Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Fear-O-Meter

Hello, kiddies! Thanks for tuning in to my latest blog post-mortem!! Hehehehehheheeeee!!

Pop culture again. Ahhh, those were the days...

So, last year at this time I talked about a couple of the subgenres horror can be broken down into. It’s important to know which group your tale of terror sits best with so you know how to approach the different elements and the way they mesh together. Knowing this also helps to sell it and promote it.

By the same token, when you sit down to write something “scary,” it can help to know just what you’re hoping to accomplish. People get their heads cut off in the Saw movies, in Attack of the Clones, in The Man in the Iron Mask, and in A Mighty Heart, but these decapitations are all received in very different ways because of how their particular stories are being told. In the same way, Freddy Kruger has been a slasher, a monster, and a plain old villain, even though the character has barely changed at all. How, exactly, do you intend to scare your readers with this moment as opposed to that one? Or are they supposed to evoke the same kind of fear?

You can nitpick back and forth, but I think fear, as a sensation, generally breaks down into three basic categories. There’s a couple different names people use for them, but for our purposes today, let’s call them the shocker, the gross out, and dread. These three form the food pyramid of fear, if you will, which means using and combining them in the right ways can make a variety of tasty seasonal treats.

...starting to sound like a cooking blog...


The Shocker- This is when something unexpected happens and makes the audience jump. It’s the fear of what’s happening right at this moment. If you’ve ever watched someone read and seen their eyes bug, they probably just hit a shocker. Ever been in a theater when most everyone screams? Same thing. When someone walks around the camp cabin and Jason buries his machete in their skull, that’ll make you jump even watching a movie where you know people are going to get machetes in the skull. When Michael suddenly shoots Ana Lusia on LOST, that’s a shocker, too. Individual shocks can be stretched out a bit--especially on film-- with lots of shouting and chaos and a few smaller shocks to keep it going, but really a shock is a short-lived thing.

The shocker is powerful, but it’s important for writers to remember it can’t stand on its own for long. As I’ve mentioned before, a good way to think of shocks is like exclamation points. You can use them! You can use a lot of them!!! But after a while, there needs to be something that actually requires emphasis! If not the shocks will start to lose power and your readers or audience will start to get bored!! Shocks eventually need something solid and lasting to support them.

The Gross-Out - As named by the King himself. It’s when things are just disgusting. This is when the writer’s trying to tap into the reader’s sense of revulsion and maybe even induce some nausea. It’s when we spend two or three pages on someone getting their limbs sawed off or just eating a peanut butter and maggot sandwich, where the little sour-milk colored larva are eating their own paths through the spread before getting crushed against the roof of the mouth by someone’s tongue. The gross out usually differs from the shocker because of duration. While a shock gets weak the longer the writer tries to prolong it, a gross out can actually gain strength as it goes on and on (and thus, torture porn was born). Go too long or too frequently, though, and audiences will get bored with the gross out just like anything else.

An interesting point is that the audience often (but not always) knows the gross out is coming. We don’t linger on it, but it rarely comes out of nowhere.

It’s also worth noting that a lot of gross-out stuff moves closer to dread when it isn’t described at length. Speaking of Stephen King, we all remember the lovely “hobbling” scene in Misery, yes? What’s happening almost takes second place to Annie calmly explaining what she’s doing and why she’s doing it... even in the middle of the procedure.

Dread - This is when something doesn’t happen, but we know it could. It’s fear of potential events, if that makes sense. You could also call this suspense or perhaps terror (if you wanted to nitpick). We’re waiting and waiting because we know something’s going to reach out from under the bed or crawl out of the closet and the fact that it hasn’t yet is giving us the chills. Pennywise the Clown gives us anxiety because we know he isn’t just a clown and it’s very wrong for him to be down in those sewer drains. Hannibal Lecter is creepy just sitting in his cell talking about the things he’s done in the past. And the zombie Julie Walker is kind of hot, but you also know she's on that razor's edge of probably eating everyone in the room (and not in the fun way). Dread works well in larger tales because there’s space for eerie backstories, but a good writer can also make it function in tighter spaces.

There’s two catches that come with dread. One is that it relies on the writer having a very solid grasp of how the audience is going to react and what they’re going to know. If I tell you there’s a Strigori knocking at the front door, most of you are going to shrug your shoulders and open up. Likewise, I may find ketchup disturbing, but I shouldn’t assume everyone’s skin is going to crawl at the sight of it. Paint the creepy stuff on too thin or to vague and the audience just won’t get it and they'll be bored. Paint it to thick and they’ll be angry you assumed they weren’t going to get it. If the shocker is a hammer, suspense is the scalpel of fear.

Tying back to that, dread also relies on the audience having... well, not to sound crass, but it depends on a certain level of intelligence and involvement. If you try explaining climate change to a chimpanzee, you’ll notice they don’t get too worried about it--assuming they sit there for your whole lecture. It makes me sound old, I know, but part of the challenge with dread these days is the shortening of people’s attention spans. If people keep switching channels, walking away, twitting, or texting, they’re not getting involved in the story. Without that involvement, it’s very hard to build a sense of dread.

Also worth noting that dread needs good characters more than the other two types. We need to be able to identify with what a character’s going through. If we can’t, this is a news report, not a story.

Once you know just what you’re trying to do, it’s easy to see how each one works and how they can work with each other. Campfire stories are often little suspense tales that build to a shock in the same way jokes build to a punchline. A lot of the ‘80s slasher films would start with a touch of suspense, jump to shock, and then dive headfirst into the gross-out. Alfred Hitchcock could drag suspense out for ages, but knew a good shock or two could make a film unforgettable.

