Category Archives: Plotting

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.

Harry Must Die

Some years ago, my wife and I were sitting through our umpteenth viewing of Lady and the Tramp with our young daughter. It was the scene where the Trusty, the bloodhound who lost his sense of smell, tracked down the wagon carrying Tramp to the dog pound, causing an accident. Cut to a scene of Trusty lying motionless under the wagon’s wreckage.

In the next scene, the neighborhood dogs all come to visit Lady’s litter of pups, and Trusty shows up with a cast on one leg. My daughter was enrapt at this, but my wife leaned over and quietly whispered, “You know, this would have been a better story if Trusty had died.”

And I realized instantly that she was right. How much better the ending of Lady and the Tramp would have been if Trusty had died saving Tramp from the dog catcher – only to have life reaffirmed at the end by Lady’s litter of pups. I understand why Disney ended it the way they did, but in my book, a bittersweet ending is more powerful than a straight happy ending.

It’s because the bitter and the sweet compliment each other. A cup of coffee is good. So is a doughnut. But if you eat them together, it’s a whole different experience.

They’re just something about dealing in tragedy that complements a positive ending in ways that keeping things level and happy just can’t compete with.

Looking back on it, I see that my writer’s instinct told me this even before my wife mentioned it on that night long ago. I had just kept it internalized until she said it aloud, at which point it surfaced and showed me the truth in what she had said.

Most of my work ends in the bittersweet. A Death of Honor, where Payne and Trinina are on a boat, having escaped with their son, Nathan – but what about all the people left behind who couldn’t escape?. Angel’s Luck, wherein James May shows his rebuilt ship, now registered with a new serial number – and when he unveils the new name, we see that its namesake is the man who died saving them when things looked the worst.

I learned – and internalized – this lesson with my first big literary success, the production of my first play, Old Loves Die Hard. In the end, husband Tony Madison, who is now a ghost, talks to his wife. She tells him that in death he is seeing the kind of literary success that he couldn’t quite grasp when he was alive. He tells her to take the money and have a good life, and they share a ghostly kiss. Then she leaves, and he gets all bluff and macho, starting a game of poker with other ghosts in the house.

I had no inkling how powerful that ending was until after one performance, when two teenaged girls came up to me. “We really liked your play,” one said, “but there was a problem with the ending.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

Their eyes started to mist over. “We think,” one said, “that Jill should have gotten killed so she could have been with her husband.” And then they started to wipe tears out of their eyes.

At first I was floored that they’d invite more tragedy to get what they thought was a happy ending. Eventually I realized that the issue went deeper than that. Here you had a dark comedy about people being killed under peculiar circumstances, and once the fun is over, it works out as well as possible for everyone involved, considering what has gone on before. Except for that one bittersweet thing… Tony and Jill have to part company, being now on two different planes of existence.

All this comes to mind now, because J.K. Rowling has talking about the ending of the final Harry Potter book – hinting here, and flat out discussing here – that the boy wizard might just die at the end of the final installment.

Now, I haven’t read any of these books, but I’ll defer to my now-teenaged daughter, who has read them all. For the last couple of books, she has advocated that Harry Potter would have to die at the end of the seventh book in order to bring the story to a logical conclusion. According to her, Harry and Voldemort are inextricably linked, and if one is to be done away with – in this case, the bad guy – then it will mean the end of the umbilically attached Harry.

What’s more… doing that would make it a better story.

Before you Harry Potter fans start filling my comment section with protest, think about it. Which kind of character makes a better hero? One who overcomes tremendous odds and emerges victorious – even though it might take a potentially flaky bit of trickery to get around a long-established precedent – or the person who gains a complete and utter victory, probably even saving the world in the process, but only at the cost of his own life? Or to put it another way, would you rather have a run-of-the-mill hero, or one who is elevated into a Christ figure?

That’s what I thought.

Now that I think about that whole Christ figure thing, I suppose that in the world of fantasy and magic, it would be well within Rowling’s abilities to kill Harry off, let you fester and think he’s dead for a couple of chapters, and then bring him back from the dead at the very end.

Nope. If she’s going to kill Harry Potter, he has to stay dead. Bringing him back would sink him into the depths of being a comic book Christ figure like, well, Superman.

Now I’m not saying that you have to kill off the lead character in order to have a great story. If you’re a regular reader here, you know that I revere Elmore Leonard, and I have yet to read a book of his where he kills of his protagonist (although there’s probably a couple out there). In Leonard’s world, it’s about how big of a jam he can put them in, and how unexpectedly – but plausibly – they can be extricated from their situation.

