Thursday, December 31, 2009

Looking Back Over the Year

A solid year of this stuff. Who would've guessed any of us would be so interested in my blatherings for so long? I sure didn't.

So, the whole point of this blog (besides lowering my blood pressure) is to hopefully give a helpful hint or two. The best way to utilize those tips, silly as it sounds, is to write. That's why we're all here, yes?

That being said... what did you write this year?

As I said last year, I'm not interested in the cool ideas you’re going to do something with eventually. I don’t want you to talk about what you’ve planned to do. I also don’t care what clever software you bought, or what fascinating research you’ve done, or who you had an extended online chat with during lunch one day.

The question, my eleven faithful followers, is what have you written?

Y'see, Timmy, if you're not writing, that's kind of the end of the discussion right there. We can't talk about editing, improving, or polishing our work until we've actually got some work, right?

We have to write. Until you're writing on at least a semi-regular basis

So, what did I do over these past twelve months?

I wrote thirty-eight articles for Creative Screenwriting magazine. Granted, because of lead times some of this won't see print until next year, but by the same token some of the stuff that did come out this year were things I actually wrote last year. I got to sit down and talk with Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, Nora Ephron, Mike Judge, Nancy Meyers, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, and even Frank Darabont at one point. Plus a bunch of screenwriters you've probably never heard of but loved their work (like David Self, Kundo Koyama,Tony Gilroy, Simon Kinberg, David Hayter, and Bruce Joel Rubin). If you haven't seen (500) Days of Summer yet, by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, you're missing out. Also add in another thirty-four reviews and interviews for the CS Weekly online newsletter (sign up over there on the right if you haven't already). That let me see a bunch of movies for free and also interview another pile of screenwriters like Stephan Elliot and Shane Black. There were also a few scattered reviews in there for both CinemaBlend and Coming Attractions. I think the final total for non-fiction pieces comes in at seventy-five.

It's also fair to mention that I got to work with two really great editors for a lot of this, David and Jeff. They've each got their own style, they each have their own preferences, and I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a headbutt or three in there throughout the year. They both kept me on my toes, though, and made sure I was putting out the best work I could. Half the reason I can write fast and tight is because of these two guys.

I scribbled down a quick short story/ article for the upcoming Moron's Guide to the Inevitable Zombocalypse which will see print in 2010. There's also a story going out to a time-travel anthology pretty much right alongside this post. I'm kind of proud of these two on a couple of levels. One is that they're two pretty solid stories that I managed to get out really quick. As soon as I had the idea, I had the whole story. The other thing was that it had a very Bradbury feel. In many of his autobiographical tales he talks about when he would rush out stories so he could pay the rent, and there is a very nice feel to ever-so-briefly living in that world of "I need money--I better write something quick and sell it."

I wrote one of those mash-up books that's so popular right now, blending modern horror tropes into classic literature. Although, in all fairness, about 60% of the finished book was written by someone else two hundred years ago, which is some serious lead time. Hopefully I'll get to say a bit more about that sometime soon. It's making the rounds right now, as they say.

To be honest, I don't know what they say. I just wanted to sound like I was in the loop, as they say.

I'm currently about 30,000 words into a sci-fi/horror novel set 200 years in the future. It's on the Moon, so it's beyond everything. Alas, it got set aside for the above-mentioned mash-up project, and it may take a bit of work to get back into it. There are a few moments in it that are just wonderful, though, so I'm sure it will see the light of day sometime or another.

There are also twenty-five pages of notes for an Ex-Heroes sequel. The publisher has been asking me about it since the day he bought the first book. However, while I was doing the Orci and Kurtzman interview mentioned above, Roberto Orci made an offhand comment about sequels while looking me right in the eyes and... well, he's been haunting me ever since. So expect me to dive into that in March, after there's been some response to the February release of Ex-Heroes.

Oh, and I managed to post here on a fairly regular basis. Better than last year, even. For a free blog that's supposed to go up once a week, 49 posts in a year is pretty impressive. At least from where I'm sitting. I also threw up a counter back in late June (starting it at 500), so using my impressive math skills it would seem I'm getting around 100 peeks a week here. So someone's looking at it besides me. Maybe all eleven of you keep coming back every day.

