Everybody To Their Limits

It’s been rather a while since I updated here, and some of you may be wondering why. Well, I recently suffered a strain injury in an anterior tentacle in a painful location, and it rather turned my life upside down for a time. My regular day work was out of the question for a number of weeks, and I was stuck reposing in a Cyclopean cairn, from whose cavernous depths the ancient ancestors of humanity once fled convalescing at home all that time.

I’m sure some out there would say “Oh, man! That’s perfect! All those weeks, getting to stay home from work, and no one can say boo about it! Meanwhile, you can just stay curled up in as comfy a chair as you can find, and use all that free time to write!” I’m sure some might even judge the situation too wonderful to be believed; they might think they were “reading between the lines” to get to the truth (they wouldn’t be, but that wouldn’t stop them.) “Oh, right, you had an injury? Wink wink! And that injury kept you out of work, right? Wink wink! Man, ain’t that just a shame, to get stuck with a couple of free weeks of writing time like that! Wink wink!”

There’s just one problem: I couldn’t write, either.

That’s not easy to admit. Because let’s face it, only one thing really separates actual writers from the infamous “aspiring writers” whose writing “careers” start and end with talking a good game about all they’ll write on that mythical someday: the actual writers write. And they write. And they keep going until they finish what they’re writing, and then they find something new to write. Any considerations about whether inborn talents or learned practices make some people better writers than others – that all comes later. The big distinction is between those who write and those who don’t.

That can make interruptions to writing productivity feel like a threat to identity.

We tend to forget just what an amazing and complicated endeavor writing is. The non-fiction writer has to get into the mind of their reader and figure out both what that reader doesn’t already know about that subject, and how to present everything the reader needs to know, in an order that makes clear sense. The fiction writer faces different but similar challenges; they may have the liberty to make up their material, but that clear field comes with the down side that the readers are not going to know anything the writer hasn’t told them.

To put aside the things that you yourself know, get into the head of someone who doesn’t know them yet, and execute a plan for bridging the gap between the two – those are some impressive mental faculties required there. It shouldn’t be a surprise that certain circumstances – such as, oh, pain that feels as though a third-grade chess club has been taking turns curbstomping you for the past two hours – might make it difficult to get use out of those faculties.

But every real writer knows about aspiring writers. We know that aspiring writers are all about the excuses why, at any given time, it would be unreasonable to expect them to get actual writing done. That consciousness makes us reluctant to accept for ourselves anything that sounds like such an excuse.

Even when we resist the temptation to put ourselves under this pressure, other writers may step in to apply it, acting only from the best of intentions. I once listened at a convention panel as one of the panelists, an author with a not-unimpressive publication history, pointedly related the story of another author who produced his quota of daily pages even as he went through chemotherapy. The panelist might not have actually said the words “therefore, unless you’re going through something even worse than chemo, you have no excuse,” but that was definitely the subtext.

I don’t think that panelist was as helpful as he was trying to be. Yes, there are the “aspiring writers” who just crave the cachet of the title “writer” and have no intention of ever putting in the sweat to earn it. Yet surely the ones who actually need guidance are the real writers, the ones who want to put in the sweat, but are held back by obstacles. Obstacles of physical (or emotional) pain that interferes with concentration. Obstacles of inexperience, knowing that something’s gone wrong with the story but not knowing how to diagnose or fix the trouble. Surely these are the people who need a helping hand to get past their obstacles – and sometimes need to be told, “It’s okay. Having limits on what you can do doesn’t make you a fake or a failure. It just makes you human.”

Bestselling steampunk author Gail Carriger recently posted a confession (her choice of words) to her public journal that one of her upcoming books would be coming out later than anticipated, because she discovered her creative brain couldn’t handle working on two books at the same time as she had planned to do. There’s no question she found it a difficult admission to make, but her fans were supportive, and as I pointed out to her, she was actually doing a good thing for other writers, acknowledging that even the writers we take as role models, those on the far side of our own creative gap, are humans just as we are, with weaknesses and limits.

I’m happy to report that, even if it took some time and demanded a lot of patience, my physical recovery and writing are back on track now. The first draft of the next story in the “Nightbird” universe is now complete and undergoing revision; I hope to have it out in just a couple of months. Three books helped especially with restarting the writing, but unfortunately, I can only tell you about two of them.

The first, which I’ve mentioned at the Little Hill before, is Hamlet’s Hit Points by Robin D. Laws. This book helps answer the question “What do I write?” Seeing each possible turn of the narrative as a “beat”, and how different beat combinations produce various effects, illuminates the composition process. To lapse into programmer-speak for a moment, you’ll come away from this book with useful heuristics for how and when to twist your narrative.

The second book is The 10% Solution by Ken Rand. Laws’ book helps you see clearly what you want to write; Rand’s book helps you see how to write it. As befits its central premise (that 10% can and should be edited from first drafts) the book is surprisingly slim, but well worth the investment. I look forward to using it even more as the next Nightbird story goes through editing, but I found the perspective it gives useful even while putting the first draft together.

The third book, an “action thriller” e-book, was highly useful for motivation. Unfortunately … it wasn’t for good reasons. It wasn’t because the author had succeeded in doing what he wanted to do. Every now and then I would open up my e-reader app, give a diligent effort to pick up where I’d left off; every time, a slog of just a few pages would fill me with a burning desire to return to my work.

While the situation was tremendously useful, I did feel bad about treating another author’s work in this way. Worse, for the longest time I couldn’t even identify what in the writing made it so grueling; the prose was certainly serviceable, and if characterization was thin, well, few people look to “action thrillers” for deep characters. The clue finally dropped when I reached the beginning of Chapter Three, read a quirky piece of off-hand detail, and realized that that detail was, at best, the second thing so far in the whole of the book that wasn’t cliche. Reading this book for the first time was like reading any other book in its genre for the hundredth time; freshness was not there.

That’s why I can’t in good conscience tell you which book this was; the author did his best, and who knows? Perhaps to another reader, the flaws that I found inescapable they will find invisible. I’m still wondering whether there’s any diplomatic way to contact the author and suggest he should work harder to push past his “Level One” ideas, find ways to make his heroes and villains and tense action scenes ring with individuality. But perhaps that was the best novel he could write at the time. He surely has his limits, just as I have mine. May we both judge wisely when to obey those limits, and when to strive past them.

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Less Rules, More Tools – Scene and Summary

In my previous (warm, witty, unforgettable) blog post, I compared two models for analyzing narrative: the classic rising-stakes model taught in nearly every secondary school, and a more flexible system outlined by Robin D. Laws in Hamlet’s Hit Points. I argued (brilliantly, of course) that besides the issue of accuracy, on which we have reason to look askance at the classic model, Laws’ is just simply more useful for creators due to its flexibility. One way I could have phrased it, although I didn’t, was that Laws’ system asks more “what would be the results of this as our next step?” instead of “what is it that our next step must do so that it will match the model?”

Let’s see if we can take the same approach to replace another restrictive rule we were all taught: “Show, don’t tell.” Can we transform it from a rigid “DO this and DON’T do that” into the more flexible “what happens if I do this, or do that?” I think we can: let’s say hello to two new tools in our toolbox, scene and summary.

Scene is writing with sensory detail, and vivid descriptions. It’s the events of the fictional world as described by someone observing them unfold. Frequently we get our view of the events through the eyes of a viewpoint character; when we do, and we get their thoughts on the events as well, those thoughts are scene writing. Verbatim dialogue, and inner monologue as well, is scene writing. If you ask yourself “Is this a level of detail that makes me feel like the person sharing the detail was there?” and the answer is yes, it’s probably scene writing. Scene writing is (keep this point in mind even if it’s not wholly clear; it’s important and we’ll return to it later) the evidence that we sift through, in order to reach a conclusion.

So what is scene good for, and when is it the right tool to use? “An awful lot” and “very often,” respectively. Scene writing is highly involving, good at capturing the reader’s attention. It’s no exaggeration to say that for many readers, good scene writing is what they read for; they want to step outside the confines of their own life and feel what it’s like to live the life of a master spy on a mission, or a princess caught in royal intrigue, or a space voyager exploring new stars. They want to know the sights, sounds and smells of a grand coronation banquet, the thoughts that race through your mind when you realize your cover’s been blown deep in hostile territory, the mixture of elation and fear that comes descending through the atmosphere of an unknown planet. They want scene writing.

