Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 2013

The lure of the scary story

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Edgar Allan Poe

With the death of the neighborhood video store, we’re also witnessing the end of a childhood rite of passage that I suspect a lot of people my age can remember: the trip through the dreaded horror aisle. It always stood in its own section of the store, just a few steps away from the comedy or drama shelves, and it had a terrifying fascination of its own. If you were eight or nine years old, you had to work up your courage just to walk past it, even as you couldn’t resist stealing a look. Back in the day, I definitely spent a few scary minutes staring at those video boxes, and I can still recall being freaked out by the covers of the likes of Pumpkinhead or The Unnameable. I don’t think kids these days will ever have quite the same experience—maybe browsing through the horror titles on Netflix gives them a similar illicit thrill—but I have no doubt that they’ll still find their own ways of scaring themselves. Having just finished judging the third, fourth, and fifth grade entries in the annual scary story contest held by the Chicago Sun-Times, I’m impressed all over again by how shrewd a child’s sense of horror can be: dark, gruesome, and often surprisingly funny.

In fact, the best horror stories often have unexpected affinities with jokes. Both a joke and a scary short story are written expressions of an oral tradition, possibly the oldest ones we have. They tend to be brief, punchy, composed with an eye to economy, and every word counts, especially near the end. Both are marked by an escalation of tension that reaches a cathartic punchline, but their resolutions are very different: the joke surprises us, casting the previous situation in an unexpected light, while the horror story offers us the realization of all our darkest fears, which turn out to be even worse than we expected. Both have an uneasy relationship with the first-person point of view: few if any good jokes are told in the first person, and it’s a problematic choice for all but the greatest horror stories. And neither are particularly amenable to being analyzed in the way I’ve been doing here. To take apart a joke is to kill it, and to attempt to explain away the dread a scary story evokes destroys its magic, although not always its elemental power.

Stephen King

This may be why horror, like humor, is so subjective. Either you find something funny or scary, or you don’t. One reader may be terrified by a story that another dismisses with a shrug, and good luck convincing either of them otherwise: it’s a reaction that has little to do with aesthetic merit and everything to do with the sparks the story sets off in the reader’s imagination. That may be why the best horror stories leave so much to implication. Like a painting, or a haiku, that seems all the more vivid because it captures only the evocative core of its subject, a good horror story is as notable for what leaves out as what it includes. This takes skill and experience, and one of the hardest things to master is knowing when and how to end it, ideally at a moment that leaves us with the maximum of dread. Poe was a master of this: his stories open in a leisurely fashion that has dated badly—I dare anyone to read the opening pages of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” without skipping ahead—but his endings are crisp, brutal, and utterly modern, which goes a long way toward explaining why his stories have lasted.

My own favorite scary short story is H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls,” which I’ve revisited on an annual basis without ever getting tired of it: it’s one of the rare Lovecraft stories in which the baroque language fits the characters and themes, and it remains wonderfully atmospheric and horrifying. Next would be the best tales from Stephen King’s two great early collections, Night Shift and Skeleton Crew, especially “The Boogeyman,” “Strawberry Spring,” “Gramma,” and “The Jaunt,” and his late masterpieces “Dolan’s Cadillac” and “The Ten O’Clock People.” A few more random favorites: Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” Donald A. Wollheim’s “Mimic,” Michael Bishop’s “Within the Walls of Tyre.” These are all very different stories, with some skewing toward fantasy or science fiction, but all manage the difficult trick of ending at just the right moment, leaving us with an impression of dread that’s impossible to shake. (This is one reason why my own stories don’t qualify as horror, even if some of them, like “The Boneless One” or “Kawataro,” are clearly indebted to the genre: Analog generally doesn’t go for dark endings.) If you’ve never read them before, you might want to seek them out now. There’s no better time than tonight.

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October 31, 2013 at 9:41 am

Quote of the Day

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Pete Seeger

A productive mistake is: (1) made in the service of mission and vision; (2) acknowledged as a mistake; (3) learned from; (4) considered valuable; (5) shared for the benefit of all.

