October 24, 2019

Scary Stories to Tell…

Pop culture reference. Haven’t done one of those in ages…

I’ve blathered on about different genres a bunch of times. It seemed like this might be a good time in the year to revisit one in particular that I haven’t talked about in a while. On the off chance you haven’t noticed the sudden rise of bats, pumpkins, and scarecrows in your neighborhood, we’re going to be talking about horror.
Maybe it’s just the particular bubble I’m in, but it feels like horror’s finally, truly inching its way out into the mainstream. Even just ten or fifteen years ago, a lot of folks still viewed horror as this big, general bin filled with Satanists, slashers, and screaming people. And, let’s be honest, anyone who wrote horror clearly was just working through tons of childhood issues, right? Probably didn’t help that for years there were some folks who loudly insisted you could only write horror if you’d gone through something traumatic…
Simple truth is, just like sci-fi or comedy or romance, horror stories get broken down into many different sub-genres.  Us is horror, sure, but that doesn’t mean we immediately lump it in with the new Halloween reboot. Cherie Priest’s The Toll is horror, too, but that doesn’t mean it’s doing the same things as Wesley Chu’s Walking Dead tie-in book, Typhoon. And none of these are like my story Dead Moon.

I’ve mentioned once or thrice before that sometimes things get the wrong genre label hung on them, and it creates a clash of expectations. We went in told we were getting a story that would do this and this, but got one that did that by using that. And, personally, I think this is true with sub-genres, too. If I tell readers they’re getting a slasher story and it turns out to be much more of a monster story, there’s a good chance a lot of the story is just going to feel off balance to them. It won’t hit a lot of the “correct” benchmarks my audience is expecting.

That said, I wanted to toss out a couple different sub-genres of horror to think about. Some of them are well established and have been discussed (and debated) to death.  Others are just things I’ve noticed and named on my own that I feel are worth mentioning. I’ve brought up a lot of them before.

Supernatural stories
This one’s easy. It’s pretty much the classic spooky story. The pale woman out hitchhiking alone in the middle of night.  The awful-smelling thing down in the lower berth. That creepy guy in the elevator letting you know there’s room for one more…
There are a few key things about these stories.  One of the biggies is that our protagonist usually doesn’t suffer any physical harm. Their underwear needs to go through the wash three or four times and they may not sleep well for years, but overall they tend to come out okay. If anyone suffers in a supernatural story it’s usually the bad guy or a supporting character. Also, these stories tend not to have explanations– they just are. There aren’t any cursed objects or ancient histories at play.  This is just the kind of stuff that happens in a supernatural world.
Thrillers stand a bit away from the pack ‘cause they tend to be more grounded than most horror stories. Very few vampires, no demons, not a lot of machete-killers. Even if they have a supernatural element, the horror rarely comes from that element. They’re very real-world horror stories, for the most part.
The key thing is that a thriller’s all about right now.  It’s about the ticking clock, the killer hiding behind the drapes, or the foot that’s just inches from the lethal booby trap. 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 for almost the whole story.
Giant Evil stories
These are the tales when the universe itself is against my characters.  Every person they meet, every object they find, everything they do–it all serves some greater, awful evil. It’s just so big and overwhelming. You may have heard the terms “Lovecraftian horror” or “cosmic horror” too.
I think a lot, if not most, post-apocalyptic stories fall here. The ones that lean towards horror over sci-fi, anyway. The entire world now belongs to the zombie hordes, the cannibal gangs, the killer virus, whatever. I’d probably toss a lot of haunted house stories in here, too, because the haunted house (or ship, or insane asylum, or spaceship, or whatever) is essentially the universe of the story.  There’s nothing else for us or for the characters to interact with. 1408, The Shining, and Event Horizon could all be seen as supernatural stories, but their settings really elevate them to giant evil stories.
Slasher stories
When you get right down to it, these stories are just about body count. How many men, women, and teenagers can the killer reduce to cold meat? Point to note–almost never children.
One of the big things with slasher stories is there’s usually a degree of creativity and violence to the deaths, although it’s important to note it’s rarely deliberate or malicious. It’s just the killer using the most convenient tools at hand for the job. They’re pretty much a parkour of death. The original Friday the 13th franchise pretty much became the standard for slasher stories, and it’s what most people tend to think of first when  the term comes up.
A lot slasher stories used to have a mystery sub-elementto them, trying to figure out who the killer was. Then it kind of morphed into being a (usually) weak twist. Slasher stories also developed a bad habit of falling back on using insanity as their only motivation and got stereotyped as “psycho-killer” movies. Which is a shame ’cause some of them are very clever and creepy.
Torture porn
I’m not sure if Stephen King actually coined the term “torture porn” in his old Entertainment Weekly column (does he still do that?), but that’s the first place I remember seeing it.  At its simplest, torture porn is about making the reader squirm.  If I can make them physically ill, that’s a big win. 
The characters in torture porn are almost always underdeveloped, going with the idea that we’ll just relate to them and what they’re going through on a basic human level. More than any other form of horror, torture porn isn’t 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.  Somebody I used to work with once told me “porn is when you show everything,” and this sub-genre really leaves nothing to the imagination.
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 Phoebe 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.
Worth noting there’s a few distinctions between a slasher story and a torture porn story, and one of the big ones is the sheer number of people killed. Slashers are about the body count, but (as the name implies) torture porn is about how long single deaths can be drawn out.
Monster stories