(Scene writing is also important for what screenwriters call “pipe”: exposition that you want to reveal to the audience without being obvious about its importance. We’ll come back to that in just a bit.)

Summary is writing that leaves out detail in order to take a higher-level view; as the name suggests, it’s simply summarizing instead of detailing the covered events. If scene writing is a close-up with the camera, summary writing is the long shot, the wide shot, that lets you take in the bigger picture. How much bigger? That depends upon how much detail you’re willing to leave out. Years, cities, miles, millennia, empires, galaxies – all handled in a sentence or two, if you so choose. We said that scene writing was the evidence that led us to a conclusion; summary writing is the conclusion.

We know what scene writing is good for, so what’s summary writing good for? All sorts of things; exposition in particular becomes much easier with summary writing.

Backstory: I’d moved east three years before, looking for a new start after both a career and a long-term relationship ended messily within weeks of each other.

Transitions: We boarded the bus in Massachusetts and stepped off the next morning in Virginia, looking and smelling worse for wear.

Repetitive events: All seven eyewitnesses agreed that the gunman had been tall and wore a dark coat, but on everything else they were vague, or uncertain, or contradicted each other.

Recapping past scenes: I filled Chester in on everything Rudy and I had been through in the last twenty-four hours, including the “mud puddle” and the interview with the State Police at the roadblock.

So now that we’ve looked at the choice between scene and summary, here comes the really good news: most of the time, you don’t even have to choose. That’s because it’s very easy to blend the two and get the best of both – in fact, it may be easier to blend them than to keep them apart. They’re not really two separate tools, but the two ends of a spectrum, and with practice you can glide effortlessly back and forth between those extremes to get the best of all worlds.

You can dip briefly into summary in the middle of scene: “Oh, so you think you had a tough day?” I quickly filled Chester in on everything Rudy and I had been through in the last twenty-four hours, including every disgusting detail of the “mud puddle” and the grilling at the roadblock. “You stand on the shoulder of I–93 at three in the morning wearing nothing but twenty-three pounds of topsoil explaining yourself to two suspicious staties; then and only then you get to tell me what a tough time you’ve had.”

Or liven up summary with a dash of scene: The Council met every day, beginning from sun-up and going to well after sun-down. They turned away no one, not the lowliest hedge-wizard or village wise woman, who claimed some insight into the problem (“If we could but harness that astrologer’s jawbone for magic,” growled Rabanath Wind-Warder after one particularly grueling session, “as the millers harness the treading of their oxen to grind flour, we’d have enough to relight the Great Beacon and more to spare.”) Yet by the turn of winter, the messenger birds to the royal court still carried no glad tidings of progress.

You may remember we mentioned the importance of scene writing for exposition, but we waited to talk about it until we had also covered summary writing and the blending of the two. The reason we did so is that blending scene with summary is frequently much more effective than pure scene writing for exposition.

Why? Because the best kind of exposition is the kind that you don’t even notice as exposition. When exposition is done clumsily, it’s called “telegraphing”: the king suddenly starts talking about the long-lost prince who hasn’t been seen for twenty years, since he was three, and everyone can guess immediately who our twenty-three-year-old supposedly-the-son-of-shepherds protagonist really is. We don’t want to telegraph our plotting – especially if we’re writing in a genre like mystery, where it’s crucial to give the audience a fair look at the evidence but still keep them guessing.

Scene writing is very involving; it draws people in, it signals “something important’s happening here, something you’ll want a close look at.” That’s a mixture of what we want, and what we don’t: we want to give the audience that close look without calling undue attention to doing so. An excellent way to do so is to embed the important details with scene writing, inside passages of summary writing:

All seven eyewitnesses agreed that the gunman had been tall and wore a dark coat, but on everything else they were vague, or uncertain, or contradicted each other. Or even themselves. “I think he had a moustache?” said the balding convenience store clerk, the one in the bank who’d been closest to the gunman. “Or maybe it was a beard, like a thin trimmed beard just along his jawline?” He sniffed, blinked watery eyes, and grabbed a tissue from the dispenser on Cotter’s desk just in time to stop up a violent sneeze. “It might have been a fuzzy scarf, actually,” he mumbled from behind the tissue.

Cotter hoped his own eyes starting to water was just due to the power of suggestion, and not because he’d already caught something from the witness. Despite an intense desire to get himself away from the sneezing, blowing man and wrapped around a nice glass of vitamin C, he took the rest of the witness report, such as it was, and sent the clerk off to hopefully recover from the cold before he dealt with the public again.

Now, in fact, those two paragraphs have given Cotter (and the audience) an important clue. The clerk isn’t suffering from a cold; he’s reacting to an allergen that was on the bank robber’s clothes, which will later help the detective figure out where the robber came from before he entered the bank. We were able to play fair with the audience by putting the clue in front of them, without giving away the fact that it was important.

It wouldn’t have worked nearly so well if we’d tried to do it in all scene writing, as then we’d have had to work out every line of dialogue for seven fairly fruitless conversations. And trying to use pure summary writing would have resulted in something like this: All seven eyewitnesses agreed that the gunman had been tall and wore a dark coat, but on everything else they were vague, or uncertain, or contradicted each other. One eyewitness, who sneezed frequently and whose eyes watered a lot, had even contradicted himself. That’s not wonderful prose, admittedly, but even if it was, clever readers would still say “Wait, the author’s cutting out a lot of detail in that summarized description; why is the fact that the eyewitness sneezed a lot important enough to be left in?” and would quickly conclude that it must be a clue.

So far, we’ve been trying to stay away from absolutes in the handling of scene and summary – no ALWAYS do this, no NEVER do that. However, there’s one particular usage choice that shows up frequently in inexperienced writers’ work, and almost without exception, it’s a bad choice. In just a few sentences, it can annoy or even infuriate a reader, and cause them to toss the offending work on a “don’t bother finishing” pile. It’s best to know this trap and avoid it.

So what is this trap, into which so many unwittingly fall? Let’s explain with an analogy. Suppose that you are offered a tour of a museum – an art museum, or perhaps a memorabilia museum devoted to your favorite hobby. You’re all excited about the chance to see all those exhibits – until you discover that your “tour” consists of simply being led through the halls by a tour guide who won’t let you look at the exhibits yourself, but simply tells you what you would be looking at, if you were allowed to look for yourself.

Sound frustrating? That’s only half the analogy. Now just imagine how enraging it would be if you took such a tour, and in addition to all the above, the tour guide decided for you what your opinions on all the exhibits were. “Here, let me fill out your comment card for you. You think the Greek statuary exhibit is magnificent, you think the modern art collection is the finest in the country, you think we should win awards for our Renaissance art gallery. There we go, that’s what your opinions are; did you have something to say just now?”

The first scenario is an analogy for what a reader feels when they look forward to vicarious experience brought to life with detailed scene writing but instead they only get summary writing. That’s disappointing. The second scenario, though, is even worse: it’s when the author tries with summary writing to dictate what the reader thinks and feels about the author’s creations.

Take a look at the following paragraph, intended to introduce a book’s protagonist: Jake Hansell was one of the most acclaimed UFOlogists in the world. He was always being interviewed on TV shows and on radio; the hosts loved to have him on because he was so witty and charming. At a remarkably young age, he’d become financially secure from the sales of his books on alien visitations, and everyone respected his very convincing arguments about the presence of aliens on Earth.

We said earlier that scene writing presents the evidence, and summary writing presents the conclusion. The summary writing in the paragraph above doesn’t just present conclusions, it dictates them. It’s as if the author is instructing the reader, “You will find Jake Hansell witty and charming! You will find his arguments about aliens convincing, and will respect him because of those convincing arguments!” Sorry, but it’s the reader who’s going to decide whether they like Mr. Hansell or not, respect him or not, et cetera. Trying to dictate these things to them will only turn them off, and quite likely lead them to stop reading.

Some writers may be very confused at this point. “Are you sure it’s a bad idea to do this? I could swear I’ve seen it done by writers who have good track records and large audiences; how can it be such a bad thing to do?” The cause of the confusion is that the practice we’ve been warning about – using summary writing to impose on the reader the judgments of the author – looks very similar on the surface to a technique that’s both legitimate and useful. Look what happens when just one sentence is added to our paragraph:

Susan stared at the tall figure talking and gesturing animatedly on the other side of the crowd. Jake Hansell was one of the most acclaimed UFOlogists in the world. He was always being interviewed on TV shows and on radio; the hosts loved to have him on because he was so witty and charming. At a remarkably young age, he’d become financially secure from the sales of his books on alien visitations, and everyone respected his very convincing arguments about the presence of aliens on Earth.

