Category Archives: Movies

Horror, Suspense, and Sloppiness

I haven’t succumbed to memery in quite a while, but there’s one going around Facebook right now that gives me some excellent blog fodder, so here we go. This latest invites us to, in honor of impending Halloween, to name our 10 favorite horror movies.

When I was first tagged I thought, I can’t do this. I don’t like Horror movies.

See, what I was thinking of was the modern horror movie. What Roger Ebert calls the “Dead Teenager Movie”. You know the formula: a handful of horny teenagers go someplace that Appears Safe But Isn’t, and after enough sex and substance abuse to get a preliminary R rating for the film, proceeded to get hacked into chutney, in spite of the fact that they are armed with flashlights, curtain rods, and butter knives.

But then I started to rethink this. Dead Teenager Movies aren’t really scary. They’re stupid. True, they might all have at least one “jump moment”, but let’s face it – it’s easy to scare somebody, startle them, make them jump. Just ask Stephen King, who has made a career of being a mediocre writer with a talent for making people jump (and if he can’t do that, by his own admission, he will go for the gross-out – which is even easier).

And there’s another problem with horror. When you rely on jump moments and the gross out, I think it is easy to get lazy – or perhaps formulaic is the word I’m looking for – with what you are doing. I learned back in the early Eighties that if you had a great ending, people would forgive any literary screw ups you committed in the bulk of the work in question. Say what I will about King – he generally delivers satisfying endings,1 which is really what it’s all about to keep people coming back to that brand.2 As Mickey Spillaine said, “The first sentence sells the book. The last sentence sells the next book.”

What is harder is to make people sit on the edge of their chairs in suspense. THAT is what I like. That is also what I like to do to my readers – on chair’s edge, up all night reading, making them late for work because they are so busy turning pages. I have had a couple of readers tease me about being late for work because they were reading one of my books and kept saying, “Okay, one more chapter” – and then discovering that the end of the chapter left more ends dangling, prompting the reading of the next chapter… and the next… and the next. Let me tell you, of all the different kinds of praise I have received, that is the most satisfying. It means I have done my job as a novelist.

So suspense is where it’s at. But keep in mind a couple of things. First, it’s harder than it looks. While you can be sloppy with outright horror and a tacked-on good ending, good suspense is a well-tuned, ticking clock. You really have to push your writing and plotting abilities to keep things in rhythm. Second, suspense doesn’t necessarily mean that you are writing a horror or crime novel. Note that praise I received – it was for my modest Sci-Fi offerings, with nary a creepy crawly to be seen. In theory a Nicholas Sparks book can be a real page-turner if properly paced, but I have yet to hear that bit of praise associated with one of his books.3

It is with that in mind that I approached my list of favorite horror suspense movies. What keeps me on the edge of my seat? What gives me a satisfying ending? What can I watch over and over again and not get tired of? Some have creepy crawlies, while in others the creepy crawlies are inside of us.4 Watch and learn.

28 Days Later
The Exorcist
Rear Window
The Silence of the Lambs

Note: In keeping with the suspense theme, I almost put To Live and Die in L.A. on this list, even though there are no horrific elements in it. But it is a brilliant, edge-of-the-seat thriller as a pre-CSI William Peterson gets in way too deep in pursuit of the counterfeiter who murdered his partner. There’s not a bit of horror in it, but there’s incredible suspense as you wonder how in the world Peterson will come out of it all unscathed.

  1. Note here that I said “great” ending and “satisfying” ending, not “happy” ending. It is possible to have a story end badly for the main character and still have it be satisfying. Q.V. the film Blow, in which drug dealer George Jung loses everything, including the love of his daughter, and ends up in prison, a burned out shell of a man. Happy? No. Satisfying? Very.
  2. Yes, I said brand and not author. We’re in this business to sell books, right? And what is our name, but a brand? You know what to expect when you buy Coca Cola. Ditto Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Nicholas Sparks…
  3. I should note here that I have not read any of Mr. Sparks’ books, and therefore cannot attest to whether any of them are indeed page turners. Of course, he is delivering a decidedly different kind of reading experience. Sparks fans, please make your own assessment.
  4. Which is a whole other literary proposition. Subject for a future entry.


Happiness is finding out you’ve got twice as many days off to use up by the end of he year than you originally thought you had. I was under the impression I had two, and one of those I was using on the day after Thanksgiving. But a check revealed four. This was a surprise. The way that things have been going the last few years, I haven’t really had a vacation since… I’m not sure. 2001 maybe? Since then my days off have all been frickered away with house emergencies or sick family members or being ill myself, or one annoying thing or another, with a few intermittent days off to do things like write or go up to the Rock Hall for the Tommy retrospective.

But four days off? Wow?

So I took Wednesday off. I drove up to Kent State University with my daughter, and while she was in class, I did the bohemian thing of hanging out in a coffee shop with a scone and a latte and worked on editing the play. Came home and managed to get through the rest of the play – some 48 pages worth. Now all that remains is to get the time to put the changes into the computer for Second Draft, and then it’s time for a reading party.