That's what I wrote this year. How about you?

Make the same New Year’s resolution as last year. A page a day. That's it. It usually works out to under 300 words if you've got the formatting right. If you write one page a day, you can have a short story by the end of January. You could have a solid screenplay by the time May rolls around. This time next year, you could have a novel. All that, out of a mere page a day. If you're actually serious about being a writer, this should be the equaivalent of making a resolution to breathe in the months to come.

Happy New Year to all eleven of you reading this. Next time, will be the first post of 2010, so I thought I'd do something that dealt with the first.

Until then, go drink some champagne and toast the new year.

Then go write. Just write one page.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Holiday Spirit

Okay, so it ended up being Thursday anyway. Happy Christmas Eve, everyone.

So, I got to sit down and talk with Shane Black last week. If you don't know who he is--shame on you. Why are you even reading this? Anyway, we talked a lot about the holidays and how they can affect storytelling.

I see holiday stories all the time. My own chosen genre ties well to several holidays. Plus, when I read for screenplay contests I'm almost guaranteed to get a dozen or so scripts about the true meaning of Arbor Day or some such thing.

Here's what any aspiring writer need to understand about these holiday stories. They've been done. All of them. Done many, many times. If you can actually come up with a new holiday-centric plot that hasn't been done before, it will be nothing short of miraculous.

Look at Christmas, for example. In books and films and short stories we've seen Santa as a saint and also as a monster. We've seen him as the good guy, the bad guy, a clone, a robot, a magical toymaker, a guy who wished for the job, and a guy who stumbled into it. Heck, I just heard about a movie recently where Santa turned out to be the Antichrist.

We've seen Santa quit. We've seen him get hired and get downsized. We've seen him get replaced, go on vacation, get arrested, and deal with elf union bosses and their demands.

Christmas has been disrupted by Scrooges, Grinches, gremlins, zombies, musical skeleton men, snowmen (good and bad), mythological rivals, evil Santas, drug dealers, terrorists, hit men, aliens (most notably Martians), and even Satan himself.

I'm not even scratching the surface, mind you. Everything I'm saying about Christmas applies to every other holiday. Halloween, Hanukah, Easter, Ramadan, Thanksgiving, Passover, Labor Day, Valentine's Day, President's Day, Boxing Day, Independence Day, and even the winter solstice. Yes, that's right, there's a movie about Passover. When Do We Eat? It also featured heavy drug use.

Now don't get me wrong on this. I'm not against stories that center around a given holiday. There are many I love, and there's a huge market for this stuff. As I hinted above, horror and Halloween go together like chocolate and peanut butter. The Hallmark Channel does a few dozen holiday movies every year, as does Disney.

What I will say, though, is that if you want to write a holiday story, you have to know the oeuvre back and forth. You have to know all the stories that have come before yours. Because I can guarantee you, the editor or producer you're subbing to has been exposed to them. They've also been exposed to the dozens of manuscripts about said holiday that came in before yours, and there's a good chance those tales trod over all the same ground. Writing a regular story is challenging. Writing a Christmas story means you have to start at the top of the pack and then go even further.

Keep that in mind as you're gathered around the fireplace telling stories of Christmases past, present, and future.

Next week, I'd like to sum up 2009. Until then, enjoy your eggnog and have a very happy holidays.

And if you can fit in some writing, good for you.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dating Tips

Seven shopping days left to get something for that special someone.

Oddly enought, this week I wanted to prattle on for a moment about one of those off-writing things I tend not to talk about much. It's more of a mindset, and it applies to writers of prose and scripts alike. Simply put, I want to talk about dating.

I want to toss out a hypothetical situation for you. More exact, a hypothetical person. I'll call her Phoebe. If you want to substitute a different name, go ahead.

Phoebe's my dream woman. She's what every man aspires to. I can't think of anything I've wanted more than to be with Phoebe--and you can feel free to take "be with" any way you like and you'd be right. She is, in all ways, perfect.

Well, perfect might be overstating it. Just a bit.