The tales in this little sub-genre tend to be about unstoppable, inescapable things that mean the protagonist harm. Monsters are rarely secretive or mysterious, but they do have an alarming tendency to be nigh-invulnerable. The emphasis here is that there’s nothing my heroes (or anyone else) do can that’ll stop this thing’s rampage, and any worthwhile rampage tends to involve people dying.

I just talked about monsters a few months back, so I won’t rehash a lot of that here. You can just go read my birthday post.
Adventure Horror stories
To paraphrase from the original Hellboy movie (which fits nicely 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 desperate, flailing way, but in a trained, well-equipped, locked-and-loaded way.
I’m not saying it won’t go exceptionally bad for them (and it often does), but there stories are 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.
So there’s a couple of subgenres we could break horror down into.  And like I said before, there’s many more.  It’s not a complete list, and you can probably think of some others we could talk about. Feel free to add ‘em down in the comments.
Also, why are we talking about this?
When most of us start off as writers, we flail a bit. We attempt to copy stories even though we don’t quite understand all the mechanics of them.  We’re not sure where our own stories fit under that 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 overall tone of yet another. 
Y’see, Timmy, 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.  Two is that I also want to be able to market my story, which means I need to know what it is. If I tell the editor it’s not torture porn when it plainly is, at the best I’m going to get rejected. My readers may toss it aside.
At the worst, they’ll all remember me as “that idiot” the next time they see something of mine.
Next time… well, next time it’s actually Halloween. But it’s also the day before November begins. And for a lot of writers November means NaNoWriMo. So I wanted to toss out a few quick thoughts about that.
Until then, go write.

So, Booboo, this week’s title has two references. One’s pop culture, of course, but the other one hearkens way, way back to an article I read in Writer’s Digest when I was in my first year of college. This was when we were between sessions of the Continental Congress.

This is going to be a bit vague at first, so please forgive me.

The man contributing the article was a writer on a sitcom, and his boss had tossed one of his scripts back at him with the words “You have to earn the right to use the bear suit.” When the baffled writer asked for an explanation, he was told this story. I believe it was a Honeymooners episode in the original telling, but I’m not sure so I’m going to substitute in characters from another sitcom as I tell it to you. Trust me, it won’t make a difference…

So, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot decide they’re going to go camping up in the mountains. But Dot’s been a bit uppity lately so Yakko and Wakko come up with an idea. They get a grizzly bear suit and stash it in the car. When they get up there, Yakko will sneak away and put the costume on, then “attack” the campsite. Wakko will play along, Dot will get a good scare and get her comeuppance. Loads of fun.

Well, they get up to the campsite and Yakko heads into the woods with the costume, but he gets lost and can’t find his way back. Meanwhile, a real grizzly ends up wandering into camp and rummaging around. Dot is petrified and Wakko decides to have some fun with “Yakko” by making it seem like the bear is–

Look, do I really need to explain this any further? You’ve all seen this story at least a hundred times, yes? It was such a well-received gag everybody copied it. And continued to copy it. And they’re still doing it today.

