Kill The Dream Sequence. No, Seriously. Kill It.

dead of summer

If you haven’t watched Dead Of Summer yet, I don’t really care either way. It’s meh, mostly. Yet I was in a binge this weekend to get caught up and noticed something that was particularly relevant for me right now. I’m writing a horror novel – about 40k words in to a targeted 90k, and so I’m particularly concerned with how to get someone on the edge of their butt, chomping their tongue in anticipation and as nervous as I can make them. While this show is fun, it’s not scary in even the smallest sense, though I think it tries to be. Maybe we should have a look at why it fails to see how I can succeed. It’s what I thought, at least.

Go read reviews from the second Avengers movie. One thing you’ll find is a lot of people annoyed with the weird dream sequences. Should you peruse what the masses had to say overall about Batman Versus Superman, you’ll find similar irritation with dream sequences. Let’s not get into whether you dug those movies, okay? I get how divisive that is right now – it’s been Marvel Versus DC since the seventies, nothing to see here. The point I’m making is about the overuse of this narrative technique and how it practically forces an audience to disengage. In movies, it’s probably an excuse to just show some cool visuals. In execution though, it’s a signal to me I’m good to go get a refill on my Coke Icee. Know what I mean?

Anyway, back to Dead Of Summer. Here’s the marketing blurb:

“Set in 1989, school is out for the summer, and a sun-drenched season of firsts beckons the counselors at Camp Stillwater, a seemingly idyllic Midwestern summer camp, including first loves, first kisses—and first kills. Stillwater’s dark, ancient mythology awakens, and what was supposed to be a summer of fun soon turns into one of unforgettable scares and evil at every turn.”

If you read that, you agree they want to be scary, right? Their narrative structure follows the same style as Lost, involving individual character flashbacks to flesh out each main player. Honestly, that part works for me, though the flashbacks they showed had little to do with decisions characters were making in the storyline. It came off cheaper than it did in Lost for that reason. However – and this is my overall point here – about a gajillion times, we are shown visions of a dark, mysterious man from the 19th century who’s supposedly tied in with the mysterious goings-on at the camp. I mean over and over and over, we see this guy and some blood streaming off something, or eclipses or bugs or murders or whatever…and EVERY SINGLE TIME you know it’s going to be a vision with no consequences. You can’t possibly get scared because even though somebody gets pushed into a grave or dunked underwater or whatever – I can’t even remember because I checked out during so many of those – that they’re just going to wake up and be okay. It’s foreboding but not much more.

Let’s set aside movies like Inception, which broke ground with this concept and the Freddy Krueger films (the good ones, let’s not discuss the Dream Warriors, shall we?) which staked their premises on the dream sequence. The difference with stories like those is they established consequences – you could die in those dreams. How boring would The Matrix have been if you couldn’t die while inside?

I run into this problem of consequences a lot, actually. If you’re a science fiction guy, you might think a lot about the vast distances in space and how slow moving any real-life story would be…months to get anywhere and hours to talk to each other. You might go the road of setting up avatars or virtual reality-style storylines to account for that; but honestly, you’re still looking at ridiculous lag times for the signals. If you hand-wave all of that and just say ‘tachyons’ or ‘entanglement’ to get the science-snobs off your back, you’ll be looking at this problem of consequences just like I am. If your guy is actually laying in a booth in Utah or wherever directing the action, how are there any stakes for him?

Right. So there have to be consequences and some kind of danger that’s entirely relatable. If you watch Game Of Thrones or The Walking Dead enough, you start to think at any moment this freaking show is going to kill off one of your favorite characters. Mercilessly. Back in the nineties, Joe Quesada who was then Editor-In-Chief at Marvel Comics (pre-Disney) established a “dead is dead” rule for killing off characters to restore some kind of drama given the prevalence of resurrections. Fantastic concept, actually, though he drifted wide off the mark over his tenure.

That’s what I wanted to say, guys. Dream sequences and visions are tired and boring and are basically tickets for your audience to disconnect. Don’t do that. Avoid resurrections too, while you’re at it. Kill a major character early on just for giggles, to challenge yourself, and to set the bar for your reader that YOU AREN’T PLAYING AROUND…THIS IS SERIOUS!.

Have fun!

 

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Less Whining. More Inspiring.

