Engineering Suspsense

Engineering Suspsense

I’m coming to terms with the fact that much of my fiction work has one foot planted in the thriller genre. The defining ingredient of a thriller is its suspense which has me thinking whether we could isolate and examine that which makes a scene, and the overarching plot itself, suspenseful. I’m hopeful.

Here’s what Hitchcock has to say on the subject:

“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

The most functional example of Suspense I can think of is the “Bad Dates” scene in Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. A bad man who hangs out with bad monkeys poisons a bowl of dates before a little Belushi-child brings the dates to the table where Jones and Sallah are discussing boring-ass archaeologist bullshit. The audience knows that the dates are poisoned and feels a sense of dread as Jones carries the fruit around, pausing to reflect on the information dump Sallah is delivering. Jones pops the date in the air, the audience shits, Sallah sees the dead monkey (a traumatizing experience for every 90’s child) and catches the fruit before it hits Jones’s mouth. Bad Dates. It ends on a grim joke. This scene works to hide the exposition necessary for the plot– a kind of misdirection that engages the viewer while also cramming heavy plot points down their throats. Indiana Jones should be a boring movie (it’s about an archaeologist goofing off with Bible antiques for chrissakes) but it cleverly engages the audience with high-stakes suspense at every twist.

It’s all about information control. That scene wouldn’t have worked without showing the bad man adding the poison. Without it, there’s just a dead monkey and an asshole Sallah obstructing a tasty snack. But it also doesn’t work without a scene roughly ten minutes earlier when Indiana Jones offers Marion the fruit and tells her, “Hey babe, it’s dates, you eat ’em, what is you stupid?” By controlling that information and doling it out at the right time, the audience has been forced to ask the question, “What’s going to happen with those dates, bruh?”

Timing the information is key and where you position this information is going to force the audience to ask different questions. Let’s talk about Tarantino, as he has a flair for torquing suspense during long passages of dialogue.

The opening scene of Inglorious Basterds is a perfect example. You know it’s unsettling because of the historical subtext (uh, Nazis) and because of the direct subject matter of the conversation (Casual anti-semitism and the bureaucratic banality of  the Holocaust). You understand that there’s a power dynamic at play here, and certain elements are played comedically (the size of the pipes, par examplé), but essentially it’s just a friendly conversation between a German officer and a French farmer, the former asking the latter about his neighbors. And then the camera pans below the floorboards and the audience now understands what’s at stake and the tension skyrockets. Were you nervous when the Nazi’s arrived? Of course. But you weren’t afraid about the outcome of the conversation until the camera informed you that you had a reason to feel that way– and then the conversation continues and dangles the outcome on a taut wire.

Here’s a failure in suspense: The stadium scene of The Dark Knight Rises. The audience is told, via exposition, that Bane is laying explosive-laden concrete around Gotham and after some kid sings the national anthem, Bane detonates the lot and we cut around to the mayor dying, the stadium exploding, the tunnel exploding, and bridges collapsing. For so much destruction, the scene plays out fucking languid. We just learned that shit was about about to blow up and there was no countdown. It’s functional, I guess, to move the plot forward, but the destruction showed onscreen wasn’t necessarily in the viewer’s mind as a stake in the villain’s scheme. The audience was relatively uninformed and the result is a diminished legacy to what could have been a perfect Batman trilogy. It’s strange to think that this movie came from Christopher Nolan, given that his bread and butter is creating thrilling, unexpected filmic narratives, perhaps quintessentially achieved in Memento, which keeps asking the audience “How did we get here?” through a disciplined control of information sequencing through a believable, if not convenient, perspective.

So let’s talk about how perspective impacts the release of information to create suspense.

The revelation in Silence of the Lambs is Buffalo Bill is making lady suits. The audience probably understands this before Clarice does, but only after a slow drip of clues allows the viewer to stitch it together for themselves. The way information is controlled in that narrative makes the viewer hink on the question “What the fuck?” while Clarice asks “Why the fuck?” and fills in the plot for us. Onward, the viewer is always ahead of Clarice. We know that Jame Gumb is the killer. She gets wise (because of moths and shit) and then the movie puts the audience further ahead by assuming the night-envisioned perspective of Gumb watching her stumble through the dark. Suspense is achieved by making us understand that the hero is vulnerable. However, in Lector’s escape plotline, the viewer is given only the information that Lector is alone with two unconscious guards and the film suddenly follows the perspectives of the police officers attempting to find and subdue him. We know nearly as little as they do and, although our hairs are up, we’re still trying to piece together the how? The reveal is a faceless corpse springing into an elevator car and we go, “Ohhhh fuuuuuu–” while our brains catch up to speed with everything we’ve been shown, even before Lector sits up to pull the skin from his face.

And I think it’s in perspective that we find how to measure the release of information to keep our audience enraptured, and to figure out what kinds of dilemmas are suitable for the story you’re trying to keep, well, suspended. The Raiders example couldn’t work without an omniscient camera. Silence of the Lambs wouldn’t work without limited perspective. Proper tool for the proper job.

