Fascinating lists!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear

copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman


I once read somewhere that, although there are many ways to inflict death, there is, ultimately, only one cause of death--cessation of oxygen to the brain.

Something is similar with regard to the ultimate object of fear. Many persons, places, and things instill fear, but they all do it the same way--by threatening us with loss. The loss with which we're threatened is related to a significant possession, to something that we value highly: life, limb, mind, health, a loved one, and life itself are some possibilities.

It's been argued that we fear the unknown. I think that, yes, we do fear the unknown, but only because it may be associated with a possible threat to us or to something or someone else we value.

What is death? Simply annihilation? Or, as Hamlet suggests, is death but a prelude to something much worse, to possible damnation and an eternity of pain and suffering in which we're cut off from both God and humanity? That's loss, too--loss of companionship, friendship, communion, fellowship, and love. Against such huge losses, annihilation looks pretty cozy.

Horror fiction--the fiction of fear--wouldn't have much to offer us, though, if all it did was make us afraid of death and/or hell. It does do more, though, quite a bit more, as it turns out, which is why it's important in its own way.

First, if Stephen King (by way of Aristotle) is right, horror fiction provides a means both of exercising and of exorcising our inner demons. It allows us to become the monster for a time in order to rid ourselves of the nasty feelings and impulses we occasionally entertain. Horror fiction is cathartic. It allows us to vent the very feelings that, otherwise, bottled up inside, might make us become the monster permanently and drive us, as such, to murder and mayhem.

Horror fiction provides us with a way of exercising and of exorcising our inner demons, but it also reminds us that life is short, and it suggests to us that we should be grateful to be alive, that we should appreciate what we have, and that we should take nothing for granted--not life, limb, mind, health, loved ones, or anything else. Horror fiction is a literary memento mori, or reminder of death. In the shadow of death, we appreciate and enjoy the fullness of life.

No one ever wrote a horror story about a man who stubbed his toe or a woman who broke a nail. Horror fiction's themes are bigger; they're more important. They're as vast and profound as the most critically important and most highly valued of all things. Horror fiction, by threatening us with the loss of that which is really important, shows us what truly matters. As such, it's a guide, implicitly, to the good life.

Horror fiction also shows us, sometimes, at least, that no matter how bad things are, we can survive our losses. We can regroup, individually or collectively, subjectively or objectively, and we can continue to fight the good fight.

Chillers and thrillers are important for all these reasons and at least one other. They're entertaining to read or watch; they're fun!

Sources Cited:

Aristotle, Poetics.

King, Stephen, "Why We Crave Horror Movies," originally published in Playboy, 1982.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Blurb Plotting, Part 2

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
 
In my previous blog, using Dean Koontz’s What the Night Knows, I demonstrated how an analysis of publisher’s blurb can--on occasion, at least--result in the identification of a formula by which a writer may plot a novel of his or her own, using this same formula.
 
In this post, using Bentley Little’s The Store, I demonstrate again how this method can generate a plotline for one’s own novel.
 
Fiona Webster summarizes the plot of Little’s novel; I add, in bold font, the steps that she creates in doing so that you or I (or anyone else, Bentley Little included) could extract from Webster’s synopsis, using these steps to develop the plot for his or her own novel:
Appeal to readers’ personal interest: . . . "In The Store Little examines the steadily expanding influence, over all of us, of chain stores. . . . "
Focus upon the ordinary while suggesting that, underlying the everydayness of the initial situation, something bizarre might be happening: "The Store builds paranoia by starting with simple descriptions of the picturesque landscape and the deceptively banal Western town that is Juniper, Arizona. Then The Store arrives. The Store razes a lovely hill to build its huge parking lot. The Store offers well-paying jobs and an astonishing variety of consumer goods. The pattern of delight and worry in the citizens, as The Store spreads its tentacles into local concerns, is believable--disturbingly so. The Store seems like any other of the familiar chains that reproduce like rabbits, invade communities, wipe out small businesses, and turn unique localities into a generic America that looks just the same from Alaska to Florida." 
Involve the main character and others in the situation: "But what exactly goes on, when Samantha and Shannon meet with their boss in the basement of The Store? And who are the Night Managers?"
Refer the situation to an established type of fiction (in this case, the dystopia): "This is dystopia in microcosm. This is horror fiction at its subversive best." --Fiona Webster 
Once again, the blurb has provided a sequence of steps by which to plot one’s own novel:
  1. Appeal to readers’ personal interest.
  2. Focus upon the ordinary while suggesting that, underlying the everydayness of the initial situation, something bizarre might be happening.
  3. Involve the main character and others in the situation.
  4. Refer the situation to an established type of fiction (in this case, the dystopia).

