Obligatory Horror Post

There is a lot of discussion about horror right now – it is October, after all, so I suppose it to be appropriate. Oddly, though, much of it centers around why we read or watch it, should we, etc. Do crime fiction writers deal with this? Because it seems every genre these days has a persecution complex – YA, Romance, SciFi, grow some skin already. But I digress.

I’d like to avoid those issues, though, because they are subjective and immaterial. Horror is not my personal favorite, because all to often it is cheap, and depends on shock more than it does on actual art and talent (before horror fans and authors start piling on me, this can be applied to most genres, I am not picking on you). Follow the clichés and pump the stories out like machines, and they sell a bunch around Halloween.

But, of course, there is another side to it, the side with talent and artistry. What makes something horrific, scary, or creepy?

I’ve written a lot recently on subtlety, irony, and narrative within a story, and this is really just another facet of that gem. Because horror, at its core, is playing to our emotions, fear in particular. But is it enough to just scare someone? Sure, if that’s all your going for. That’s why there are so many jump-scares and gore splatters in horror movies. It makes you jump, or feel revulsion, but then it passes. Horror – to me – should be about more than that.

There is a movie called Synecdoche, New York, and it is not a horror film at all, but go and watch it right now because it is amazing. The thing this movie does, though, is it grips you and tears you apart in a million ways. The thing about it, though, is Charlie Kaufman, who wrote and directed it, said he started out to write an existential horror. And with no blood and bodies and monsters, it is that, because it addresses other emotions than fear – yet, those emotions are ones we fear of themselves.frankenstein

Which is the more relatable fear? The monsters under our bed – which we all know to be imaginary – or feeling lost, trapped, alone, helpless, and/or sad? None of those feelings are imagined, and we have all felt them, at least to some extent. The great horror writers use this to their advantage. I have used Poe as an example a lot lately, so we’ll let him rest, even though he certainly does this.

Stephen King is a master of this. Why are so many of his books so deeply haunting and terrifying? Because they are also frequently sad as hell. It amplifies the effect of the actual fear. Carrie isn’t a scary story because she has blood dumped on her, or burns the gym down. It’s because we know Carrie. Because no matter what the quote says, we don’t fear fear itself.

Perhaps my favorite example of this is a work that probably isn’t horror at all, but because of this effect, it’s subject is universally associated with horror: Frankenstein. Why is Frankenstein’s monster always treated as a monster, a subject for Halloween decorations? Because the book Frankenstein is one of the most emotionally powerful books ever written. It takes us through every single emotion, but it bookends the feeling of despair in an incredibly powerful way.

It begins with the creators desperate search for his creation, and he has despaired of hope – of finding him, of doing anything else in life. But then we get to know the creation, the monster, the unlovable figure with a very human heart. We know his hopes, his joys, and finally his despair at the sure knowledge he will never belong. We empathize with his despair at the end more than we did with his creator’s at the beginning, because we know who the guilt belongs to. And we are horrified, because guilt belongs to man, not the monster.

Yet- the monster’s face adorns Halloween decorations.

Anyone can jump around a corner and scare someone, or tell a story about the man with the hook for a hand who roams the streets to this very day, or create a shower of gore. But if you want to keep someone up at night, use emotions other than fear, and make people fear them.

DESR

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Narrative v Narration

I think it is safe to say that anyone reading this blog has a healthy appreciation for the beauty of language, and words. Both the glory of words, and the drawback, is they are simple used to represent concepts – they are not things in and of themselves. For example, what comes to mind with the word shambles?  Likely “a state of total disorder”. But it comes from the Latin scamellum, for bench, which became a word for stall which lead to Shambles being a butcher’s slaughterhouse, or meat market, which quite naturally lead to the way we use it today in reference to our kids rooms being messy (not as a scene of great carnage).

Words change. The concepts they represent change. But the beauty of a thing is not in its permanence. The same is true of books, of stories, as a whole – they represent concepts and ideas. Conversely from words themselves, though, the very fact that they represent deeper ideas increases their longevity.

Because any jackass can simply recount events. They can even arrange it into a three-act structure and tell a story out of it. Doing that takes time and effort, to be sure, and might even contain some pretty words, but it will be entirely forgettable if it doesn’t express a deeper idea.

