if the Empire State Building fell over and thousands of people died in Manhattan in the space of an hour, it wouldn’t cause massive panic and terror?”

“Oh, for a little bit. Maybe an hour or two. But then everyone would calm down.”

Needless to say, I was briefly tempted to hunt down Alpha’s phone number one September ten years later. Just to say “Told you!”

Another story, this one from the flipside…

One of the very first films I prop mastered was a little train wreck called Special Delivery. The basic idea was kind of clever, but the first time writer/ director/ producer/ actor simply had no empathy—for his characters, his audience, or his cast and crew (a friend got fired off the show and I was actually jealous of her). One of the gags the writer/ director would not let go of involved the stepmother’s yappy little dog. He had a “hilarious” scene scripted at the end of the film when the two pre-pubescent sons would hook the dog’s leash up to the garage door opener. This way when stepmom came home and opened the garage the little yappy dog would get hanged right in front of her.

Now several of us tried to explain this was not a funny gag at all, and many alternatives were proposed. But the director shrugged everyone off. He was convinced this would be the funniest thing ever, seeing the little animal kicking and flailing as it was strangled. “It’s so annoying,” he’d say with a grin. “How could people not find that funny?”

How indeed…

In my own experience, I think empathy tends to fail us most often as writers when the plot takes priority. If we know by the end of this scene or chapter Yakko and Wakko must get out of this room or need to discuss everything they know about Dot, sometimes we focus on that goal rather than on the characters. Getting from A to B becomes more important than how we get from A to B. And suddenly, the characters aren’t acting naturally anymore. They’ve stiffened up and the audience can’t relate to them. I see this happen a lot in screenplays and short stories, two forms that force writers to be as fast and economical as possible.

The other empathy problem I see is writers who just don’t know anything about the world. Not in that Googling hard facts way, but in the sense that the writer seems to be writing wholly from conjecture rather than experience. Now, the overwhelming majority of us have no idea what it’s like to gaze upon an Elder God, travel in hyperspace, or dismember a body (except for you, reader #9), so it’s understandable that these things need to be products of our imagination.

However, most of us have been shouted at by a superior of some kind. We’ve gotten a first kiss from someone special. We’ve had heated arguments. We’ve been scared, driven cars, waited in line, made love, had a good meal, and gotten frustrated with paperwork. Often more than once. These are the things that can’t just be imagined or looked up on the internet (remember Steve Carrell talking about the “big bag of sand” in 40 Year Old Virgin?). Your audience will sense that something is off. They won’t feel the connection because the writer didn’t feel it. More so, the writer didn’t even realize they didn’t feel it, which is also apparent in these situations. And that’s a failure of empathy.

Now, to a point, you can develop and improve empathy. You can even have fun doing it. Talk to people. Friends and family members and strangers. Not online or on the phone, but real people in front of you. Go out to bars and parks and restaurants. Talk about work, relationships, sporting events, kids, tell some jokes—anything and everything. Listen to them. Watch how they react, how they move, what they do with their eyes. And then try to put yourself in their shoes. Why does this person think this or do that? It’s just what you should be doing with characters and your audience, so try to do it with people right in front of you. Try watching groups of people, too. Friends at parties. People in line at the supermarket. Crowds at big events. How do they react? How many go against the crowd? How many follow blindly?

Simply put, go connect with people. Because the better you can connect in the real world, the better you can connect through your writing.

Next week, I’ll have a little challenge for all of you reading this.

Until then, go out and have a drink.

And then go write.

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…