To be honest, she'd be much hotter if her hair was a bit lighter. And not so long. If she was more of a platinum blonde, Phoebe would be unbelievably hot. So really she's just a haircut and a box of dye away from being my perfect woman.

Okay, maybe if her chin wasn't quite so sharp. Makes her face a bit too pointy for my liking. Rounded would bring out her cheeks and her smile more.

Speaking of which... slight overbite. You can't really notice it until you're close to her. That's when you can also see one of her incisors has this little twist to it. Nothing braces couldn't fix, though. Maybe those transparent ones.

Also--please don't think I'm shallow for this--maybe a little more in the, well, the chestal region. Phoebe is a touch on the small side. Not flat, by any means, and they're nicely formed. I'm not talking about anything grotesque, mind you, but something in a B-cup would give her an absolutely killer figure. Again that's minor. Heck, I think these days it's just outpatient surgery.

Y'know, if she wore some nicer clothes, it'd help show off that figure, too. Everything Phoebe owns is that kind of frumpy-baggy look. It was kind of cute in college, but come on. Dress up a bit now and then. Would it be so wrong to wear something eye-catching? Once we're together, I 'll take her on a nice shopping spree before we go out anywhere.

Although I don't know where we'll go out. We don't have many of the same interests. Her taste in movies sucks, to be honest, and she's not really much of an athletic person. I'll work on that, get her to watch something better and stop subjecting me to that crap stuff she likes to watch.

At least the sex will probably be worth it. As long as she doesn't make that same weird noise she makes when she's excited. That sound creeps me out.

Still my dream girl, though, and I'd love to be with her--in any sense of the phrase.

So, at this point I can guess what a lot of you are thinking. Why the hell is Phoebe my dream girl if I want to change everything about her? She sounds like an okay person as is, but it's pretty apparent she's not what I'm looking for, despite my insistence that I want to be with her. I mean, why would anyone want to be involved with someone just to change everything about them?

Which, as it turns out, is the point I wanted to make.

There are lots of folks who talk about how much they want to be writers. They'll tell you it's been a lifelong dream to see their name on a shelf in a bookstore, or to hear actors reciting their dialogue. There's nothing they want more, and they'll do whatever it takes, make any sacrifice necessary, to make that dream become a reality.

Then, just after this, they'll tell you all the things that are wrong with Hollywood. That there aren't enough musicals/ torture porn/ funny animal movies being made. Why scripts need to be put on the screen in their pristine, untouched form. How they need to let people walk in and pitch ideas without all these hoops to jump through like a resume or a list of credits.

Or maybe they'll tell you how biased the publishing industry is. How publishers need to give as much time and interest to new writers as they do to Stephen King or Dan Brown. That they should be accepting all submissions, agented or not. And how books that aren't interesting and would be hard to market need to get a fair shake from these publishers.

Don't even get these folks started on agents. Agents of all types need to be a lot more open. They need to read everything that gets sent to them, and offer feedback if they don't like it. All seven of the agents in the world need to start accepting more clients and getting more stuff sold to the top studios and publishers.

And as a finale, they'll tell you all the things they'd change about the industry. The policies that make it so reprehensible. All the things they're going to change once they're in that position of power. In fact, the industry's changing now and they'd better watch out and grab these would be-writers and their golden manuscripts before they all change their minds and become house painters or accountants, thus depriving the world of their genius.

By what I'm sure is a complete coincidence, none of these people have ever sold a book, or a screenplay, or even a short story. Which, they'll hurry to tell you, only shows how corrupt and broken the system is and why it needs to be fixed.

Then they'll continue to work on their epic nine-movie saga about cyborg ninjas from the future who've come back to our time to deal with their father issues.

Y'see, Timmy, you can’t go into any sort of relationship thinking I’ll be the one to change her! Or him. Or them, if you live on the wild side. Relationships like that are doomed to failure of one sort or another. Either they collapse altogehter or they "succeed" with one person or the other becomes a twisted, compromised version of themself (and probably hating the other person for it).

