Fascinating lists!

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Modeling the Three-Act Plot Formula

Plotting a story is often difficult for many (most?) writers. This post may make the job a bit easier.

According to Aristotle's analysis, a plot consists of three interrelated parts, among which there is a series of cause-and-effect relationships. Every story (or play, which is what he was analyzing in Poetics) has a beginning, a middle, and an end. (The ancient Greek plays he watched were three-act plays.)

With this structure in mind, the basic plot formula of 1. CAUSE, 2. ACTION, and 3. OUTCOME can be used to generate many specific plot models. Any of the models can produce either a comedic or a tragic outcome, depending on its development.

Here are a few such models, some with an example from a book, a short story, or a movie.

  1. Problem
  2. Solution
  3. Outcome

Example: As Good as It Gets

  1. Seduction
  2. Sex
  3. Outcome

Example: Fatal Attraction

  1. Masquerade
  2. Unmasking
  3. Outcome

Example: The Crying Game

  1. Victimization
  2. Vengeance
  3. Outcome

Example: Sudden Impact

    1. Stalking
    2. Assault 
    3. Outcome

Example: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV series)

    1. Temptation 
    2. Resistance 
    3. Outcome

Example: Joan of Arc (LeeLee Sobieski)

  1. Options
  2. Selection
  3. Outcome
  1. Submission
  2. Dominance
  3. Outcome
Example: The Story of O

  1. Dominance
  2. Submission
  3. Outcome

Example: The Collector

  1. Role
  2. Reversal
  3. Outcome

Example: The Final Girl

  1. Curiosity
  2. Experiment
  3. Outcome

Example: The Moviegoer

  1. Anxiety
  2. Confession
  3. Outcome

  1. Opportunity
  2. Pact
  3. Outcome

Example: Faust

  1. Twins
  2. Swap
  3. Outcome

Example: The Parent Trap
  1. Twins
  2. Share
  3. Outcome

  1. Dissatisfaction
  2. Novelty
  3. Outcome

Example: The Wizard of Oz

  1. Change
  2. Adaptation
  3. Outcome

Example: King Henry IV, Part II

  1. Threat
  2. Response
  3. Outcome

Example: Alien

  1. Isolation
  2. Challenge
  3. Outcome

  1. Novelty
  2. Trial
  3. Outcome
  1. Process
  2. Change
  3. Outcome

Example: The Fly

  1. Perspective
  2. Violence
  3. Outcome

Example: Death Wish

Monday, May 13, 2019

Gahan Wilson's Poignant Moments of Existential Angst

Copyright 2019 by Gary L. Pullman

Wikipedia offers a brief, if succinct, albeit uncited, description of cartoonist Gahan Wilson's work:

Wilson's cartoons and illustrations are drawn in a playfully grotesque style and have a dark humor . . . . Wilson's work is . . . contemporary, gross, and confrontational, featuring atomic mutants, subway monsters[,] and serial killers [and] Wilson often has a very specific point to make.

Wilson's cartoons frequently appeared in Playboy magazine, their offbeat humor a favorite with readers.

His work is similar to that of such other artists as Charles Addams (of The Addams Family fame), Edward Gorey, and Gary Larson (“The Far Side”).

The source of the humor in some of Wilson's cartoons is fairly obvious, but, in others, it is subtler. For example, the horror of this cartoon isn't immediately apparent, but, when one “gets it,” the horror—or, in this case, the terror—is apt to be all the more striking.

The cartoon addresses the solipsistic fear that “life is but a dream,” but who, we may wonder, is the dreamer and who is merely the figment of the dreamer's imagination?

A woman, seated at a table in a living room, is about to put the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle into place. In doing so, she pauses and looks down, to her right. What she has noticed isn't shown to the viewer, as the object of her concern (she looks uneasy, rather than merely curious) is out of frame.

It is only after taking in the big picture, as it were, that the viewer carefully considers the puzzle that the woman is completing, only to find that it is identical to the “big picture,” right down to the missing corner piece that the woman holds, both in the smaller image and the larger one.