That sentence changes the context of all those blanket statements about Jake Hansell, from the judgments of the author to the judgments of the character Susan. The paragraph may still be written in the third person, but including in it the act of Susan viewing Jake Hansell signals to the reader that Susan’s viewpoint is where all these judgments are coming from. Readers may not buy into Jake Hansell being so charming and convincing, but they don’t have to; they just have to buy that Susan thinks so.

(Am I suggesting that you should add “have secondary characters think the conclusions I want the audience to adopt” to your toolbox as a quick-fix technique? Sorry, but no. You can use the reactions of secondary characters to nudge readers towards seeing things in a particular light, but the real solution is honing your skills so that your scene writing can do the heavy lifting of persuading the readers – because sooner or later, it will have to.)

There’s a reason why “Show, don’t tell” has lasted so long as a writer’s maxim: if you absolutely, absolutely had to choose just one to master and use, you’d want to pick showing (scene) rather than telling (summary.) Yet why should we set our sights so low, settling for a toolbox with just one tool? We can instead master both scene and summary, every point on the spectrum between those two extremes, and every combination that partakes of both sides. There is a world of possibilities out there, and each writer deserves a toolbox that opens up those possibilities instead of putting them behind a label of “don’t.”

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Oh, What a Noble Mind Has Here Failed Its SAN Check

When I was a much younger eldritch spawn human, I madly loved RPGs, or role-playing games (the kind played with others on a tabletop; the computer versions only came around much later.) The reigning king in that era was still Dungeons & Dragons, but I eagerly collected the rulebooks for (and tried to inveigle my friends into games of) Top Secret, Gamma World, Villains & Vigilantes, Marvel Super Heroes, Toon, Paranoia, and probably others that I don’t even remember.

With my current residence deep in a cavern below Mount Voormithadreth the grounds of Miskatonic University, countless miles down in quaint New England, I don’t have a suitable gaming group nearby, which has taken me rather out of the hobby. I still have an interest in the games, though, which is fortunate, because it’s how I came recently to discover a book that presents an exciting, thought-provoking, and most importantly, useful approach to narrative analysis, Hamlet’s Hit Points by game designer Robin D. Laws.

Laws is hardly the first to propose breaking narratives into units called “beats”, the purpose of each beat being to provoke a particular audience response; as Laws acknowledges upfront, this is basic practice among actors and directors, who break down scripts in this fashion to better plan the staging of each beat.

Laws’ classification system, however, is by far the best I’ve yet seen, comprehensive yet simple. The majority of beats are accounted for by just two types, procedural and dramatic, representing either progress or setbacks toward outer goals (procedural) or inner goals (dramatic). Three more beat types cover the revelation of information to the audience and/or whetting their appetite for that information. The remaining four beats do an impressive and pretty comprehensive job of covering the remaining possibilities, including some that are often missed in high-minded literary classification schemes (try explaining the enduring popularity of the Marx Brothers’ movies without acknowledging the gratification beats; I can assure you it won’t be easy.)

Shifting focus, though, I’d like to point out something very important about Laws’ analysis qua analysis. Any attempt at a system for analyzing literature falls inherently into one of two categories: it’s either a system for taking its subject matter apart, or it’s a system for taking it apart and also for putting it together. Academic institutions, anxious to prove their seriousness, generally teach the most high-minded literary classification systems they can. These systems almost always fall into the first category, designed to deepen your appreciation for what wonderful work The Great Masters did, rather than teach you how to achieve good effects in your own work – even if the latter is the declared purpose of the course of study.

But Laws’ beat analysis system is definitely from the second category. The toolkit he provides in Hamlet’s Hit Points is not just intended for constructing satisfying narrative structures. It’s intended for game-masters trying to shape such structures on the fly, and not only that, but from components (i.e., player actions) that by their very nature are largely out of the game-master’s control. By necessity, such a system must be more forgiving in what it considers success – and I submit to you that this factor, too, makes it more useful a tool for writers than other systems more likely to be taught in academia.

If I sound like I’m saying that academia’s study of the Great Works is overrated, that’s not my intent. It’s not a bad thing to aim high, and one can definitely do worse in learning how to get great results than looking to, well, those who got great results.

At the same time, there are dangers to the widespread practice of studying what the Great Works we know have in common and concluding that they must be prerequisites for Great Work. For one thing, Great Works are simply not the only ones that matter. Even if one is enough of a snob to deny that Decent and Pretty Good Works have their own quite respectable place, one should at least be realistic enough to acknowledge that few Great Works come from authors who didn’t create Decent and Pretty Good works first and work their way up.

More importantly, though, the methodology of assuming all future Great Works will follow the patterns and molds of the past Great Works is just plain flawed. If we go back a few centuries we find literary scholars arguing with deep concern whether a play could truly be Great if it did not follow “the unities.” Today, only dedicated literary scholars are likely to even know what “the unities” even were, and those that do know will find the notion that it’s somehow superior to obey them … quaint, at best.

It would reek of more than a little arrogance if I were to tell you, my Gentle Readers, “here, read this novel and it will demonstrate how right I am on this point.” The only reason I can justify suggesting exactly that is the fact that the novel in question is so very good. If you haven’t already, I recommend you read the first book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Sharing Knife quadrilogy, Beguilement; if you already have, think back to your reactions upon your first reading.

Of course, some of you will make note of the book to obtain and read later on, and continue reading here in the meantime. That’s fine; for your benefit, we’re going to discuss the book with as few spoilers as possible. Just two, in fact, and vague ones at that. Spoiler One: within the first quarter of the book, the protagonists have faced, and countered, a world-threatening danger. Spoiler Two: no other danger they face in the rest of the first book approaches the scope of that first danger.

Now this means that Beguilement completely fails to match the model of narrative structure that we probably all learned in secondary school, where the stakes keep rising and rising from the “turning point” near the beginning up until the point of highest stakes, the “climax,” shortly before the end. I’ve heard from many other Bujold readers who have noticed this unusual aspect of the book’s structure. However, I’ve never heard from anyone who enjoyed the book any less because of it.

You don’t have to take my word for it, though; you can read the book for yourself and ask yourself “Does the book’s failure to fit the narrative model I was taught in school cause me to enjoy it any less?” You may detect a voice in the back of your head, saying something along the lines of “Well, okay, I like the book well enough, but that doesn’t count, because I know the book really should have followed the rising-tension-up-until-climax pattern -” Nuh-uh. That’s circular logic. The question is whether the rising-tension-up-until-climax pattern should ever have been presented to us as so obligatory in the first place.

(If you’re wondering how it came to have such an unusual structure, Beguilement and the book that follows it, Legacy, were actually written together as a single book, and then split at the publisher’s instigation. The narrative formed by the two books together is a much better match for the traditional story model; however, since all of Bujold’s previous books were written to work as stand-alone volumes, even if they were also part of a series, I think it’s fair to look at Beguilement in that light.)

Hamlet’s Hit Points shows how its beat analysis system can be applied to three familiar narratives: Hamlet, Dr. No, and Casablanca, and encourages the reader to try applying it to other narratives. I’d suspect that the results of applying it to Beguilement would also be tremendously edifying, especially as the whole Sharing Knife series is such an intricate intertwining of procedural goals (the defeat of terrifying foes of immense supernatural power) and dramatic goals (overcoming the pain from betrayals and tragedies past.) The real purpose of learning the system, however, is to shape your own narratives, whether they are the on-the-fly narratives of a dungeon-crawl or the novel you’re pouring your heart and soul into. At just $8 for the PDF version, I recommend it highly for any writer.

I wonder where my old dice bag went to?

Posted in Analysis (Fiction), Fiction, Review | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Engines revisited

I ran across an interesting post the other day on Patricia C. Wrede’s blog, particularly interesting for anyone who remembers my blog post on the engines of a story.  Wrede’s post doesn’t use the term “engines,” of course, but if it were phrased in that terminology, the thesis of her post would be that sometimes a particular engine of a story should be left undeveloped – if developing it would take away from the story’s primary engine.

It’s a position that many will find surprising – even shocking – but Wrede’s logic is sound and convincing.  I recommend checking it out.

