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Sunday, December 6, 2009

Eighteen Things I Learned By Watching BtVS

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Some of these points I’d already learned, but I was reminded of them by watching BtVS; others were new lessons that I learned by watching BtVS.

1. Have characters make a grand entrance.

On his first arrival in Sunnydale, in “School Hard,” the vampire Spike runs his car (the windows and windshield of which are covered with black plastic to keep out sunlight) over a curb and knocks down a traffic sign. In “Hell’s Belles,” when one of Anyanka’s victims pretends to be an aged Xander Harris, come from the future to warn his younger self not to marry Anya, he appears in a rainstorm, his red umbrella drawing the viewer’s eyes. (The grand entrance doesn’t have to be “grand” in the true sense of the word, but it should stand out, separating a new character from the story’s cluttered background.)

2. End each episode (and season) with a cliffhanger.

Some of the more memorable Buffy cliffhangers: The Master drowns Buffy (“Prophecy Girl”). After fifteen years as an only child, Buffy has a younger sister, Dawn, who’s always lived with her and their mother, Joyce (“Buffy vs. Dracula”). Buffy dies when she leaps off a tower to save Dawn (“The Gift”). Willow’s girlfriend, Tara, is shot--just after the lesbian lovebirds get together after a long separation (“Seeing Red”).

3. Dialogue counts.

The witty repartee, clever puns, allusions to literary conventions, references to popular culture, and jokes of the Buffy characters are legendary.

4. Use transitional dialogue, either straightforward or ironic, to lead into the action that follows the present action.

An example might be one character’s declaration that he or she knows exactly what Buffy (or another character) is probably doing at the moment, which statement is followed by a scene that shows the declaration to be true (or false); either way, the declaration acts as a segue between the previous and the next scene.

5. Give each character a core trait.

Buffy = duty; Xander = courage; Willow = humility (at least, until she becomes evil); Cordelia = arrogance.

6. Use not one foil, but multiple foils, for the protagonist.

Both Kendra and Faith are foils to Buffy, as are Angel and Spike.

7. Give the protagonist a core desire or problem.

Buffy wants to live a normal life; Angel wants to redeem himself.

8. Substitute a Big Bad for a little bad.

Almost every season does this. For example, the viewer is led to assume that the Anointed One is going to replace the Master as the Big Bad, whereas, in fact, the Anointed One is the little bad; Spike, who kills him, is the season’s Big Bad.

9. Base villains on metaphors.

In “Beer Bad,” alcohol turns college students into cavemen (the cavemen represent the teens' boorish behavior while drunk); in “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” a neglected girl becomes invisible, a state which symbolizes her being overlooked; in “I Robot, You Jane,” an electronic demon represents the dangers of Internet dating.

10. Employ romantic triangles, and have love affairs end badly.

Initially, Willow has a crush on Xander, who favors Buffy, who loves Angel. Willow loses Oz to the wild beast of the werewolf in him, she becomes a lesbian, and she loses her girlfriend, first to her own abuse of magic and then to a bullet. Xander jilts the girl of his dreams, a vengeance demon named Anya, leaving her at the altar when he gets cold feet. Angel leaves Buffy and moves to Los Angeles.

11. Endanger all important characters, and especially those who are beloved.

Buffy dies--twice. In Sunnydale High School’s seniors’ fight against the mayor and his minions during graduation day ceremonies, some students are killed and others are transformed into vampires (“Graduation Day, Part II”). Willow chooses evil, nearly destroying the world (and Xander) (“Grave”). Glory sucks out Tara’s brain and hunts, and tries to kill, Dawn (“Tough Love,” “The Gift”).

12. Make beloved characters suffer as much as possible.

Buffy suffers from unrequited love, from lovers who leave her (or whom she leaves), and from the losses or deaths of family members and friends.

13. Make sure that, in confronting monsters, protagonists and other characters also confront themselves.

In “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” Willow and Xander (and Cordelia) face the fact that their ignoring of classmate Marcie Ross has caused Marcie to turn invisible. In “Wrecked,” “Seeing Red,” and earlier episodes of the same season (six), Willow must face the truth that she is addicted to magic and that her addiction has harmed those she loves.

14. Employ parallel plots. Have the subplot reinforce and enrich the major plot or a thread that runs through the main plot (in television, the season’s arc).

In “I Only Have Eyes For You,” as she attempts to gain the upper hand against a couple of ghostly lovers in purgatory who haunt Sunnydale High on the anniversary of the Sadie Hawkins’ Day dance, during which the teenage male killed his teacher-lover and then committed suicide, Buffy has to come to grips with ex-boyfriend Angel’s own abusive treatment of her.

15. Pump back stories. Get all you can out of your characters’ personal histories, showing what they’ve experienced, suffered, enjoyed, and done that has shaped their lives and brought them to the point they are in the story’s present moment.

Several episodes are devoted to the personal histories (back stories) of Angel, Spike, Darla, Drusilla, and, of course, Buffy herself. We learn what Angel, Spike, and Drusilla were like before they became vampires, how they became vampires, what they did after becoming vampires (before coming to Sunnydale), how Angel’s soul was restored to him in a Gypsy curse and how having a soul continues to affect him, how he was introduced to Buffy, what Buffy’s home life as a young girl was like, and many other details that provide characters’ motivations, enrich and develop them, and make them more or less sympathetic.

16. Write with different authorial tones in mind: depth (Whedon), darkness (Noxon), humor (Espenson).

A writer can see the world through many people’s eyes, adopting whichever perspective, world view, value system, beliefs, principles, desires, hopes, and fears make a character tick. In doing so, he or she should make sure that the tone, whether deep and philosophical, dark and cynical, or humorous and satirical, fits the Weltanschauung of the moment.

17. Employ symbolism and indirect communication techniques.

BtVS is replete with examples. One that I recall is a flashing caution light that is seen on a construction sawhorse as Buffy and Faith enter a dark alley, pursuing (and pursued by) vampires. It’s a little over the top, perhaps, to be truly subliminal, but the effect (CAUTION! CAUTION! CAUTION!) of the flashing warning light is, nevertheless, effective in heightening viewer’s anxiety and the scene‘s suspense.

18. Set he tone of an episode in its opening teaser.

Virtually every episode of the show accomplishes this, alerting the viewer as to the emotional tenor of the episode through situation, dialogue, or, often, a combination of the two.
Note: BtVS has MUCH more to teach anyone who likes to write horror fiction. Perhaps a future article will address some of these other lessons to be learned.

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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.

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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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