Thursday was Thanksgiving, of course, and yesterday I slept in, walked the goats and dog with my wife and daughter, did some puttering around the house, and worked on mucking out the goat stable. Watched Night Watch, a Russian-made modern fantasy that wasn’t half bad. Not knowing Russian enhanced the creepiness of the film for me, because it added to the alien-ness of it all1.

Today will be some errands, some family fun and frolic, and later on, some time at the computer typing the changes into the play. By the time I get back to work I’ll have spent five days away, using the holiday to pad out the time off. And I must admit… I’m starting to feel pretty human again.

Sometimes I get the feeling
That I won’t be on this planet
For very long
I really like it here
I’m quite attached to it
I hope I’m wrong

(via iTunes shuffle play)

1 I’m of the school that foreign films should be watched in the native language with subtitles. Run Lola Run is a great film in German, but becomes a cartoon with the goofy job they did of dubbing the film in English. Night Watch is also fascinating because the prologue and epilogue are in English, and the subtitles are done in such a way that they become part of the film, being obscured as people move across the screen, appearing in different places and different colors for emphasis. It’s the best job of subtitling I’ve ever seen in a film.

The Fudge Factor, or,”How Much Can I Get Away With Before My Audience Deserts Me?”

An interesting exchange of e-mails with my old college buddy Scoob has given me fodder for not one but two posts. This is the first, and the second will straggle in at some point in the future.

Scoob started the ball rolling when he sent me this link to a blog wherein a physicist nitpicks the goings-on in a new TV series called Jericho.

Now even though I now have cable, I hadn’t heard of Jericho. In fact, I can only name one new show to come out this season, Standoff, and only because it comes on after House. But it did, at first, sound like something I would have been interested in – the idea of a small, isolated community surviving a nuclear war echoes the classic novel Alas, Babylon, so at least the idea had some promise.

Well, it’s a good thing that I didn’t hear about the show and start watching it, based on the physicist’s review. It sounds to me like the writing suffers from either a blatant ignorance of, or a casual disregard for, the realities of science. Now I suppose that one could attribute lines like “Hydrogen bombs set the atmosphere on fire” to writers who don’t want to stop and explain things to audience members who would be put off by such a thing… but if you’re playing the Alas, Babylon card, you’ve got to realize that you’re going to draw some people to the show who are going to quickly spot the zipper running up the back of your monster’s suit. Well, you should realize it, anyway. Apparently, they didn’t.

Which prompts the question, “How much fudging of the facts can a writer get away with before losing readers, or worse yet, credibility?”

First, let’s keep in mind that there are always going to be people who nitpick little details. And you’re never going to get all of them right. You might think that you know all there is to know about Onion Rings, based on your 20 years of experience as a flack for the American Association for the Cultural Advancement of the Onion Ring, but someone is out there waiting to point out that you made the critical mistake of putting cumin powder in the batter, and no self-respecting maker of Onion Rings would ever, ever do that. So let’s put that aspect aside and forget about it, along with that highly annoying analogy.

As with most of my answers, I don’t think there’s anything that’s black and white. And, as with most of my answers, I offer a set of guidelines that might help you think this kind of thing through.

1) It depends on how big or important your fudge is. God might be in the details, but if you leave a gaping hole as a result of your fudge, it is going to be noticed. Like in the movie U-571, which would have you believe that the German Enigma Code was broken because we Americans disguised one of our subs as a U-Boat and used it to go and hijack a real U-Boat, which had an Enigma machine on it. This conveniently overlooks the many hard centuries of man-hours that British intelligence took to unravel how the system worked (although, to be fair, as a sop to any Brits in the audience, there was a credit at the end of the film giving them credit for helping crack the code).*

That is called ignoring the facts so you can have a plot. It is B-A-D. Not to mention S-T-U-P-I-D.

On the other side of the coin, in the play that I hope to start editing this evening, I have an extended courtroom scene, and I left out one detail: a bailiff. Every bit of logic says I should have one, because emotions at a child custody hearing would naturally run high, and it is a good thing to have a stocky gentleman with a badge to be handy to pry people apart.

But I left out any mention of a Bailiff completely. Frankly, I did it to expedite the scene, which I knew was going to be long going in, and one more character to juggle wasn’t going to shorten things any. Besides, I had an eye on my audience – I want this play to be picked up and performed by community theater groups around the country, and in some cases a play’s viability is determined by the number of male characters (men are traditionally in short supply when it comes to community theater).

(Okay, yeah, we could have a female bailiff, but I already have three characters who could be played by a woman or a man, complete with unisex names, so give me a break.)

My philosophy was this: 1) if the director really would sleep better at night, s/he could put one in him/er self; 2) for the audience I am after, it’s a small but forgivable indiscretion, annoying perhaps only attorneys, who are probably going to be annoyed by things other than this anyway, and; 3) the only thing I’m losing is suspense, because a bailiff would represent the possibility of a fistfight breaking out, and frankly, this isn’t that kind of a play. It’s kind of like Chekov’s admonition (the playwright, not the guy on the U.S.S. Enterprise who seems to do nothing but raise the shields and get beaten up) – “If you describe a gun hanging on the mantle, it better come into use during the play.” Or words to that effect.