Monday, March 28, 2011

Redemption, Vengeance, Love, Hatred--Call It What You Will, It's Still Free Will

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman


Unlike animal behavior, human conduct is motivated (at times, at least). There is a reason for what people do or refrain from doing. The motives may be good or not so good, selfless or selfish, beneficial or harmful to ourselves or others.

To motivate a character, a writer (and, indeed, a director and an actor) needs to know not only what makes people tick in general but also something about the character he or she is depicting or portraying. For writers, such understanding is enhanced by knowing the character’s past, or back story. What happened in the past influences who we are and what we do in the present.

Like any other qualitative television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer delves into its characters’ pasts, depicting their back stories so that viewers can get to know and understand these characters as well as their creators do. In the process, fans learn what makes Buffy Summers tick; why Rupert Giles is (at first, anyway) a stodgy, all-work, no-play kind of guy; what happens in Xander Harris’ home life to make him the clowning, but loyal, friend; the reason for Willow Rosenberg’s geeky, shy vulnerability; and why Cordelia Chase is snobby and sarcastic but, at the same time, has “layers” to her personality.

Some of the series’ characters seek redemption: Giles, for an irresponsible youth that included practicing dark magic that led to a friend’s death at the hands of a demon that he helped to summon; Angel, for the misery, suffering, and pain he caused his many victims when he was a soulless, bloodsucking creature of the night; Jenny Calendar for her betrayal of Giles, Buffy, and Angel.

Others are motivated by their desire to live normal lives, including their attempts to fit into the larger world and to be popular with their peers (Buffy, Xander, Willow, and, each in her own way, Cordelia Chase and Anya Jenkins).

Still others--and, sometimes, the same characters, at different times--are motivated by a desire for revenge: Buffy, Angel, Jenny, and Willow.

Spike is often motivated by either hatred or love, or, sometimes by both, for the same character, at different times (Drusilla and Buffy, for example), but he is also energized, at times, by vengeance, boredom, loneliness, or sheer mischievousness. More than any other character, except perhaps Giles’ childhood chum, Ethan Rayne, Spike is the show’s trickster.

Buffy is a show that, although its writers recognize genetic inheritance as a factor in human behavior, also insists, rather passionately, that human conduct stems, more often than not, primarily from characters’ exercise of free will. They are what they do; they do what they are, but they both are and do, more often than not, because of the choices they make. They elect to take this action or that or to refrain from doing one thing or another. In the process, from the raw material, so to speak, of their genetic inheritance, they create themselves. Their choices are what make them realistic, believable, likable, or hateful characters, despite the fantastic nature of the series itself.

Buffy is by no means perfect; especially after season five, it is easy to detect flaws, both minor and significant, but the series remains, although uneven, worthwhile television, and its creator and its talented stable of writers have much to teach other writers about how to create complex, dynamic, and intriguing characters whose actions stem from moral conflicts, existential problems, the conduct of others, the social demands upon them, their own natural abilities and weaknesses, and, most of all, their own free will.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Faces Not Even a Mother Could Love

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

The mask that you wore, my finger would explore
The costume of desire, excitement soon unfolds. . . .
-- “Easy Ride,” The Doors
Leatherface