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I miss Arthur C. Clarke. When I was a kid, I wrote him a letter in pencil on notebook paper, asking him to explain to me what a ‘tesseract’ was, since I’d seen it in A Wrinkle In Time and was lost on what was going on. When my dad found out my desired pen pal lived in Sri Lanka, he told me he’d “look into it”, which of course meant exactly what you think it meant. So my letter went nowhere. Anyway, the reason I loved the guy so much is that his books inspired me. It got me thinking recently when I was trying to recreate that feeling with another book what it was he did right that Larry Niven did so wrong. Basically, what makes a book inspiring?

Rendezvous With Rama is an Arthur Clarke book, and an absolute classic. I won’t go into it because it isn’t the real point here; but the idea is a mysterious spacecraft comes flying in, gets boarded by some intrepid folks, and unfolds in the warmth of our sun internally as the most well-designed engineering marvel you could imagine. A sense of wonder infuses that book that feels like a crackling fire to me. I was thinking about it recently and looked into the sequels. An overwhelming tidal wave of reviews indicate I’d better avoid them  for various reasons. I found it interesting reading through the reviews that so many people appreciated the original for the same reasons I did. It made them either dream of joining those explorers on the spacecraft or of writing something as interesting as Sir Clarke had. Get that part – people like me are inspired by this book because of how it launches our imagination into ways we could engage with its ideas.

In my day job, I study and manipulate what engages people; and the overriding principle is always self-interest. We probably won’t stop to look over the charts on the wall the boss keeps posting unless there are pictures there of my friends up there or something showing me how close I might be to getting a bonus…that sort of thing. Self-interest. With our fiction, we want to relate to the characters in some way:

-For a horror novel or a thriller, you’re probably second-guessing every decision the characters make to decide what you’d do

-For a science fiction book like this one, you’re probably dreaming about how cool it would be to be doing those things

So I had a copy of Larry Niven’s Ringworld for some reason, and took it on a plane to try and recreate that sense of wonder and awe from Clarke’s book. Should have been a slam dunk: a massive ring-shaped partial dyson sphere constructed around an alien world gets explored in all its wonder. How can you screw that up? I’m sorry if you love this book, let’s keep in mind that fiction is subjective; but it’s just awful.

I groaned every time he used ‘tanj’ as fake profanity. There’s no way to tell which character is speaking without labels because everyone from furry warrior-aliens to 200yr old earthlings to multi-headed pacifist-aliens all speak exactly like Larry Niven does…like an old white physicist. They stand around philosophizing about the math behind how dense something must be or how the orbit would be affected…blah blah blah. Oh my God. I put it down multiple times, slugging to finish hoping something would redeem it. No idea how it ended because I just yielded. Whatever. It’s an award winner and always makes the big lists though. Somehow I’m missing it.

So here’s the point: if we’re writing something we really want to make inspiring….something for the ages that will stoke people’s imaginations or really change the way they look at the world (and what wordslinger doesn’t want that?!), then keep things simple and avoid whatever will distract from the feeling you’re trying to engender. In Niven’s case, he spent way too much time trying to make his cardboard lame characters interesting and introducing some ridiculous side-story about breeding luck, when the sales pitch for the book is an incredible sense of wonder and exploration of the Ringworld.

In whatever you’re writing now, or what you expect to write next, think about the feeling you want left behind when the reader is done…boil away everything that doesn’t produce that…and focus.

Einstein And Writer’s Block

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Yes, I’m definitely a nerd. It’s cool, I’m comfortable with that. What it means is I get interested in loads of things where most people might not see the attraction. Equally true,  if you ask me how the Royals are going to do this year, you’re probably going to get a change of subject from me. I’ll be polite; but I have no idea what to say to you when you ask me that. So I was studying Einstein’s Field Equations the other day…

I’m not trying to impress you here, just bear with me. There’s something about Einstein’s life that is of tremendous interest to an aspiring writer, especially one that’s seen the horror of a blank page blinking back and weedy plot points all twisted and ensnared, sudden contradictions that make the original idea nonsense…maybe even the whole premise that felt so much like warm, gooey chocolate sloshing around in your imagination in the beginning, suddenly frozen and hammered by an idle comment somebody made that trashes it entirely.

fieldHere they are: Einstein’s Field Equations defining gravity. Why things fall down.  All the jibber jabber on the left-hand side is just saying that spacetime curves. It doesn’t say why, just that it does. Einstein came up with all that on the left just to make the math work out, not because he was a prophet or anything. But he started with the doohickey on the right…the ‘T’. He knew he’d use that, and the idea that energy is conserved; and then he just started diddling around to see what he could do with it. Let’s say that was his original inspiration, the way a writer might suddenly string two things together to make a story idea. How pregnant with potential and thrilling, right! So what’s ‘T’, then?