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Ordering in fiction: looking at Star Wars “Machete Order”

Unless you either:

a) have never seen the Star Wars movies and want to avoid spoilers for when you do watch them, or;

b) absolutely loathe the Star Wars movies and could not stand reading anything at all about them;

then I highly recommend reading “Star Wars: Machete Order” by Rod Hilton.  Fiction writers especially.  We will all face choices of “which pieces of my story do I tell, and which do I leave to be inferred?  What order do I tell those pieces in?”  Taking each movie in the two trilogies as a “piece” of a complete story, Hilton explores several possible orderings to put them in, each with its own benefits and drawbacks, and finally argues persuasively for one particular order, the one he calls “Machete Order.”

Hilton’s description of how the complete saga comes together when watched in “Machete Order” is so well-thought-out, it actually makes me want to see the prequel trilogy, which nothing else truly has.  Even if you don’t like science fiction, I advise every fiction writer to read this post and take a look at how he approaches the issue of ordering the story to achieve maximum impact.

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It’s All Greek To Me: A Review of The Initiation (1984)

(This review of The Initiation was written to participate in the Final Girl Film Club! Do yourself a solid; go to Stacie Ponder’s Final Girl blog and check out what she and other smart and funny posters have to say!)

Today we’re going to take a hugely spoiler-iffic look at The Initiation, a 1984 slasher starring Daphne Zuniga before she got famous. I had a hard time deciding whether to go spoiler-iffic or spoiler-free for this review, but I’ve seen it three times now and each time I just like it even more, so I don’t think I’m going to ruin anyone’s viewing enjoyment too much by going into detail about the movie. All the same, if you don’t want any major plot points given away before you watch the movie, well, then, you may want to go watch the film on Netflix streaming first and then come back to the review.

The movie starts with a thunderstorm, and a pan across a little girl’s toys. Mutilated toys, to be specific; the dolls and teddy bears either have no heads, or are heads alone ripped from the bodies. So obviously, we know we’re in for a story with only perfectly normal, healthy people, with absolutely no characters who are violent psychopaths, right? Haha, just kidding! You know we’re in for the crazy! And what we watch next sure seems to bear this out: the little girl in the bed next to the toys wakes up and wanders down the hall, following the sounds of gasping and groaning to a room with a fireplace where a man and woman are making love on a big bed. Little girl watches the cavorting couple and their reflection in a mirror for a while, and then when they notice her, she’s stabbing the man with a knife that’s suddenly in her hand. Strangely, it doesn’t really seem to slow him down, as he gets out of the bed, struggles into his pants, and then wrestles with another man, this one fully dressed, who’s just come into the room. Stabbed Guy empties some sort of bottle of liquid onto Dressed Guy, which I guess is flammable, because when Dressed Guy staggers too close to the fireplace, he becomes Ignited Guy, while Stabbed Guy runs from the room. Little Miss Stabshine has apparently gotten the stabby out of her system; she whines “Mommy” and the woman picks her up and carries her hurriedly out of the room, just as the dream ends.

’Cause yeah, you knew it was a dream, right? Of course it is; it’s a classic way to set up important exposition in a movie while leaving important details unexplained or highly misinterpretable. Plus, the fact that it’s a dream means the filmmakers can get all trippy and surreal, which you know they love to do. Of course, what Kelly the dreamer wakes up to is also pretty surreal: her bed is surrounded by women in lingerie and makeup carrying candles and chanting “Delta Rho Chi, never will die!” (You will hear this more times in the next five minutes than you will hear the lyrics “Born in the USA” in Springsteen’s song of the same name, just to warn you.)

There’s a lot of exposition packed in here, so let’s go over it quickly: Kelly and her friends Beth, Marcia and Alison are pledging the sorority Delta Rho Chi. Beth is the practical one, Marcia is the virginal one, and Alison is the slutty one. Kelly Fairchild is our heroine whose father happens to be a department store magnate, which fits right into the plans of the sorority’s bitch “pledge trainer” Megan, whose plan for the sorority’s Prank Night is for the pledges to get into the big department store her father owns in town and steal the night watchman’s uniform, all the way down to his skivvies. Megan’s jealous of Kelly, you see, because Andy O’Connell is paying too much attention to Kelly (“sniffing around like you were a bitch in heat” is how self-described nymphomaniac Alison puts it) despite her not wanting or encouraging his affections. Be that as it may, Kelly agrees to get the keys to the building for the night in question, which Alison approves as “I hear that night watchman’s hung like a horse!” (Seriously? I could buy her being well-informed on the dimensions of the campus studs, but seriously, she knows what to expect of a randomly selected blue-collar worker? That’s some seriously close town-gown relationships there.) Just as the girls are falling asleep, Kelly confesses to Marcia that she had “that dream” again, so we know this isn’t a one-time thing.

For the next installment of exposition, the movie goes to Fireside Sanatorium, a mental institution that apparently uses One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a training film for its employees. The nurse threatens an old lady with loss of her dayroom privileges if she doesn’t stop vomiting in her trashcan, and makes a general announcement that patients who refuse their medication when the kitchen tries to give it to them (!) will be forced to receive their injections directly from her. Oh, and to complete the Bad Judgment trifecta, the nurse yells out the window at an inmate who’s tending to the garden… an inmate with a fire-scarred face, who stares up at her and stabs at the dirt with a three-tined hand fork. Nursie beats a retreat after the crazy folk ignore her demands to stop their noisy beating on the metal mesh walls. Of course, she won’t have to worry about getting bad marks on her next performance review; when she goes out to her car that night, someone has let out all those crazy patients – probably the same someone who stabs her repeatedly with the hand fork when she gets in her car to get away from the patients.

Over at the palatial Fairchild estate, Papa Fairchild (a.k.a. Stabbed Guy from Kelly’s dream) and Mama Fairchild (the woman from the dream) have just gotten the news of the inmate escape by telephone when Kelly comes visiting, forcing them to drop their elliptical conversation about it.

Then it’s back to the college campus for the introduction of a new major character and for more exposition. The new major character is Peter Adams, a handsome TA for Kelly’s psych class who’s doing his doctorate on dreams. See where this is going? Peter is just fascinated by Kelly’s … issues. Seems Kelly doesn’t just have a recurring dream, she has traumatic amnesia, from a fall from her treehouse when she was nine. Or at least that’s what Mommy and Daddy said, and they couldn’t be covering up something, could they? Peter and his bespectacled grad student Heidi can’t wait to hook Kelly up to the conglomeration of monitoring equipment they call “the Dream Factory” and measure her brainwaves during the next recurrence of her dream. (Though if I were Kelly, I’m not sure I’d trust Peter so much; a lot of his supposedly “profound” pronouncements on psychological matters are just vapid, or don’t even make sense. For instance, at the big frat party Kelly brings him to, later in the film, Peter says he wishes he’d known it was a “come as your favorite suppressed desire” costume party, because “I could have come as Freud, or Jung!” … Freud and Jung are suppressed desires now? Okay, his hypothesis that Kelly is always looking in mirrors in her dream because it allows her to manifest a desire, but observe it without actively participating, is pretty clever… but then when Kelly looks into a mirror, spookychicks (yes, that’s a verb now) and runs away, Peter’s response is to look into the mirror himself and pronounce pensively, “Mother … Father … mirrors.” Uh, yeah, Pete. That’s real profound insight, there.)

Speaking of Mother and Father, Kelly’s visiting them again, and they’re not so happy that she’s seeing Peter and doing these dream experiments. Or at least Mother isn’t; Father’s preparing for a business trip (in reality, it’s a trip to see a secret lover.) Kelly gets pissed off at her mom when Mom keeps putting down Peter, trying to make him seem unreliable and dubious, and then she gets deeply disappointed when she overhears her father on the phone with his illicit lover. Mr. Fairchild doesn’t have to worry about the damage his affair will do to his family relationships, however… because a stranger wielding a very familiar three-tined hand fork attacks him as he’s packing up the car, and if that isn’t what kills him, well, the foot-long chopping blade the stranger produces next surely is. Mrs. Fairchild, finding that her husband left his glasses behind, goes out the door just in time to see his car driving off the estate. “I swear,” she sighs, “that man would forget his head if it wasn’t attached.” Zing!!

Did I mention that out of the four sorority pledges, Alison is the nymphomaniac? Well, she’s a nymphomaniac. Her actress is also quite obviously the only one whose contract called for nudity, and they really do make the most of it: we get a pretty complete full-frontal view of her in the shower, and then again when she’s getting out of the shower and talking about the big frat party. On hearing that Kelly is bringing Peter as a date, and that she hooked him in with “a nightmare,” Alison exclaims “Interesting approach! I would have tried nymphomania!” Did I mention that Alison is a nymphomaniac?