It’s generally understood that this level of tension is harder to accomplish in writing than it is in film. What an insert shot on an object or an actor’s expression can accomplish can easily set up a certain expectation to prime the viewer’s attention. That being said, written narrative has more access to the reader’s direct psychology than film and that can be exploited to create similar, if not greater, experiences of suspension.

The question of Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest moves from “Can the Continental Op persuade an entire town’s kingpins to murder each other?” to “Did the Continental Op become so tainted from his involvement with murderers that he murdered Dinah Brand with an ice-pick when he blacked out from gin and laudanum?” That question drives the third act of the novel, after the initial goal was seemingly achieved. The reader, who has no doubt come to like the main character’s wiles, has to wrestle with this unknown, internal quantity. What’s more, the reader knows as little as the Continental Op, narrating his experience. Information control within perspective.

Starting your third act with the main character’s hand around an icepick stuck into a gamblin’ woman’s tit is one way of injecting suspense into a story (editorial: it’s a pretty cool one). There are others.

First person is particularly a hard nut to crack with this– you only have the character’s point of view to play with, making the “bomb beneath the floorboards” harder to establish. But you also have a tool that objective POV’s do not– a breadth of interiority. Take it for granted that the character’s reactions to certain stimuli will generally bleed into the reader’s mind. Now make the character obliviously acknowledge something obviously dangerous. Or began stacking idiosyncrasies from the character’s perspective to make a person or object dubious. Have the character run gut-checks. Make the reader ask the question, “Why is this the focus?” before revealing the payoff.

A favorite device of mine is to employ several first person narratives. Where one experience is incomplete, another fills in the gaps and gives the other narrative a more pronounced sense of danger and vice versa. It is not unlike a game of tennis.

With Third Person Omniscient, you can establish anything you want in any sequential order which, unfortunately, does not make this job easier. The trick, again, is to control the amount of information. If you place a scene which follows a man planting a bomb in a post-office box and in the next scene it explodes, then just like The Dark Knight Rises, you’ve squandered your moment. However, if you wrote the same sequence of events from a removed perspective, where all you saw was a man who deposited a package into the box and looked over his shoulders before he walked away, well, then we’re watching the mailbox now, aren’t we? Remove it further. Let’s say a hotdog vendor with a hearing-aid can’t get a certain beeping out of head. He complains all day. Our hero buys a hotdog, says something dismissive to the man’s complaint and walks away– only to witness an explosion a dozen yards away, and he’s covered in letters and postcards.

To instill suspense, one must make the audience understand danger. To make that understood, one must inform the audience of that danger one way, or another. When and how you do that is up to you but you do need to realize the questions you are proposing to your audience. If they’re asking “What is happening?” then you’re either a surrealist, a lazy surrealist, or a lazy writer. If they’re asking “Why is this happening?” you can rest more assuredly that you’ve provided enough information to have them ask, “What’s going to happen next?”

 

Book Release: Fish Fox Boys Part Two

Book Release: Fish Fox Boys Part Two

A little over two years ago I published a dumb book based on me and my siblings with the fragile conceit of “What if we were idiot-savant inventors wandering a post-nuclear wasteland?” It was a funny idea to me. I wrote the book and threw it online, not expecting much. Turns out people got a kick from it. The book dealt with philosophical and societal issues in such an innocent and flippantly cartoonish way that readers of all ages could engage with– among other things– the lunacy of consumerism, the awkward subtext of Puritan sexual pageantry, meta-literary commentary on plot devices, and existential futility.

But The Fish Fox Boys’s defining characteristic was its heart. The love expressed in that book is genuine. It damn well should be– those are my siblings and my friends we’re talking about here. And the overwhelming response I got from the book was that the love and goodwill expressed between the characters blotted out the bleak apocalypse surrounding them. So much so that I’ve had readers tell me that they wished the book was longer so that they could inhabit that world just a little longer.

So, with that in mind, here’s the followup. We find these characters in different circumstances. I didn’t want to try and recapture the magic of the initial episode, I wanted these characters to make new trouble, make new friends, blow up some more animals, and express real, new-found gratitude for the messed up world that they live in.

This one’s slightly punchier. I feel like it’s slightly darker than its predecessor. I also feel like it’s slightly funnier. I feel like more philosophical and societal issues were explored– and no less cartoonishly than last time. I feel like more emotive ground has been covered– specifically the emotions that behind one’s choices in life.

And I feel like fart jokes are still funny.

So, allow me to present The Fish Fox Boys: Part Two, a book about separated siblings, the freedom of piracy, a horny computer, and mermaid communism.

Now available in eBook on Amazon and Smashwords.

 

 

 

A Comedy of Errors Part II: Dracula

A Comedy of Errors Part II: Dracula

I recently finished Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a novel that, along with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, defined a goddamn genre. Modern readers might be put off by the dry, elevated prose throughout the epistolary epic, especially since recent imaginings of vampires are either laughably melodramatic or so far up its own conceited, dreary ass that a return to the source material seems like an exhausting task.

Let me tell you, Bram Stoker’s Dracula indulges heavily in melodrama and dreariness. That being said it also reads like a dream, in part, because it is secretly hilarious.