So is what I am doing a gamble? Yeah, but a small one – like calling in with a queen and an off-suit number card. Is it B-A-D? Is it S-T-U-P-I-D? Not in my B-O-O-K. But your mileage may vary. Think about it and tell me what you think once you’ve seen the play.

2) It depends on your audience. Maybe the creators of Jericho never heard of Alas, Babylon, but a little homework would have told them that this kind of show was going to attract some people for whom science was an occupation, a hobby, or in the case of fandom, a way of life. And that these folks would be rather vocal in pointing out the rather gaping holes in the fabric of the story.

One of my favorite films is How to Murder Your Wife. The climactic scene of this battle of the sexes comedy takes place in a courtroom, and after a beleagured Jack Lemmon pleads his case, the Judge looks over at the conveniently all-male jury and asks for their verdict. They all reply at once, without going off to deliberate. It’s a funny moment, even though it makes the Fudge-O-Meter go off the scale. But you know what? Even though I think “this would never happen in real life” every time I see this scene, I still love it. Because, as the audience, I am expecting a comic battle of the sexes film. I’m a lot more lax on the rules than I would be were I to see the same indiscretion in, say, a John Grisham novel.

My favorite example of this being done badly is in a film I have never seen – the infamous NBC mini-series Noah’s Ark. Apparently, the film begins with a credit saying that some liberties have been taken with the story. Okay, I can understand that. The story of Noah takes up three chapters in Genesis, and to stretch the story out to 160 minutes, you’ve got to make up some dialogue and extrapolate some action based on what it would take to spend 100 years building a huge boat while your neighbors complained about the noise (extrapolated) and laughed at you (Biblical). Hopefully, all of this fudging would draw from what you know of the time and culture, and from the Bible itself.

(Foreshadowing moment: Hollywood writer knowing something about the Bible. Heh.)

Well, the liberties didn’t stop with additional dialogue. The film apparently begins with Noah rescuing Lot from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Scratching your head because you don’t remember that from Sunday School? Of course you are. See, the writers forgot, or chose to ignore, or most likely simply didn’t know that Noah was the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Lot — who was actually rescued by Noah’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson, Abraham.

Then there were other liberties – like the ark having to flee from ocean-borne pirates (!) and hooking up with a sailing man whose vessel was a floating haberdashery shop, and… I can’t go on.

The lesson here is: You’re writing a Biblical epic. Think maybe that might draw an audience of persons interested in seeing it because they’ve read that particular book quite a bit? Think maybe they’d expect the story to stay within the bounds of what they consider to be the facts? Think maybe they’d notice – and quite possibly raise their voices – if some of the facts were completely out of whack?. Well, the benefit of hindsight gives us what Hollywood’s answer was, and it ends in the words, “…and give me another hit of that Columbian while your at it.”

(For a look at a what may be the best Bible adaptation ever, check out Joseph, which extrapolates wisely, tells the story completely, and fudges only in the timing of one of Joseph’s speeches at the film’s end – but it makes for a great moment, and I understand completely why the writer did it that way.)

3) It depends on why you’re fudging. The mention of the Joseph fudge brings this up. When Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, part of his speech is taken from one that was actually given after their father, Jacob, died. As I said, this little bit of rearranging puts a cap on the story without having to drag the film out for another half an hour as we wait for Jacob to die and the brothers to worry about their fate in Egypt.

Sometimes you fudge because of audience expectations. When a rough cut of Star Wars was previewed at a Science Fiction convention, a representative for the film was on hand afterwards for a Q and A session. According to the legend, he opened the session with these words; “Before any of you says anything, yes, we know that there’s no sound in space. Are there any other questions?”

This tells me that George Lucas knew of that particular fact of science, and ignored it for the sake of making a more exciting film. He also knew it was something he could get away with.

(The only film I can think of that has a soundless explosion was 2001: A Space Odyssey – but if there was ever a film that should have had silent explosions, it was Alien – just because of it’s now-famous tag line: “In space, nobody can hear you scream.”)

So to sum up this point, ask yourself why you are fudging. Your answer will give you an instant assessment of the balance of risks versus reward:

  1. It’s just a little fudge that will allow me to have greater dramatic impact at an opportune moment in the story,
  2. This is a time-honored fudge that, in our cultural lexicon, is seen more as tradition than error,
  3. My story’s a bit unwieldy, and by bending the rules a bit, I can make a more efficient machine out of it,
  4. I’m really in a hurry to get this done, I don’t have the time or gumption to really fact-check this,
  5. Nobody in flyover America will notice, and the important people I know won’t care,
  6. Listen, this is my story, and I can’t really be bothered with the facts,
  7. Hey, don’t bogart the Columbian, I’m getting a buzz kill here!

To fudge this whole thing to a conclusion, when it comes to the literary cheating, sometimes you have to knuckle down and do the right thing, even if you think it’s going to kill you. It’ll discipline you into doing the story right and making it more airtight, and better for the effort. Besides, research won’t kill you. You might even learn something.