The bear suit is a tired gag. It’s a cliché. It’s something we’ve all seen again and again and again and again, in books, comics, television shows, and movies. The two identical characters that confuse people. The funny new catchphrase or non-sequitor reference. The insane villain. The character who gets amnesia or loses their superpowers. All of these are things people have seen so many times they’ve gone past yawning and just roll their eyes.

Oftentimes, the bear suit is the path of least resistance. It’s the easiest way to deal with a need or problem in the writer’s story and the quickest way to create an obstacle. And a lot of people tend to jump at the first solution they can find, rather than look for the best solution.

And that’s really the problem. Since so many people jump at the bear suit, it’s common. It’s dull. Editors and producers have seen it a hundred times this month alone. If they’re going through your work and they find that dusty old thing laying around, your manuscript instantly goes into the big pile on the left.

Let’s try a little exercise. Here are three pretty standard plot devices.

–Two high schoolers get left alone in their palatial home when their parents go away for a week.

–Six teenagers head off into the woods to restore the old summer camp by the lake.

–A man completely focused on his career has to spend a long weekend with a flighty blonde who loves animals.

You probably got an immediate idea off each one. If your first thoughts were throw a wild party, get picked off by a serial killer, and fall in love, don’t feel too bad. What matters is where you go from there. Toss out that first thought and come up with another one. Then toss that one and come up with a third. Toss it again and scribble down a fourth.

Y’see, Timmy, this is one of those complicated points of writing where it’s hard to give a guideline. Often, when you’re writing, you want to go with your gut. You want your words to be honest and not have a lot of analysis and formulae and overthinking behind them.

At the same time, however, you want to be careful about going with your first thoughts, because odds are they’re a lot of other people’s first thoughts, too. This is also why serious writers have to read a lot, and why serious screenwriters need to see a lot of movies. If you don’t know what’s out there, you might already have the bear suit on and not even know it. Heck, yours may be completely moth-eaten and you think it’s going to scare someone in the woods.

Now, here’s the catch. As I mentioned above, you can earn the right to use the bear suit. If you’ve already got a solid track record, if everything around it is gold (or at least well-polished silver), every now and then you can get away with using the old gag. Christopher Priest used one of the most tired ideas in literature for the ending of The Prestige, but did it so well it still blew people away. Stephen King took the tired idea of the Indian burial ground and then took it past the first or second idea to very creepy and popular third idea.

Again though– that’s the exception, not the rule. If you want to do this writing thing for real, your first decision can’t be to reach for the bear suit.

Next week, I’m finally going to do a Michael Jackson memorial pop culture reference. I would’ve done one sooner but, well… I didn’t care that much.

Oh, and if you’ve got a few dollars to spare, I have been gently jabbed by mine editor to shamelessly remind you all Cthulhu Unbound 2 is now for sale. Check out the Amazon link over there on the side, pick it up, and feel free to mock my contribution to it.

And even if you buy it, shipping means you’ll still have time to go write this week.

So get to it.

March 6, 2009 / 1 Comment

Third is the Prestige

If you haven’t seen the film I titled this week’s rant after, go see it now. Phenomenal movie by Christopher Nolan, the guy who did The Dark Knight, based off the book by Christopher Priest. Hop over to Netflix and rearrange the queue. If nothing else, go over to Jurassic Punk and download the trailer. The film is fantastic, but the trailer actually gives us everything I want to talk about this week.

A common term that gets thrown around in Hollywood is three-act structure. To be honest, it gets used a lot by people who don’t know much about storytelling, and they often try to pin this structure down to a rigid, unyielding formula (which tends to result in rigid, unyielding films). We have this structure in prose fiction, too, where we call it establishing the norm, introducing conflict, followed by resolution. Even in a magic trick, there’s the pledge, the turn, and the prestige (as explained by Michael Caine in the above-mentioned trailer).

At its simplest, any sort of storytelling has a beginning, a middle, and an end. To be more exact, every story needs these three stages. Not just in terms of page count, but in the way it develops. If your story’s done right, any audience member can tell you almost exactly when and where these parts begin and end.