The primary protagonist of Dracula, while an ensemble piece, is ultimately Van Helsing. He isn’t even mentioned until nearly 150 pages into the novel, but once he’s established, he is the primary agent of action and knowledge against the Un-Dead Count. Once he’s introduced, the entire plot revolves around his decisions. And he’s funny. He’s Dutch, so, naturally, his English is broken and jumbled together in long, raving rants. And he’s awkward. He’s blunt when he should he should be tactful, and overly explicative when he should be precise. Nearly immediately after Lucy Westrenra dies, Helsing verbally diarrheas a litany of his research, confusing his poor former student, Dr. Seward, before obtusely saying, “I want to cut off her head and take out her heart,” which only distresses Seward further. It takes another litany and several demonstrations to get Seward on board.

Van Helsing fucks up socially, constantly. He makes Mina Harker, once the vampiric curse is falls upon her, cry by callously saying, in so many words, “don’t forget that a Vampire breast-fed you a couple of hours ago,” before realizing his social mistake.

What’s more is that he addresses his comedy directly. He straight up fucking laughs in hysterics after Lucy has died. Seward attributes it as  “it was only his sense of humour asserting itself under very terrible conditions.” Van Helsing goes on one of his rants, discerning “laughter who knock at your door and say, ‘ can I come in’,” from laughter that says, “‘I am here.'” I’ve gone on before about how Horror and Comedy are nearly one and the same, given their basic elemental makeup. But here Dracula pokes at a baser inclination with its comedy. Which is that laughter, dramatically induced via comedic relief, is a fear response. I’ve written about this before, thinking my modern perspective of irony of tragedy and comedy was somehow a revelation.

Buddy, we’ve been funny for a long while and for the same reasons.

Take this: Lucy Westenra slowly becomes a Vampire. She’s entombed and the fuckers who loved her mourn her passing. Van Helsing says some crazy shit about wanting to cut her head off and stuff her mouth with garlic (again, hilarious in the way he proposes it). Seward pledges to never take a diary entry down again. CUT TO several newspaper clippings of children, desanguined, found in a feverish daze after being lured away by a ‘bloofer lady’:

A correspondent writes us that to see some of the tiny tots pretending to be ‘the bloofer lady’ is supremely funny. Some of our caricaturists might, he says, take a lesson in the irony of grotesque by comparing the reality and the picture.  (229)

It’s not only that this passage implies that Stoker was, on some level, self-aware of how ridiculous his story is, it’s the baffling use of the term ‘bloofer lady.’ There’s no contextual explanation as to what that means in the clippings, nor is it ever repeated after the chapter closes. Furthermore, there’s no footnote (in my copy, at least) explaining the term, suggesting that it went over the heads of scholars for years and years. Thank Christ for Urban Dictionary, which explains that “bloofer” is, in fact, the reported cockney dialect of “beautiful.” Say it out loud in a cockney accent and you’ll get it. Bloofer lady. Hilarious.

Stoker reports dialects of many UK islanders– Irish, Scottish, cockney, Welsh, I think, in addition to Helsing’s strange Dutch accent. Now, the first reaction might be that Stoker’s making fun of the lower classes (Dracula, after all, is the tale of haunted aristocrats) but I’m one to think that Stoker, being Irish himself, was poking at the intellectual class reading his book. I like to think that he knew well that his literary audience would have been confounded by a lot of the more colloquial verbiage in the book, whereas an educated albeit lower-class reader would be able to decipher the language perfectly. Some of the dialogue is so entrenched in dialect that the only reason I was able to understand half of it is due to my fascination with Scottish People Twitter. It ultimately adds a sense of playful levity to the Gothic narrative, because of the playful nature inherent to “vulgar” UK slang and expressions.

At a certain point when I was discussing Dracula with my companions, I was frustrated that the only common understanding of the book was the “I VANT TO SUCK YOUR BLOOD” parody of a misquote from Bela Legosi’s incarnation of the Count. But the more I thought about it, that comedic take on Dracula is almost closer to Stoker’s intention than initially realized. Nearly everyone can agree that the vampires depicted in Twilight are garbage creatures, over-saturated in the poetry of eternal life and shiny, blah, blah, blah. Meanwhile, What We Do In the Shadows nails it, utilizing a comedic tone to play with the wide-spanning vampiric lore without diminishing its potency. Likewise, The Castlevania video game series employs a subtle humor (often in the form of items and certain enemies) that pokes fun at the concepts without taking you out of the experience. There’s a level where you essentially murder everyone in Hogwarts.

And finally there’s the gleeful Sir Anthony Hopkin’s portrayal of Van Helsing in Coppala’s adaptation of Stoker’s classic, who seems to be the only actor cognizant of what movie he’s in.

There are yet unmined opportunities to explore with Vampires. Dracula itself is a culmination of many years studying the folkloric traditions and superstitions surrounding the monster and Stoker only scratched the surface. So take heart, horror authors.

But for Christ’s sake, use some humor to blunt the subject’s poetic edges. Vampires are ridiculous and you know this.

Spatial Symbolism: The House

Spatial Symbolism: The House

Because I have friends and friends talk sometimes, it came to be that a friend and I were talking about laundromats. I like laundromats. I like the soothing, repetitive noises of clothing soup getting sloshed around in a centrifuge and the rhythmic metallic clinking of “poor ovens.”

