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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Syntactical Storylines

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

The adjectival subject verbed its object adverbially.

(Example: The old man ate cake quickly.)

The above sentence reflects the basic, normal syntax (word order) of the English language, which can be modified by additions of words, phrases and clauses, as necessary or desirable.

Reducing this syntax to one of subject-verb-object, and appending to it a final phrase or clause that identifies or explains its cause, motivation, or reason can suggest a storyline that can then be developed into a plot. Here are some examples, based on summaries in Fantasy and Horror: A Critical and Historical Guide to Literature, Illustration, Film, TV, Radio, and the Internet, edited by Neil Barron:

Most writers can come up with the subject (protagonist or antagonist), the verb (incident or action), and the object (which may or may not be the antagonist). The explanation as to why the incident or the action occurred is what often troubles authors--and it is upon just this item that the whole story hangs, for without a cause, a motive, or a reason, a sequence of incidents or a chain of actions (behaviors) has no meaning. Consequently, the story has no consequence or value. It is merely a meaningless succession of pointless happenings unrelated to one another except by chronology.

One of the beauties of a syntactical approach to creating storylines is that, in compiling a list of examples of the process, such as the one that we have complied here, based upon stories’ summaries in Fantasy and Horror, one can obtain, as it were, a bird’s-eye view of causes, motives and reasons--of the explanatory origins or consequences--of a plot’s incidents or a protagonist’s or an antagonist’s actions, which allows the writer to give significance and understanding to such incidents or actions.

Motivated actions, or behaviors (which, unlike incidents, which are caused, rather than motivated) have ends, or purposes; such actions are goal-directed. They may be directed toward self-satisfaction or the satisfaction of another. In either case, they fulfill various needs that psychologists have identified. Some needs can be fulfilled by oneself; others needs must be fulfilled by someone or something other than oneself; and still other needs may be fulfilled by either oneself, may be fulfilled by another, or may or must be fulfilled by both the self and another who act together, in cooperative interaction, with one another. (Abraham Maslow identifies classes of universal basic human needs that energize, or motivate, human behavior: physiological needs, safety need, love and belonging needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs, and other psychologists identify still other types of universal needs with which writers should be familiar.)

In horror fiction, the past often affects the present, and the present often affects the future. Sometimes, these effects are intended; they are set up by a character on purpose, to initiate future incidents. Other times, they seem to be merely the workings of chance. They may be caused by a character’s performance of a ritual by which he or she hopes to impart a supernatural status to a natural object, process, set of circumstances, condition, or event. They may result from the contact of two points in the space-time continuum that are usually separate. An action may be the result of hubris, or they may be intended to effect catharsis, or a venting of powerful emotion.

The explanation for the incidents that occur or the actions that the protagonist or the antagonist performs may also suggest a back story--or, at least, elements that should be developed and, eventually, explained in the back story. For example, if an architect is motivated to perform ritual murders as a means of “baptizing” the cathedrals he designs or builds, in order to cause later repetitions of these initial killings, the reader, at some point, will want and expect to know why--in other words, what motivates this character to do want to do such a thing to begin with? The character’s immediate purpose, or motive, is to cause later repetitions of the original killings; his or her motive for wanting the initial murders to be repeated might be called the final motive. Learning the immediate cause, the reader will be content to read further, but he or she will expect to be told the final cause as well, at some point in the story, or the character’s actions will, despite the immediate cause having been identified, remain baseless and incredible. Withholding, but ultimately disclosing, the final cause as well is a good mean of maintaining suspense--as long as, at some point, the final cause is also revealed.

Note: All summaries are quoted directly (except where modifications are indicated) from Alan Frank’s The Horror Film Handbook.

The storyline, or premise, of a narrative should normally follow the subject-verb-object syntax that is typical of English sentences and include any necessary articles:

A bishop unleashes a demon.

Usually, the subject identifies the story’s protagonist; the verb, his or her action; and the object the recipient of the protagonist’s action.

The storyline may add words, phrases, or dependent clauses to provide additional information about any or all three of these elements. However, the additional details should be necessary and minimal, at this point. For example, Since this story (Abby) (1974) is set in an African country (Nigeria) and, in fact, the demon itself is a native, as it were, to this country, the bishop’s race may be regarded as significant; therefore, it is mentioned; otherwise, it would not be:

A black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon.

If it is pertinent to the plot of the story to further describe any of these elements, additional words, phrases, or clauses can be added. For example, the type of demon can be indicated; in our example, based upon the movie Abby, the demon is one “of sexuality,” so this phrase is added, after the noun “demon”:

A black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing. . . .