Thus, I rest my case. And yes, that’s in a courtroom that has a bailiff.

it took ten years to realize
why the angel stopped crying
when you sail on down the lane
your happy smile, your funny name

(via iTunes shuffle play)

* This is also only fair because the British once made a film about how an intrepid RAF pilot was the first human to use an airplane to break the sound barrier – conveniently ignoring that whole Chuck Yeager/”The Right Stuff” thing.**

** I’m not fudging – the first time a human broke the sound barrier was in ancient times, probably when an Egyptian taskmaster cracked a whip across the backs of some slaves.

PS: For those of you writing space travel epics, here’s a great article that will keep your fudge factor low.

Kung Foot

My friend Scoob sent me this link right here about the latest Hollywood regurgitation, namely a big screen version of the old 70’s TV chestnut Kung Fu.

I wasn’t a follower of the show when it was on. I only watched it a couple of times, just enough to pick up on all the tropes that my school buddies – who all called the show Kung Foot – were using (“Pull my finger, Grasshopper,” or something like that), so I could keep up with what they were talking about.

After some thought, I wrote back to my friend and warned him to prepare for disappointment when this film comes out. Inevitably, I told him, when they do stuff like this, they always try to give it a “modern sensibility.” That’s how they ruined Mission Impossible.

And then, to prove my point, I included for him a page of the script from the proposed Kung Fu movie that I somehow miraculously acquired…


It is time once again, Grasshopper. Grab the pebble from my hand.

MASTER holds his hand out. The Pebble GLOWS like an alien artifact. We see it reflected in YOUNG CAINE’S eyes. He is almost drooling with desire to get it. We see a slight hesitation in his eyes.

But Master…

Yes, Grasshopper?

Suddenly YOUNG CAINE’S gaze shifts, and his eyes grow wide with alarm.

What is that behind you?

(turns quickly)
What? What?



Dude! You are so owned!

YOUNG CAINE does a little dance around the Master’s hut, thrusting his pelvis a lot.

I’m outta here, I’m outta here, and you are so owned! I’m gonna get a haircut and smoke cigarettes and wear baggy pants! I’m outta here, I’m outta here! I’m gonna get some tattoos and piercings and drink cheap wine and have sex with loose women! I’m outta here, I’m outta here! I AM SO OUT OF HERE!

(holding his head in his hands)
I should have listened to my old friend Miyagi…

Ah when they pulled me from the wreckage
And her body couldn’t be found
Was it in my mind it seems
I had a crazy dream
I told them so but they said no no no no

(via iPod Shuffle)

Blame it on Bierce

Caution: Due to subject matter, spoilers abound. If you don’t want to learn shocking surprises like Soylent Green is made of people, do not read the following.

I’ve been cheated by my favorite television program. Tuesday night I knew going in that Dr. Gregory House was going to be shot by a former patient, and figured that it was the typical end-of-season ratings hogging stunt that most networks expect of (or extract from) their products. Still, House thrives on risky material, so I sat down with my wife and daughter to watch the season closer, an episode prophetically titled No Reason.

I started wondering early on that something was amiss. The characters were off. After House was shot, his Baker Street Irregulars kept coming to him to confer on another case, but it didn’t seem right. At first I thought the writing was off, and then about fifteen minutes in, the thought flashed through my head: I’ll bet this entire episode is going to be a near-death induced dream. My rational side said, no, David Shore is a sharp guy and knows enough not to pull something like that.

Finally, at the point at which House ate a chili dog with his assailant, I said it out loud. “This whole thing is going to be a hallucination.” Actually, what I said was, “This is going to be An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” But more on that later.

My wife and daughter looked at me. I don’t think they wanted it to be that way, either, but on the other hand they know my writer’s instinct. A couple of months ago, my son was over for a visit and we were all watching an episode of Law and Order that opened with a cop lighting a bunch of candles in front of the locker of a fallen comrade. I told my son, “Watch – the last thing in this episode is going to be them blowing the candles out.” That’s what happened, and my son was alarmed: “Dad, stop! How did you do that?” He still talks about it.

(It’s a talent – I was once on a date where I was dragged to the Chevy Chase film Foul Play. My girlfriend had seen it, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see her watching me to see what my reaction to certain events would be.* I knew she was eyeballing me during an early scene where Goldie Hawn was threatened by a snake she hadn’t yet seen, so I leaned over to her and whispered, “The snake is a pet.” She got so mad she slapped me. No, that wasn’t the one I married.)

So the episode plays out with increasingly bizarre hallucinations on House’s part until – guess what? It turns out that the whole episode was just a hallucination that took place between him being shot and the time they started to wheel him into the operating room.

I think this was a really, really bad idea.

See, there are several problems with using the “hallucination” or “it was all a dream” device in fiction – three that I can think of off the top of my head. These are:

1) It’s a cheat.