Pete Seeger

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October 31, 2013 at 7:30 am

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Protecting the throughline

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David Mamet

The life of a screenwriter might seem like an enviable one, but really, it’s a thankless job. You’re generously compensated for your time, with a career that countless other writers are dying to achieve, and in theory, you’re in a position of enormous creative power: without you, there’s no movie. In practice, though, you’re boxed in by constraints on all sides. Your only tools are dialogue and structure, and maybe, if you believe William Goldman, it’s really just structure alone. You’ll get notes from every producer and executive in sight, few of whom are writers themselves, and if you can’t make the requested changes, you’ll be fired, even if it’s your own story. Even after all that, you’ll never get the credit you think you deserve: there simply aren’t any famous screenwriters, at least not to the extent that we reward actors and directors. (As John August says: “Your mom probably doesn’t know any screenwriters other than you.”) And although this state of affairs often leaves screenwriters cynical and bitter, it also clarifies your thinking enormously, like any work done under pressure, about what battles really count and what you can afford to let slide.

Even if you don’t need to worry about studio notes, you can still learn a lot from how screenwriters prioritize what to protect. What matters most is the throughline, which we can temporarily define, for the sake of convenience, as the core of the screenplay that a writer is ready to guard with his life. In the useful interview collection Tales From the Script, the screenwriter Joe Forte says:

People want to change scenes or dialogue. You work with that. But the thing that I try to influence is theme, that emotional throughline. That’s what the movie’s about…It orients everything. It’s the registration mark that goes through your movie. And if you can bring people back to that, that’s why you try to stay involved as much as you can—or are allowed to be.

Elsewhere, while discussing the production of the movie Maverick in his wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman calls it the spine:

I must explain that I am willing and happy to do any changes here because I am not threatened by anything that’s happening—nothing is altering the spine of the movie…I get very crazy if you mess with the spine. Otherwise I am totally supportive.

William Goldman

So what is the throughline, really? You can think of it, if you like, as the theme or emotional heart of the story, but that’s a little vague, and if nothing else, the throughline needs to be clear, if only so you have a vivid sense of what you’re trying to preserve. To paraphrase David Mamet in On Directing Film—which, as I’ve said many times before, is the best book on storytelling I’ve ever read—the throughline is the essential problem, with a definite end, that occupies the protagonist through the climax of the movie. The castle needs to be taken; the princess has to be rescued; the hero is desperate to get money or respect or physical safety. He or she pursues this objective through a series of logical steps, and when the objective has been achieved, or our protagonist has failed spectacularly, the story is over. That’s really it. Theme, emotion, character, and suspense are all precipitates of that clean, well-defined progression, and without it, the story will just sort of lie there, no matter how good the writing is. And that’s why the throughline needs to be protected above all else.

This is as much true for novelists, who tend to work in solitude, as for screenwriters operating under the scrutiny of a bevy of producers. Novelists may not be getting notes from a dozen different studio executives, but as the rewrites and discarded drafts pile up, it can be just as easy to lose sight of the central thread of the narrative. By the time you hit the fifth or sixth draft, or the fiftieth, you run the risk of focusing on side issues while forgetting what the story is really about. You don’t need to share this information with anyone else, particularly with your readers, and if asked, you might want to maintain a discreet silence. But it’s essential that you at least be able to explain the throughline to yourself, because it’s the only thing that will carry you through the ups and downs, both internal and external, that any writing project has to survive. Because in the end, as Mamet points out so beautifully, the throughline is nothing less than a metaphor for the act of writing itself:

It’s not up to you to say whether the movie is going to be “good” or “bad”; it’s only up to you to do your job as well as you can, and when you’re done, then you can go home. This is exactly the same principle as the throughline. Do your specific task, work until it’s done, and then stop.