Likewise, you can't expect to have any sort of success in the publishing world or in Hollywood if you're starting from the mindset of "they're all wrong." It's no different than my mad pursuit of Phoebe just so I can change everything about her. You either have to love it for what it is or... well, find something else to love.
I can sense a rising argument already, though. "Ahhhhh," says Yakko, "but what if I don't want to go with a traditional publisher? What if I just want to self-publish, or shoot my script myself with my friends?" And honestly, I see no problem with this. None at all.

IF...'ve gone over your manuscript five or six times; listened to impartial feedback; gone through line by line looking for spelling, grammar, and consistency errors; sent it out to dozens of publishers or producers; sent it out to dozens of agents; and made necessary changes and edits and sent it out to all those people again.

Wash, rinse, repeat. You notice that Johnson & Johnson doesn't tell you when to stop that process. They figure you're right there in the shower, you'll know when your hair's clean without further instruction from them. What's implied, though, is that you have to go through the process at least once before you can claim your hair is clean.

Maybe perfect Phoebe really is the girl for you. You got yourself cleaned up, best clothes, fresh flowers, and she still turned you down. Then maybe you should take a second look at Denise. Because there's a good chance she'll recognize all those good qualities Phoebe somehow missed, and the two of you will be happy together.

Some of those folks I mentioned above, though, like to skip the shampoo process and just announce their hair is clean. They declare themselves worthy of Phoebe and then say a lot of nasty things about her because she turns them down. In fact, what they tend to say is "I wanted to be with Denise, anyway. She's way better than that #%@$ Phoebe!"

In the romance world they call this settling. It's what you do when you don't want to make an effort, or when you've already given up.

Hopefully, that's not where you're headed with your writing.

Next Thursday's kind of a big day for everyone, so I probably won't post anything. Perhaps a little something quick on Wednesday for the holidays.

Until then you've got a week. Go write!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

I Put The Poison In Both Cups

Easy geek reference up there for you.

So, this week's little rant is sliding in under the wire. To be honest, I've been buried under a ton of last-minute stuff for work. Plus the holidays. Plus some family stuff. I can't be expected to keep up on all of it.

Well, that's not true. It's a bit of a cop-out, really. If I'd managed my time a bit better a lot of this would've been done on time. There were even two or three times this week I remember thinking "I need to start working on this week's ranty blog post."

Cop-outs suck, don't they? You've made an investment in some piece of writing and then wham! Out of nowhere the writer just does something lame. They'll change the rules or deliberately ignore continuity and just try to bluff their way through. Epic stories that don't deliver. Mysteries that aren't explained. Ominous foreshadowing that never pays off. All of these are cop-outs.

The very first story I can ever remember telling had a cop-out ending. I was about eight years old, it was summer, and Mom had taken us to the beach even though I wasn't feeling well. Somehow I ended up sitting with the father of my friend Todd, while everyone else played in the water, and I spent the time regaling him with the epic tale of G.I. Joe fighting off the Intruders.

For those of you born after 1980, G.I. Joe used to be just shy of a foot tall and had fuzzy hair. You could even shave him. He was also firmly grounded in the real-world military. When Star Wars shifted the toy paradigm to science fiction, GI Joe suddenly gained a bunch of new friends, like the superhero Bulletman and the cyborg Mike Power. And enemies called the Intruders which were a race of alien bodybuilder midgets who wore metal leotards... sort of...

Anyway, on with the story.

You see, the Intruders came down in asteroids. And they all crash-landed at GI Joe's secret base. There were lots and lots and lots of them. In fact, there were a million of them. So GI Joe was shooting at them with his gun and he shot ten of them, and Mike Power was kicking with his bionic leg--

(Mike Power had one bionic leg. Just one. Even at the age of eight, I could see the gigantic flaws in this bit of cybernetic engineering.)

--and Bulletman used his ray to lift a bunch of them into the air and send them away. This pattern of violence was repeated enthusiastically twice or thrice before I declared all the Intruders defeated.

Not so, Todd's father told me. A million is a lot.

I conceded this, and explained that the above mentioned pattern of gun-kick-ray happened again. So now they were all gone.

No, he said with a smile and a shake of his head, a million means there's a lot more left.

