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Saturday, March 1, 2008

Leftover Plots, Part I

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Some stories are so multi-faceted that they exhibit many possibilities beyond the dramatic and narrative storylines that they follow. Their plots explode like seedpods, scattering germs of ideas that, provided proper care, could themselves blossom into fully developed stories. These leftover plots, as one may call them, serving as springboards, provide opportunities for writers in search of story ideas.

One such story--or series of stories--is Joss Whedon’s television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Rich in characters, the premise of the series--Buffy’s high school is situated upon a gateway to hell, and demons, vampires, and other monsters who were exiled a long time ago seek to return and take over the world--is so open-ended that it allows virtually any imaginable plot. As a result, the series provides a vast array of possible storylines that are implied but undeveloped. These possibilities need only the time and attention of an aspiring writer who’s interested in fantasy, science fiction, or horror. Of course, these ideas can be used only as inspiration; the writer who uses them must not import Buffy and her friends (or enemies) wholesale, along with Sunnydale and the Hellmouth, for these characters and settings are owned by their creator, who holds the copyright to his creations, which are worth millions of dollars and, if need be, a bunch of lawsuits.

There’s nothing wrong with inspiration, though. As long as it doesn’t become plagiarism or copyright infringement, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

So, how does one use implicit ideas without plagiarizing another person’s work or infringing upon someone else’s copyright? We just explained how, but, for those who were having an out-of-body experience and missed the explanation, we repeat: the ideas themselves can be used only as inspiration; the writer who uses them must not import Buffy and her friends (or enemies) wholesale, along with Sunnydale and the Hellmouth.

Ideas cannot be copyrighted, but the specific way in which ideas are given expression can be, and often is, copyrighted. Cloning animals (or people) is an idea. Anyone can write about it, as long as he or she develops it in his or her own way. Here’s another example. In Buffy, Willow Rosenberg, a witch, practices magic. Most of the time, she practices the good stuff, but she also sometimes casts dark spells. In the process, she occasionally uses a book of shadows--a book of someone’s personal spells. Any character can own and use a book of shadows, and any character can practice white or black magic. These are ideas, or motifs (oft-repeated themes or storylines). As such, they cannot be copyrighted. Therefore, any writer may employ them--as long as, in doing so, he or she uses these themes or motifs in his or her own way. That means using the idea, or leftover plot, as a springboard, creating his or her own characters, setting, conflict, character motivations, theme, and so forth. I did this in Wild Wicca Woman, a novel in which a teenage girl keeps a Wicca friend’s book of shadows so the friend’s mother won’t find it. Instead, her own mother finds it, hidden in her closet, and she has a lot of explaining to do. The teen who hides the witch’s spell book has a male friend and a female friend, just as Buffy has Xander Harris and Willow Rosenberg, but, again, any character--especially a teen--is going to have friends, among whom will be the stock character of the confidant (male) or confidante (female), so this isn’t plagiarism or copyright infringement; its simply life reflected in fiction.

Now that we understand (hopefully) what’s permissible and what’s not (what’s inspiration and what’s plagiarism or copyright infringement, we might say), let’s sift through the seed-ideas that Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s many episodes have scattered to the literary winds, examining them to see which offers ideas for potential storylines that we could develop ourselves. (Since this promises to be a relatively long post, we’ll probably break it into several parts.)

There’s no substitute in such a project as this one for actually watching or having watched the work, but, for those who have seen (and, even more, for those who haven’t seen) the episodes, a book or online source that summarizes the plots of the show’s episodes is a handy dandy guide to the show’s ongoing action. A good source for this purpose is Buffy World, which provides trailers, summaries, transcripts, shooting scripts, and screen captures for each episode of every season.