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October 30, 2013 at 8:47 am

Quote of the Day

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October 30, 2013 at 7:30 am

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Fourth time around

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Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut

The other day, for the first time in years, I watched Eyes Wide Shut. It’s no longer my favorite Kubrick film, but I’d definitely rank it in his top three or four, and I still believe that it’s among the most undervalued movies of the last two decades. I’ve loved it ever since I first saw it, or, more precisely, since the first four times I saw it—which is the number of times I paid to see it in theaters. I was there for the very first screening on opening day, and later went back that same night, which is the only time I’ve ever done this. (On my second viewing, I saw it with a friend who disliked it so intensely that she walked out halfway through, and she only came back because she had to give me a ride home.) Since then, I’ve probably seen it, in bits and pieces, another dozen times. And what I found when I watched it again this weekend is that it remains a great movie: undeniably flawed, but rich, intricate, and ingenious in ways that I can still appreciate even if I know every beat or line of dialogue by heart. It was like listening to an album you haven’t picked up since you were in high school, but the moment you press the play button, you realize that you never stopped carrying it around in your head.

And it made me regret the fact that I may never have the chance to repeatedly explore a movie in quite the same way. When I was younger, I’d often pay to see movies multiple times, both for new releases and for old favorites that were returning to theaters: I’ve seen The Red Shoes on the big screen maybe four or five times, Casablanca the same, Blue Velvet at least three, and when they first came out, I saw movies like The Dark Knight, Children of Men, and Minority Report three times each. And, of course, I endlessly rewatched my favorite movies at home. If I had to guess, I’d say that the films I’ve watched most often with a reasonable amount of attentiveness would be Blue Velvet, The Usual Suspects, and maybe Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and I’ve long since lost track of the actual number of viewings—twenty or thirty? Which doesn’t even consider the uncounted viewings of my ten favorite movies. As a result, I tend to think of each of these films as a unified whole to an extent you can’t when you’ve only seen them once or twice: I’ve internalized them the way you absorb a piece of music, treasuring odd little moments and continuity errors, and I can effortlessly relate an image in the first ten minutes to a passing echo near the end.

Danielle Darrieux in The Earrings of Madame de...

Those days, alas, are over. I’ve already mentioned how my moviegoing life has experienced a decisive shift since the birth of my first daughter—it’s hard enough to get out to see a film once, let alone three times—and it’s also affected the way I watch movies at home. We’re trying to keep Beatrix away from screens of any kind, particularly television and movies, for the first two years, and this means that I can no longer just casually pop in a DVD when I’m home alone. Even after the baby goes to bed, there’s more pressure to catch up on the countless films my wife and I have missed than to revisit an old favorite. This means that it’s no longer possible to get to know a movie in the way I once did: I need to content myself with a first impression. Two years ago, for instance, I finally saw The Earrings of Madame de… by Max Ophuls, which blew me away like few movies before or since. If I had a chance to rewatch it a few times, I’m sure it would become one of my favorite films, but as it stands, all I retain of it are a few moments, a handful of images, and that initial sense of discovery.

It doesn’t help that I don’t have the same memory for these things that I once did: aside from a few vivid exceptions, like The Master, I’m lucky if I can remember three or four good scenes from a movie I saw last year. In short, another chapter of my movie life is closing. As time goes on, it’s going to be increasingly hard for a movie to become a part of me in quite the same way; every now and then, an outstanding film may leave a lasting mark, but otherwise, I’ll need to be content with movies that live somewhere outside my head, rather than burrowing in deeply. But there’s one possible loophole. Once Beatrix is old enough, she’ll start watching movies, too, and if she’s anything like most kids I know, she’ll want to watch the same videos over and over. I fully expect to see My Neighbor Totoro or the Toy Story films several hundred times over the next few years—at least if all goes according to plan. (More likely, I’ll end up becoming intimately familiar with the likes of Caillou.) Later, as she gets older, she’ll go through the same phases that I did, and I like to think that I’ll see her cueing up Singin’ in the Rain or Mary Poppins to watch yet again. Clearly, then, all I need to do is show her Madame de… I’m sure she’ll love it.

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October 29, 2013 at 8:58 am

Quote of the Day

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October 29, 2013 at 7:30 am

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Won’t somebody please think of the children?