A theory as to why we love laundromats so much comes from Shawn Coyne’s analysis of Silence of the Lambs (mentioned several times in the Story Grid podcast),  wherein he points out a scene right before Starling decides to go investigate the first victim’s house. The scene is simple and quiet. Starling does some laundry. Coyne’s point is that this is a “return to the womb” so that Starling can be reborn into her decision to defy her orders. Specifically, he points out that the rhythm of the machines and the sloshing of the water resembles a mother’s heartbeat and the rushing noise of amniotic fluid that we, as babies, attach to as sensory reminders of the safety we felt while in utero. It works as a solid symbol.

I tried to recreate a similar scenario in The Least of 99 Evils with a scene where the main character, Riley, takes a shower and changes clothes before adopting the most pivotal role in the novel. I was trying to suggest to the reader’s subconscious that a baptism of sorts had occurred. That changes have registered.  I think it works, but we have a much more sinister association with bathrooms that I had previously thought.

There’s this episode of Cracked.com’s “Looking the Part,” that examines what makes the bathroom so harrowing in pop culture and media (shower death scenes are plentiful after the quintessential Psycho, Vincent dies while leaving the bathroom in Pulp Fiction, that guy in the first season of The Sopranos gets shot in the tub, The Dude in The Big Lebowski is attacked while getting far-out in his bathtub, that scene in the X-Files when that leach falls out of that dude, medicine cabinet mirror jump scares… etc). Their suggestion is that because grooming habits have become a solitary activity for human beings since the middle ages, the bathroom is the one place where someone is the most vulnerable and that naturally creates an opportunity for a thrilling scene that will directly register with an audiences’ familiarity of being totally alone.

So I got to thinking that maybe there other broad symbols we associate with the anatomy of a house and by identifying what symbols we associate with what rooms, a writer could benefit from accurately setting certain scenes in these spaces.

The first one that leapt out to is the basement. The basement is where the secret is stored. A true crime example of this would be how John Wayne Gacy buried 33 bodies in his basement as a way of dissociating himself from his crimes, essentially keeping it separate from his primary personality. Likewise, the zombies are stored in the basement in Dead Alive, the shameful burial of the archaeologist’s wife occurs in the basement of Evil Dead II (with great payoff), and Breaking Bad‘s Walter White keeps his first drug-world rival and first murder victim in, wait for it, the basement. The Burbs even brings us into that space by the film’s culmination, justifying Tom Hanks’s paranoia by revealing hundreds of skeletons present in his neighbors’ furnace. Perhaps because we associate that space with darkness, we also attach fear. This is a common enough attachment– we fear what we can’t see, and we see this part of the house the least often– on top of it being, generally, poorly lit. Just to indulge another example: A B-plotline that registered with me as a kid was Home Alone‘s sequencing of getting over the fear of the basement furnace. It personified perfectly the fear a child experiences when encountering a space that they don’t know very well as well as machinery that they don’t understand.

If the basement is where you place scenes of fear and horror then what of the basement’s maligned sibling the attic? The attic’s symbolism revolves around the mind. You know that old phrase, “toys in the attic?” That’s a folksy way of saying that someone is insane. If the top of the cranium is where the brain resides, then so to must the “mind” of the house. Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea utilize this by restraining the crazy woman in the attic. So does The Yellow Wallpaper. Even if we’re not talking about mental unwellness, the attic serves as a venue for cerebral exploration. The entire plot of The Goonies starts by finding a map in the attic, but the better example here is The Never Ending Story– the entire thing is the imaginative exercise of a child reading a book in the attic. Goddamn Beetlejuice spends over half the movie in the attic, most of which is spent, not ghosting the shit out of the inhabitants, but rather, wrapping the characters’ heads around the concept that they are dead. It’s the mental space.

The bedroom is usually reserved for sex. In adult-themed media. You rarely get a glimpse of what an adult’s bedroom actually looks like. It’s the punctuation of sexual achievement– a dude carries a lady into a bedroom. Cut to pillow-talk followed by a source of unnecessary conflict. Right? Except in more juvenile-aged marketed media where the bedroom is a refuge. You think of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Three Ninjas, Gleaming the Cube… the prepubescent bedroom becomes a space of personal expression and safety. Which makes sense in the human experience– that’s the only place where a teenager has any control over their own lives, even if that control is over which posters go up on the walls. But whether it’s for sex or personal rejuvenation (and general character building), the bedroom is almost never used as a primary stage for for plot. Exceptions to this are, of course, Toy Story (wherein the bedroom is represented as a town of sorts, and doesn’t really count) and Nightmare on Elm Street (wherein the bedroom, a vulnerable time, becomes a door for a broader stage. Johnny Depp getting absolutely eviscerated, though, remains one of my favorite film moments).

The staircase has stood reliably as an opportunity for one character to spy upon another character. And this is consistent from H.P. Lovecraft to J.K. Rowling: when a piece of information needs to be discussed and then overheard by the protagonist, the protagonist will linger on the staircase. That might divide the house into two distinct levels of trustworthiness to match its literal stories– the lower level is untrustworthy, whereas the hero always sneaks down from the upper stories. While it serves as a bridge in its architectural purpose, it’s not redundant to point out that it serves as a metaphorical bridge between two parties and the vehicle conveyed between them is generally unintentional information.