In “The Witch” (episode 3 of season 1), Buffy defeats a witch who has used a magic spell to swap bodies with her daughter so that she, the mother, can relive her glory days as a former cheerleader in a more-than-merely-vicarious way. When the witch seeks, literally, to cast a spell at Buffy, the slayer uses a mirror to deflect the witch’s hex, and, as a result, the witch ends up trapped inside the miniature figure of a cheerleader inside the school’s hallway trophy case, the only part of her that can now move being her eyes. In a later episode, Oz notices that there seems to be something odd about the cheerleading trophy--”its eyes seem to follow you”--but no more is made of the witch’s odd prison. The trophy could be the basis for another plot, though. The witch could escape. Maybe the trophy topples from its shelf when custodians move the case and it breaks, releasing the imprisoned witch. Alternatively, the trophies could be shipped to a new location (for example, a new high school is built after Buffy and her friends blow up the old school) and, in the process, is stolen by someone who uses it Ali Baba fashion, as a genie’s lamp, releasing the witch--or, as before, it could simply get broken in transit, becoming a threat to new characters in a different time and place. Possibly the daughter, missing her mother, despite her abusive ways, steals the trophy and takes it home, using magic to release her.

Based upon this plot seed, several storylines could be developed. Again, were one to take up this leftover plot, he or she would have to change it substantially. For example, the origin of the trophy would have to be different, since, otherwise, the plot that ensues would be a rip-off of “The Witch” episode’s plot. Therefore, one would have to come up with another reason for the trophy’s being inhabited, as it were, by a human soul, whether the soul is to remain that of a witch or to become that of another character. Inspiration’s wanted, not plagiarism or copyright infringement. Maybe the cheerleader was just a cheerleader, but she put so much of herself into her practice and performance that, upon winning a cheerleading contest, she really and truly (and permanently) bonded with the token of her success, becoming the trophy. Absurd? Perhaps, but believable within the parameters that you would establish at the outset of your story, given people’s willingness to suspend disbelief for the sake of enjoying a fantastic tale. For example, in a world of witchcraft and magic, anything’s possible as long as the incidents make sense dramatically and emotionally. In fantastic fiction, which obviously includes horror and, often, science fiction, the cause-effect relationships among the incidents of the story’s action are motivational, dramatic, and emotional, not necessary physical (in the scientific sense of the word) or natural.

“Teacher’s Pet” (episode 4, season 1) also ends on an unresolved note that could be the basis of a plot for another story. In this episode, Xander, attracted to the beautiful teacher, Miss French, who substitutes for his regular biology instructor, goes to her house, ostensibly to help her create a model of prating mantis egg sacks for the upcoming science fair. Soon after he arrives, however, Xander finds out that Miss French is herself a preying mantis in human guise, and she (or it) has lured Xander--and another boy, Blayne--to her lair to mate with her, after which she, good praying mantis that she is, would devour them alive. Buffy rescues the dudes in distress and all ends on a positive note--until the camera shows the audience the storage closet in the biology classroom, in which a praying mantis egg sack waits to hatch. Silly? Of course, but, again, in fantastic fiction, which obviously includes horror and, often, science fiction, pretty much anything is possible, since the cause-effect relationships among the incidents of the story’s action are motivational, dramatic, and emotional, not necessary physical (in the scientific sense of the word) or natural.

The leftover plot--the egg sack--provides the opportunity for a sequel, but the series ignored this possibility, except to pose it as something of a teaser. The egg, like the seed, is a natural point of origin that can be used to introduce a monster. Presumably, some monsters at least, are born (or hatched), just like people--well, maybe not just like people--and, if a seed can produce a natural plant, why shouldn’t a deformed, radiated, or extraterrestrial seed produce an unnatural or otherworldly plant? In fact, another Buffy episode, “Bad Eggs” (episode 24, season 2), uses this same motif as eggs that Buffy, Xander, Willow, and the other members of their health class are given as surrogate babies upon which to practice future parental responsibilities hatch into monsters, attacking, possessing, and threatening students and townspeople alike.