Dress has long been used as a means of controlling women. However, the use of “costumes of control” is not what this post is about. It’s about masks. More specifically, it’s about the masks worn by horror movie villains, the “masks” that, in fantasies of pain, suffering, and death, we “would explore,” not so much with our fingers as with our minds. 
  • Leatherface, of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, wears a mask.
  • Hannibal Lecter, of The Silence of the Lambs, wears a mask.
  • The Shape, of Halloween, wears a mask.
  • Ghostface, of Scream, wears a mask.
  • Jason Voorhees, of Friday the 13th, wears a mask.
Hannibal ("The Cannibal") Lecter
For viewers of these films, these masks are the true faces of the villains who wear them. Their true identities are the hideous personas, or public faces, they display to the world--and, more importantly, to their victims. Designed, as is Spider-man’s mask, to instill terror in the hearts of their adversaries (and their victims), these masks suggest the inhumanity of the human monsters who wear them. Therefore, they are often either ugly and repulsive or featureless and blank.
Michael Myers ("The Shape")
Since the beginning of the horror genre, physical ugliness has symbolized spiritual deformity. Monsters are often--maybe usually--repulsive, with bulging eyes, split skin, flesh full of writhing maggots, rotten teeth or fangs, liver-colored lips, mottled skin, scars, and a host of other unsightly and unseemly facial features.

There are a few beauties among the bevy of beastly killers, usually femme fatales. However, it is more likely that, if a psychopath or a sociopath is not ugly, he or she is nondescript. His or her face is more or less featureless, or blank, as if there is no one home behind the mask of flesh and blood, as if the human who occupies the mask is him- or herself inhuman, a soulless soul, as it were, upon whose plain and vacant, expressionless countenance we may project our own worst fears and suspicions.
Ghostface
 They’re faces, in short, that not even a mother could love.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Noxon's Buffy the Vampire Stinkers

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman


There’s a lot right with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but there’s a lot wrong with it, too, and critical thinkers, as opposed to mere fans, have identified much of what is the matter with the series. Although many of the diehard fans of the series continue to regard it as flawless, many others have either long recognized or recently recognized that the show had its share of glitches, non sequiturs, and mistakes. When did the show jump the shark? Opinions vary. Some contend that the show’s quality never declined noticeably, but many believe that, while the first five seasons are superb, the latter two are pretty much garbage. My own contention is that the series jumped the shark when its creator, Joss Whedon, handed off the show to Marti Noxon--in other words, at the beginning of season six; under her guidance, the series went steadily downhill and never recovered its original verve.

A better-than-average, but uneven, writer, Noxon fails as executive producer. Early on, as a writer, she gave the series a couple fairly good episodes, some so-so episodes, and a few horrible episodes: in the “Fairly Good” column, “What’s My Line,” “I Only Have Eyes For You”; “Bad Eggs,” “Buffy vs. Dracula,” “Wrecked,” “Villains,” “Bring On the Night,” and “End of Days” in the “Horrible” column; and her others in the “So-So” column.

Noxon couldn’t maintain the quality of the show. Had the series concluded with its fifth season, it would have been one of television’s finest moments; as it is, it is a mostly good, but very uneven, show that leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth and a sense that, after seven years, the show rips off its fans rather than respects them. What is difficult to discern is why its creator preferred to leave Buffy in Noxon’s hands in order to head up the vastly inferior spin-off Angel.

Lawrence Miles, Lars Pearson, and Christa Dickson, authors of Dusted: The Unauthorized Guide to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, more often than not hit the nail on the head in identifying the series’ “glitches.” According to them, these are the faults with regard to what I like to call Noxon’s Buffy the Vampire Stinkers:

Bad Eggs”: “The problem with ‘Bad Eggs’ . . .[is] that it’s deeply mediocre, about as ordinary and as straightforward as the series ever gets” (63).

Buffy vs. Dracula”: “It’s a strange episode all around. . . . Since Buffy got past the point of sending up horror movie ‘standards’ in Season One, the decision to go through the same old Abbot and Costello schtick [sic] four years later just isn’t very wise” (179).

Wrecked”; “A real instance of the series falling on its face. . . . The show now throws any sense of subtlety or characterization out the window--replacing it with a crude ‘drugs’ metaphor. This entails using every drug-culture cliché on television, yet ironically ‘Wrecked’ has precious little to actually say about the subject.” Moreover, and even “worse, it rewrites the rules of Buffy in the most absurd way possible. As the past five years have shown, magic isn’t heroin--it’s chiefly been used as a metaphor about individual responsibility. . . . But now the entire moral context shifts into the realm of ‘drugs’ with an embarrassingly clumsy stroke” (238).

Villains”: “A hollow story, putting its focus on the final sequence--Willow’s torture and murder of Warren--and thereby making everything that comes before it more or less irrelevant” (256).