Now, we understand her concern. It is not an unseen object that disturbs her, but her realization, born of her discovery of the parallels between her situation and the puzzle she is completing, that she is not the center of her universe, nor is she the captain of her soul. She is merely one in an infinite series of repeated images in which none of the versions of “her” is ever the final, ultimate one. She is merely the copy of a copy among countless other copies, all identical and all terrifying.

If her situation is locked into a series of identical situations over which she nor any other of her various “selves” has any control, her existence is as meaningless as the pastime at which she occupies a leisure moment, because her whole life is this moment, eternally, nothing else and nothing more.

It takes a rare talent to convey so much in a single cartoon panel, without (in this case), even the need of a caption. Such condensed “summaries” of existential angst are immediate and poignant enough to inspire longer works of narrative fiction. Imagine what Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, or Edgar Allan Poe might do in developing such a germ of an idea.

--or what YOU might do!

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Ed Gein Jokes: A Bizarre Example of Gallows Humor

Copyright 2019 by Gary L. Pullman

After his father's death, Ed Gein (1906-1984) was reared by his mother, a religious fanatic with twisted ideas about sex in particular and about life in general. He was unable to function on his own, and after his brother's death (as a result, some claim, of Ed's having murdered him) and his mother's demise, as a result of natural causes, Ed was left alone on the family farm outside Plainfield, Wisconsin. A man without friends, he occasionally babysat for a neighbor, but, otherwise, didn't much interact with the community.

Left alone, he read stories about the Nazis' atrocities and became interested in cross-dressing. Some believe he attempted to bring his mother back by dressing in women's clothes and adopting her personality. To improve on his female mimicry, he added a “torso vest” made from the skinned abdomen, including the breasts, he removed from a female cadaver he'd dug up from a local or nearby cemetery.

Ed also upholstered chairs in human skin, and he made a curtain pull featuring female lips; a lampshade of human skin; a belt decorated with female nipples; masks cut from women's faces; wall hangings of women's skin, breasts, and severed fingers; dresses made of women's skins; an apron made of female breasts and women's faces; and a pair of gloves made from women's skins. He collected women's ears and noses as well.

Charged with first-degree murder in the death of shopkeeper Bernice Worden, Ed pleaded not guilty and was found “mentally incompetent to stand trial” as a result of schizophrenia. He was confined in the Wisconsin Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Waupun, Wisconsin. He was later transferred to the Mendota State Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, where he died. Although he was tried only for Worden's death, Gein also admitted to having murdered tavern owner Mary Hogan.

Ed Gein inspired Norman Bates, of both Robert Bloch's 1959 novel Psycho and the 1961 movie of the same name, directed by Alfred Hitchcock; Leatherface, of the 1974 movie The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, directed by Tobe Hooper; Buffalo Bill, of the 1988 Thomas Harris novel The Silence of the Lambs and the eponymous1991 film, directed by Jonathan Demme; and Dr. Oliver Thredson of the television series American Horror Story: Asylum.