This sentence comprises the setup of the story; it is the inciting moment--the one incident in the action of the story that sets everything else in the narrative in motion, the spark, or catalyst, that ignites the remaining actions of the plot. To identify this moment as the cause of the actions which follow, rather than merely their antecedent, many writers convert the sentence into an adverbial clause by adding “When” to the beginning of the group of words:

When a black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing. . . .

What was formerly an independent clause (“A black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing”) is now a dependent clause (“When a black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing”), and an adverbial one, at that, which will modify the as-yet non-existent independent clause that will follow it, completing the sentence. The independent clause (underlined in the example, below) will identify the effect, or consequence, of the cause that the dependent, adverbial clause identifies:

When a black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing, his daughter-in-law becomes possessed.

As before, if it is pertinent to the plot of the story to further describe any of these elements, additional words, phrases, or clauses can be added. For example, the location in which the daughter-in-law lives may be deemed relevant; if so, it should be identified (as it is here, underlined):

When a black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing, his daughter-in-law in Louisville becomes possessed.

The consequence that follows from the storyline’s initial cause can itself become the cause of a subsequent consequence, as in the extension of the premise (in which the added consequence is underlined):

When a black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing, his daughter-in-law in Louisville becomes possessed and he has to perform an exorcism.

This is a fairly well-written summary of Abby’s basic plot, or storyline, although the phrase “and evil-doing” possibly could be omitted. As such, it specifies the three parts of the story, in a cause-and-effect sequence, thereby representing the germ of a logical, coherent, well-structured, three-act premise:

Beginning (Act I): A black bishop unleashes a Nigerian demon of sexuality and evil-doing.

Middle (Act II): His daughter-in-law in Louisville becomes possessed.

End (Act III)
: He has to perform an exorcism.

A storyline can also state or suggest the protagonist’s motive, as this one does, in summarizing the plot of The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), in which, here, underlining has been added to indicate the motive:

A wealthy musical genius, the horribly disfigured Dr. Phibes, plans to murder all the surgeons who failed to save his wife’s life and uses methods of death based on the ten curses of [i. e., on] Pharaoh.

In other words, Dr, Phibes is motivated by revenge. This premise could be improved:

A wealthy musical genius, the horribly disfigured Dr. Phibes uses methods of death based on the ten curses of [i. e., on] Pharaoh to murder all the surgeons who failed to save his wife’s life.

Notice that this summary, in addition to suggesting the protagonist’s motive (revenge), also identifies an unusual twist: Dr. Phibes will employ “methods of death based on the ten curses on Pharaoh.” If a story contains such a twist, the storyline should indicate it, as this one does, because it is such unusual twists that add interest to a storyline. However, a writer is still well advised to start with the simplest subject-verb-object method of delineating the original germ of the plot and then add such words, phrases, or clauses that seem justified to present all pertinent details, whether of character, setting, unusual plot twist, motive, or otherwise:

A genius murders surgeons.

The following summary (of The Abominable Snowman) also indicates the movie’s three-part plot structure, the character’s motive, and the setting:

An expedition travels into the Himalayas [Beginning (Act I), which constitutes the inciting moment and includes an identification of the setting as “the Himalayas”] in search of the legendary Yeti [Middle (Act II), including the characters’ motive] and discover the creatures to be monstrous but friendly [End (Act III)].

Notice that this summary could be recast in the “when-this, that” format:

When an expedition travels into the Himalayas in search of the legendary Yeti[,] [the team] discover the creatures to be monstrous but friendly.

Even a classic like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) can fit this format:

[When] a young woman steals $40,000 from her employer and stops over at an isolated motel . . . she is killed by a schizophrenic transvestite who believes that he is his own mother.

[Beginning (Act I)]: A young woman steals $40,000 from her employer.

[Middle (Act II)]
: [She] stops over at an isolated motel.

[End (Act III)]
: She is killed by a schizophrenic transvestite who believes that he is his own mother.

Although this summary doesn’t state or suggest her motive, the movie itself does, and the summary could easily be adapted to do likewise:

[When] a young woman steals $40,000 from her employer to finance a new life with her boyfriend before stopping over at an isolated motel . . . she is killed by a schizophrenic transvestite who believes that he is his own mother.


Barron, Neil, ed. Fantasy and Horror: A Critical and Historical Guide to Literature, Illustration, Film, TV, Radio, and the Internet.

Frank, Alan. The Horror Film Handbook. Barnes & Noble Books: Totowa, NJ. 1982.

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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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