Bring On the Night”: “A mess, really. . . . ‘Bring On the Night’ has no focus of its own. Instead, it comes across as a ragbag of contrived plot-points (Annabelle bolting for no good reason to insure the Ubervamp kills someone), dull conversations (Drusilla’s never been less interesting) and recycled ideas (the series somehow thinks a stake-proof vampire will shock and amaze us, even though it’s now the second we’ve seen. . . . Buffy’s final declaration of war is obviously meant as a major turning point, but it’s barely distinguishable from the ‘We’re taking the fight to them,’ speech she pretty much gives every year” (281).

End of Days”: “All the flaws of late Season Seven are still in evidence. There’s very little plot, over-extended conversation scenes and--of course--the massive deus ex machina of the scythe (the guardian isn’t very convincing, either)” (304).
Personally, I agree with virtually all of the author’s criticisms, although I don’t think that “Wrecked” is quite as bad as they so, and I think that “End of Days” is much worse. The authors’ choice of the best Buffy episodes for each season are:

Season 1: Joss Whedon’s “Prophecy Girl”
Season 2: Joss Whedon‘s “Becoming”
Season 3: Joss Whedon‘s “Doppelgangland”
Season 4: Joss Whedon’s “Hush”
Season 5: Douglas Petrie’s “Fool For Love”
Season 6: Joss Whedon’s “Once More, With Feeling”
Season 7: Jane Espenson’s and Drew Goddard‘s “Conversations with Dead People”
My own picks:

Season 1: Joss Whedon’s “Prophecy Girl”
Season 2: Carl Ellsworth’s “Halloween”
Season 3: Joss Whedon’s “Amends”
Season 4: Joss Whedon’s “Restless”
Season 5: Joss Whedon’s “Family”
Season 6: Joss Whedon’s “Once More, With Feeling”
Season 7: Jane Espenson’s and Drew Goddard‘s “Conversations with Dead People”
Other episodes that I would put on the “A” list:

Season 1

Ashley Gable‘s and Thomas A. Swyden’s “Out of Mind, Out of Sight”
Season 2

Howard Gordon’s and Marti Noxon’s “What’s My Line?”
David Greenwalt’s and Joss Whedon’s “Ted”
Ty King‘s “Passion”
Marti Noxon’s “I Only Have Eyes For You”
Joss Whedon’s “Becoming”
Season 3

David Greenwalts “Faith, Hope, and Trick”
Season 4

David Fury’s “Fear Itself”
Tracey Forbes’ “Beer Bad”
Tracey Forbes’ “Where the Wild Things Are”
Season 5

Douglas Petrie’s “Fool For Love”
Joss Whedon’s “The Body”
Season 6

David Fury’s and Jane Espenson’s “Life Serial”

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Don't Answer the Phone

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman


It’s cheesy and it’s sleazy, but it’s a lot of fun to watch. Don’t Answer the Phone (1980) is about a female psychiatrist, Dr. Lindsay Gale, who, in addition to her practice, hosts a radio talk show during which she advises callers as to what to do concerning their emotional and personal problems.

One caller, Vietnam War veteran Kirk Smith, a sadistic serial rapist and killer, takes a liking, of sorts, to her and begins to stalk, rape, and kill her female clients. Hiring a prostitute, he strangles her while she is on the telephone, talking to Dr. Gale, and the psychiatrist hears the victim’s terrified cries as she struggles for her life.

Finally, the sociopath invades Dr. Gale’s home, binds her to an armchair, and beats her as he shouts and curses at her. Fortunately, the police are on his trail, and Lieutenant Chris McCabe arrives in the nick of time, grappling with Smith, into whom the lawman empties his revolver, leaving him lying in a pool of blood as he frees the captive psychiatrist.

Of course, despite having been shot full of holes, the villain isn’t dead, and he seeks to kill the detective. More ammunition is enough, finally, to send the dead vet into the good doctor’s swimming pool, bloodying the water.