It’s a cheap trick used to tell a story that maybe you don’t want in your continuity, but think would be neat to tell (if you’re writing a series of some kind). An old college buddy just sent me this link to a site that collects and mocks comic book covers (with special emphasis on DC titles). One mystifying thing I see a lot in these galleries are covers like this, where we’re told that the tale beneath the covers is “imaginary” – that is, not a part of the comic’s continuity. After all, Lois Lane wouldn’t really marry Lex Luthor in real life, would she?

Excuse me… but even if this particular story (and there are many other “imaginary” stories documented on this site’s pages) wasn’t imaginary… it’s still imaginary because it’s a piece of fiction.

There’s an emotional investment a person makes when suspending their disbelief to read your work. And when you pull this ending out of someone else’s bag of literary tricks, you’re abusing that investment by ignoring their ability to suspend to begin with. Thus, using the “’twas only a dream” gambit is a cheat because you don’t trust people’s suspension of disbelief to kick in and carry them through the story, so you remind them that everything is a made up fiction with a “surprise revelation” at the end.

That’s it. Treat your readers like they’re stupid.

2) It negates the dramatic effect of the story.

Even Freud said, “sometimes a dream is just a dream.” If Shore wanted House to do some navel-gazing, he could have done it in the recovery room – even with the device of having his assailant in the same room with him (unlikely as that would actually be).

Yeah, I know there was some soul-searching on the good doctor’s part during the hallucination, but… really… couldn’t they have found another vehicle for it? I mean, I’ve had some really interesting revelations when I was sick as a dog and my mental competency needle had dropped well into the red. Next time you see me in person, ask me about one memorable epiphany: Hmmm… makes it’s own gravy! But only if you really want to know.

Think about it – how seriously do we take dreams in real life? And never mind our own – have you ever had to sit through someone else telling you about a dream they had? …and so we were at my house, only it wasn’t really our house, if you know what I mean, and Herb came in, only he was six-foot four and had blond hair, and he had this thing in his hand…

So now you’re writing something that you want someone to take seriously, yet when it comes down to the wire, you’re willing to dismiss it all?

That’s it. Treat your story like it doesn’t matter.

I suppose this is a handy thing to do if you want to keep the story out of your main continuity (if you have one), but why assign such value to a story line and then pull the plug on its “reality?” Stephen King has, I dare say, made a tidy living putting nightmares to paper, and not once that I know of has he said, “And then the little girl woke up, and all of the vampires turned out to be just dust bunnies under the bed.”

If it’s only a dream, what’s the point of telling it? Everyone dreams.**

3) It’s been done before. Unto death.

And its also been done better. See Ambrose Bierce’s classic short fiction An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Go ahead. Click over and read it right now, if you haven’t already. I’ll be waiting when you get back.

Bierce’s story was the first manifestation of this plot line that I know of, and in this case the first is the best. But it certainly wasn’t the last. Here are just a few examples of how this has been used and abused since Bierce first put stylus to paper:

  • Dallas – the writers of this TV series wrote off an entire misguided season of their show by revealing that Bobby Ewing’s sudden reappearance in the shower was merely the indication that his wife had just wakened from a dream. Even Paul Harvey was indignant about this.
  • Jacob’s Ladder – Tim Robbins survives Vietnam and comes home to debilitating and increasingly worse nightmares, followed by the revelation that his survival and the years that followed was a drug-induced hallucination which took place in his dying moments back in ‘Nam. If you read the Bierce story like I asked you, you’d see this was a direct lift. Except for the drugs.
  • Robot Monster – That cheesy sci-fi movie with the monster that’s a guy in a gorilla suit with a diving helmet and TV antennas on his head, while a Lawrence Welk machine blows bubbles and scary Theremin music plays in the background. Turns out to be a dream of a little kid who read too much about atomic bombs, or watched too much TV, or ate too many chili dogs. I don’t care.
  • Carnival of Souls – A creepy little movie that’s another direct lift from Bierce, right down to the river. But this one is great, as only a low-budget production can be. Less really is more.
  • Newhart – Not to be outdone by Dallas, the writers of Bob Newhart’s Vermont-based sitcom wrote off the entire series in the final episode by having Newhart wake up to reveal it was all a dream had by – Dr. Robert Hartley, his character from The Bob Newhart Show. I didn’t care that much for Newhart, but this was brilliant.

So unless you can pay faithful homage to Bierce’s story, or put a radical new spin on it (whether seriously or in comic fashion, as Newhart did), it’s best just to step away from the idea and leave it to lay on the ground. Besides, you’re a writer, right? That means you have lots of other worthy ideas. Except for that one about the two people who crash their spaceship on a jungle planet, and the pilot’s name is Adam and the copilot’s name is Eve… lose that one, too.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I am considering writing a thriller about the difference between dreaming and waking – and even writing the novel “live” online – but I promise it won’t have this kind of ending. Many other twists, I hope, yes. But this novel isn’t about the dream. It’s about waking up.)

In the meantime, I’m interested to see what David Shore does to pull off the remainder of the House-gets-shot story line at the beginning of next season. From past experience I know that House can do things that should indicate shark-jumping, but manages to actually get away with them. I want the show to succeed as do millions of other loyal viewers… but were I David Shore, I wouldn’t push my luck.