A great example of this is Fight Club. Everyone knows exactly two things about Fight Club:

  1. The first two rules of Fight Club
  2. The twist at the end

beatBut that is not why people remember Fight Club (it is Brad Pitt’s abs in the movie). Because Fight Club, for being bokers, violent, having memorable lines and the all-time best twist, is memorable because of the ideas it represents. It’s about finding your identity, while also trying to find your place in the world and accept what you can and cannot change. All of that, painted with the brushstrokes of bull-headed masculinity – which, incidentally, is part of the concept and why it works.

I’ve been rambling about Poe a lot lately , mostly because I am reading through his works again, and because he is brilliant at things like this (Confession: Poe is the only author I enjoy MORE after writing in earnest). Perhaps – picking one story to embody this is a nightmarish chore – but perhaps the story that embodies this best is the Tell-Tale Heart. Because here, we have to parse it in twain: Narration v Narrative (roll credits). Put simply:

Narration: dude commits murder and is consumed with guilt.

Narrative: We’re really just deluding ourselves, aren’t we?

It’s a straightforward story – narration – isn’t it? First person, linear, with the plot to kill the old man, his execution, and the guilt consuming him to the point of confessing to the crime. All the while, our narrator is telling us how sane his:

Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded –with what caution –with what foresight –with what dissimulation I went to work!

All the while, we read it thinking this dude is nuts, because a madman is the one who kills methodically, without apparent provocation. Certainly we – I – am incapable of such madness, because we are sane!

Aren’t we?

Are we?

The narrator is sure of his own sanity, even as his own actions belie him. The first-person narrative (which should only be used for this reason, seriously stop writing everything in first-person) makes this all the more jarring, because we interpret it as our own thoughts. And who hasn’t reassured themselves that I am sane, look at how sane I am being right now (you guys do this too, right?).

Thus- the narration becomes the narrative. Our eye turns from the story and the very obvious madness before us, and asks, in the space of a couple thousand words, are we really who we think we are? The story, the question, then haunts us, just as the beating of the heart haunted the narrator.

If you outline, you likely write down the beats of a story – the essential narrative plot points. But do you write down what your story is, what it represents when distilled down? Macbeth said it best:

…a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

That is what is to be avoided – there is enough forgettable entries into literature. If you can represent ideas and concepts in a way that is deeper and stronger than your narration, you will end up with a better, more memorable work – one which signifies something.

-DESR

Ten Thousand Forks

Perhaps no word in the English language is so abused as poor irony (‘like’ is up there). It’s the rallying cry of hipsters who drink PBR and wear T-shirts ‘ironically’. And little needs to be said about that song, which contains nothing which is actually ironic, which, if intended, makes it actually ironic. So it is either brilliant or dumb. In any case, irony has suffered much.

And not only has its true meaning been diluted, its actual use has. We take irony- even as defined – to be brief, pithy and generally humorous in some way. But, my dear readers, but, irony is so, so much more than that. It is a great tool in writing, and is not particularly complicated to wield. All you have to do is understand what irony is, and what its intent is. To the first, we turn to the dictionary:

the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.

Italics mine in there. Note that is not just for humor. And we thus establish it is using the opposite to get your point across- which is where intent comes in. But that is the 1 definition. Mark this:

a literary technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, by which the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character.

So it is not even novel to use irony in writing- in fact, it is ancient. So how do we use it in our story? There are, of course, myriad examples in literature, but perhaps none better – or, at least, more apparent – than in The Cask of Amontillado, by Edgar Allen Poe. If you haven’t read it, do so now. It’s available for free in a few places, and is a quick read. I’ll wait.

Read it yet? Good. Let’s continue. The best place to start is with the very obvious ironies: Fortunato is easily apparent- he is far from fortunate, at least within the bounds of our story, but in other areas of life is successful. His demise- unsuspected, and likely unwarranted (more on that in a second), is as unfortunate as can be.

cask.jpgHe wears a hat with bells – in Victorian times, bells were put on bodies being buried (or even atop their graves) to prevent burial of people who weren’t actually dead and were just in a coma. Fortunato’s hat, however, provides him no such favors, jingling away, the only one to hear being his murdered.

So there are myriad obvious (Fortunato is implored to turn back; his health is showed concern for; the Mason joke)- yet effective ironies in the story. This is, of course, the easiest use of it – and there is nothing wrong with doing so. It fulfills the definitions above, telling your reader something  by using opposites to make the point.