On the other hand, a story that doesn’t have these three parts has a sort of… meandering quality to it. Characters fall into inaction, or they leap into full-tilt action that doesn’t seem to have any purpose to it. They run or drive aimlessly, or sometimes we get to see them repeat the same actions two or thee times.

This generally comes from writers only having one or two parts of a story. Maybe they had a great opening and a cool middle, but didn’t know how to end it. Or they came up with a cool opening and a clever end, but never figured out how those points connect. I’ve even seen a few folks write a very cool opening… and nothing else. There was a great set up and then the story sort of spiraled off into… nowhere.

Here’s a great little way to look at this rule of thumb. Jim Shooter, who was Editor-in-Chief at Marvel Comics back in the day, had a wonderful example of the perfect story– the old nursery rhyme “Little Miss Muffett.” It’s got all the parts of a great literary classic. Now, drag your minds out of the gutter and follow along…

Little Miss Muffett sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey.

This is our beginning. We’ve introduced character, location, and action. This is also called establishing the norm. Were nothing else to happen in our story, Miss Muffett would probably just sit there all day eating spoonful after spoonful. Maybe once the sun went down she’d go home and watch the fight on pay-per-view or something, but odds are this probably would’ve been a day like any other for her.

Along came a spider, which sat down beside her.

This is the middle of our story—the second act if you will. Now we’ve got an adversary, and a set of actions which produce conflict between the adversary and our protagonist (most tuffets are only built for one, after all). Something has happened which is not part of Muffy the curd-and-whey-slayer’s normal day, and it’s going to make things change.

And frightened Miss Muffet away.

The end of the tale. The conflict has come to an end and the story has a resolution, even if it’s just Muffy lifting the hem of her dress and sprinting away. It’s not the longest third act on record, but there it is.

If you don’t want to admit you know nursery tales, look at The Matrix. The beginning is Neo in his normal life as he goes to clubs and tries to avoid agents. The middle is him waking up in “the real world,” learning new skills, and going to meet the Oracle. The end is him taking on the figurehead role they’re prepared him for (even though he’s not sure he’s ready for it) and going to rescue Morpheus. These aren’t beats I’ve selected at random or for timing reasons—they’re moments in the film when the audience immediately knows we’ve moved to a next major section of the story and in Neo’s growth as a character.

Now, there are a few little caveats to this, of course. Despite what many gurus say, three act structure is not some ironclad, unchanging rule. Many stories start in the middle and take a bit before they go back and explain the beginning. “Coming in at the action,” some folks like to call it (we talked about this a few months back in regards to horror stories). A Princess of Mars, the classic sci-fi novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, actually begins at the very end of the tale, in the denouement, with the author inheriting a strange manuscript from his recently deceased uncle, John Carter.

All of this is fine, and there’s a great literary precedent for it. Some of my favorite stories work this way, in fact. What aspiring writers need to remember, though, that all these stories still have a beginning, middle, and end, even if they’ve been juggled around a bit in their tellings. The events have a definitive starting point. The characters have a baseline the audience sees them at. There’s a progression brought about by conflict and changes resulting from the conflict. And it all leads to a definitive conclusion.

(As a minor aside, this is why ending any story with “to be continued” immediately causes you to lose fifteen or twenty credibility points. It just means the writer hasn’t bothered with an actual ending.)

That leads us to the one question some of you have probably been wondering about since I started this little rant. Why do we need all this? What’s so important about these three parts?

They’re important because a beginning, middle, and end gives us character growth, and as I’ve said more than two or three times, good writing is about good characters. We need to see who they start off as, what changes them, and how the change affects them in the long run. Miss Muffet starts the day with her usual breakfast, but ends it fleeing in terror, probably never to return to her favorite tuffet again. Perhaps she’ll have some emotional scars and never be able to eat curds and whey again without being reminded of this terrible event. Whatever happens, we know it’s a real response that grew out of her experiences. Which makes her a memorable character.

After all, Miss Muffet’s story has been around for about four hundred years. We should all be so lucky.

So, next week, we’re going to play detective. No, it’s not like playing doctor, you perverts. We’re just going to talk a lot about motives and alibis, and how you always need them in your writing.

Speaking of which… get back to that writing, why don’t you?