(mother, please. I’m trying to work on my blog. No mother, it’s not one of those websites, it’s for good people...)


Next time is mostly for the budding screenwriters. Some of you found out last week that you didn’t get one of the 2010 Nicholl Fellowships, yes? I’m willing to bet that no one reading this did, but I’m also sure some of you didn’t try for one. Let’s talk about why you didn’t get one.

Until then, go hand out candy. Oh, and write between trick or treaters.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Miss Scarlett in the Study with the Lamp

So, as we’re getting into the season of all things eerie and mysterious, I thought I’d babble on about a little problem I’ve seen once or thrice. The nice thing about it is, like many things, it’s pretty easy to avoid once you notice it.

Just like you can have false drama, it’s also possible to have false mysteries. These stories are boring and frustrating more than interesting. I’ve come across them a lot in genre stories and scripts, and once or thrice in political thrillers.

A quick recap...

A mystery is when the main character(or characters) and the audience are aware that an important fact has been hidden from them, and the story usually involves the search for that unknown fact. Who killed Mr. Boddy? What room did they kill him in? What did they use to do the deed? And why does that reanimated mummy want that old Egyptian coin? At it’s simplest, a mystery is a question someone in your story is asking and trying to find the answer to.

In a good mystery the answers always exist. There are people to ask, clues to examine, deductions to make, and so forth. There’s always someone who knows the answer. It might be the murderer, a cult member, the retired beat cop, anyone. But someone has the answers the characters--and by extension, the readers-- are looking for.

Now, here’s where some folks go wrong.

In an attempt to make their main character seem skilled or clever, I’ve seen many fledgling writers solve the mystery in the opening pages of their story. The solution is revealed to the main character right up front and then the rest of the narrative becomes all about keeping this information from the audience. The mystery’s solved, the answer just isn’t being given out until the end.

For example, I read one book recently that was a take on the Grail myth. Two parallel characters-- one during the Crusades, the other in modern times-- are on quests to find the secret of the Holy Grail. However, the first character gets taken aside by her father less than 1/5 into the book and--I kid you not--it essentially goes like this...


“Come, daughter. I must tell you a story.”

He talked long into the night and into the morning. His mouth went dry several times. As the sun broke over the hills, he finished.

“This is amazing,” she finally said. “You’ve known this all along?”

“Yes, and now you must keep this fantastic secret, too, until you pass it on to your child.”


I’m not exaggerating. That’s almost word for word what the author has on the page.

So, the story then covers another 300 pages during which Phoebe (not her real name) risks the lives of her friends and makes seemingly-irrational decisions to protect a secret she’s really just hiding from the readers. In the end, we don’t even get the answer from Phoebe. The author abandons the whole Crusades-era thread with Phoebe cornered by her enemies and just has someone else tell the modern-era character what happened to her. “Ah, the story of Phoebe? A sad tale, really. You see, when she was cornered by her enemies she...”

That was it. One person has the answers for the whole story, dies “off camera,” and someone else just walks in to read the answer out of a book. No, seriously. The modern character finds this historian and he actually reads her the answer out of a book.

This is not a mystery. Sure you can pitch it as the mystery of the grail, but it’s not. It’s just withheld information. A successful mystery has certain key elements which I’ve mentioned before. The reason this sort of story structure fails is that it violates two of these minimum requirements.

The first of these is that a mystery needs to have a resolution. The characters are searching for that hidden piece of information and they must find it for the mystery to work. The problem here is that the answer was found early in the story. So... mystery solved. In the example above, we were searching for the secret of the Grail and found it on page 81. The rest of the story is unnecessary.

The second element is that in a good mystery we like the protagonists and can relate to them. In any good piece of storytelling--whatever the genre--the characters should mirror the audience. It’s important to them that the answer is found, thus it’s important to us that the answer is found. We want to stick with them until they find those solutions and resolve things.

Y’see, Timmy, the main character can’t be the person holding the answers. In order to do that, they have to hide those facts from the reader (like Phoebe did). Now Phoebe isn’t mirroring the audience, she’s keeping them at arm’s length. The moment she starts concealing things, our protagonist has just alienated the reader.

For the record, this also holds for any Mr. X/ femme fatale type characters who make vague statements or drop cryptic hints. If they’re only here for a page or two, great. But these people can’t be following the main character around for two hundred pages or else they become protagonists, too. And, as I just mentioned above, they’ll be protagonists we don’t like.

If you want to put a mystery in your story, that’s great. Mysteries rock and great mysteries get remembered forever. Just make sure it’s a real mystery, with all the necessary elements it needs to work.

Next time, it being the season and all, I’d like to talk with you about horror.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Admitting the Truth

Yeah, I’m running late. Again. Two weeks in a row. I suck. Deadlines for the magazine, plus I signed the contract for the Ex-Heroes sequel.

So, nyaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh...

Thing is, I’ve been juggling a bunch of stuff and this week’s little rant has completely slipped away from me. I’m kind of ashamed, to be honest. I spent a lot of today looking at the rough notes I’d scribbled to myself and, well, I had no idea where I was going with them.

I thought about just tossing it up anyway. Kind of faking something meaningful, giving it a vague ending, and calling it good. That wouldn’t really be fair to all of you, though. And to be honest, it would just gnaw at me to do something I knew was wrong.

So here’s what I’m going to do instead.

Like any decent writer who knows something isn’t ready, I’m not going to lie about it to you or me. I’m just going to pack it away for now and maybe sometime in the future I’ll pull it out and realize what needed to be done with it.

Isn’t this kind of clever? Talking about not putting up a post has become kind of a post in itself.

Next week, the mystery of the fake mystery.

Until then go write.

And please write something longer than this post.