The frat party is mostly an excuse to listen to some 80s rock by a band called Refugee, introduce a few more characters, and push forward a subplot or two. Marcia, Kelly’s sex-shy friend, actually has a date for the party… but it’s with Ralph “The Boner” Bonner, a would-be comedian wearing a head-to-foot penis costume. Despite telling him that he’s disgusting when he explains to her that he believes any girl who’s aggressive and enthusiastic in bed must be insincere and therefore a turn-off to him, Marcia seems to be having a good time… until he brings up the rumors he’s heard of her virginity, and offers to help her with the “problem.” That doesn’t go over quite as well. Kelly and Peter end up leaving the party early, talking about Kelly trying to make the most of her life by remembering everything that happens to her (get the irony? You know, with the amnesia and all?) and she and Peter end up liplocking.

Of course, movie ethics don’t prevent Peter from having Kelly as both a make-out partner and a research subject, and so soon she’s hooked up to the Dream Factory under hypnosis, and though Peter tries to prime her to talk about the fall from the treehouse, she starts talking about what really happened that night. Or, at any rate, throwing out disconnected words and phrases related to what happened that night: “Houston! Storm! My dolls – broken!” She denies breaking the dolls, but just as her story’s reaching the good part, in its own disjointed fashion – “Mommy! Daddy! Fire! Smoke, can’t breathe!” Mama Fairchild stomps in and demands the session stop immediately. Peter has no success in telling “Kelly Fairchild” to come out of hypnosis, but when he follows Mrs. Fairchild’s directive to call her “Kelly Randall,” it succeeds. Mama Fairchild shoos Kelly Whateverhernameis out, threatens Peter with arrest and/or dismissal from the school, but leaves rather than explain just what Kelly was talking about. Peter and Heidi think they know: they think Kelly actually did try to kill her father that night, and the Fairchilds are covering it up to protect the Fairchild name.

Finally, we’re at Prank Night. Kelly goes on ahead to case the building and make sure it’s possible to get in without everyone being arrested (“If anyone’s arrested, I want it to be you,” explains the ever-so-friendly Megan) and the rest are about to follow. At the last minute, Beth (remember her?) decides she’s not going through with Megan’s crazy plan. Sadly, her impassioned speech explaining why not seems a little off: she says she didn’t sign up for this “Girl Scout shit,” which doesn’t seem to describe anything we’ve seen this sorority do, and “pre-pubescent songs,” of which we’ve heard nothing unless it’s that “Delta Rho Chi will never die” chant from forty-five minutes ago … and then protests “We should be doing something instructive, something positive! Not breaking into a stupid department store!” which, while eminently sensible, sounds a whole lot more Girl Scout than what she’s protesting.

Anyways, Beth is out, but Marcia and Alison are still game, so off they go with Megan to the Fairchild Building… where unbeknownst to them, the fabled-ly hung night watchman with his pencil-style pornstache has already been stabbed to death with a familiar garden tool. Also waiting in the shadows in a car for the pledges to arrive are three fraternity boys: Andy (the one who’s been pursuing Kelly), Ralph of the giant penis costume, and Chad. They’re passing the time with a little drinking (“I really like paper bags around my booze… it just adds a certain je ne sais quoi” was a line from Ralph I found extremely amusing for some reason) and waiting to put into action Megan’s plans for scaring the shit out of each one of the pledges (Okay, I also found amusing the part where the three boys just stand around earnestly repeating the phrase “shit scared out of her” to each other.)

Kelly and the other two pledges have their own plan. Rather than trying to steal the uniform the night watchman’s wearing, they’ll simply get a spare from the guards’ lounge and Megan will never know the difference. This plan involves Alison deliberately getting Todd the night watchman’s attention (I’m not sure why, exactly, this is a good idea, but since Todd’s already dead the point seems moot.) This leads to some nice moments, and I’m not just talking about yet another bit of nudity from Alison as she changes tank tops with one of the mannequins; I’m referring to the display case of nasty, sharp knives she passes going one way… which we then see broken, with most of its contents taken by the killer, when she rollerskates by in the other direction a few minutes later.

Megan and her on-again off-again beau Andy, meanwhile, are on again, specifically, getting frisky on a stack of rugs. At least until Megan, teasing him, gets him all worked up and ready and then jumps off and runs away, leaving him to chase her with his pants around his ankles. Naturally, when Andy catches up with who he thinks is Megan, it’s actually the killer, who plants an ax down the center of his forehead. When Megan goes looking for Andy, she seems to recognize the figure she finds instead, who shoots her with a bow and arrow. (I appreciate that the department store is giving the killer a lot of opportunity to keep things fresh, killing with new weapons after making do with that garden tool for so long, but I can’t help but wonder: how is the killer carrying around all these weapons? Is there a shopping cart hidden just out of sight at each kill location containing the current arsenal?)

Kelly meets up again with Marcia, but even though they have the uniform, the door’s locked and it’s Megan who has the key, so they can’t get out. Instead, spotting Chad and Ralph disappearing into the shadows, they decide to try and sneak up on them and turn the tables with a good scare. Well, thanks to some pretty ugly rubber masks, it’s still the boys who do the scaring, but then they seem to regard their “scare the shit out of the pledges” obligation as fulfilled, and admit they’d rather join up with the girls now as they’re getting a bit spooked themselves.

Back at the campus, Heidi bursts in on Peter with several photocopied stories from back issues of The Exposition Times. From them they piece together what seems to be the true story: Kelly’s mother was the wife of one of Dwight Fairchild’s employees, Jason Randall, but she was having an affair with Dwight Fairchild – until the night Kelly tried to stab Fairchild and he accidentally burned her father while trying to get away. Randall, burned over 40 percent of his body, went insane and was put in the sanitorium, after which Frances Randall married Dwight Fairchild, but now Jason Randall is one of the seven inmates missing after the escape, and is being sought in connection with the death of the nurse. Peter, fearing Kelly is in danger and unable to reach her at the sorority house or at her family home, goes roaring off in his car.

Back inside the store, Alison has joined up again with the group, and everyone’s getting a bit toasted on the wine she’s brought with her. Alison makes a toast to “being young, staying young … and dying young.” Yeah, there’s nothing like a nice bit of subtle irony – and that there was nothing like a nice bit of subtle irony. Marcia then tries to make a toast which she messes up due to being tipsy, but when Alison makes some catty remark about it, Marcia takes offense and tells everyone the real reason she’s so sex-shy: she was molested and raped at the age of 12 by her violin teacher. Understandably, this rather kills the mood, and Marcia runs off.

I … have mixed feelings about this development. On the one hand, I applaud the filmmakers for trying to give these characters a depth beyond typical slasher movie machete-fodder. I respect that they’re doing something more sophisticated with their attitude to sexuality than the usual paradoxical “sex will get you killed but if you’re young and not trying to get it anyway, you’re either the final girl or something’s wrong with you” attitude of slashers.

But … Marcia’s revelation seems tonally out-of-place to me. Yes, we’re talking about a film where a lot of bad things have already happened and more are to come, but those bad things – being burned, going insane, being stabbed, beheaded or pierced through with an arrow – these are big, operatic bad things. Chances are, if you’re coming to this film to have a good time, you’re not going to be badly bothered by any of those operatic bad things, because chances are, it’s not very close to anything you or anyone close to you has actually experienced. The same really can’t be said for Marcia’s sad story of sexual assault.

(I can’t even rule out the possibility that the development might have worked, if it had just been directed and acted more believably. If someone else found the performance very believable, they may be offended that I didn’t – but I didn’t, and I can’t lie and say I did. As I watched Marcia staring off into space, her voice thin and trembling, choking on her words, I remained painfully aware at all times that I was watching a performance by an actress who had practiced these lines over and over, calculating how to deliver them for maximum effect. In fact, what I kept flashing back to was the “Oscar clip” scene in the movie Wayne’s World, which mocks the very tendency of movies to include such set piece performances. I just did not find Marcia’s speech as it was written or as her actress performed it to be believable as someone who’s truly telling a secret of this type for the first time, and I wish I didn’t have a basis for comparison, but there it is. Let’s just take it as read for now and move on.)