Kitchens are an interesting beast. The idea is always to portray family in a day in the life. How that family is portrayed with the kitchen is up to the author. In The Godfather Part II, a family is shown falling away from the uninterested Michael Corleone around a dinner table. Likewise, you have family comedies like The Simpsons or Malcom in the Middle where, despite the chaotics antics of the individual characters, they still come together for meals and create the status quo of the familial unit. From those two examples, we always come back to the status quo of dysfunctional, quirky families that support each other in dysfunctional, quirky ways. The status quo of the family in American Beauty is established with a similar scene, although any semblance of casual or warm acknowledgement is replaced with cold, forced and even scripted dialogue. Harkening back to Home Alone, the initial kitchen scene is one of immense chaos with a broad range of characters. Which sets up the essential conflict of the film and justifies it with a few, short scenes– there’s a lot of kids. One of them could get overlooked. (There’s also my favourite line, “You’re what the French call ‘les incompetent’.”)

Living rooms are for Christmas and people getting murdered. I’ve literally got nothing else on that.

The End of the World as We Nevermind

The End of the World as We Nevermind

A joke I’ve seen circulating social media quite often is this: “Stop writing dystopian fiction, you’re only giving the government ideas.”

The joke, I guess, is that because dystopias are often written to underline specific and problematic societal and political norms by satirically torquing those values to their ridiculous breaking point, that it eventually and unintentionally normalizes the extreme examples that the author used to point out the absurdities of modern living.

Ha. Ha.

And to that point I’ll challenge the notion that George Orwell was some kind of prophet. 1984 stands as the quintessential dystopian novel, portraying a harrowing world of an omni-present yet ambiguous authority and panopticonical surveillance. And one leaps to think that Orwell is describing the future that we now live in, given how many things line up with our modern experiences with totalitarianism and the invasive practices of the NSA. I don’t want to diminish the modern relevance of the work. It’s currently significant, but what I want to make clear is that it was as significant when Orwell wrote it. He wasn’t a prophet so much as he was a scholar of how fascism operates through the arms of bureaucracy. Nazis rewarded those who provided information about their Jewish neighbors; spy networks have almost always been a tactic of every militarily-minded society; population surveillance has been the wet dream of dictatorships everywhere (it used to look like intercepting written letters, now it’s tapping into Smart TVs and that goddamn Alexa as well as examining piles of metadata); fascists have a tendency to make their face ubiquitous with pithy catchphrases underneath; populations, as a whole, have a tendency to react to things emotionally instead of rationally (compare the 2 Minute Hate to Tweet Storms about anything). I could go on, but the point I’m making here is this: George Orwell wasn’t trying to depict the future, he was describing his present using allegorical science fiction.

Let’s back up. All the way up. We wouldn’t have dystopias without utopias. Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, a fictional travelogue that came out in the early 1500’s, describes an outsider’s perspective of an ethical, puritanical island that operates under a strict set of benevolent rules that serves everybody’s best interests.

Everybody’s best guess is that Utopia is a satire, aping medieval Europe’s more liberal tendencies. It is, in fact, it’s own dystopia. If it was considered satire by More’s contemporaries, modern thought would look at it as a fucked up 4th world country. Slavery, pre-marital bonin’ punished by a lifetime of celibacy, women strictly relegated to the role of home-making, etcetera. Utopias don’t purely exist in fiction (and don’t give me Paradiso as an example, that shit is boring as… well, not hell, because Inferno was ultimately more satisfying to read.) because there is no under-riding conflict. If that sound familiar, then GOOD. That means you read my dumb musings on conflict months ago. Have a chocolate.

And so we’re back to dystopias. How come we love them so much? And does that reason vary from culture to culture?

The most recent episode of Wizard and the Bruiser brought up an excellent point about Akira: that a dystopic representation of Tokyo (re-imagined as Neo-Tokyo, 30 years after the Akira fallout, written in the 1980’s, 30ish some years after the Atomic fallout) where parentless gangs run the streets at night while the military tries to maintain order, is reminiscent of 1950’s Japan when the country was recovering from a devastating war and the victim of two Atomic bombs dropped on two of their civilian cities. In the same way that Gojira served to sublimate the horrors of the bomb in a way audiences could emotionally process, Akira is a digestion of the chaos the country experienced while rebuilding.

In America, I believe the shared fascination with dystopias digs at two things.

The first we are often hesitant to address– this country has been devastated. The genocide of Native Americans has been traditionally shoehorned into Cowboy vs. Indians John Wayne narratives, wherein the natives are either savage murderers or aides for Manifest Destiny. There’s a collective guilt there that’s been pushed down for centuries now but no matter how many times America tries to push a traditional western through, it sings the same old story. Dystopias, if you haven’t noticed, tend to put the atrocities mankind is capable of front and center. And there’s a reason why most post-apocalyptic fiction sets back technology and infrastructure  back to a familiar, nearly western setting. Various reasons, probably, but the one I’m poking at is the coping mechanism for the blood spilled on the frontier.