There is also hazard in killing off a protagonist, and not just from financial returns in the event of a sequel (although that hadn’t ever stopped Hollywood). Lawrence Block tells the story of writing a novel where his protagonist died, and he had the following conversation with a friend. “I knew you were going to kill off your main character from the time I started the book.” “Really? How?” “You wrote it in third person. You usually write your books in first person.”

(Although I once read a really bad novel where the author did kill off the narrator – at least, I think he did. I quit reading in disgust because he was describing being led to his execution, and then he wrote, “I can’t believe they’ve let me keep this journal in my hands so I can write in it…” Suspension of disbelief: annihilated.

Nor do you want to kill off characters gratuitously. I shouldn’t have finished reading Stephen King’s The Stand when half the cast was shot to death in a Las Vegas jail cell just so, I suspect, King wouldn’t have to deal with any of them in the book’s epilogue. Come to think of it, I should have quit at that point. It would have spared me the insult of the Deus-Ex-King ending where the Hand of God comes out of the sky to detonate a conveniently placed atomic bomb.

But I digess.

So to sum it all up, there’s nothing wrong with a happy ending. Paraphrasing Mickey Spillane, the ending of your book sells the next book. But why settle for just a happy ending when, with just a dash of tragedy, you can elevate the ending from good to great?

Ms. Rowling, I hope you’re listening.

Don’t ask me
I’m an ignorant, I’m afraid
On my life I believe we’re tailor made
I should worry if the weather spoils the trade
I’m a crumb and I’m in your lemonade

(via iPod Shuffle)

All The Guns Are On The Wall

JCF’s Christmas Play
Pages, 10/11/05: 7
Current Total: 23

I finished Act One, Scene One last night. The antagonist is in the house. He hasn’t turned everything upside down yet, but that’s coming. Right now he’s just stumbling into the quiet little world I have set up.

With a nod to Anton Chekhov, I think all the guns I need for the play have been loaded and placed. There are some funny things, some dramatic things, but no real firearms. And if I think of anything else, I can go back and surgically drop them into the first scene later.

Now in all actuality, the first scene isn’t quite finished. After letting my wife read it and then sleeping on it, I decided that there’s a little bit more work that I need to do.

There’s a convention in play writing where one character can describe an event that happened offstage to another character, and it all works in context. For example, in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, the husband comes home sick and drunk and chilled because he was, well, walking barefoot in the park in February. When it came time to make the film, however, this scene was shown, and was written in a way that what happened during the aftermath in the play actually took place while the husband was, uh, barefoot in the park.

Thinking of this convention, I realized this morning that I had kind of painted myself into a corner. There was an event that is pivotal in the antagonist’s relationship with one of the other characters, and as of last night, I had it as insignificant and passed it off as offstage action.

This morning, I realized that I need to show that, so we get to see another side of the antagonist and understand his motivations. So back to work on the scene, which may or may not be finished tonight, but certainly will be done by the end of the week.

I must admit that writing this play is really, as my wife says, lighting up my brain. I haven’t done this since I was a mononucleosis bound college student, and finding out that the literary muscles and Sense of Funny are still there is rather exciting. The bicycle has been in the garage for quite a while, but I can still ride it.

Listening: Tom Lehrer, “Lobachevsky (Live)” (via iPod Shuffle)

Do the Unexpected

My wife sometimes listens to a CHR/Pop station out of Cleveland (read: mostly Hip-Hop) to keep up with culture and “Stay young.” Saturday mornings she’ll put on the Ryan Seacrest version of American Top 40, and I get dragged along on the trip. She doesn’t want me to become a geezer, even though musically I’m going in another direction by listening to Jandek (hey, I’m the first on my block to discover Nizlopi, and their album isn’t even out over here yet…).

One of the things we’ve discussed is Marshall Mathers, a/k/a Eminem. My wife thinks he’s brilliant (but would never buy one of his CD’s). I recognize his obvious talent, but think what he is doing with it (to steal a riff from The Right Stuff) is B-A-D.

Which brings me to the film 8 Mile, the fictionalized life story of and acting debut of Mister M2. I don’t think my wife wanted to see it, but I’d heard some good reviews and was curious – but not enough to get caught going into a theater or shelling out to rent the DVD.