Anyways, we are after all in a slasher movie, so naturally, the group splits up. Ralph goes after Marcia, Alison and Chad go off to find the bathroom, and Kelly goes down to the guard console, telling Megan that they’re getting sick of waiting around all night and will she please just show up with the key so they can all go home already? Of course, we know that Megan’s been dead for a while, and pretty soon Alison finds the bodies of both the dead night watchman and Chad, who was with her just minutes ago, so understandably, she freaks out big-time. It doesn’t make it less stupid that, rather than sticking to Kelly like glue when she meets up with her again, Alison says she can’t face seeing the bodies again and stays at the guard console while Kelly goes to see the bodies for herself. But it’s at least a little understandable and hey, it does set up two very nice moments in quick succession, where Kelly finds in the bathroom not just Chad’s bloody body but “KELLY” written in blood on the mirror, and at about the same time, the killer finds Alison at the guard console and dispatches her with a knife. Alison’s helpless struggles turn on the PA system and broadcast her death screams through the building; ironically, the only people alive and not aware of the danger are Ralph and Marcia, who don’t hear it because they’ve found a bed and are at a Crucial Moment.

Peter makes it to the Fairchild estate, where he finds Mrs. Fairchild in shock; the police discovered her husband dead, two blocks from the department store. Peter tries calling the sorority again, and this time reaches Beth, who tells him that same building is where Kelly and the other pledges are. Peter tells Mrs. Fairchild to call the police and drives off after Kelly himself.

Ralph and Marcia are enjoying the afterglow of their lovemaking, and Ralph tells her a bit about why he feels compelled to always clown around so much and why his mother named him “Ralph.” He’s just talked her into a second round of horizontal tango, against not very much resistance, when the killer, wielding a speargun (boy, this is one really well-stocked department store!) shoots him in the back, killing him near-instantly. Marcia screams, and runs, and meets up with Kelly; the two of them manage to get into a freight elevator to get away from the killer, but it stops between floors. Kelly thinks they’ll be all right, that they can just wait out the killer until the morning, but then the killer drops in through the access panel in the roof of the car. Kelly manages to get the door open, but only she manages to get away; the still-unseen killer pulls Marcia back in just before the doors close, and while Kelly pries helplessly at the doors, she can’t open them with her bare hands, even to save poor Marcia screaming on the other side.

Kelly’s now the only one we know of left alive in the building with the killer – while trying not to be spotted, she spots the badly burned man from her “dream,” Jason Randall, dragging Marcia’s body along the floor. She climbs a ladder up to the roof, but he spots the movement and comes up after her, calling her name in a hoarse voice; she gets the drop on him and clubs him with a length of pipe, knocking him off the roof and several stories down to the pavement. Boy, is she going to be embarrassed when she finds out she’s his daughter!

Peter shows up, finds and recognizes the dying Jason Randall, and runs into the building, finding Kelly near the guard console. He embraces her and reassures her that although he knows she doesn’t understand, everything’s going to be okay. And it really does seem that way – until she pulls out a knife and drives it into his back! And holy smokes, that’s when the real Kelly shows up, having just come down from the roof! “Like looking in a mirror, isn’t it?” taunts Kelly’s double.

Terry (for so she is, though we only find out the name in the credits) is Kelly’s twin sister, and the one who really did the stabbing on the night of the storm. For that (and, one infers, for a general pattern of violent dipsy-doodleness manifested in all those mutilated dolls) she was locked away in the same sanitarium as her father, where her jealousy of her still-free sister grew and grew and grew. Jason Randall wasn’t the one who engineered the breakout from the sanitorium and killed all those people; he just concealed the bodies, trying to protect his crazy daughter. Now, Terry exults, he’ll be blamed for all the killings, and Terry will kill Kelly and take her place! “Now I’ll become you!” Terry exclaims in triumph, knife raised for the kill – which is when a bullet slams through Terry’s back, and she falls over. Mrs. Fairchild stands there, having just shot one daughter to save the other.

There’s not much to wrap up after that. We see Peter still alive on an ambulance gurney; I’d personally be trying to get him to the hospital right away to treat the knife wound in his back, but everyone knows the survivors in slasher movies need closure way more than medical care. Peter and Kelly gaze over at Mrs. Fairchild, until the police announce “It’s time to go,” and make her get in the back of the patrol car. Uh, what the heck?? That shooting was totally justified, seeing as it stopped an imminent murder! Kelly is the one who killed someone who actually wasn’t trying to harm anyone; if Mrs. Fairchild should go into the patrol car until the full circumstances are known, surely Kelly should too. But Kelly’s our heroine, so I guess that’s not happening. The credits roll to the tune of some of the least appropriate sax music I’ve ever heard; it sounds like someone took a love theme written for another instrument and transposed it without knowing a key change would be needed.

So how did I feel about The Initiation? I’ll be honest, I hugged it to my little heart. As someone who grew up during the big slasher boom of the 80s and for whom those films and their comforting ritual patterns will always hold nostalgia, I found that watching The Initiation was like coming home to a home I’d never been in before but knew anyways. Even looked out outside of the slasher tradition, it’s a well-constructed movie; each time I watched it, I saw more of how cleverly minor details point to things that have yet to be revealed.

And even more unusual for a movie like this: I liked the characters. Many slashers seem to operate on the theory that you’ll enjoy the movie more if the characters are unlikeable people whose deaths you can cheer for, and you’d think frat boys and sorority sisters would be easy to put in that zone of unlikeability. But even the worst of them, Andy and Megan, are really just sort of obnoxious at worst; even their awfulness is muted by an impression that they don’t mean to be terrible, they just don’t really think about how they affect others (and let’s be honest, is that really rare among kids of that age?) As for the others, I really quite liked them; I’d gladly have watched a whole movie about just Ralph and Marcia. Seriously, the movie made me like a guy who proudly carries the nickname “the Boner” and dresses in a giant penis costume. That’s some sort of accomplishment.

Ironically, one of the few characters who I don’t feel much affection for … is Kelly. It’s as if the movie said “She’s the heroine, so of course people are going to side with her,” and didn’t bother to give us any real reason to. Of course, part of why she doesn’t come across so well is that she wants the answers to her past, and her mother and (step-)father have to oppose that… and Kelly doesn’t really have any ammunition with which to fight that battle other than stubbornness and petulance. She comes across much better once they’re inside the building, and she’s actually able to do things like make a sane plan for getting the watchman’s uniform – she’s actually taking steps to affect her own destiny, not just complaining that things aren’t going as she wants them to. All the same, I laughed out loud when Kelly, confronted by Terry at the climax, whines at her “Leave me alone!!” Uh, Kelly? You may not know who this person is yet, but you just saw her knife your boyfriend in the back. I think you’ll get more good out of running from her than from whining to her.

So there you have it: The Initiation. If you need something to tickle your slasher bone and you haven’t seen this one yet, what are you waiting for? Try it out, and remember: Delta Rho Chi, will never die!

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Our Incubus is Different: A Review of Deadly Blessing (1981)

(This review of Deadly Blessing was written to participate in the Final Girl Film Club! Do yourself a solid; go to Stacie Ponder’s Final Girl blog and check out what she and other smart and funny posters have to say!)

There’s a fairly clever idea inside Wes Craven’s 1981 film Deadly Blessing.

Unless there isn’t. I’m still trying to puzzle that out.

The possible clever idea has to do with the nature of “the Incubus,” the demon-figure whose anticipated appearance on Earth to commit evil and mayhem motivates many of the characters. The characters doing the anticipating are all members of the Hittites, your typical agrarian Not the Amish Really religious sect. (One of the characters addresses this head-on with a line to the effect that “the Hittites make the Amish look like a bunch of swingers!” I would have said “the Amish make the Hittites look like a bunch of thinly veiled Amish stereotypes,” but po-tay-to, po-tah-to, etc.)

Interestingly, the film chooses right away to demolish some of the ambiguity it could have had with a voiceover just at the end of the opening credits, telling us that a “simple farming community” (i.e., the Hittites whose farming we’ve been watching a montage of, under the credits) has for generations been hiding “a gruesome secret.” Oddly, I’m pretty sure the distinctive voice that provides this voiceover, talking about the Hittites in the third person, is that of Ernest Borgnine, who plays the role of fire-and-brimstone-and-occasional-“thou”-peppering-his-speech Hittite leader Isaiah. For a movie that revolves so much around the conflict between the Hittites and the outsiders to put its most notable actor on both sides of the divide this way is … an interesting choice, to say the least. (I have a theory on how that voiceover came to be, but I’ll share it later.)