I been bad – it don’t feel good
But I’m so good at it that it hurts
I get you worried that there are no rules
And you start clinging to a magic word

(via iTunes)

* My wife does the same thing if she’s seen something and I haven’t – but she doesn’t know that I know she does it . Someone tell me, is it a girl thing or what?

** If you say you don’t dream, what you mean is that you don’t remember your dreams.

BONUS LINK: “But Captain America, didn’t you get your super powers from drugs?

The Plot-Fix Mini Clinic

Here are a couple of things I’ve wanted to write posts about. The problem is, I didn’t think I really had enough to say about them to justify doing it (I know, I know, since when has that ever stopped me before?).

What I decided to do is combine them into one post, a couple of thumbnails to look at when you’re planning and plotting your project to see if it could somehow be made “more better.”

Note: All opinions on examples are subjective. This is how they struck me.

Time Compression Problems

Remember that bit from one of the Naked Gun movies that showed a montage of a couple doing silly things while they dated? As a moviegoer familiar with film shorthand, you assumed that this montage was something that played out over the space of a couple of weeks. Then, at the end, one of the characters says something like, “It’s been such a fun day.” The incongruity of it all produced a laugh.

Laugh all you want, but there are films that fall victim to this (I don’t recall any novels doing this, but that’s not to say they’re not out there).

In O Brother, Where Art Thou? the three escaped convicts are on the way to a house which will be flooded over in three days. Along the way, they record a song to get some money. The record is pressed, distributed to radio stations, becomes a hit, sells like hotcakes in stores everywhere, and makes cultural icons out of the trio. All this before the house is flooded. Three days. Don’t think so.

Another example is Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown. The dutiful but suicidal son flies off to collect the remains of his deceased father as his mother stays behind to deal with her grief. She does so by learning to fix her car by herself, getting hit on by a libidinous neighbor, taking tap lessons, learning how to be a gourmet cook, and taking a class in standup comedy. And she accomplishes this in… well, by my count, Drew spends two days in Elizabethtown before his mother shows up for the funeral.

Time compression problems happen in film in the editing stage, I suspect. In Elizabethtown, I suspect it went back to an overzealous screenwriter. As Crowe was both on this film, he turned out to be his own worst enemy in this instance.

When this kind of thing translates into a novel, we tend to see it not as the passage of time, but some kind of continuity problem. Besides, in the novel it is easier to control time than it is on screen. The very form itself makes for a tightly controlled environment. Even in a book like Slaughterhouse Five, where conventional notions of time go out the window, there is still a sense of continuity, and nothing seems rushed or compressed or out of place, because the form of the novel itself is so controlled. And if it happens in something like a Tom Robbins or Thomas Pynchon novel, well, it was probably intentional.

So word to you potential screenwriters and directors. And to you aspiring novelists, take heed. Keep control of your medium.

The Underwhelming MacGuffin

I hadn’t seen my brother in a couple of years, and we decided to go to a movie that was new in theaters at the time, The Presidio with Sean Connery and that guy from the doctor show who was supposed to have a long career but didn’t. I watched and watched and watched, wading through the cliches of the thriller until at last a revelation was made. Diamonds were cleverly being smuggled in jugs of water, which made them more or less invisible.

“At last!” I thought. “The movie is finally going to get good!”

Imagine my surprise when the credits rolled.

I was reminded of this when I caught Alien Nation on the Fox Movie Channel the other night. There’s a lot I liked about that film – the whole culture of the newcomers, which was thought out even down to the grafitti spray painted on the sides of buildings. Then came the revelation that drugs were circulating that would once again make slaves of all the alien newcomers. And somehow… it… just… wasn’t… quite… big… enough.

What happened?

I think the MacGuffins weren’t properly matched to the plot.

In the case of The Presidio, the whole movie seemed to revolve around that surprise of the diamonds being hidden in the water jugs. But for me, that should have been a second act revelation. Who was smart enough to hide them like that? Why were they trying to smuggle them? What kind of nefarious deeds were they going to do with the money? Were they going to attempt world domination with Laser-Eyed Sharks, or were they just going to spend the money on sex and drugs? I wanted to know these kind of things, and the film just didn’t pay off. To the producers of the film, the water jugs were the way cool moment. I wanted more.

With Alien Nation the gravity of a race-enslaving drug was not felt during the course of the film. People were a little too cool, a little too level headed. There was only one person sent out to try and kill James Caan with a car bomb, and he was a nincompoop. Look at a film like Capricorn One, which took something smaller – the faking of a Mars landing – and put so much gravity on it that the movie was a swell roller coaster ride, with dead bodies turning up, a reporter with nowhere to hide, desperate men on the lam, and in the case of the brake tampering scene, a virtual roller coaster ride. By comparison, Alien Nation’s villains were the Andy Hardy of screen bad guys – they got together one day and said, “Hey, let’s enslave an entire race of people! I’ve got my old chemistry set…”

I know, I too subscribe to Hitchcock’s definition of the MacGuffin (what the spies want that the audience doesn’t care about). But tell me there was no gravity to the Lost Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, or heck, even the diamond in the opening scenes of the second Indiana Jones movie that ended up on the floor with all of that literal ice.