So last night it ran on VH-1 as part of their Movies That Rock series. Since I was Mom-sitting, I pulled my iBook into my lap to try and answer some overdue e-mails and watch. Interruptions were numerous, but I saw enough of the movie to know that I enjoyed it. In fact, I was surprised how much I did like it. Eminem did a good job playing himself (in a Harold RussellDr. Haing S Ngor sort of way), and I liked the gritty tone of the film, the way it showed the seedy underbelly of Detroit (years ago I’d been there to visit in-laws and got to see the good stuff, so this was equal time).

I think the thing that impressed me the most about 8 Mile is that it tossed out all the conventions that you usually see in a film like this and did it, like Eminem’s character in the film, on its own terms.

Here’s some examples of what I mean (two caveats: spoilers abound, and I didn’t see every minute of the film, so I may be off on a few things):

The Setup: Young man tries to achieve success as a rapper in spite of being white.
What Would Usually Happen: Young man hits the big time, gets the girl, and the film ends with him playing to a packed arena in his hometown.
What Actually Happened: The young man is on the brink of breaking out, but steps back to do things on his own terms.

The Setup: Young man’s mother is in danger of being evicted from her trailer.
What Would Usually Happen: Young man wins the big rap battle and wins a small amount (say, $5,000). Uses part of it to pay Mom’s rent.
What Actually Happened: The young man wins the rap battle, but the only prize is bragging rights. The issue of the rent is left unresolved, unless you take the following into consideration.

The Setup: Young man asks for – and eventually gets – extra hours at the factory where he works, in an effort to raise money to help mom pay the rent.
What Would Usually Happen: After winning the rap battle, the young man quits his job because he’s just nailed down a large dollar-figure contract and his mom will never want for rent again.
What Actually Happened: After winning the battle, the young man steps away from a high-profile position at the club holding the contest. “I have to get to work,” he says.

The Setup: Boy wants to be a rapper.
What Would Usually Happen: Boy works hard, overcomes personal problems and whiteness, becomes a mega-star.
What Actually Happened: Boy works hard, overcomes personal problems and whiteness, becomes a better person in the process.

This is what, to me, made 8 Mile so great to watch. By breaking the rules of cliche, it actually made itself a better movie. Instead of making Eminem a one-dimensional character who becomes a star, he was three-dimensional and actually had a believable character arc.

Surprises like this are good. Being able to incorporate them into your fiction means you’re going to give your readers more than they bargained for – and perhaps make your work a better story in the process.

I’m not necessarily talking about plot twists here. I’ve discussed those before, and there are some problems related to using them – they’re not reversible, you run the risk of destroying suspension of disbelief, and you also run the risk of being stereotyped if you use them (see M. Night Shyamalan – everyone goes to his films expecting The Twilight Zone because of The Sixth Sense, but his work is deeper than that).

What I’m saying is that there’s a difference between a plot twist and the unexpected. Elmore Leonard, a national treasure, is the master of the unexpected. Toward the end of Riding The Rap there’s a scene where the kidnappers start arguing among themselves and suddenly start shooting each other – surprising us and sparing us the cliche of a detective slinking through the house, picking off the bad guys one by one. There’s a scene in the film version of Out of Sight where a bad bad guy is walking up a flight of stairs with drawn gun as he hunts good bad guy George Clooney. As they confront each other near the top of the stairs, the bad bad guy trips, his gun goes off, and he dies right there on the steps. I haven’t read the book of this, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that bit lifted verbatim right from the pages of Leonard’s book. That type of unexpected event is vintage Leonard, even if it isn’t.

So when you’re novelizing, think about what you’re doing. And if you see a cliche coming, avoid it like the plague.

I believe it was Raymond Chandler who once said, “When I get stuck, I have a man with a gun run into the room.” What makes that work is the element of the unexpected.

Only I submit to you that nowadays, having this happen is a cliche in and of itself.

So when you’re stuck, try this. Suddenly a man runs into the room and he’s carrying… a porcelain elephant?

Take risks. Do the unexpected. Eschew the cliche. And earn the adoration of your readers.

Listening: Dean Martin, “Memories Are Made of This” (via iPod Shuffle)

Plot Acceleration

I was recently dragged away from writing by my wife, who wanted me to see the encore airing of Fox’s new series Skin. She’d seen about the first 15 or 20 minutes of it early in the week when I was busy writing, and thought I’d like the way the show played with one’s perception of the characters.

So I watched an encore presentation, and was impressed, all right. You had the young lovers who would become star-crossed, and their parents, who were alternately compassionate and ugly in their own, different ways. My wife was right – the show was doing an interesting job of showing well-rounded characters (at least with the adults), timing them in such a way to play games with your perception of them.

