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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Writing Dramatic Scenes Using the Locomotion, or Motive Power, Technique

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

Movies have a distinct advantage over novels. The former dramatize, or show, the incidents of the plot as they occur. The latter describes them. Yes, yes, novelists are told to “show not tell,” and, for the most part, most try. Still, their medium is words, not pictures, and even images, or word-pictures, aren't really pictures; they're descriptions of images, written in words. The truth is plain and simple: novelists can't “show,” not really; they can only tell.

It may be argued that what is meant by “show, don't tell,” is not that novelists shouldn't describe action, but that they shouldn't explain things. Explanations, or exposition, as it's called in literary criticism, is the sort of telling novelists are told not to write. Readers don't want paragraphs or, worse yet, pages of exposition; they want action, they want immediacy, they want drama.

Fair enough. “Don't tell” refers to exposition, not description (although, novelists are also instructed, there should be no more description than necessary, either. Provide just enough detail—often a sentence or two will suffice—to convey a general idea of the setting, a character's looks, a building's appearance or whatever and move on. Readers are likely to have seen the very person, place, or thing the novelist is describing to envision it on their own, without seemingly endless descriptions.

Mark Twain

Again, fair enough. Mark Twain said “eschew surplusage,” and he's a writer whose work is esteemed both literary and entertaining, a sometimes rare combination.

Dean R. Koontz

Even with exposition avoided and description greatly curtailed, novelists can keep their writing interesting and entertaining by using a few techniques. Dean Koontz shares a few tips in an interview with The Rumpus. Page by page, sentence by sentence, and word by word, he strives for perfection:

I rewrite the page until it’s as perfect as I can get it, which will never be perfect. . . . The constant rewriting until the page really flows and the prose really excites me and I move on to the next 
page . . . .

Twain also reminded other writers that “there's a difference between lightning and the lightning bug,” suggesting that literary lightning results from using what Alexander Pope, in defining style, called “proper words in their proper places.” In an interview with Brad Crawford, Koontz said:

I like prose to have hidden rhythms; I like prose to have a music beneath the surface. It’s almost never recognized by the reader in a conscious way, but it is recognized unconsciously. It’s why readers feel the prose flow, why it speaks to them. A poet once reviewed one of my books and recognized that entire passages were written in iambic pentameter . . . .Different poetic meters affects us emotionally in different ways. It’s not anything anyone’s going to see, but it’s one of the great techniques to suck a reader right into the heart of the story.

Polished writing and cadence—there's no substitute for them in attracting and holding readers' interest, but there's a tip I'd add to the list of techniques novelists can use to maintain their readers' involvement as they move their stories forward. For want of a better term, I'll call it locomotion, or motive power.

To present a scene using motive power, envision it as images, chosen and arranged according to a specific purpose and a well-considered design, as if the sequence were being shown on a movie screen. Think of the written scene as a filmed shot. Before starting with your own story, watch a scene from movie. Then, transcribe what you see, so to speak, into words. I did this in a previous Chillers and Thrillers post, “Making Every Word (or Image) Count.” The scene I used is the opening sequence of Steven Spielberg's classic film Jaws, but my purpose in doing so, it the earlier post was to consider how “

Young and blonde, Chrissie Watkins runs along a ramshackle fence, pursued by a young man.

Tripping. He falls, but he's on his feet again in a second.

Continuing to run, she glances back, shedding her jacket. 

She pauses, removes a shoe, stumbles onward.  Behind her, the man doffs his sweatshirt.

As he tumbles down a hill at the side of the trail, Chrissie, now completely nude, runs toward the ocean.

Entering the surf, she dives into the sea. By the time the man reaches the beach, she's nearing a buoy some distance off shore.

She sinks. For a moment, she's lost to sight.

Resurfacing, she gasps, water streaming down her face. Smiling, as she treads water, she looks west. The sun is low.

On the beach, the man is a silhouette against the wash of the surf. His outline, like a stretch of low land and scattered clouds, is lit, yellow and pink, by the setting sun. Struggling to remove a shoe, he falls drunk, perhaps.

In the distance, Chrissie resumes swimming, turning her head from side to side, smiling.

Sinking, she kicks and waves her arms.

She surfaces, smiles. Then, her head jerks backward; she's pulled violently downward. 
Her eyes widen. She turns her head slightly to her right, looking puzzled. Her head dips below the surface, then reappears. She looks panicked. In a splash, she vanishes beneath the waves. When her head bobs up, pierces the surface, her mouth is open, her eyes shut tightly, a grimace of terror and pain freezing her features.