Everything on the right-hand side except for the ‘T’ is just a bunch of numbers. If I gave you a calculator and a reference, you’d tell me the number. So forget those. Focus on the ‘T’. The Stress-Energy Tensor. It’s a thing. It was already a thing before he got started, that’s why he knew he’d use it. It describes energy and momentum. The big ah-hah for him, the thing that made General Relativity something you’ve heard of, is that it’s the energy and momentum, the ‘T’, that’s causing spacetime to curve. Great; but here’s what he said about it:

“But it (General Relativity) is similar to a building, one wing of which is made of fine marble but the other wing of which is built of low grade wood. The phenomenological representation of matter is, in fact, only a crude substitute for a representation which would do justice to all known properties of matter.” -from Physics And Reality.

He was bummed about ‘T’. It was crap to him. It didn’t explain any of the other whizz-bang stuff matter does. The guy that shook the world in 1905, starting entire branches of science from his work, and that explained why things fall down in 1916…the guy whose name became a nickname for geniuses, spent 40 years till his death trying to come up with a Grand Unified Theory that would settle this for him. No dice with that. He died frustrated. Sheesh.

I’m writing a horror novel right now; and one thing I struggle with is making the big baddies really scary without making the point of view characters useless. I can’t stand people in fiction that just stare like deer in the headlights and who don’t try something. Anything! The original idea I had for the book though, the thing that made me shiver and consider it worth a year of my life, brought that helplessness with the original spooky image. Okay, great; but if I’m not going to be like Einstein and just stay stuck with the original paradigm, then I’ve got to be willing to grow beyond the original idea. The point is, I can see I’m going to have to capture that first image and the feelings that went with it, but then let things grow to wherever they need to grow. Even if it’s not where I’d thought the narrative was headed.

In my first novel, I had a fantastic image I wanted in there so badly! I could hear Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars as background music. I could see the camera pulling back from the scene. I could see my three main characters, young and scared out of their minds high on a rooftop spire looking down on the horrors they’d come through…freaking beautiful. I lost months trying to figure out how to get those guys into that circumstance. Finally gave up. Wasn’t going to happen. It stopped making sense for it to happen. That’s my point with all this, actually. To recognize when you’re there.

So if it happened to Einstein, it can happen to you, right? Recognize when your idea needs tweaking, and when it needs to be blown up. Be willing to turns things loose. Burn things down when you have to, so something else can grow in its place.

 

What A 19th Century Crazy Guy Taught Me About Writing Spooky Stuff

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I want to talk about Guy De Maupassant; but I’ll come back to that in a minute. Stick with me here.

When someone asks me the scariest thing I’ve ever read, they usually expect me to say something from Stephen King. If they’re literary, they may want to hear Henry James. Whatever. Truthfully, 1984 by George Orwell scares the crap out of me more than anything; and I’m not sure how you could top it.

Especially during an American presidential election season, anybody can relate to that desolate feeling of trying to talk to someone so caught up in their beliefs and convictions that the eyes have glazed over, they’re not listening at all, and confirmation bias squeezes out any facts running contrary to what they want to believe. It’s horrifying how mobs of people can get caught up in the momentum of anything, and how quickly and viciously they’ll turn on dissenters. We should all just take a breath, right? When I read 1984, I think of how likely a world it describes, how people have behaved much like that. I can see how easily we’d slip into such a knot, and how impossible it would be to break from it once you’re inside. Shivers, man. Just shivers. That guy worked magic. It’s why we still quote that book so often.