The low-budget thriller is impossibly tacky, tasteless, and tawdry, which is why, pretty much, it’s become a cult classic. The nudity doesn’t hurt, either; most of the damsels in distress--no, make that all the damsels in distress, including Dr. Gale--wear lingerie at some point in the film, offering viewers a glimpse or two of their more or less buxom charms.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Sidebar Approach to Writing

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Many book-length commentaries and analyses of popular entertainment products offer, more or less as fillers, occasional sidebars that provide behind-the-scenes information, summaries, or little-known facts about the various topics that the commentaries routinely cover in their murders to dissect. Dusted: The Unauthorized Guide to Buffy the Vampire Slayer is no exception, offering, as it does, 22 such sidebars, among them speculations concerning “Spike’s Nature,” an account of “The Unaired Pilot,” and a “Vampire History.”

From a writer’s perspective, perhaps some of the more interesting (and potentially valuable) sidebars are those that deal with characters’ back stories, histories regarding settings, and proposed plotlines. These items present a handy, dandy way of enriching one’s own narratives: pretend that you are a fan of your own work and that, as such, you buy a book (or a magazine) about the narrative of which you are an aficionado. Imagine, also, that you are the writer (or one of the writers) of the commentary and develop sidebars of the sort that you think fans of the narrative you’re writing your commentary about might enjoy, particularly ones associated with characters’ back stories, histories regarding settings, and proposed plotlines. Write them about your story, and, presto!, you’ve developed some ideas for future chapters of your novel in progress or (should you be so lucky) your ongoing series of novels.

For example, let’s assume that your story takes place in ancient Rome and that you want to create a sense of horror mingled with terror. Perhaps you decide to have a present-day visitor to the catacombs get stranded in the underground burial chambers overnight. This situation (and setting) cries out for a sidebar treatment in which you summarize the history of the local catacombs and given a succinct, but ghastly, description of the place.

If your character is (or knows) a famous person of the period, a sidebar concerning the famous man or woman--perhaps he is an emperor of a visiting queen--will help keep your fictitious portrait of him or her both accurate and intriguing, provided that the sidebar contains not only pertinent facts but also a spicy anecdote or two concerning the historical figure.

An artifact could also deserve sidebar treatment. Again, the facts and anecdotes you include in your sidebar will help you to stay on track and be interesting as you describe and explain the significance of the relic or objet d’art.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Learning from the Masters: Ian Fleming, Part 2

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman


Ian Fleming’s James Bond spy novels are thrillers. A clever as well as a talented author, Fleming uses diction (word choice) to reinforce, in an almost subliminal manner, the genre in which he writes. His adjectives, images, and metaphors remind readers, in subtle and inconspicuous ways, that they are reading an action-packed thriller. Horror writers can learn to use the same techniques and methods as Fleming uses, adapting them to their own genre.

The protagonist of The Spy Who Loved Me, Vivienne Michel, a young Canadian woman who seeks to escape her own past, describes the setting of the novel, the pine forest in which The Dreamy Pines Motor Court that she manages stands. “Wild maples flamed here and there like shrapnel-bursts” (003), she writes in her diary. It seems unlikely that a young woman would use military terminology to describe the fall foliage of maple trees, but Fleming’s description of these trees as looking like “shrapnel-bursts” reminds readers that the novel they are reading is not a romance--or not merely a romance--in which boy meets girl, but a thriller, in which there is likely to be gunplay, death, and destruction. The description is both a reminder that the book is a thriller and a promise of thrills to come.

In the first part of the same sentence that provides this stark military image, Fleming’s protagonist offers readers another, an implicit metaphor that compares the forest to a marching army: “Now, in the billion-strong army of pine trees that marched away northwards towards the Canadian border, the real, wild maples flamed here and there like shrapnel-bursts” (003). The forest is an army at war, its artillery bursting in bright autumn foliage.

Military imagery is combined with police imagery, word pictures that are a bit closer, perhaps, to Bond’s own vocation as an espionage agent, or spy: “And I felt that I, or at any rate my skin, had changed just as much--from the grimy sallowness that had been the badge of my London life (004). Did you notice the subtle reference to the “badge”?

Vivienne continues to pepper her descriptions of the pine forest with military images and metaphors, finding that “the way” the “jagged shapes” of the trees “mass closely together gives” her “the impression of an army of spears barring my passage” (005). She also uses adjectives that refer to either military or to police objects, or to both, describing “a longer gust” of wind, during a gathering storm, as bringing “with it the whisper of a metallic squeak” and “the gunmetal surface” of an agitated lake (007).

