Thursday, October 13, 2011

God is My Co-Writer

So, a few years back one of my friends read for a religious-themed screenplay contest. And, when it got to the point that he was pulling his hair out, I pitched in and read a few scripts for him (I owed him money, anyway). It exposed me to a lot of stories about God, Jesus, various members of the heavenly host, and—to be terribly honest—a lot of really bigoted, small-minded people. Not all of them, by a long shot, but enough that it’s worth mentioning, unfortunately.

Two weeks back I asked for ideas, and one fellow (stand up and wave, Matthew) suggested the idea of approaching God, or any god, in a story. How can you do it without annoying readers while still doing justice to your chosen almighty?

And then, by yet another odd coincidence, on one of my favorite message boards, a few of us were recently batting around the film The Adjustment Bureau, which, in the big picture, is about... well, guess.

First off, a few grammar and spelling points. If we’re talking about the Judeo-Christo-Islamic deity, it’s always God. Capital G. This also holds if you choose to call him the Lord. It doesn’t matter if you or your character are an atheist or agnostic or whatever—this isn’t a religious point, it’s just standard, accepted spelling. This deity is considered the definitive article and as such his (if I may be so presumptuous) name is always capitalized. It’s a proper noun. The same goes for the Bible. If you’re referring to the religious text that encompasses the old and new testament, it’s the Bible. You only use lower case when you’re speaking about a generic book of absolute fact, like if I tell you that Stephen King’s Danse Macabre is my bible.
And, really, if you’re going to write about Biblical-era tales, check out the MLA Handbook, because there are a bunch of unique grammar and spelling rules that apply to these names.

All of which leads to point two. I’m not talking specifically about God in this week’s rant, because a lot of the folks reading this are just as interested in Greek gods, Norse gods, Egyptian gods, Chinese demons, and cosmic entities from beyond time. But when it comes to stories, they all deal with a lot of the same issues.

Now, speaking of definitive articles, I’d like to start with an analogy...

In Danse Macabre, King tells a wonderful story about hearing William F. Nolan (the writer behind Logan’s Run and the legendary Trilogy of Terror films) talk at a convention. Nolan explained horror in terms of a closet at the end of the hall in a creepy, old house. Maybe the hero or heroine can hear something bumping around in there from anywhere in the house, and every now and then it thumps as whatever it is in there knocks an item off a hanger or tips a box off a shelf. As he or she gets closer, perhaps they can hear it scratching on the inside of the closet door. Endless scratching, scratching, scratching...

Finally, despite all our silent urgings, the character reaches out, turns the knob, and yanks open the door to reveal a ten-foot tall cockroach!!!

Thing is, even with the screams and the hissing and the mood music blaring, it’s kind of a relief to see that oversized bug. A ten-foot cockroach is pretty scary, no question about it, but a twenty-foot cockroach... man, I don’t know about you but that’d make me wet my pants pretty quick. It’s kind of a defense mechanism. Once I know what X is, I can imagine a scarier Y and X is reduced by comparison.

In the same way that naming the unknown horror lessens it, deities are lessened by defining them. When a writer tries to explain or show the scope of a god’s power, more often than not they’re really just establishing the god’s limits. If you tell me your god burns with the light of a hundred suns, I can say mine burns with the light of a thousand. If yours is a thousand feet tall and moves mountains, mine is ten-thousand feet tall and moves continents. The more the writer tries to show me, the easier it is for me to imagine something bigger and better (or nastier).

A great example of this is The Omen. No, the original. We shall not mention the remake here. Without giving away too much (although, why don’t you know this story already?), The Omen is about a diplomat who adopts a little boy. The boy, Damien, might be the Antichrist. I say “might” because... well, the movie actually makes you wonder. There are definitely people who think he’s the Antichrist. There sure are a lot of accidents and disturbing events that circle around the little boy. But the thing is... he never does anything. His eyes never glow, he never speaks in a deep, stentorian voice, he doesn’t shoot flames or lightning from his hands. Damien comes across as nigh-omnipotent because it seems completely effortless for him to get to anyone, anywhere—and that what makes him all the more terrifying. Because he doesn’t actively do anything, how’s anyone supposed to stop him? And what will happen when he does start being active?

Y’see, Timmy, defining something in any way automatically minimizes it, because the moment it’s been defined we can think of something bigger. Think of the little kid who yells, “infinity” and immediately gets countered with “infinity-plus-one!”

That’s why it’s always best to leave such omnipotent beings in the shadows rather than dragging them out into the light.  By their very nature, they're vast, undefinable beings.  Thus, the moment they get any sort of definition they're being lessened.

So, here’s a few quick thoughts for including a deity in your story.

Don’t—The simplest thing to do. Is a personal appearance really required for this story to work? The members of Congress have a big effect on my life, but I’ve never seen a single one of them in person. Heck, the only messages I’ve gotten from them have been spam emails and robocalls. But it doesn’t mean they aren’t there influencing aspects of my existence, and it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be impressed if one of their aides gave me a call to chat about something. Which leads nicely to...

Minions—Gods of any type are impossible to fight, so including them on either side of the story equation really unbalances things. But I believe someone could beat cultists or demons or maybe even an angel. These are the beings my characters should be encountering. Remember, you can almost never get to the CEO because there’s a wall of flunkies, advisors, junior execs, and bodyguards in the way.

Silence is Golden—They used this one way back in It’s A Wonderful Life, when Clarence the angel would have one-sided conversations with the sky. Neil Gaiman did it in both The Sandman and the wonderful Good Omens (with Terry Prachett). Kevin Smith did it in Dogma. Mere mortals can’t hear the voice of God and expect to survive, so the Lord speaks through a number of mediums... or not at all. Keep in mind, to pull this off—especially the one sided conversation—your dialogue needs to be sharp and you can’t fall back on clumsy devices like repeating everything the silent person says just to make it clear what your god hates.

Comedy—People are a lot more willing to accept divine intervention (of one kind or another) if it has a comedy element. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because when the writer’s not taking the matter seriously, it’s hard for people to have serious complaints. That’s why George Burns and Christopher Moore get away with mocking the man upstairs and The Last Temptation of Christ gets months of picketing. But this tone has to spread through your whole story. You can’t have your deity be the only source of comedy, because then you’re mocking him or her in the bad way.

Minimal Miracles—D’you ever hear the old saying about being so tough you don’t need to fight to prove it? More to the point, have you ever watched a movie where the bad-ass hero just fights and fights and fights and fights and fights? It gets boring, no matter how often he wins. Your omnipotent beings shouldn’t be expressing their power just to prove they can, because that power will start to get boring and take all the challenge out of the story one way or another. If everybody who dies gets brought back to life, what are people even fighting for?

Simply put... gods are the ultimate “less is more” when it comes to writing. The more a god—or demon, or cosmic entity—gets defined, the easier it is to name god-plus-one.

Next week... well, I’m going to miss next week. I’m one of the guests at ZomBCon up in Seattle. But when I come back, I’m sure I’ll have all sorts of scary and horrific things to talk about.

Until then, go write.

3 comments:

Thom Brannan said...

Two things. (This didn't start out as two things, but life is funny that way.)

One: since we're talking about depictions of God and the different avenues to travel, I would be remiss if I did not mention Michael Marshall Smith's novel ONE OF US.

Two: are you padding Blogger accounts? The word verification for this comment started with EX. Hmm? Mr. Clines, you have some 'splainin' to do.

Virtual Stranger said...

Was it really? That's kind of awesome? :)

Rakie said...

could you possibly use your time machine to go mention a couple of these points to Garth Ennis before he starts writing Preacher? Would be much appreciated. :D