But the story, in its entirety, is one of irony. We begin with

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but
when he ventured upon insult..

Yet we never know what the insult is- or if there even was one. Based on my experience, anyone who is willing to plot a years-long revenge is also the type of person who will take insult at almost anything (but I know very few murderers; I may be mistaken). And even if Fortunato did insult the narrator, does it justify his end? There is no way it could. So while the narrator is often called unreliable in this story, I don’t know that that is the best way of putting it. No, he is the opposite of moral sense- any of us (GG’ers will disagree) deem murder wrong and criminal. But to the narrator, it is his duty and morally right and justified. There is an overarching irony to the fact that the tale is from his point of view, and one that is unblinking in his assertion that he did the right thing.

This does something interesting to us – think of a book or movie that follows the ‘good guys’ through a murder investigation. The one that leaps to my mind is Se7en (UGH that name), which is a fantastic film. But throughout it, we are repulsed by the nature and crimes of John Doe. And even though we recognize that he firmly believes he is right, we never sympathize with him.

The narrator in this story, though- we never sympathize with him either, but we are more and more repulsed by him because it is told to us in a sympathetic tone. It is the irony of the story that drives home our feelings about his actions. Imagine it as a conventional crime story- the body is discovered, there is an investigation, it is revealed at the end that he was tricked and lead to his death. Bad enough, right? But by spending the whole time in the mind of the killer, and him proclaiming not his innocence, but that he is in fact just, there is a different feeling. It’s not a shock, not a jump scare or dramatic reveal, but a growing sense, knowing what is coming and being forced to watch it. It is the irony that draws you in and forces you to be a voyeur to an act you despise – and thus the reader shares in the irony.

DESR

In Praise of Subtlety

Do any of you have that word that you use all the damn time, but can still never spell correctly? And you usually go so far astray that autocorrect looks at it, looks at you, back at the word, and kind of walks away with a defeated shrug, muttering to itself?

‘Subtlety’ is that way for me. And I use that word a lot because it is a word, like irony (more on that later), which is having its meaning eroded. Not in the same way, of course- people use irony to mean all manner of things which are not, in fact, ironic. No, subtlety is simply being lost.

rain

Pretty, POTC, but not very subtle

 

 

“Show, don’t tell” is an all-to-frequently repeated adage of writing, usually accompanied by some quasi-poetic, insufferably pretentious statement like “don’t tell me it’s raining; make me feel the raindrops (this post might be insufferably pretentious, I realize). It’s not wrong, but it is over-repeated, to be sure. While there are a whole bunch of authors who go out of their way to make sure you feel raindrops, it gets shoved in our faces a lot that it is f**king raining – rain which does not connect to any greater purpose.

 

How so? I talked about it earlier – the gut-punch moments of trauma, for example. It propels the plot, sure, it makes the reader feel something, but is it in service of anything greater?

Personally, I deplore writing a word that only means one thing. And so much of literature these days is just that- one thing, a story, it goes from point A to point B, and along the way some shit happened. I loved, I laughed, I cried, I forgot about the story two weeks later.

Perhaps the preeminent example of this is The Raven, by Edgar Allen Poe. In it, Poe doesn’t really try terribly hard to make you care about Lenore, but by the time the door is open – a mere four verses in – we feel apprehension as well:

here I opened wide the door;—

            Darkness there and nothing more.

We, of course, know what is coming, but subtly apprehension is built. What’s more, we know what’s coming- in fact, if there is one thing every person knows about Poe, it is that the word nevermore appears in this poem. But let’s talk about that word; or, rather, half of it- more.

raven

By Adam Flynn

 

The word more closes every verse in the poem, which may not seem terrible subtle, but note that the simple repetition takes the narrator through the gamut of emotion. At first, it cheers our narrator, but drives him madder and madder at the repeated answer. But to us, the repetition is not maddening – it serves another purpose. It keeps a steady beat throughout the story, so that we anticipate that word coming, building to it.

 

But not the subtle shift in tone – the second verse closes with evermore – he is haunted by her. Then five verses of merely this and nothing more – the interruption, at those points, is inconsequential, and those words convey that nothing changes, for us or the narrator. But then the rest of the verses close with nevermore, with no variation. I think of this poem like the drumbeat that builds tension- slow at first, beating faster and faster and setting out hearts pounding and adrenal glands into a frenzy. Movies use it all the time – Poe writes it. So that beat starts neutral, and beats faster and faster as we anticipate it more, until the crescendo:

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
            Shall be lifted—nevermore!