I nodded, then said that Bulletman had used his ray to scoop up everyone who was left and send them away.

It seemed like a very solid ending at the time.

Granted, it's easy to excuse an ending like that from an eight year old, but far too many adults use them, too. Except for poor spelling, there isn't a much more glaring sign of poor writing than a plot thread that winds up with a cop-out. It shows the writer didn't think things out, or just couldn't be bothered to.

A few common types of cop-outs.

Changing the rules--While it completely fits the story it's told in, the title reference of this little rant is a perfect example of changing the rules. In the midst of this serious contest of life and death, we find out it wasn't a fair contest. We've been told within the story that X + Y = Z, but the writer suddenly announces X + Y can also equal Q. This usually comes about because the story has been written into a corner and the writer won't take the time to go back and change things (when the ancient Greeks did this, they called their cop-out deus ex machina). As Billy Wilder once observed, a problem in your third act is really a problem in your first act.

Changing the rules is inconsistent and it breaks the flow. William Goldman used it for comedic effect in The Princess Bride, but it's doomed to almost certain failure in anything except a comedy. Heck, thanks to Goldman it's going to look pretty tired in a comedy, too...

The so-called twist--This is a more specific type of changing the rules. I've set out the rules for a good twist before, and they're pretty simple for anyone to figure out. That's why it's so frustrating when a writer has Debbie pull off her wig and announce "Hah!! I'm really Larry's second-cousin!!!" This is often followed by flipping through pages to figure out who Larry is and why his second cousin would have it in for everybody.

Usually a poor twist tries to solve one problem in the story at the expense of the story itself. A weak twist isn't just a cop-out for a plot thread, it's almost a guarantee the manuscript will end up in the large pile on the left.

No payoff --Few things are as annoying then to go through a story waiting to see the two enemies clash or to learn the answer to the mysterious puzzle that's plagued out heroes... only to not get it. The enemy gets away. The mystery gets skirted over. It just leaves the reader feeling cheated.

Sometimes it's not even a question that's not answered, it's just a payoff that never happens. When the climactic, world-altering final battle occurs off-camera and we just see the characters talking afterward about how amazing it was, that's a cop-out.

Just plain weak-- Sometimes when a writer uses a cop-out, they're just choosing the path of least resistance. It's quick and easy and wraps stuff up. Oh, he was dreaming and she was insane. Sometimes an ending can seem solid, but it's still weak because of the promise of something bigger. A worldwide alien invasion is awesome. A worldwide invasion where the aliens can be defeated by tap water... not so much. Remember, a story can be weak by inclusion just as much as by omission.

And there you have it. I'd put more, but, as I mentioned before, I have a lot of work to do still.

Plus, I'm really Larry's third cousin.

Still open to suggestions as we head into the holidays. If not, next time I'll end up blathering about women I've dated or something.

Until then, go write. At least your Christmas cards.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Return of The 3-D Man!!

I'd love to say there's more to this pop-culture reference than just the number three, but I'd be lying.


So, it struck me a while back that I haven't really prattled on about characters in quite a while. I've brought them up as kind of a sideline thing while talking about other story elements, but I haven't focused on characters specifically. So I started thinking about them and why some come across so well on the page while others leave a reader cringing.

That got me thinking about Bob. To be honest, first it got me thinking about Yakko Warner, my usual example, but Yakko's a pretty well-established character already. So I ended up with Bob, and wondering what could make him a good leading man for my action-adventure story about cyber-ninjas from the future.

If we want to make Bob the best character he can be, I think there are three key traits he needs to have.

First and foremost, a good character has to be believable. It doesn't matter if said character is man, woman, child, cocker spaniel, Thark warrior, or protocol droid. If the reader or audience can't believe in them within the established setting, the story's facing an almost impossible challenge right from page one.

Bob has to have natural dialogue. It can't be stilted or forced, and it can't feel like he's just the author's mouthpiece, spouting out opinions or political views or whatever. The words have to flow naturally and they have to be the kind of words this person would use. I saw a story once where one high school jock said in amazement to another "You broke up with her via text?" Via? Is that even remotely the type of word or phrasing that would come out of a teenage football player's mouth?

