Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman
A careful analysis of the storylines of motion pictures, novels, narrative poems, and short stories in the horror genre discloses recurring plot motifs, or formulae. Here are the some more of them, each of which is complete with one or more examples to get you started on the compilation and maintenance of your own list of such plot patterns.
1. Find the ugly within or among the beautiful. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.
2. Develop a continuing theme. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.
3. Enact revenge. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.
4. Rescue a damsel in distress. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.
5. Find the strange in the familiar. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.
6. Bring up the past (and relate it to the present). We discussed this strategy in a previous post.
7. Conduct an experiment. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.
8. Invade paradise. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.
9. Dig up that which has been buried (repressed). We discussed this strategy in a previous post.
10. Bite the hand that feeds you (betrayal). Dante reserved the lowest level of his inferno for those who had betrayed others. For him, the most sinful of sins was disloyalty, perhaps because Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus. Certainly, betrayal, or the biting of the hand that feeds one, so to speak, is a common means of generating storylines, in both horror fiction and other genres. It is the theme that underlies Stephen King’s novel, Cujo, which is more about an unfaithful wife than it is about a rabid dog. Indeed, the St. Bernard himself may function, symbolically, as a representation of the effects upon her family of the betrayal represented by her marital infidelity. In The Others, Grace Stewart, unable to cope with the responsibilities of rearing her children after her husband, Charles, leaves the family to fight in World War I, kills her son and daughter before committing suicide. Certainly, the murder of her children is a betrayal of monstrous proportions, and it is the basis of the movie’s entire plot.
11. Uncover a secret. In this storyline, one of the characters (often the protagonist) has a secret that is discovered by another character (perhaps the antagonist). I employ this method of generating a storyline in my novel, Wild Wicca Women, in which the protagonist’s mother discovers a trunk full of paraphernalia related to witchcraft, or Wicca, in her teenage daughter’s bedroom closet as the mother is putting away her daughter’s clothing, which she has just laundered. Sometimes, the uncovering of a secret coincides with the conduct of an experiment, often by the government, as in Electric Zombies (2006), a film which has a plot similar to that of Stephen King’s Cell (2006), except that Zombies does not leave the method behind the madness unexplained: in Zombies, the government’s use of electronic warfare techniques has unforeseen, and horrific, consequences, turning cellular telephone users into the “electric zombies” referenced by the film’s title. Much the same thing happens in King’s novel, although for no apparent reason (although one of the characters, a precocious boy named Jordan, does theorize that a computer worm or virus may have corrupted the telephone signal).
12. Threaten the near and the dear. Stephen King is a master of this technique, as he demonstrated at the very outset of his career, when, at the conclusion of his first novel, Carrie, he kills off the main character, after making her sympathetic enough to be loveable. The killing off of a beloved character with whom the reader has sent many hours getting to know and like has become a staple in King’s fiction, making his work, along this line, rather predictable. Before one opens the cover of any of his books, it’s a pretty safe bet that one or more characters near and dear to the reader’s heart is likely to be killed, to suffer physical, emotional, or moral harm, or, at the very least, be threatened with such loss. Other writers have since included this motif in their work as well, one of whom, Dan Simmons, kills off the sympathetic boy genius Duane in Summer of Night after building up his character with great detail and care for several hundred pages. An effect of this approach to developing a storyline is to show the reader that no one in the story is safe, necessarily, from the monster. To paraphrase the late Charles De Gualle, it seems that the pages of horror novels (and the screens of horror movies) are full of indispensable characters.
Next post, more storylines.