In other words, the audience doesn’t have to care about the MacGuffin (at least until it starts melting Nazi officers like Jell-o), but it had better have the weight behind it to propel the plot forward. If you’re trying to enslave a nation, one nincompoop with a car bomb isn’t going to do it. And if you’re going to smuggle diamonds through a military base, you’d better have a really good reason for it besides greed.

Does this happen in novels? Oh, you bet it does. In my mononucleosis days, I tossed many bad science fiction novels across the room in disgust before it occurred to me to find out how much those hack writers were being paid. And when I read the amount, it launched me as an SF writer.

Now just for sake of argument, what happens when you’ve got a MacGuffin that the audience literally isn’t supposed to bother with? It’s a cautious move, indeed. The movie Ronin uses a mysterious briefcase to launch all sorts of action sequences – and when the rubber finally makes it back to the road, we learn that – Surprise! – there’s nothing to learn. One of the characters collects the briefcase and takes it away, and we never find out what was in it. This twist, if you could call it that, fit in with the movie in that it only added to the disappointment generated by the rest of the film. On the other hand, from what I’ve heard about Pulp Fiction, it makes perfectly good use of a briefcase that we never learn the contents of.

The lesson? Do what you want with the MacGuffin. Deny showing it to us. Have it turn out to be worthless. Have it turn out to be precious only to the original owner. Have it escape from the hands of the pursuers and get scattered to the four winds. Have it be the answer to the seeker’s hopes and dreams.

Just make sure that it’s equal to the task of carrying the plot. And that we believe it’s important to them.

And one final note. If it really is that important to the spies seeking same, and they send someone to kill someone in their car, make sure they send the guy from Capricorn One and not Alien Nation.

Huh, I’m the director of this,
I’m the producer of that,
What you gonna do next?
How you gonna top that?

(via iPod Shuffle)

Artistic Integrity (Rant #2)

Well, this about clenches it. I’m getting ready to shrug off any notions of writing commercial fiction and just write books for me, even if they end up in the metaphorical closet under the metaphorical bowling shoes.

Yeah, I know, I’ve said that before. But I think I’m getting serious about it, because I feel like some of the things about writing and publication that meant something even five years ago are being cheapened by the minute. While we seem to be in a Golden Age for some things (acoustic guitars, for example), our literary culture acts as if it’s slouching towards Gomorrah when it comes to artistic integrity.

You know, that whole notion that you write something original and stand by it and that you don’t have to resort to false pretense to sell it.

I’m not talking about recent lawsuits involving Harry Potter or The DaVinci Code. Whether there’s actually a case in any of those suits I don’t know, and I don’t really care. Those are Gravy Train lawsuits. If either one of those books had sold as well as, say, Ferman’s Devils, there wouldn’t be a story. There wouldn’t even be a lawsuit.

No, this is about all the stuff I’ve been hearing about of late that up until now I’ve been silent on. The teenaged prodigy who “must have internalized” large portions of the novels that influenced her to start writing. The guy who appeared on Oprah and passed off the novel he cribbed from two other books as his personal memoirs. Or another memoir writer, formerly a specialist in gay erotica, who manufactured a Native American persona to sell his cribbed novels – and now, caught with his hand in the cookie jar, is shopping around his memoir about his memoirs (shades of journalistic fraud Jayson Blair, who played the race card while telling all in his memoir, Burning Down My Masters’ House… which brings up a question – how do you fact check the memoir of a plagiarist or fraud?).

Right now there may be one person jumping up and down as he reads this, screaming at me and saying the pot is calling the kettle black. See, I had a friend acquaintance in high school who was always accusing me of plagiarism.

We once read a story with a scene where policemen ran around talking in numbers to each other, obviously inspired by TV shows like Dragnet and Adam 12, where the crimes and the radio traffic were all numerically encrypted. I liked the idea so much that I cribbed it. I wrote a bit in a different context, where people talked in confusing strings of initials. For those three of you that read it, this evolved into the business with all of the initials in Old Loves Die Hard.

But my friend acquaintance couldn’t think of enough bad things to call me. I was a plagiarist, pure and simple, and I was going to burn for it. He made a career of denouncing pretty much everything I wrote during that period, and I came to realize that it was because he was jealous. There was actually something – one thing – that I was better at than he was. And he couldn’t stand it.

What he didn’t understand then – and what I couldn’t convey to him because, while I’d internalized the rules of how ideas worked, I hadn’t had experience enough with them to explain it properly – was that there was a difference between outright plagiarism and what Lawrence Block calls creative plagiarism.*

The former is wholesale copying of themes, concepts, ideas, and yes, even text, and incorporating it into one’s work and presenting it as original.

The latter is the process of seeing how someone else worked with their material, bringing their own ideas to the party, playing with it, letting it evolve, and then writing it new out of whole cloth.