On a similar note, the same goes for Bob's motives and actions. There has to be a believable reason he does the things he does. A real reason, one that makes sense with everything we know (or will come to know) about him. It's immediately apparent, just like with dialogue, when a character's motivations are really just a veiled version of the writer's.

Also, please note that just because a character is based on a real person who went through true events does not automatically make said character believable. I've tossed out a few thoughts here about the difference between real-real and fiction-real, and it's where many would-be writers stumble. They think because the amazing story they're telling about Bob is true, it's somehow valid. He really did this, therefore the reader must accept it. Alas, it just doesn't work that way. Remember, there is no such thing as an "unbelievable true story," only an unbelievable story.

Second, tied very closely to the first, is that a good character needs to be relatable. As readers, we get absorbed in a character's life when we can tie it to elements of our own lives. We like to see similarities between them and us, so we can make extended parallels with what happens in their lives and what we'd like to happen in our lives. Luke Skywalker is a boy from a small town with big dreams (just like me) who goes off to join a sacred order of super powered knights (still waiting for that--but it might happen). There's a reason so many novels and movies revolve around the idea of ordinary people caught up in amazing situations. Heck, Stephen King has made a pretty sizeable fortune off that basic premise.

Some of this goes back to the idea of being on the same terms as your audience and also of having a general idea of that audience's common knowledge. There needs to be something they can connect with. Many of us have been the victims of a bad break up or two. Very, very few of us (hopefully) have hunted down said ex for a prolonged revenge-torture sequence in a backwoods cabin. The less common a character element is, the less likely it is your readers will be able to identify with it. If your character has nothing but uncommon or rare traits, they're unrelatable. If Bob is a billionaire alien with cosmic-level consciousness who sees all of time and space at once and only speaks backwards in metaphor... how the heck does anyone identify with that?

Oh, but wait! I see a hand shooting up in the back. Watchmen has the all-powerful Doctor Manhattan, doesn't it? Ahhhh, but y'see Timmy, one of the primary character traits we remember about him isn't his omnipotence. It's his awkward fumbling when he tries to interact with the people in his life. He's the ultimate social outcast--trying to fit into a clique (humanity) he's grown out of, and aware that every day he's a little less a part of that group. He even acknowledges that losing his girlfriend--his last real connection with the clique--means he probably won't even try to fit in anymore. If that's not universally relatable, what is?

If readers can't identify with Bob, they can't be affected by what happens to him. Which brings us to our final point...

Third, a good character needs to be likeable. As readers and/or audience members, we have to want to follow this character through the story. Just as there needs to be some elements to Bob we can relate to, there also have to be elements we admire and maybe even envy a bit. If he's morally reprehensible, a drunken jackass, or just plain uninteresting, no one's going to want to go through a few hundred pages of his exploits... or lack thereof.

Keep in mind, this doesn't mean a good character has to be a saint, or even a good person. The lead character of The Count of Monte Cristo is an escaped prisoner driven all-but-mad with thoughts of revenge who spends most of the book destroying the lives of several men and their loved ones. In Pitch Black, Riddick is a convicted mass-murderer who likes mocking all the people around him. Hannibal Lecter is a compelling, fascinating character on page and on the screen, but no one would ever mistake him for a role model. Yet in all these cases, we're still interested in them as characters and are willing to follow them through the story.

A good character should be someone we'd like to be, at least for a little while. That's what great fiction is, after all. It's when we let ourselves get immersed in someone else's life. So it has to be a person--and a life-- we want to sink into.

Now, I'm sure anyone reading this can list off a few dozen examples from books and movies of characters that only have one or two of these traits. It'd be silly for me to deny this. I think you'll find, however, the people that don't have all three of these traits are usually secondary characters. Often they're also stereotypes, too. The creepy neighbor, the gruff boss, the funny best friend, the scheming villain. They don't need all three traits-- three dimensions, if you will--because they aren't the focus of our attention. They're the bit players, so to speak, and a good writer isn't going to waste his or her time pouring tons of energy into a minor character who has no real bearing on the story.