The second thing to address, is the culminate fear of where society is heading. A lot of that is moralistic hand-wringing, to be sure, but many of those fears are not unprecedented. Nuclear holocaust is an anxiety we currently bear day-to-day, and have since the bomb’s inception. Again, here we have a means to digest that fear in narrative form that ultimately cherishes optimism. The Road ends on an optimistic note, despite all of the horrific and tragic build-up. The Mad Max series, while exploring survivalistic depravities, tends to end its chapters on a victory. You see the gore, you still get a (hard earned) happy(ish) ending and piece by piece, a little bit of that fear of the future is smoothed out just enough so you can get out of bed in the morning.

But whether the social consciousness feels regret about the past, or anxiety about the future, the sharpest gear in the mechanics of dystopias is set in the human brain’s inability to process reality. The world’s got some beautiful shit. The rest is kind of just… shit? And it’s not hard to understand why people willingly ignore the evil in the world. We get nauseated at the sight of blood. And yet, reality persists. For mental health reasons, everyone gives the news a break and doubles down on what is truly important to them because a day feels like a year if you keep up with everything. And that’s fine. To paraphrase Camus, you can’t live in the desert your entire life, otherwise you’ll go insane. Or, to quote A Tribe Called Quest, “VH1 has a show that you can waste your time with. Guilty pleasures take the edge off reality and for a salary I’d probably do that shit sporadically.” [punctuation mine]

Reality is hard to swallow. There’s a limit of what a person can emotionally process before they turn off and numb out. While directly reporting the distressing information about how the world turns is a necessary journalistic imperative, fiction isn’t bound to the same precedent while still remaining just as relevant. Dystopian fiction offers a method of telegraphing modern and relevant social pain and institutional betrayals within the world using the element of just enough fantastical devices to keep it distant enough to process with an indirect emotional stake. Example given: as someone who studied genocide for a semester in college, more people are comfortable discussing how despicable Death Eaters are than the brutal actions of the Khmer Rouge. Dystopias sublimate the horror of reality into an easily digestible parable.

And really, where the fuck else are you going to have the delicious opportunity to have a bedraggled Ronald Reagan fight a woman in football shoulder-pads, brandishing a sword made out of knee-caps or some bullshit?

That shit doesn’t happen in westerns.

 

Pierre’s most recent dystopian odyssey is available on Amazon. It’s called The Least of 99 Evils and you aren’t ready. 

Sex and Violence, Mostly Violence

Sex and Violence, Mostly Violence

First of all, here’s this.

Second of all, I spoil the grossest thing in The Road.

Whether you like it or not, violence is a part of our daily media intake. It’s always been controversial, from Quentin Tarantino to Marilyn Manson, Doom and Grand Theft Auto, but now, I feel, we’ve reached a saturation point where portrayed violence inhibits every corner of our entertainment– how many award winning television series are there on Netflix that don’t shed a drop of blood? Okay, a couple, sure, but those have tits in spades, releasing our other primal reflexes.

I think it’s worth examining the language of violence in media, because violence itself, is a language. In narrative, it’s a cathartic language. Similar to humor and sex, portrayed violence carries out modern anxieties out to a sublimated pasture of fantasy where it can die peacefully: instead of the primal urge to kill getting on top of you and you wake up next to the head of your neighbor because he wouldn’t stop blasting J Beib’s latest single, you watch an episode of Fargo and go to bed understanding the complexities of murder without actually committing any.

In America, portrayals of violence are more common than portrayals of sex. Bruce Campbell has a legendary quote about Hollywood: “You can cut off a breast, you just can’t kiss it.”  A huge part of that is the sex-negative mentality of the USA, but it almost stands at odds with the hyper-sexualization of women in media. Sex sells, after all. Which is true, but when you look at how sex is generally portrayed in Television and Film it’s almost always associated with a point of conflict, trauma, or the highest goal of a sustained relationship instead of something that just happens naturally. Anyway you cut it, sex is the end of something in media. It’s a punctuation.

Whereas violence exists as a means to an end. It’s a driving force that threads the hero along. You think of Obi Wan slicing off that guys arm in the cantina and your inner cave-dweller goes “FUCK YEAH.” And the scene progresses because of it. Our action narratives thrive on the promise of fucking somebody up. No one really cares when John McClain reunites with his wife, that was a given from the start, but serves mostly as a happy bonus– the money shot of the movie is the cruel schadenfreude of watching Hans fall to his death.

But everyone knows that books are more fucked up than films when it comes to violence, or really, anything. We all know that American Psycho was a much more depraved novel than its silver screen counterpart, but why is that? Is dropping a chainsaw on a woman objectively less terrifying than turning a woman into a human rat-maze? Perhaps. Perhaps the written violence disturbs us deeper because of the more explicit sexual component the novel adds to its morbidity. But I think, at least in a large part, it’s something else entirely:

You’re forced to imagine it yourself. You become culpable for the detestable creation in your mind. You, as the reader, are now a co-conspirator in this depravity and are now, in some capacity, responsible.