Other phrases extend the basic military and police references, again and again, reminding the reader both that he or she is reading a thriller and implying that thrills of the sort that are familiar to Bond’s admirers will be forthcoming: “sentinel trees,” a “camp-fire” (008), a “guard dog,” “thunder“ that executes an “ambush,” “one, single, colossal explosion. . . [that] might have been a huge bomb” (009), and thunder that sounds like “a furious cannonade” (010).

By using words that create images and metaphors that convey a sense of horror, as Edgar Allan Poe does, for example, in nearly all his stories, and as such other masters of the genre as Bram Stoker, H. P. Lovecraft, Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson, and Ray Bradbury typically do, a writer of horror stories can remind his or her reader that he or she has trespassed upon the realm of terror while, at the same time, promising ghastly and dreadful chills to come. Diction, carefully selected and employed, is a rhetoric of tone and mood.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Learning from the Masters: Ian Fleming

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman


Regardless of the genre in which one writes, an author can learn from his or her peers--regardless of the genres in which they write. In this and the next post, I will consider a couple of the many tricks, for example, that Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond series of novels, can teach writers of horror fiction--or, for that matter, writers of any other type of narrative literature.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1962) is different from the other novels featuring 007. For one thing, it doesn’t tell his story. As the novel’s title suggests, The Spy Who Loved Me is a woman’s story, for “the spy” is none other than James Bond. The “me” whom he loves is the story’s protagonist, Vivienne Michel, a woman who, down on her luck in love, finances, and otherwise, takes the job of managing an isolated motel. The motel is not doing well, and its owner is heavily in debt. He hires two gangsters, Sluggsy and Horror, to burn down the place so that he can collect the insurance he's taken out on the establishment. Vivienne fears she will be ravished and killed by the men. As the arsonists close in on her, she hears “the sharp sound of the buzzer at the front door,” and “everyone” freezes (95).

In "The Grand Entrance," I discuss the importance of having one’s main character make a grand entrance of some sort--that is, a memorable debut that makes an indelible impression on the reader, calling attention to the protagonist and setting him or her apart from other characters. Although The Spy Who Loved Me is Vivienne’s story, James Bond is the hero of the series of books in which he appears and he is, of course, normally the protagonist of these novels. Therefore, one can expect Fleming to pull out all the stops when he introduces him (especially when Bond doesn’t put in an appearance until page 100 of a 164-page novel, as is the case in The Spy Who Loved Me). The author doesn’t disappoint his reader; this is the way that Fleming introduces the spy:

At first glance I inwardly groaned--God, it’s another of them! He stood there so quiet and controlled and somehow with the same quality of deadliness as the others. And he wore that uniform that the films make one associate with gangsters--a dark-blue, belted raincoat and a soft black hat pulled rather far down. He was good-looking in a dark, rather cruel way and a scar showed whitely down his left cheek. I quickly put my hand up to hide my nakedness. Then he smiled and suddenly I thought I might be all right.
Here is a tall, dark, handsome man with an air of “deadliness” to him that matches that of the two gangsters who, having come to burn down the motel that Vivienne manages, decide to ravish and kill her, too. Will this unlikely hero, with the “cruel” face and the “scar. . . down his left cheek” rescue the damsel in distress? If so, how? If not, why not? Won over by Vivienne’s unfortunate past and the traumas it has inflicted upon her emotionally, by her beauty, by her determination and endearing personality, and by her desperate present situation, readers hope, with her, that this dangerous-looking stranger, despite his gangster-like appearance, might somehow save the day--and the damsel in distress. As readers, we are hooked, and Commander James Bond, Agent 007, is an engaging character who is expertly and effectively introduced.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Putting Freytag's Pyramid To Use In Charting Your Own (And Others') Stories


Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Gustav Freytag analyzed the structure of ancient Greek and Shakespearean plays, dividing them into five acts: the exposition, which provides background information such as the identities of the protagonist, the antagonist, and other supporting characters, the setting, and the basic conflict; the rising action, which, set into motion by an inciting moment, complicates the basic conflict; a turning point, or climax, which reverses the direction of the plot so that the story ultimately becomes either a comedy or as tragedy; the falling action, which unravels the conflict and may or may not end in a moment of final suspense during which the story's outcome becomes a matter of doubt; and either a resolution, or denouement (comedy) or a catastrophe (tragedy).