A splash, and she is pulled across the water, past the buoy, only her head and shoulders visible above the water. She struggles. She's pulled to the right. She straightens, but, again, she's pulled to the right. Water churns about her.

On the beach, the man, her boyfriend, sleeps.

At sea, Chrissie struggles. Launched toward the buoy, she clings desperately to its platform. It turns. Cast off, she swims toward shore. A moment later, she's seized. Anguished, amid the roiling water, she cries out.

She is snatched underwater.
Her boyfriend continues to sleep, oblivious to the breaking waves washing over him.
The sky is nearly dark.

Even if we cast this passage in the simple past tense, as is conventional with novels, the sense of movement, of action, of drama that the locomotion technique produces remains intact:

Young and blonde, Chrissie Watkins ran along a ramshackle fence, pursued by a young man.

Tripping, he fell, but he was on his feet again in a second.

Continuing to run, she glanced back, shedding her jacket.

Pausing, she removed a shoe, stumbled onward. Behind her, the man doffed his sweatshirt.

As he tumbled down a hill at the side of the trail, Chrissie, now completely nude, rand toward the ocean.

Entering the surf, she dove into the sea. By the time the man reached the beach, she was nearing a buoy some distance off shore.

She sank. For a moment, she was lost to sight.

Resurfacing, she gasped, water streaming down her face. Smiling, as she tread water, she looked west. The sun was low.

On the beach, the man was a silhouette against the wash of the surf. His outline, like a stretch of low land and scattered clouds, was lit, yellow and pink, by the setting sun. Struggling to remove a shoe, he fell, drunk, perhaps.

In the distance, Chrissie resumed swimming, turning her head from side to side, smiling.

Sinking, she kicked and waved her arms.

She surfaced, smiled. Then, her head jerked backward; she was pulled violently downward. Her eyes widened. She turned her head slightly to her right, looking puzzled. Her head dipped below the surface, then reappeared. She looked panicked. In a splash, she vanished beneath the waves. When her head bobbed up, piercing the surface, her mouth opened and her eyes shut tightly, as a grimace of terror and pain froze her features.

A splash, and she was pulled across the water, past the buoy, only her head and shoulders visible above the water. As she struggled, she was pulled to the right. She straightened, but, again, she was pulled to the right. Water churned about her.

On the beach, the man, her boyfriend, slept.

At sea, Chrissie struggled. Launched toward the buoy, she clung desperately to its platform. It turned. Cast off, she swam toward shore. A moment later, she was seized. Anguished, amid the roiling water, she cried out.

She was snatched underwater.
Her boyfriend continued to sleep, oblivious to the breaking waves washing over him.
The sky was nearly dark.

This is not a story of our own, of course; it's a scene from a movie. By “transcribing” the scene, as it occurs on film, we mimic the way the film was shot, using short sentences, action verbs, few details, little characterization through description or interior monologue. The emphasis is on action, movement, drama. By writing our own scenes in the same manner, whenever possible (which is much more frequently than many novelists might imagine), we maintain readers' interest and entertain them. Trained by movies, readers will likely appreciate our style, even if only subconsciously. If they like our stories, they'll probably be back for more.

Edgar Allan Poe

One other tip, this one from Edgar Allan Poe (by way of an annotation in Kevin J. Hayes's The Annotated Poe). First, the passage from Poe's short story. “Metzengerstein”:

The career of the horseman was, indisputably, on his own part, uncontrollable. The agony of his countenance, the convulsive struggling of his frame gave no evidence of superhuman exertion; nut no sound, save a solitary shriek, escaped from his lacerated lips, which were bitten through and through, in the intensity of terror.

Sergei Eisenstein

Now, Hayes's note:

The cinema has much to offer when it comes to understanding Poe, partly because his work has contributed so much to its development. The great Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein found that Poe's writing anticipated visual techniques that would not be fully utilized until the invention of motion pictures. This paragraph provides a good example. Poe depicts Metzengerstein in close-up (the “agony of his convulsions”), pulls back to show him from a distance (“the convulsive struggling of his frame”), and then supplies an extreme close-up (“his lacerated lips, which were bitten through and through”). The rapid shifting of images quickens the narrative pace, which the ensuing cacophony of sound—the shriek of Metzengerstein, the clatter of hoofs, the roar of the flames, and the shriek of the wind—further intensifies, thus providing a narrative running start for the horse's final bound up the staircase.

Wow! Words in the hands of a master author who is both a short story writer and a poet can accomplish feats nothing short of amazing.

Using their techniques, we lesser mortals can still improve our own writing—dramatically.

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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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