The latter is a time-honored tradition among writers. It’s called formula. And if it didn’t exist, novels would have ceased after number 37 – because that’s the number of plots there are in the world. Imagine, a world where there was only one Harry Potter novel, one James Bond movie. Did you realize that Alien and Aliens have virtually identical plot lines – what a difference a screenwriter and director make. And John Irving used this to write his first few novels, arranging the same elements in different orders and sequences until he hit the lottery with The World According to Garp, and then did it one more time in The Hotel New Hampshire for good measure.

Block’s example of this is the occasion on which he was reading an Agatha Christie-like mystery, and at the end of the book it turned out that the butler had done it. He was sure the Vicar was the culprit. He had all of this mental evidence against him as he read the book. Then he started thinking, well if only this event had gone this way, and that event had gone that way instead… and pretty soon he had worked out a scenario for a new mystery novel that bore no resemblance to Agatha Christie.

But don’t tell my friend acquaintance that.

Now there is a less-honorable path that creative plagiarism takes – this is why you see Harry Potter ripoffs all over the place now (Boy wizards make money!), and why there was a horror boom in the 1980’s (Stephen King makes money!), and why we have new sub-genres like techno thrillers and legal thrillers (Tom Clancy and John Grisham make money!). And you know what? God bless America for that.

But there are those, like my friend acquaintance, who can’t differentiate between that and the kind of wholesale bottom-feeding plagiarism that has been roiling in the headlines since the beginning of the year.

This whole business of cribbing (and let’s call it what it is, which is stealing) with some false identities thrown into the mix has suddenly become a huge flaw in the industry – the literary equivalent of steroid abuse. Let’s face it, literature has had a long history of tolerance for character defect – we’ve had opium smokers, absinthe drinkers, heroin addicts, stoners, cokeheads, and full blown alcoholics functioning among our numbers since it all began, and that’s just under the heading of substance abuse. But even then they played inside the rules.

It’s not like this has never happened before – Stephen Ambrose, Janet Daily, and Alex Hailey have all been caught in the act at one time or another. It just feels like this dishonesty is reaching critical mass right now.

Like the rules have all gone out the door.

In this era of instant gratification, it’s no longer enough to have to come up with one’s own writing, especially when someone has broken the ground for you. Again, let me illuminate the difference here. “Hmm, Mark Haddon made a compelling character with an autistic narrator. What if I had an agoraphobic narrator?” “Hmm, these paragraphs from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time would work really well in my book. And nobody’s looking over my shoulder…”

This is all ironic, since the Internet, which is giving potential offenders access to even more resources, is making it easier and easier to catch these folks. I know an English instructor at a local community college, and she’s sometimes referred to as The Plagiarism Nazi by colleagues and students alike because of her eagle eye, her memory, and her ability to wield tools like Google in her quest for truth, justice, and original writing.

Perhaps that’s the problem. Maybe as many people as ever before are dipping their buckets a little too deeply into the literary well, but more of them are getting caught at it. And when those caught were those who commanded mid six-figure advances or more, were gushingly reviewed by the cognoscenti, or got plum interview spots on Oprah or Larry King, well, that makes the stench all the more foul.

But I don’t think that’s all of it. I think publishers are going the way of Hollywood, throwing unconscionable amounts of money at people and their books in search of The Next Big Thing instead of taking the time to nurture the careers of writers like they did back in the era of Maxwell Perkins.

When you look at all of that and you see the publicity a markedly original book can get, it’s just too tempting. There’s a lot of greed out there**. There’s a lot of temptation to take shortcuts because let’s face it, writing a novel is hard work. It can be lonely work. And when your friends are off at the pub tossing darts or doing whatever they do while you’re locked up in your silent little office, that’s when you hear the little voice telling you to pick up the ring… and slip it on your finger… just this once…

No. I’m not even going to give these folks, and any other of their ilk that much. I know too many writers who have worked too hard to produce original works that come from their own unique vision of the world to give plagiarists any justification at all. No matter what kind of childhood they had, or anymore, claimed to have had.

They’re thieves.

It’s wrong.

And when they give lame excuses like “I must have internalized those passages wholesale from my favorite novelist’s book” or “I recently learned that my essentially random and non-pervasive acts of copying are attributable to a psychological problem that I never even suspected I had,” they should be tarred with book-binding glue and feathered with the shredded remnants of their contract and manuscripts.

Okay. That’s enough. I’ll wipe the foam and spittle from my lips, having vented. I should be happy and serene for a while. Or for fourteen more minutes, until the next plagiarism scandal breaks.

Meantime, I’ve got work to do. A new novel about a southern belle who would do anything to preserve the plantation of her youth from the ravages of the Civil War. I’ve got it half done, even though I only started typing two weeks ago, and you want to know something? I’m going to dedicate it to my old high school friend acquaintance.

I hear you calling, but I ain’t no fool
I’ve got to be stronger
I’ve got to get over you
Each time I cry, its a sign of my pain
Every tear that falls, carries your name

(via iPod Shuffle)

* Not that any of this would have mattered to my friend acquaintance – he would have found some other reason to hate my stuff.

** And I thought I was being greedy in 1978 when, on learning that Daw books paid a $2000 advance for a typical first SF novel, I said to myself, “I can do that!”)