You may have or heard the short story by Guy De Maupassant called The Necklace where a really poor lady borrows an expensive necklace and loses it, works her butt off and ruins her life trying to pay for a replacement, only to find after years and destroyed health that it was an imitation anyway. Not sure why that story hit the mainstream and gets taught in schools so much when the same author put out so much skull-slamming treasure! He went nuts, probably because of syphilis but kept writing while dipping into his madness.

“Every other time I come home, I see my double. I open my door, and I see him sitting in my armchair.”

Guy said that to his friend, Paul Bourget. It wasn’t fiction, though this exact thing happens in a story of his called He? Guy wound up slitting his own throat unsuccessfully and lived in an asylum for another 19 months. Here’s something he tossed out in a letter to his friend, Dr. Henry Cazalis:

“A saline fermentation has taken place in my brain, and every night my brain runs out through my nose and mouth in a sticky paste. This is imminent death and I am mad…”

Sheesh. Anyway, I consider one of his very short stories one of the most perfect scary pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. In the same manner as why 1984 spooks me so much, it is realistic and possible and shoots jolts of terror in ways you don’t normally see with no real strain on your suspension of disbelief. It could happen to you. That’s the basis of real horror, isn’t it? The story is called “Two Friends“. To read it yourself shouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes. Go ahead, I’m about to spoil it for you.

When my kids were very young, there was one particular July 4th night we were all sleeping; and I was awaken by a very loud CLAP sound downstairs. It sounded like two pieces of ceramic tile smacking together. Thinking something had fallen, but suspicious maybe of a break-in, I went groggily downstairs with my wife hovering at the top of the stairway with the ‘9’ and the ‘1’ already dialed, touching the ‘1’ again just in case she needed it.

I saw a massive spider-web in the dim light on the far wall, too massive to believe. It wasn’t there when we went to bed, right? Anyway, I was deep into the living room downstairs and exposed, gently extending a finger when I realized it wasn’t a web at all…it was the drywall cracking from a bullet hole. Someone outside had fired a gun into my home. Wasn’t that kind of neighborhood. This was the suburbs, for pete’s sake! Lawless teenage vandals, devil worshippers, whatever…I had to bolt for cover just not knowing who or what or where. The silence was maddening thereafter, with the thought of how a slightly different angle of the barrel, and I’d have awaken to a paralyzed or bleeding son or daughter!

The scariest things I’ve read fall into the same kind of chill:

  1. Mundane, maybe even pleasant events jarringly turn a different and terrible direction
  2. I can relate and sympathize with the character thrown into this surprise
  3. None of the decisions the character makes seem out of line with what I’d have done (nothing breaks my fright faster than an author breaking this rule)
  4. There’s a sudden realization that there isn’t a way out

In Two Friends, Maupassant presents two pleasant country guys who just love fishing. Even though there’s a war on in the countryside, they work through a military friend to get out of the village and to the shore of their favorite lake. Prussian troops show up, present the option of revealing the password back into the village or die, then shoot them dead where they stood when they won’t do it.

“The water spurted up, bubbled, swirled round, then grew calm again, with little waves rippling across to break against the bank. There was just a small amount of blood discoloring the surface.”

Guy broke the rules of literature, man! He killed off the point of view characters and shifted focus to people that had just been introduced. There’s a silly joke by the Prussian commander at the end about fish. It’s creepy and cold and absolutely believable. Honestly, the part of the story where the Prussians show up makes me feel exactly like I did tracing my finger on cracked drywall. That was a drunk neighbor barbecuing, by the way.

Anyway, go read more of Maupassant. The scary stories. They’re public domain and awesome. Let me know what you think!

Let The Trolls Speak: Principles Of 21st Century Storytelling

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Every previous generation in human history, it’s been more difficult to move around and certainly more difficult to be exposed to the different stories people tell around the world than it is right now. In fact, you can go back less than a century and see a world where people largely stay where they were born. A guy’s library and his best storytellers were the primary means of being exposed to new stories. There’s been a sea change caused by the internet, electronics, and our own leisure time & mobility. So here you are…knowing stuff. Good for you. Now what does that mean?

I went into my thinking corner about that very question; and I baked up something for you that I believe you’ll like. It’s free – go read it. I also kept it short. Printed, it’d be less than 30 pages. Shouldn’t take you long at all. I stirred in some stories you’ve heard of, and one or two maybe you haven’t.

Would be great to hear from you on what you think. Let me know!