But inside of another ten minutes or so, I started having a different thought about the show: Man, this thing is covering a lot of ground… are they going to be able to sustain this intensity for an entire season?

By my count there were 16 plot points that took place in episode one of Skin, and I know that’s incomplete because the two kids were always sneaking off to see each other. This is within the course of one hour, which means about 48 minutes of actual show time if you subtract the commercials. That makes for an awfully crowded first episode.

For example, having the kids hop into bed at the end of the first episode wasted a terrific opportunity to develop a sexual tension played out for an entire season or more. That could have been the climax (okay, pardon the pun) of the first season, as opposed to episode one. Remember Moonlighting? That entire series was built on sexual tension. Oh, but we live in a more enlightened time of teen sexuality. Sorry. I forgot.

Rather than take time to build the show, Skin seems to be designed for the attention-deficited MTV generation. It moves quickly and is flashy and stylistic – for good reason. Russell Mulcahey, who directed most of Duran Duran’s early videos, helmed this one. He’s very good at what he does, but he lacks subtlety. As a result, he show plays everything in its hand. And like Vincent in Gattaca, it saves nothing for the trip back.

Sustaining the show for a season may be a moot point. Its ratings were miserable on premiere night, which might have been the reason for the encore (and yet another encore on Sunday night – Fox must have a fortune invested in the show). It might not even last a full season as a result.

That’s where pacing comes in. I suppose that the first episode of Skin was deliberately fast-paced to set the hook in viewers (although the viewers weren’t there to begin with) – introduce all the characters, set the stage for conflict to come. A good intention in this world of commercial fiction, but not one that is wise.

Consider that the plot of a fiction is not one high concept idea but an entire helix of notions, ideas and concepts. And if you use up everything in the first 100 pages, that stretch ahead of you is going to be a long one.

This is one of Stephen King’s weaknesses. In many of his books, he appears to reach a point where he is simply tired of writing. He can no longer sustain the pace he started with, putting him into a situation where he has either run out of highway – or structured the novel so densely that he has painted himself into a corner. That’s when he starts doing sloppy things to hasten the end of the book.

In The Stand, for example, he goes on a rampage and kills several characters in a move that smacks distinctly of thinning the herd. He also resorts to deus ex machina with that Hand of God business, as well as in Needful Things, where out of the blue the sheriff develops the ability to shoot lightning from his fingertips (and isn’t that simply another riff on the Hand of God theme?).

At the other end of the spectrum, it’s also possible to have too many ideas – so many that the plot has to really hustle along in order to get everything in. Skin managed to do this in the first episode, but what happens if the structure overtakes the pace. Then you get something misshapen and grotesque like poor John Merrick.

How many of you have ever read a book review that said something like Author X’s new novel has more ideas on one page than most authors put into an entire novel? It’s one of the great cliches of book reviewers.

Whenever I see that phrase, I automatically translate it as the book is an unfocused mess, and I give it a pass. I discovered this when it was written about a Kurt Vonnegut novel – one of his post-genius novels written after he began his long slide into self-parody. Only Vonnegut was sloppy about the whole process. He tossed out ideas as filler, as red herrings (as if the book had enough plot to need/sustain them), and even as literal plots written by his omnipresent Sci-Fi hack Kilgore Trout (which brings us back to filler). When a book starts to read like a tenuous thread of stray ideas, you know you’re in trouble.

That’s an extreme example, I know, but Vonnegut is (excuse – was) an extreme writer. Granted, he has retired from writing, complaining about how nobody reads anymore. I think the real problem was that nobody was reading his new work. Even long-time fans and literary critics noticed that there was nothing left for him to build that helix with. His late period novels consisted of nothing but riffs, self-indulgent commentary and literary gimmickry that were fresh and new back when he was writing novels like Slaughterhouse Five.

So what’s a writer to do? It’s a fine, fine balancing act that we do. It’s coming up with the right combination of muscle and bone, one to hold things up and the other to provide life and locomotion. It’s simple things like letting the length of your story serve the plot, as opposed to stretching things to reach a desired page count (it’s easier to run long and cut than it is to pad out). A misstep can give you a nervous, twitchy squirrel dodging cars on the boulevard or a hulking, shambling Frankenstein creation. When you build your helix right, you get Baryshnikov. That’s the magic in it, and that’s what this racket is all about.