But what about the writer’s responsibility in portraying violence? In the forward for A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess bemoans that the original US release (and Kubrick’s film adaptation) refused to see the main protagonist as anything other than a violent delinquent, both having excised the final chapter of suggested redemption via free will. Yet, Burgess admits the following:

It seems priggish or pollyanniaish to deny that my intention in writing the work was to titillate the nastier propensities of my readers. My own healthy inheritance of original sin comes out in the book and I enjoyed raping and ripping by proxy. It is the writer’s innate cowardice that makes him depute to imaginary personalities the sins that he is too cautious to commit for himself.

That second bit I’ll take issue with, as I don’t believe the people who write fucked up stuff are necessarily fucked up people (some, surely) so much as I believe that they are using a certain language to cathartically expunge a host of emotions in singular gestures. To Burgess’s point, I will say that there’s a lot of dark psychology that is also expunged from the writer’s mind when writing horrific flourishes– I’m of the school of thought that believes Horror and Dark Fantasy writers are probably the happiest people on earth– which happens to resonate, cathartically, with the reader who will inevitably share a similar shade of a dark mind. In that way, the creative yoke of violence is shared between author and reader such that everyone benefits.

The first part of that quote is about the glee one feels having written something truly disturbing. While drafting The Least of 99 Evils, I wrote perhaps the most gruesome scene in my entire writing career. I immediately went downstairs and told my roommate what I’d just done, laughter spilling out of my mouth. He was disgusted which only elevated my elation higher. You can’t deny that pushing the boundaries of discomfort is a satisfying experience. I call it the discomfort zone.

But let’s talk about how violence gets telegraphed in written narratives, shall we? The overarching principle of writing violence is a gentle touch, followed by a perusal of the aftermath. Everything else is all style.

You have writers who use short, and blunt language to drive home the punches of the scene. James Ellroy excels at this. The most heartbreaking death scene in LA Confidential is a sentence that can’t be longer than half a tweet. You’re left with the sudden realization that this character is dead and you don’t have time to follow up on any details because the rest of the action is moving way too fast. It puts you in the perspective of the other characters and is retrospectively very realistic. Real-world events happen fast. You fill in the details while you color in your memory.

Using medical terminology distances the reader from the grisly details. At first. The realization of the cruelty bestowed becomes clear as the reader translates the terms in their mind and finds (or feels) that spot on their own body. It’s an outside-in strategy that works like a grenade: it takes a couple of seconds, but once it sinks in it’s a repulsion-explosion.

Likewise, you can use metaphor in a similar way. “He held his heart like a rotten apple,” is effective because it forces the reader to imagine holding an apple, bringing the violence (abhorrent behavior) closer to home by suggesting a common, shared experience. And then the wave crashes back when the reader realizes they know what it’s like to hold a human heart.

These two are examples of implicative violence. The reader has to fill in the blank to fully flesh out the scene. In comic writing, implicative violence is frowned upon because it lacks a dynamic image to carry the scene through. Panel one will have a character about to punch another. Panel two is a sunburst that says “POW.” Panel three is the other character with a dent in their forehead. It doesn’t work visually… but in written narrative you have the readership doing your dirt for you and a sequence that portrays a before and after moment can capitalize on the reader’s repulsion reflex in a powerful way. Take Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example. In the most grotesque chapter you have a scene that portrays some travelers progressing through the wasteland and one of them is a pregnant woman. The protagonists hole in for the night, wary of these people. In the morning they inspect the travelers’ fire pit and find [UGH]. All of the abhorrent behavior is out of sight, but the resounding image of the aftermath haunts you long after you put the book down.

Which I suppose brings us to explicative violence. I’ve already talked about American Psycho. I’ve already talked about the gleeful plunge into unthinkable acts. It’s fun. Who doesn’t love a zombie’s head exploding with the thunderous clap of a Desert Eagle? But explicative violence can get lost in its own purpose and circularly justifiable in its own narrative presence that I feel the stories that go whole-hog generally read a little flat. An exception is (because I’m on something of a kick) Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian which ups the ante further and further in it’s depravity with every chapter. There’s a lot to be said about that book, but the portrayal of violence never ceased to, quite frankly, amaze me with how low the characters go and how absent their conscience is throughout. McCarthy uses a conglomeration of techniques to get this across. He utilizes metaphor quite a bunch, but isn’t afraid to tell you exactly what’s occurring. He doesn’t use medical terminology so much as he does archaic phrases (in and of themselves in modernity, a metaphorical language). To wit: when a significant player in this madness finally meets his end, his death with an axe is described as “split […] to the thrapple.” It’s obscure, but you know exactly what it means.

Which lands us in a place where we have to merge the two. How can you be explicative and implicit at the same time? Noir authors know. Harkening back to the cold, surgical language above, a body that has sustained terrible damage until death (and usually some more afterwards) is a device that is used to at once remove and include the reader to the shock. And there are interesting ways the author can format this. James Ellroy (again) puts the body front and center in the beginning of the novel and includes details that nearly made me barf. Raymond Chandler uses a body, in shocking, ironic terms to the casual breeze of Marlowe’s verbiage, as a way of connecting the story to real-life stakes: grisly death.

But it’s Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 that capitalized on this technique to an effect that still haunts me. He wrote all of the implicative violence it in police reports which, by nature, tend to be cold and surgically accurate. Around 200 pages of police reports about the serial femicide are written in stoic fashion. Just one after the other. It centers around the fictional city of Santa Teresa, recalling a calamity of real, unfortunate events that actually happened in Ciudad Juárez. Knowing that only makes the book harder to digest.

