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Friday, September 3, 2010

Narrative and Dramatic Technique

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman



Lately, I have become more and more interested in narrative and dramatic technique, in the use of the more sophisticated, less apparent methods by which authors and filmmakers convey meaning and nuance in the tales they show and tell. Some of these techniques include incongruity, juxtaposition, symbolism, metaphor, and imagery. Indeed, on occasion, two or m ore of these techniques are combined, one as the vehicle of the other. For example, image or juxtaposition often conveys symbolism. In Deleuze and Horror Film, Anna Powell offers an interesting and insightful explication of Stanley Kubrick’s use of imagery both to set the tone of the movie and to symbolize the state of protagonist Jack Torrance’s mind:


Inflation and detachment shape the cerebral aesthetic of The Shining and its virtual experience by the viewer. The wide-angle lens and overblown strains of Berlioz plunge us sensorially into a world of inflated grandeur. Extremely wide vistas of the mountainous landscape induce a cold, detached and depersonalized perspective. Humans are unimportant in this vast physical, and metaphysical, terrain. The mechanic motion of an uncannily independent camera surveys the landscape in an omniscient gliding motion. We experience the perspective of an eagle’s eye, or a divine power, as we become-god. Mental detachment and ego-inflation key in the delusions of Jack Torrance. The disturbed writer’s deranged consciousness forms and is formed by the film’s mise-en-scene and cinematography.

The landscape, like the music, has a sublime grandeur yet the ominous chords and the dizzying, extra-human perspective render it sinister. It threatens to engulf the small, insect-like car, leading it ever upwards into a land of eternal snow. As the narrative moves inexorably onwards, it mobilizes a process of becoming-frozen. Jack undergoes a freezing of emotional warmth and empathy. His blood runs cold, both figuratively and literally, as he becomes one with the forces of winter and death (43-44).
Powell’s analysis is powerful and insightful, and Kubrick’s use of the external world to reflect the internal world extends beyond the mountainous countryside to the interior-exterior world of the Overlook Hotel as well, which, like the landscape without, also conveys, even mirrors, the unstable state of Torrance’s mind:

Shining as affective force dominates the mise-en-scene. The interior of the Overlook Hotel is lit and coloured preternaturally. No daylight can penetrate, and fire, candles and electricity replace natural light. Polished surfaces like metal, glossy paint and marble magnify their impact by varying degrees of reflection and refraction. These artificial light qualities objectify Jack’s derangement. They highlight the colours and tones of gold that express and modify the power of light itself. The hotel’s gold function room is the locus of vampiric energy. Its tonal quality spreads through the building to drain the human life force. Light grows brighter and colours grow richer enhanced by the psychic horror it generates.

A distinctive light quality reinforces the cold white of the larder / cold storage room, lit by a fluorescent tube that drains all other colours. This space is the cold heart of the building, where Jack is trapped until his final murderous apotheosis. . . . As well as the qualities and tones of colours, light evokes tactility, we virtually feel the snow’s bitter coldness. This is effected by Kubrick’s use of cold blue light and a back-lit mist that rises as the snow’s surface evaporates. In his dying, Jack becomes completely overwhelmed by blueness and light in a becoming-ice (45-46).
In a previous post, I explained how, in “Dracula’s Guest,” Bram Stoker’s inclusion of potentially hallucinatory perceptions as part of descriptions within descriptions of persons (characters), places (settings), and things, from the point of view of the story’s protagonist, creates almost-subliminal tension and anxiety in the reader as this device produces, in the reader’s consciousness, a cognitive double-take, so to speak. In another article, posted previously, I explain how H. P. Lovecraft’s various descriptions, always in different terms, of the same monstrous entity increases the horrific character of the monster in the reader’s imagination as he or she strives, in vain, to make sense of the puzzling series of differing descriptions of the same creature.  In yet another previously posted essay, I comment upon the disturbing effect of Stephen King’s offhanded inclusion of nonsense words and phrases in the otherwise-normal dialogue of a character, Junior Rennie, who is losing his grip on reality (and, as it turns out, is suffering from an as-yet-undiagnosed brain tumor).  All of these techniques are ways by which horror writers have conveyed both convey meaning and nuance as well as horror and repulsion in the tales they tell.

Writers have discovered or (more often) created yet other techniques, too, for suggesting subtle shades of horror and tones of terror. My essay, previously posted, concerning the symbolic nature of the ogre-like monsters in The Descent (they appear to represent aborted fetuses who torment the women who descend into the more extreme depths of feminist demands for “choice,” even when such exercises of free will result in haunting guilt concerning one’s decision to end the lives of children growing in the womb) indicates yet another authorial means of conveying horrific meanings within a text or, in this case, a film.  Ray Bradbury often effects horror through characterization. The protagonist of his short story “Heavyset“ is frightening, indeed, simply because of who he is. Shirley Jackson, like Flannery O’Connor, uses a measured cadence to march her readers ever forward, through her often absurd situations and past her usually grotesque characters; her matter-of-fact, somehow insistent rhythm keeps readers reading as much as if they were participants in a parade.  In “Bad Girls,” an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Faith accidentally kills Deputy Mayor Allan Finch; before this horrific incident, the viewer is warned about imminent danger as Faith and Buffy walk down a dark alley, splashed with crimson as, on a nearby construction sawhorse, an amber caution light flashes.

Horror writers can learn from authors of other genres of fiction, too, appropriating for their own purposes the narrative and dramatic techniques that their peers have developed in the service of their own storytelling ends. Images can bracket the action of a story, forming bookends, as it were, and transforming a narrative or a drama into a frame story, as the car wrecks that begin and end Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool do.


Imagery can provide an antithesis to the nature of a character, as do the thick glasses that the visionary Hollywood producer Stanley Motss wears in Wag the Dog. Images can symbolize the transcendent subhuman nature of a character, as the soulless Man With No Eyes’ mirrored sunglasses do in Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke or a character’s transcendent qualities, as the snapping turtle that “won’t let go” even when it’s “deader than hell” does, in the same film. The mirrored sunglasses prevent anyone from seeing the “walking boss’” eyes and suggest that he has no eyes to see--in other words, that he is inhuman. The eyes are the mirrors of the soul, but rather than mirroring the Man With No Eyes’ Soul, the sunglasses mirror only the eyes (and the souls) of those whom the walking boss’ sunglasses reflect. The turtle symbolizes Luke’s own refusal, as it were, to “let go” his hold on his fellow convicts, whom he inspires even more after he is “deader than hell” than he did when he was alive in their midst. Horror writers can use similar devices to frame stories or typify, or even deify, characters.

2 comments:

lazlo azavaar said...

Great post, Gary. I found your symbolic reading of The Descent utterly flabbergasting! I like to think I have some grasp of symbolism, but I am clearly in the wading pool compared to those like yourself, who can navigate deeper waters.

Gary L. Pullman said...

Thanks, Lazlo. Like anything else, critical analysis just takes practice.

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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