 

Because this time- it’s not the Raven speaking, it’s the narrator. Every subtle layering throughout has led to this – the ultimate resignation of the narrator, and thus, ourselves.

Each use of more serves something larger- not just to convey the feelings, to make us feel, to tell us it is raining, but to set up, build to, a conclusion.

One of my favorite insults of all time is an old British one, that, presumably, has fallen out of use, but goes “what are you for?” which is to say, “what is your purpose?” Ask that of your words- what are they for, what is their purpose? How does it serve, not just the scene, not just the plot, but the entirety of the story and its ultimate payoff?

DESR

Over the Edge

Edginess is all the rage these days. Has been, for a long time, really. Push the envelope. Do something shocking and different. And that’s is all true and good – to an extent.

Once upon a time, a little film you may have heard of called Gone With the Wind made waves by using the word ‘damn’. Scandalous. And for the time, it was. And I am pretty sure we can all agree that standards when it came to books and movies in the era were pretty far out of whack.

Nowadays, not so much. It is, to borrow from V for Vendetta, the land of do as you please. This has some really good instances- think of Ned Stark or the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones. Shocking, edgy and unexpected.

On the flipside, you have to work really hard to be shocking and edgy, and a lot of authors jump from that side of the line to outright brutality. I’m not going to debate the artistic merits, or lack thereof, of brutality- if that’s your thing, Marquis de Sade is out there for you to read. But think of the sheer number of books and movies that feature an inciting incident that involves a wife/girlfriend and/or child being some combination of raped/tortured/murdered. Shocking, right?

got.gifSorry, no. A couple things: First, no. It’s lazy. Sure, a significant other or child being brutalized would set me on a path to revenge, but it’s still distasteful. Does that mean it should never be done? Of course not- there are plenty of examples of good literature that include those elements. But it is lazy writing. Because of the emotional punch that the reader receives by empathizing with the protagonist, it elicits a reaction.

But it is overdone, and usually poorly done, and usually the focus is on the wrong thing. Don’t believe me? As any editor how many submissions they receive which feature – and glorify – such brutality. I’ll wait. Back? Told you so. So in addition to being a cheap inciting incident, it’s overdone, and any true edge is lost.

So what would be the non-lazy way of going about it? Think of The Count of Monte Christo- who suffers? Someone innocent? No – our protagonist. We still empathize with him, and with his suffering – in fact, to a depth that we would not achieve were Mercedes raped and/or murdered – which is the road many authors these days would go.

In fact, the tale of revenge is so deep that when he begins to terrorize other’s families, we excuse it! We are so deep in his head, his feelings so much our own, that it traces through the rest of the book. It is not something spurred by a hero kneeling in the rain, holding a body, shouting Noooooooo before going on a rampage. It is a human, who is wronged deeply, and not only goes on a journey of revenge, but by the end, is forced to judge himself for his actions.

Edginess is a useful tool. But it is not the only tool, and if you lean to hard on it, you’ll find yourself with a shallow work, lacking subtlety and substance.

DESR

 

Smoke, Mirrors and Monsters

Everyone loves a good mystery. The feeling of reading something, that feeling of need to know the answer that forces you to keep turning pages even after you promised yourself just one more chapter eight chapters ago.

The bigger the mystery, the better. The ones that seem unsolvable are the best. They make you wonder how it will resolve satisfactorily. Only, so many times they seem unsolvable because they are. Because, as great as that mystery is, the low that comes from a conclusion that is a total letdown is even worse. It was a dream – they were dead all along – it was in someone’s head and a myriad of others make me drop books (and shows and movies) in utter disgus

disappoint.gif

Me, upon finding out your character was dreaming or dead or some crap

t, and makes all the good from the first 90% of a story seem bad.

 

So, dear reader who is also a writer, how do we avoid doing this ourselves? Or, more to the point, to our readers?

In the first place, never bet more than you can afford to lose. What I mean by that is, never raise the stakes beyond what your payoff can be. If your reader is heavily invested every step of the way, and you let them down at the end, your work will not be remembered fondly. BUT, if you give them a solid payoff – even if the mystery itself isn’t as deep – they’ll like it a whole lot more. So if you have this great premise, make sure you have an equally great ending.