Writers can learn a lot about how to plot a story by using Freytag's analysis to chart the course both of famous stories and of their own stories in progress. A diagram, known as "Freytag's Pyramid" facilitates such analyses. Here, for example, are how a number of famous stories might be analyzed according to Freytag's Pyramid:

Carrie by Stephen King

Halloween, directed by John Carpenter

King Kong, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack

Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Tombstone, directed by George P. Cosmatos

The Wizard of Oz, directed by Victor Fleming

\The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

My Fair Lady, directed by George Cukor

Saturday, March 12, 2011

"It's Really About"

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

One of my favorite features in Dusted: The Unauthorized Guide to Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the running feature “It’s Really About,” in which the authors, Lawrence Miles, Lars Pearson, and Christa Dickson take turns (presumably) demythologizing the series’ supernatural and fantastic elements by identifying the real-life concerns that these elements represent. For example, “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” the show’s kickoff episode (the second half of which is “The Harvest”) is “really about. . . moving to a new town”(9). “The Harvest,” like the rest of the series,” the authors suggest, is “really about. . . the horror of adolescence” (13).

Like many fantasy shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer works on two levels: the symbolic and the literal. The symbolic is the supernatural or the fantastic; the literal is what “it’s really about,” the real-life, real-world counterpart to the supernatural or fantastic element. With this understanding in mind, it’s interesting (and perhaps enlightening) to see what, in the view of Dusted’s authors, Joss Whedon’s series’ episodes are “really about.” I thought I’d share some of their observations, quoting them in a handy, dandy two-column chart, starting with season one of the show. Parenthetical numbers refer to the pages in Dusted from which the quotations are taken.



For a Writer, Too, Two (Or More) Heads Are Better Than One

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman


Dusted: The Unauthorized Guide to Buffy the Vampire Slayer by Lawrence E. Miles, Lars Pearson, and Christa Dickson, includes a sidebar concerning “Spike’s Nature” in which the author (presumably Dickson, since she waxes poetic about “the sight of James Marsters half-naked [sic]) suggests that the series’ writers view the same character differently, creator Joss Whedon seeing the vampire as redeemable and Doug Petrie as unredeemable. Other writers also have their own points of view concerning Spike’s nature: “Any attempt to work out whether he’s good, bad, or just going through his second adolescence is doomed to failure,” the author or authors conclude, “because frankly it’s hard to find three episodes in a row which all agree” (203).

In an earlier post, “Writing as a Schizophrenic,” I suggested that one way to layer a character (that is, to give him or her several, sometimes conflicting traits, making him or her a round and dynamic, as opposed to a flat and static, character) is to develop schizophrenia. Not real schizophrenia, of course. Vincent Van Gogh’s ear aside, there’s a limit at which an artist should draw the line when it comes to making personal sacrifices for the sake of his or her art (or the man or woman of his or her dreams). I meant imaginary schizophrenia or, even better, the sprouting of several heads, each with a mind of its own. By adopting different perspectives (political, religious, philosophical, and otherwise) and different points of view even among these perspectives (Democrat, Libertarian, Republican, conservative, moderate, liberal, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheistic, agnostic, dualistic, monistic, materialistic), one could add depth to one’s depiction of a character.

The authors of Dusted suggest another way of accomplishing the same enrichment of one’s characters: imagine him or her the way that several established authors might portray the same character. How might Stephen King depict your protagonist, antagonist, or other type of character? How might Dean Koontz represent the same literary person? How about Robert McCammon or Dan Simmons or Bentley Little? By sketching your character as other writers--and famous or at least well established ones, at that--might see him or her, you can yourself develop a richer understanding and appreciation of him or her. If the character is a complex one, you can even create various scenes that show his or her perhaps conflicting characteristics. Perhaps you started with a cartoon-style hero or villain. Now, he or she has developed into a dramatic persona worthy of William Shakespeare (or maybe King or Koontz, Whedon or Petrie).

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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