Anyways, the conflict between the Hittites and the not-Hittites in the valley is dramatized shortly thereafter when hulking addle-pated Hittite William (played by Michael Berryman, a go-to guy for “hulking and addle-pated” roles) sneaks up on not-Hittite teenager Faith as she’s painting in the fields and destroys her canvas and easel, calling her “Incubus!” as he chases her with menace.

And that’s where I went “uh-oh.” Because while an incubus is a demon from mythology, it’s specifically a male demon that seduces and corrupts women in their sleep (the female counterpart who corrupts males in their sleep being the succubus.) A Watsonian (that is, an “in-universe”) explanation might be that manchild William is not too clear on the differences between males and females. The Doylist explanation that seemed far more probable, however, was “the filmmakers just grabbed a cool-sounding demon name and didn’t give a damn whether the mythology attached to that name matched their fictional demon at all.” (Later on in the movie, we’ll find out that the Doylist explanation is at least partly true; as described, the Incubus of the Hittites is a far more general-purpose demon than the seduction-demon it is in mythology.)

The chase is soon stopped by Jim, the farmer in whose fields all this is taking place. Judging by the weary efficiency with which Jim (himself an ex-Hittite) makes William stop the chase, and Jim’s discussion of the clash with Louisa (Faith’s mother), these sorts of conflicts between the Hittites and their neighbors aren’t uncommon. Jim then reveals that he and his wife Martha are expecting a child, news which Louisa greets immediately (disconcerting Jim) with a hearty “I hope it’s a girl! Boys ain’t nothin’ but trouble!”

And that’s where I went, not “uh-oh,” but “oh-ho,” and started wondering if this movie was cleverer than it had seemed to be. Suddenly “the Incubus is real and is in the form of a male child Martha’s bearing” seemed a pretty plausible (and Watsonian) hypothesis. The hypothesis received a boost shortly thereafter when Jim, hearing his tractor turned on at night when it shouldn’t be, goes to investigate and finds the word “INCUBUS” crudely painted in red on the barn wall. Unfortunately, he also finds someone that he recognizes but we the audience don’t get to see, who uses the tractor to crush Jim against the wall, making the ex-Hittite farmer an ex-ex-Hittite ex-farmer.

Two friends of Martha’s, Lana and Vicky, come to the farm to help the new widow out. Now in a cheesy 80s quasi-slasher movie, characters like this would exist and enter the narrative just to raise the body count. But how could you even let yourself think that would be the case here? This is a Wes Craven movie, folks; Lana and Vicky are no mere ciphers but deep, subtly limned characters, rich in characterization like, uh… um… well, like one starts flirting with Jim’s brother John who’s still in the Hittites, pissing off John’s fiancée Melissa and the Hittite leader Isaiah, and one doesn’t! And one has a scary dream where a spider enters her mouth, and one doesn’t! And one is played by Sharon Stone (I think it’s Spider-Mouth), and one isn’t! If you’re not satisfied with characterization like that, well, I just don’t know what’ll please you.

Speaking of characterization, I would be remiss if I did not observe that the film is filled with beautiful scenery, and whether lush and glorious or melancholy and haunting, every inch of that scenery is chewed by Ernest Borgnine. I doubt it’s his fault; the late Borgnine was a talented actor, and he certainly knew how to underplay a performance for a more moving effect, but apparently Wes Craven in the director’s chair didn’t want him to. I can just imagine the conversations on the set:

Craven: “All right, Ernest, this follows the scene we shot yesterday, where your fellow Hittite was piteously pleading that his son, the simple-witted William, could be returned safely to him, and you tore him a new one for daring to suggest that if William were to be returned in one of those new-fangled Devil-contraption ‘cars,’ the fact that he was returned safely would be the really important thing. Now, in this scene, you’re trying to talk a new widow, the widow of the man you personally expelled from the community, into selling his lands back to you. So whenever you start to think ‘am I playing my character as enough of an A-hole?’ you should always answer yourself ‘No, let’s push the A-hole meter up a notch.’”

Borgnine: “Gee, Wes, I just don’t know. I mean, it’s your call, you’re the director, but don’t you think Isaiah might come across more believable if I played him as someone who has, at some point in his life, felt some emotion besides righteous anger?”

Craven: “No no no. Ernie – may I call you Ernie? – that sort of subtlety may have worked for the highbrow, intellectual productions you’ve been in, like McHale’s Navy, but we can’t afford to confuse our audience on this picture. The black broad-brimmed hat, the blue broadcloth shirt and black vest over it, the constantly jutting eyebrows and the beard that makes you look like a Schnauzer – those are all parts of that whole stern inflexible Amish/Mennonite stereotype. But we need more than parts, Ernie! We need the whole stereotype! We’ve got to bring our A-game stereotyping! If there’s a single moment that you’re on the screen and you don’t have every single person thinking ‘rigid religious fanatic A-hole,’ we’ve lost everything.”

I seem to have digressed from discussion of the plot, but from about this point on, that plot simplifies to “creepy things happen inside the house, like a snake in the bathtub; people get killed outside the house, like Jim’s brother when he’s getting lucky with Martha’s friend in her car; and eventually we find out who’s behind all the creepy things and killings.” Or at least I think we do; I’m still trying to puzzle it out. There’s a shocking revelation about who’s doing at least some of the killings, but while the reveal is truly unexpected, and does make some of the killings very clear, it leaves others still baffling. I’m still scratching my head and saying to myself “So where did the snake come from? And who made the switch in the refrigerator?”

I won’t give away the real ending of the movie. However, I will, with malice aforethought, give away the crappy stupid last-minute shock ending that according to Craven, studio execs insisted be tacked on to the movie. After the big reveal of Who Dun At Least Some Of It, everything appears to be getting back to normal. The ineffectual sheriff has finally shown up and done the little he can do to clean up afterwards; Martha’s remaining houseguests depart; everything appears to be settled and back to normal. Time for a fade to black, while we have closure, right?

WRONG! As soon as everyone who could help Martha has left, her late husband’s ghost shows up to deliver a quick, useless warning (nice timing, Ghost Jim), then BOOM! and a bear, I mean an Incubus, comes out! Inky pops up through the floorboards, grabs Martha and drags her back down into the hellhole he came from, the floorboards even obligingly un-exploding themselves back into place and into perfect condition through the SFX miracle of reversing the film. And then the movie ends. ARE YOU KIDDING ME.

Whoever it was that decided to tack on that cheeseball ending is, in all probability, the same someone who inflicted the opening voiceover on us. I have a bone to pick with each.

Let’s begin, perversely enough, with the ending. Admittedly, there are plenty of other horror movies that have used what Maxwell Smart might call “the old ‘Pull the Rug of Restored Normalcy Out From Under Our Heroes and Therefore the Audience Just Before the Movie Ends’ trick!” Some of those movies actually use it well (including Craven’s own Nightmare on Elm Street, made just a few years afterwards.) Why does it work in those movies, and fall flatter than the mountains of Kansas in this one?

To be honest, I’m not sure. I suspect, however, that the last-minute swerves which do work do so because they a) keep the audience engaged with the protagonists up until the very end, b) keep the tension level high and remind the audience they’re watching a horror movie up until the very end, or c) do both. Blessing’s end really does neither. I suppose if you as a viewer happened to have developed a deep emotional investment in Martha as a character, her struggle in the arms of the Incubus would be pretty involving… but then that’s over, and the anticlimactic silent closing shots of the undamaged farmhouse floor might as well as have been designed to break that emotional investment. It’s as if the movie is shrugging its shoulders, saying to you the viewer, Sure, you were supposed to care through the movie about whether she lived or died. Sure, we killed her off pointlessly, for no good reason on either side of the fourth wall. But that’s the way it is, so what are you gonna do about it? I have to think that “throw popcorn at the screen” was probably the response in more than one theater when this came out.

And now let’s bring things full-circle and end with the beginning. Those who have read my earlier blog post where I discuss, among other things, the narrative trick of an initial flash-forward to capture interest and establish expectations, may be surprised that I object so much to the voice-over in this film, used to similar effect. But that one, I have no trouble at all explaining why I boo and hiss: It. Cheats. Remember how the voice-over told us that the Hittites have been keeping a gruesome secret? They haven’t! The “secrets” that come to light during the film, whether you call them “gruesome” or not, aren’t kept by the Hittites! One could argue that it’s referring to the fact that the Incubus turns out to be real, and that almost works… until it dawns on you that the Hittites haven’t been keeping that a secret at all; they tell everyone, including people who have no interest in hearing it!