Also, don’t go all in at the end (to continue the betting analogy). If you have a super crazy twist that no one will see coming, clue them in a bit. Give your readers some hints that something is coming, or at least some Easter eggs that make sense upon re-reads. Obviously, you don’t want to telegraph what is coming (otherwise it’s not really a twist), but if your story just takes a hard turn out of nowhere, readers will be bewildered, not intrigued.

Finally, know when to fold. Some ideas just don’t work. It’s better to walk away and work on something that does work – and, let’s be real, will sell – than to waste time on something that will ultimately overwhelm. Make a note of the idea, let it stew, and work on other, better projects.

And, for the love of all that is good, please do not let them just be dreaming.

-DESR

In Praise of Leia

There’s a lot of talk these days about strong women in fiction, and rightly so. There is also a ton of talk about Rey being overpowered, and… not so rightly. It’s particularly idiotic when we accept at face value that literally any dude handed a gun in an action movie is automatically Rambo, including, ya know… Rambo. Hell, including Luke himself, which the puppy/GG crowd will fight to the death, but let’s talk about that original trilogy for a second.

Because while you can debate Luke’s Hero’s Journey all day long (Luke sucks), the fact of the matter is Lucas lucked into one of the bad-ass women of all time. I say lucked into, because I have zero confidence in Lucas’ ability to A) write a decent character in the first place and B) because his track record of treating race and gender with respect is… not good. And C) because all the things that makes Leia awesome, I am pretty sure he did by omission. Here is a non-exhaustive list of Awesome Shit Leia Does:

  • Fights tyranny, not just with guns, but through proper channels and peacefully
  • Also guns
  • Resists torture by a Sith Lord
  • Watches her home planet be destroyed rather than give up information
  • Still manages to get off a snappy line when she is rescued*
  • Realizes her rescuers are, uhhhhh, kinda idiots who have no plan, and takes over
  • Comforts Luke (who sucks) about his friend dying**
  • Coordinates and attack on the Death Star right after all that
  • Doesn’t leave anyone at Echo Base until she is literally dragged out
  • Watches the same Sith Lord torture her crush
  • Saves Luke’s stupid ass
  • Tries to save her BF by going undercover in a mob
  • Gets captured and shoved in a bikini (click that link, kids)
  • Chokes the guy/slug that shoved her in said bikini
  • Volunteers for super-dangerous mission
  • Finds out her dad is the Sith lord who tortured her and her BF
  • Saves her BF
  • Finishes super-dangerous mission
  • Completing super-dangerous mission leads directly to conception of Poe
  • Sorry I got distracted there
  • Son turns to the Dark Side
  • Husband peaces out
  • She leads a new Rebellion… thingy
  • POE
  • Sorry
  • Husband comes back!
  • Son doesn’t
  • Son kills husband
  • Makes sure Rey, who she just met, goes to Luke (why? HE SUCKS) to train

That’s just so far. Most of us would have curled up in a ball and cried from half of that.

I'llNeverTell.jpg

By Chris Trevas

Which brings us to the writing side of it, and the asterisk up there is why I say Lucas lucked out here- that line wasn’t in the script, it was all Carrie coming up with it on the spot. I think Lucas wrote Leia to be a damsel in distress through a lot of it. Because, and maybe this is just me, but if I write about someone getting tortured and watching their planet blow up, I would want to explore the effect it had on them. But Lucas just moves on, as most movies and books do when a woman goes through something traumatic. It’s a plot point, a thing to motivate the actual protagonist (Luke, who sucks) along.

 

Which brings us to the double asterisk up there- Luke loses a friend who has known for… two days? Ish? Leia watched her home go all ‘splodey. Granted, Luke lost his family and home too, and his pain would certainly be real, but… whole planet. And there she is, comforting him. Lucas & Co. just gloss over her pain, but in doing so, make her stronger. Because she, through all of, handles herself. The only person we see her vulnerable with is Han, and that makes their romance more compelling than the standard guy-gets-girl narrative.

I don’t have a super-huge point here, besides:

  1. Leia is bad ass
  2. Luke sucks
  3. Don’t talk shit about Rey, she is perfect

And, maybe, from the writing side of it, there is a good lesson in not over-thinking things. Let your characters be who they are, and maybe they will be stronger for it.

DESR

PS Seriously, don’t talk shit about Rey. I will cut you.