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Victorian classroom

There aren’t many universal rules in writing, but here’s one that comes as close as any other: in the vast majority of cases, dialogue is best indicated with a simple “he said” or “she said.” Any attempt to change it up with forced synonyms (“exclaimed,” “opined,” “interjected”) will only distract the reader, and to most editors, it’s the sign of an amateur. In my own work, I take this to an almost comical extreme: I only use “said” or “asked,” with an occasional appearance from “replied,” and when I can, I try to avoid using them at all. Maybe I’m thinking of the tale, possibly apocryphal but probably not, of the editor who received a submission in which every single line of dialogue used a different tag—and even if this is an exaggeration, it isn’t too far from the truth. The other day, I was reading through a nonfiction book on psychology, released by a major publishing house, and over the course of just a few pages, I encountered the following, culled here at random:  “observed,” “added,” “ventured,” “directed,” “moaned,” “sobbed,” “protested,” “insisted,” “clarified,” “roared,” “bellowed,” “challenged,” “sputtered,” “accused,” “screamed.” And don’t even get me started on the adverbs.

When I told my wife about this, reading aloud a few choice examples to illustrate, she told me that in grade school, she’d been given exactly the opposite advice: the teacher had written up an entire chart of alternative dialogue tags, telling students that these synonyms for “said” would help make their writing more vivid, and had even assigned homework in which you were supposed to replace “said” in every sentence with a more colorful cousin. I don’t remember being given that particular exercise, but I don’t doubt for a second that it exists, and that it’s still being given to this day. Half the process of becoming a good writer consists in realizing that adverbs aren’t your friends, adjectives should be used sparingly, and a big vocabulary can be as much an obstacle as an asset—in short, forgetting just about everything you learned in elementary school composition, with an assist from The Elements of Style. Hearing this, my wife said that our daughter will run into trouble when she gets this assignment, which she’ll fail because I’ll tell her to use nothing but “said.” “If she’s really smart,” I replied, “she’ll do it just that one time, get the A, and move on.”

Among schoolchildren

The more I thought about it, though, the more I was struck by how badly we teach writing to kids, and how much essential information we omit at the expense of pointless exercises, even when it wouldn’t be any harder to teach something useful. To take a simple example: ensuring that the lead character in a story has a clear objective and attempts to address it in logical ways isn’t any harder to teach than the idea that every essay should have a thesis statement, supporting evidence, and conclusion—which isn’t to say that it’s easy. In practice, you’ll end up with a lot of stories in which the objective is as clumsily introduced as in those stereotyped essays we’ve all produced in grade school: topic sentence, three sentences of factual support, and a concluding sentence that restates the thesis, repeated five times until the end of the page. It’s a dumb, mechanical way of teaching expository writing, but eventually, you’ll end up learning how to structure a paragraph. Writing fiction works much the same way, and I’d much rather have aspiring writers learn such rules at a time when it could actually inform their most creative years, rather than haphazardly relearning it as adults.

Or, on an even more basic level, take the fact that writing is cutting. I don’t think I ever had a teacher explain the importance of revising our work for length, which is the heart of good writing: we were too busy being told to write at least a thousand words on the causes of Shay’s Rebellion. The rule to cut ten percent from everything we write should be a teacher’s dream—it’s simple, effective, and easily quantified. So why isn’t it something students are taught? Maybe because it’s hard enough to get some kids to write a complete sentence, but I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason. I just finished judging entries for the annual scary story contest held by the Chicago Sun-Times, and as I read through several hundred stories, I was struck above all by their energy: it’s bursting from the page in the stories told by third, fourth, and fifth graders. It’s a fragile energy, of course, and there’s always the danger that it will be stifled by a textbook’s worth of dos and don’ts. But since we’re going to feed them a set of rules anyway, I don’t see why we can’t adjust it, at the proper time, to give them the tools they’ll need to write fiction more seriously. Because the only way these lessons will ever stick is if they can write stories that other people will want to read—and once they’ve gotten a taste of it, they’ll figure out the rest on their own.

Written by nevalalee

October 28, 2013 at 9:00 am

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