There's no doubt about it: Ed was a genuinely creepy guy. In fact, he was so disturbing that, to cope with the revelation of his monstrous crimes, the American public invented Ed Gein jokes of the morbid, gallows humor variety. As the Wikipedia article on this type of humor points out, it is used to make “light of subject matter that is generally considered taboo, particularly subjects that are normally considered serious or painful to discuss.” Ed's deeds certainly qualify as such a topic.
A few Ed Gein jokes can be found on the Internet. Here are a few from the Imgur website:
  • What did Ed Gein say as the hearse passed by? “Dig you later, baby!”
  • What did Ed Gein say to the sheriff who arrested him? “Have a heart.”
  • Ed Gein [was] popular with the ladies. There were always women hanging around his place.
  • Why do they let Ed Gein out on New Year's Day? So he can dig up a fresh date.
  • Customer: “Bartender, give me a Gein beer.” Bartender: “It has lots of body but no head.”
  • Have you heard the Defense Department has called on Ed Gein? They want him to ship arms to Vietnam.
Among others, the Tripod website offers these gems:
  • Why did Ed Gein's girlfriend stop going out with him? Because he was such a cut-up.
  • Why won't anyone play poker with Ed Gein?
  • He might come up with a good hand.
Finally, here are a few by yours truly:
  • Ed Gein liked to keep abreast of things
  • Ed Gein always put his best foot forward.
  • Ed Gein had a grave disposition.
  • At bake sales, Ed Gein's pastries didn't sell well: people feared there'd be a finger in every pie.
  • As a house guest, Ed Gein expected to be waited on hand and foot.
  • Ed Gein was barred from the theater after he took Mark Antony's plea to “lend me your ears” literally.
While it must be admitted that Ed Gein jokes tend to be corny (and a bit juvenile), except my own, of course, we can see how they might help people cope with the astonishingly bizarre, heinous deeds of the insane killer from Plainfield.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Bruce Stepan: A Delightful Master of the Surreal

Copyright 2019 by Gary L. Pullman

Note: Bruce Stepan is the creator of all the works of art shown in this blog post; each is under copyright protection and cannot be reproduced without his express written permission.

Annunciation. Copyright by Bruce Stepan. All rights reserved. (Click the image to enlarge it; click again to return to the post.)

It's my pleasure to introduce the artwork of Bruce Stepan. As his website, Stepan Studios, observes, his paintings and illustrations reflect “poignant storytelling” and “surreal artistry.”

His surreal oeuvre includes “a comical mix of weird paintings, pop art, scary paintings . . . creepy paintings, fine arts [sic], and art ideas.”

Educated in the arts (Stepan has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in general art studio practices and a Master of Fine Arts degree in painting), he is also an art educator, having taught studio courses at Youngstown State University and Michigan State University. Currently, his emphases are on comics and illustrations.

Communion. Copyright by Bruce Stepan. All rights reserved. (Click the image to enlarge it; click again to return to the post.)

His website features copies of several of his paintings and illustrations (there's also a link to his fabulous blog). The paintings are colorful, vibrant, and either comical or unsettling—sometimes both at once. The drawings, executed in graphite on a variety of surfaces, are unique, detailed, intriguing, fun, and sophisticated.

I have always appreciated surreal art. A favorite among the painters whose work I admire is Renee Magritte, but I also enjoy both popular surrealism and so-called lowbrow art, including paintings by Marion Peck, Mark Ryden, Michael Parks, Nicoletta Ceccoli, Tetsuya Ishida, and many others. Now, I am pleased to add another name to this illustrious roster, that of Bruce Stepan.

Graveyard. Copyright by Bruce Stepan. All rights reserved. (Click the image to enlarge it; click again to return to the post.)

One of the things I like most about Stepan's art, some of which is inspired by one of the most celebrated authors of horror fiction, is its allusive, metaphorical, and symbolic character. Another is the multivalent potential each painting or drawing offers for interpretation, speculation, and inspiration. One of his works, Dark Shadows, is, as his website declares, a “space . . . filled to the brim with hidden meaning,” which invites each viewer to “search out the objects” in the room the painting depicts “and piece together” his or her “own narrative.”

One of the features of his website is a magnifier associated with the cursor function. By hovering over a painting or drawing, one can focus on each part of the work, discovering its rich detail and a lot more surprises than might otherwise meet the eye. It's almost as if each work contains a series of interlocking pieces that, together, form a seamless, coherent whole. His artwork is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also a puzzler's delight!

Here are a couple more of the other works currently exhibited on Stepan's website:

Dark Shadows. Copyright by Bruce Stepan. All rights reserved.
(Click the image to enlarge it; click again to return to the post.)

 Trick or Treat. Copyright by Bruce Stepan. All rights reserved. (Click the image to enlarge it; click again to return to the post.)

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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