Likewise, natural forces--volcanoes, earthquakes, icebergs, shifting tectonic plates--effect change; if they do so in nature, they can do so in fiction as well, although, in fantastic fiction, the changes thus effected may not be those that normally would result from the same causes. The leftover egg can become the springboard to new plot that uses an egg, a seed, an earthquake, a melting glacier, a volcanic eruption, an earthbound meteor, or anything else that can change the natural order or create something new and, of course, in horror fiction, something hideous and horrible. A story idea, including those that derive from the manipulation of leftover plots or plot-seeds, can be developed in as many ways as one has the capacity to imagine.

In “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date,” Buffy accepts a date from Owen, a boy in love with what he believes, based on his reading of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, is the romance of death. When he follows her to a funeral home, where she must go to dispatch vampires and save her mentor, the Watcher Rupert Giles, Owen thinks he’s found his soul mate. Buffy breaks up with him, not wanting to endanger him, and that’s the end of their relationship. But what if it weren’t? What if Owen refused to take no for an answer? What is he continued to follow Buffy around and to get in her way, posing a danger to himself, to Buffy, and to others? Here is a potential plot for one or more stories--the pesky devotee whose naiveté, incompetence, or foolishness causes dangerous situations and potentially lethal consequences. Such a character need not associate with a vampire slayer and her friends. He or she could hang out with any character or characters who routinely perform dangerous tasks. The use of such a character, therefore, can (and should be) original.

Xander and some school bullies are transformed into a pack of hyenas when they visit the local zoo. At the end of the episode (“The Pack,” episode 6, season 1), Buffy again saves the day, and Xander and the other students revert to themselves. The zookeeper, who is behind the enchantment, is killed when Xander, to save Willow, tosses him to the hyenas. However, the mystic circle inside of which the students had stepped, triggering their transformations, remains. Could it be used as a catalyst in a future story, to bring about the same or a similar transformation? The circle is an artifact--a physical object that introduces change. There are many others--rings, amulets, charms, potions, garments, even spaceships. As such, it makes an excellent inciting moment. (An inciting moment is the incident near the outset of the story’s action that sets everything that follows in motion--the narrative spark, so to speak, that ignites the rest of the story’s action. It is the one moment in the action of the story without which there would be no story. If Xander and the other students hadn‘t stepped inside the mystic circle, they wouldn‘t have been transformed; if Dorothy Gale hadn‘t run away from home, she wouldn‘t have been caught in the tornado that carried her off to Oz; if Huckleberry Finn’s father, Pap, hadn’t returned to take custody of his son, Huck would never have run away from his foster home.) The mystic circle reminds us that virtually any physical object can be an inciting moment or a catalyst for change and that it can be used again and again to accomplish the same purpose (although too much repetition of the device will become boring).

What have we learned, so far, from considering “leftover plots” or plot-seeds or springboards or whatever we choose to call narrative motifs that suggest additional storylines?

Ideas cannot be copyrighted, so they are fair game as inspirations for plots.
The specific and unique ways in which ideas are developed can, and often are, copyrighted. Using the characters, settings, and other elements of such treatments could constitute plagiarism and/or copyright infringement.

Ideas must be given an original treatment in which characters, settings, and other elements are new, not derivative.

  • An imprisoned character can escape, causing more mischief or even a little death and destruction before being killed or imprisoned again.
  • Things that give rise to new organisms or liberate forces or entities, such as eggs, seeds, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, melting icebergs, shifting tectonic plates, earthbound meteors, and the like, can introduce new characters, including such worthy adversaries as hideous, horrible monsters.
  • Problematic characters, such as a naïve, incompetent, or foolish follower or sidekick can create havoc and endanger lives.
  • Physical objects, or artifacts, can function as inciting moments that spark a chain of narrative incidents, setting the rest of the story in motion.

Having considered only a few of the lessons to be learned from a consideration of Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes, we’ll revisit the topic of “Leftover Plots” in future installments.

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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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