Yeah, up top when I said I was lying about the 3-D thing, I was lying. I do that.

So there you have it. Three steps to stronger, three-dimensional characters.

Next time... well, I'm running short of ideas again, so unless someone suggests a good topic, next week might be a bit of a cop-out.

Before I forget, a quick shout out to Brave Blue Mice, a fun little fiction 'zine which asked to publish the RSS feed for the ranty blog on their site. For the record, no, I didn't know what that meant when they asked, but Greg explained it to me in simple terms even a caveman could understand. Go visit, read some stories, and send him a few of your own.

And go write.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Time And Relative Dimensions In Space

Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey.

This one's just a quick thought before we all lunge into the holiday season.

Time is a tricky thing in stories. Oh, you've got the usual narrative time issues like skipping a few days here or there or going into a flashback, and I've prattled on about those a few times. There's also continuity issues with time. Who knew what and when, was she with him at the same time she was with her, and how did he know that when he hadn't met her yet--we've all dealt with these issues. Well, hopefully you've dealt with them...

I wanted to talk about a different aspect of time, though.

Time, and the passage of time in a story, tells us about characters. It gives us an insight when Yakko can shrug off losing a piece of jewelry after a long sigh but Dot is still crying about it two months later. It really tells us something when Wakko can't remember what he had for breakfast yesterday and Marco can recite every item on the table from breakfast on his fourth birthday. If it takes Bob six months to hit the point where he'll compromise his morals and Rob breaks after six hours, you know who you want to be trapped in the Andes with. How long something has an effect--or doesn't have an effect--on someone tells us subtle thing about them that register just as much as any monologue they're about to spiel out.

I was reading for a screenplay contest recently and came across an example of this in one script. On the off chance the contest entrant is reading this (slim, but let's be polite), I'm going to tweak a few facts and relate the set-up more than the story. It was just such a perfect example of what I'm talking about.

We begin, as the header tells us, in May of 1999 as a stranger arrives in town. A local woman is mourning the death of her daughter, and she goes to the cemetary to set flowers on the grave. We see on the tombstone that her daughter died just over a month ago, in early April of '99. That night, when she breaks down in tears over dinner, her husband sighs and tells her she has to get over it and it's time she moved on.

When we see her in town the next day, most folks she meets are a bit stand-offish to her. Eventually she finds the stranger, they become friends and after another twenty pages or so she confesses how miserable she's been since her daughter died... just over a year ago.

A quick check confirms both of the dates I've already mentioned to you. So which is the mistake? Was "year" supposed to be "month" or was one of the earlier dates wrong? Well, a few pages later she's talking with a priest and the one year figure comes up again. So the problem was in the earlier dates, apparently.

A harmless typo, you say?

Well, here's the thing. Her husband came across as kind of a jerk, didn't he? His own daughter's dead a month and he's already telling his wife to move on? It didn't matter how long she was supposed to be dead. All we have is the words on the page, and those words make us interpret and judge things in a certain way.

Look at this scene when you know it's a year and suddenly the husband's a much more sympathetic character. He's barely recovered from one loss and is dealing with a wife it looks like he might lose to her own grief. Same with those townspeople. They seem a bit cold to ignore a grieving mother, but it's a bit understandable why many of them might be put off by a woman who's been grieving for close to thirteen months.

All that messed up in the story because of a single digit.

What this means for us as writers is that we need to be really, really careful with time and dates. They need to be double and triple-checked. Unlike a typoed word, I can't tell if a date is wrong or not. "Birthday cale" is an easy-to-spot mistake, but "2005" is not.

Y'see, Timmy, the immediate, unconscious timelines those dates and times create are something we can all key into, and we can relate to them (and make judgements off them) almost immediately. They set up certain assumptions and conceptions about characters, and if they're the wrong ones it can land your script in that big pile on the left.

So, as the Doctor always says, please be careful when you play with time.

Come back next week at our usual bat-time, and you can listen to me prattle on about characters.

Until then, go write. And have a Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

And Now For Something Completely Different...

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.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

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.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

What's My Motivation?

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.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

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.