I don’t know if it makes sense for me to get as peeved as I do at the voiceover, considering that most viewers have probably forgotten all about it fifteen minutes into the movie. But while I can give the movie credit for some things it does well, even when I’m not sure they were done intentionally, the voice-over sums up the problem I have with Deadly Blessing: ultimately, it doesn’t care about keeping the promises it made to the viewer to convince them to watch.

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Gentlewriters, start your engines

Recently, an e-book came to my attention under circumstances which hinted that it might, uh… not be written very well. I’m sorry to report that the hints weren’t mistaken, either. I don’t plan to name the book or its author, but I do want to discuss the flaws that make the book a frustrating read, and in particular the subtle key flaw.

Some of the problems are just easy to pick up, so easy that they should really have been caught by a proofreader: The repeated use of “where” in place of “were,” for example, or joining together with commas what should have been three or four individual sentences, separated from each other with periods.

Other flaws are more subtle: the dialogue and description and characterization are “level one”, showing no signs of attempts to push these things further, give them more zest and character and life. I plan to write about the “level one” trap in a later entry; all I’ll say for now is that if a summary of the important points of a dialogue reads exactly the same as the dialogue itself minus quote marks (e.g., Charles said “I want to wait until the inheritance comes in” becomes Charles says he wants to wait until the inheritance comes in) that dialogue needs serious work.

But the most serious flaw, the one that weakens the story the most, is simply this: it doesn’t know where its engine is.

The engine is simply what makes the story worth reading; it’s not infrequently also what makes it worth writing. Every writer is well-advised to figure out what the engine of their story is going to be, and then bring that engine front-and-center as early as possible.

The most obvious engine to use is slam-bang action. If your story is filled with exciting gunfire and car chases, you want to show the reader as early as possible “See? If you came here for shootouts and adrenaline, you picked up the right book!” It’s why the James Bond movies always start with a pre-credits sequence of action, which often has nothing at all to do with the main movie’s plot; it’s simply there to say “Do you want to see Bond besting bad guys with his wits and fists and super-spy mad skillz? Do you want to see Bond sexing up the ladies? That’s what you’re in for!” The makers know what the engine of the Bond films is, and they start each movie reassuring the audience that they know what we came for, and will deliver.

Of course, beginning writers are often advised “start in the middle of the action,” which is too easily misunderstood as “start with slam-bang action even if slam-bang action isn’t the engine of your story.” Sure, a tense chase scene is likely to intrigue readers and get them to read further… but if the rest of the book is a courtroom thriller, is that chase scene really going to get your readers’ appetites ready for what you’re planning to give them? What if the action of your novel is all the protagonist’s inner conflict? That chase scene, even if integral to the plot, is going to confuse readers who thought what they were getting in the beginning was what they would be getting in the middle and end.

So, what kind of action forms the engine of your story?

Would you believe that the answer might be “none”?

At least consider the possibility. Just about every volume of advice on writing may advise you to establish a strong plotline and make sure you take it through rising action after rising action, up to a point of highest stakes where the plot is resolved, followed by a denouement – but haven’t you read books that in no way match that description but still were tremendously enjoyable anyhow? What made you keep reading all the way through to the end? Perhaps the characters were funny and engaging people, and reading through their adventures felt like spending time with good friends. Perhaps the book was a fascinating tour of a part of our world where you’ve never been, or of a world from the author’s imagination. (Maybe you’ll just read anything with vampires in it. Hey, it’s cool! We’re not judging!)

Even for these non-action story engines, the rule of “start as you mean to go on” still applies, and again, the engine of the story is probably whatever gets you excited about writing it. Which means if your reason for writing a Western is simply “I love Westerns,” then you should immerse your reader in the Western milieu as soon as you can: give them the dusty trails and the leather saddles, the desert prospectors and the rugged lawmen, the clip-clop of horseshoes and the yip of the far-off coyotes under the moon.

(Ironically, when your story is dependent upon an engine of this kind – immersion in a particular milieu – that may be exactly the time when it’s hardest to tell if you are connecting with the power of your engine. Your most enthusiastic pre-readers may gush about how awesomely you’ve brought to life just the kind of cyberpunk world they love to read about. But did you? Or are those readers simply filling in from their imaginations what you forgot to fill in from yours? A good test might be to ask yourself, “Would my work be a good starting place for someone who would love this genre, but hasn’t encountered it before now?”)

It might not seem that there’s any particular technique involved in connecting to the engine of the story. It might seem that it’s simply a matter of “whatever your story’s got going for it, get to it early and often.” There is, however, one particular technique that deserves a bit of discussion, simply because it’s so useful but starting to get a bit of backlash.

That technique is the beginning flash-forward: starting at a moment when the engine of the story is in high gear, then moving back chronologically in the narrative to explain how everything got to that moment. It’s widely used, and for good reason: it lets you connect to the engine of the story right out of the starting gate. However, I’ve seen grumbling on some Internet boards about the use of the technique, calling it a cliché that’s getting ever more tired.

Personally, I don’t think the argument that the flash-forward is a cliché holds up under examination. The flash-forward is too basic of a technique, for one thing; deeming it a cliché also logically implies that telling all events of the narrative in a straight chronological order must also be a cliché, since it’s been employed even longer. I made my own choice to use the technique in Nightbird Descends; it wasn’t in my earliest drafts but as I edited and shaped the story, an initial flash-forward seemed the best way to tell the reader right away “this story starts with the comforting everyday world you know, but it won’t stay there; there will be suspense and fear.”

Perhaps, in the e-book I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there is a good story trying to get out. It’s hard to tell whether there is, however, because it’s hard to tell even what the author believed the engine would be. The worldbuilding? The unfolding of the unknown? Strong, independent female characters? All these could be strong engines for a story. But the strongest engine won’t take you anywhere if you don’t connect it to anything.

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Outlining, sizzle reel style

Today I conducted a solo walking/dining/shopping/relaxing expedition to a nearby metropolis, and reaped big rewards! Like, more than just a Monsters Crash the Pajama Party DVD with two pairs of 3-D glasses; I now have a somewhat rough but complete outline for the next Nightbird story. I’m ready to reveal a bit about the story: the working title is Ministering Angels, and it takes place in a hospital where not everyone is adhering to the rule of “First do no harm.” The research is proving a bit difficult, and more will be needed before I’m ready to write the biggest scenes, but forward progress is definitely happening.

I tried something different in the outlining process this time around, writing most of it in what I call “sizzle reel” format. For those not familiar with the practice, a “sizzle reel” is a tool that television and movie producers use to pitch their proposed projects, a short presentation showing their vision for the production. The idea is to show a potential investor or executive “see, if you give me backing to make this show, here’s the cool stuff you can expect me to do with it!”

My “sizzle reel” outline format is halfway between that model and a “Previously, on TV Series!” recap. Like the recap, I’m trying to cover every important point that’s needed to understand how things go together; like the sizzle reel, I’m trying to pack it as densely as possible with awesome. Elmore Leonard has said “I try to leave out the parts that people skip”; I’m trying to put my sizzle reel together entirely from the parts that people don’t skip.

Of course, I completed the outline today by abandoning the “bullet points” format (each bullet point being a key action or line of dialogue) and covering the last missing sections with a couple of summary paragraphs. But that’s okay; this is, after all, only a tool for my own use. Those summary paragraphs are where I can’t go into further detail until my research tells me what details are most appropriate; writing them down makes it clearer for me what answers I need to be looking for in my research.

This is the first project on which I’ve tried the sizzle reel outline; I’m looking forward to trying it on others, though I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t produce quite the same results for works that aren’t action-oriented, as Nightbird is. Those are problems for another day, though. My problem for tonight: how do you wear regular glasses and 3-D glasses together?

Note: My answers to Kindertrauma’s “It’s a Horror to Know You!” questionnaire went up today! Check it out here and if you have any interest in things horrific, do yourself a favor and browse the rest of the site; both the thoughtful analysis and the humor are top-flight.

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New-cover Nightbird Descends published!

The 2nd edition of Nightbird Descends, with the new cover (and a couple of typo fixes!) has just been published over at Smashwords!

In other news, I would have had a blog post up earlier, but I had a tool failure: the app I was editing in destroyed a week’s worth of writing just after I’d finished up. Choosing a replacement app, as you can imagine, was not a decision I wished to be casual about.

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