For knowing all that I know about the world, and having read a pile of fucked up books, I’ll say this: we’re just animals who learned how to write…

Animals with a good appreciation for not actually killing each other. The reality of which stings in our nostrils.

And so we write fucked up shit sometimes.

Scene Anatomy: Turning on Conflict

Scene Anatomy: Turning on Conflict

Here’s a joke a drunk woman who claimed to be an assassin told me in the back of my favorite café the other day:

“A gorilla walks into a bar and orders a banana-tini. The bartender thinks it’s really strange that a gorilla is ordering a drink, much less speaking English to him. He begins to shake up the order when he wakes up. He realizes that he’s been dreaming and he turns to his wife to explain this absurd experience. His wife isn’t there because his marriage is falling apart.”

This joke seems lazy at first but it works.  It works because it turns well. It turns twice, in fact.

Let’s talk about scenes in narrative fiction. Without really looking anything up, I’d define a scene as a largely non-exposition, action driven piece of writing involving at least one character. The scene itself has a beginning, a middle, and an end and needs to resolve itself cleanly, while also furthering the broader story.

Real quick though, let’s talk about scene length. According to Shawn Coyne‘s analysis of The Silence of the Lambs, the perfect scene length is 1,500 – 2,000 words. That’s the “potato chip” size that’s long enough to accommodate the needs of the story without losing the reader’s interest. The goal here, kind of operating on the same psychological weakness that drugs, alcohol and app developers exploit, is to satisfy the reader with minimal effort such that they will be willing to do “just one more.”

This is dark magic we’re fucking with here.

But that 1,500 word chapter would be just a meaningless number if it doesn’t turn. Scenes need to exist on a hinge, otherwise they become useless exposition. Maybe useless exposition is your style. Maybe you’re making a point. That’s cool. But you’re pretty likely to piss off the readers you want to support you so why don’t you put down your pipe and take off your graduation robes. It’s goddamn July, you high-fallutin-nobody-understands-my-art chunk of ass-granite. You can be subtle and experimental but we’re talking about being accessible here.

Here’s what I’ve learned about turning a scene: you want to use that first 50 words to re-engage the reader with of what is happening– if you did your job right with the last chapter, this shouldn’t be too hard. It’s important to contextualize (but no need to go overboard) because people read books at different speeds. I chew through them like Skittles because I’ve really got nothing better to do. Still, others will read maybe three pages at a time and put it down. They’ll give up if they pick the book back up again and can’t figure out what’s happening. So give them a little help. You’ll notice that in TV shows, the plot of the episode is summarily explained in two pieces of dialogue at the beginning of the third act so that insufferable channel surfers have something to latch onto:

Joey: “No, I didn’t do it because I think you’re ugly, I stabbed your sexdoll because you slept with my sister!”

Joeghy: “Bro!”

(Dan Harmon writing table, here I come.)

In that contextualization, there should already be a conflict present as a continuation of the previous scene. By giving context to what’s happened prior, you’ll ensure that this scene can stand on its own. The remaining 450 words should explore the scene. Are your characters stuck in a tree? What’s that like? This is the best opportunity to flesh out characters and scenery because while you can and should certainly have this later in the scene, it might feel a little sluggish. Think of the introduction to every scene as a reintroduction to the book, because (ifyoudidyourjobrightlasttime) the book has changed since the last chapter.

From the Mother conflict, emerges another, or rather, a complication of the initial conflict, by the characters attempting to solve the previous problem (or from the “exploration” you took earlier). They can solve their immediate situation, but that only lands them into hotter waters. That’s how the next 500 words are used: the bartender wakes up which resolves his cognitive dissonance about serving booze to an ape and he sets himself up for the punchline.

Which blends into the final 500 that should definitively resolve the initial conflict and then maintain the emergent conflict for the next scene. I’m saying conflict a lot. Think of the joke: It’s been resolved that the gorilla ordering a drink was just a dream. The punchline is the grim realization that the bartender is alone and forgets that fact for a brief moment of sleepy vulnerability. HILARIOUS. If the joke existed in a chaptered novel, that would set us up pretty well for the next scene (does he try to date, do we see what his actual workplace is like, does he call his ex-wife to try and explain the dream? the possibilities are endless).

Here’s how I write a complete scene these days: I don’t think in terms of threes, because, if I do it right, that’ll happen naturally. I think in terms of twos. A night’s assignment looks like 750 words the first night, taking the previous chapter into mind, recontextuliazing it to progress along the character’s path and once the character’s figure out what immediate problem plagues them,  I stop and go to bed. The next day I brush my teeth, go to work, think about the shitty situation I’ve left to these poor defenseless characters, laugh (because I’m a sadist), and when I get home, I know exactly how to begin because all I have to do is respond to the conflict set up for them.

That’s really the point here: Conflict is the narrative drive of story. To make a scene interesting, it needs to turn on conflict. Problems make the world go round because problems get solved.

And writing, if nothing else, is just solving a bunch of problems that you’ve made for yourself.

Because you have a problem.